Friday, March 12, 2010

"Drink the Koolaid"? Not me.

I don’t like buzz words. Nothing trivializes an idea more than the overuse of a phrase. Some of you have heard my rants on the wearing out of the word “amazing.” However, artfully constructed, a fresh metaphor can really harness a hurricane.

The phrase du jour seems to be “Drink the Koolaid,” which has devolved into simply meaning to “believe in something,” or “have faith in something novel.” Really? Of the last four people I heard turn this phrase, only ONE knew the origin. I always ask, “Have you ever heard of Jim Jones?” From many, I get blank stares. How about “Jonestown?” In 1978, cult leader, Jim Jones brainwashed his followers in Guyana to drink Koolaid laced with cyanide in a mass “revolutionary suicide.” Nearly 1,000 people took their own lives on the word of a charismatic sociopath when he told them to “Drink the Koolaid.”

Recently, I have heard some advocates of changing our educational system use the phrase “Drink the Koolaid” to get people to buy in to student-centered classrooms, inquiry-driven research, world-wide collaboration, and leveraging technology to facilitate learning.

Is this the phrase we want to use? Have we forgotten the sinister, diabolical connotation of this phrase? Charles Manson’s followers “drank the Koolaid,” Bernie Madoff’s investors “drank the Koolaid,” to a certain extent we all “drank the Koolaid” when it came to Tiger Woods’ perceived image.

And this is the phrase we want to use to help show fellow educators, administrators, parents, kids, and community members how we can change schools for the better? Especially in the wake of President Obama’s plan to transform education, is this the proper stance?

Perhaps we need another phrase. How about “See the light”?

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Perfect Storm

Sometimes it just all comes together. And for me, that time is now. I have had three forces come together recently that have compelled me to action.

ONE: A couple weeks back my administration had approached me and my partner and felt that the time is now to make some changes in the way our kids learn.

TWO: Saturday, I returned from the first Google Administrator's Acadamy, (see last post) where after an intense day of Google, we were asked to create an action plan over the next few months.

THREE: Upon returning, I was made aware of President Obama's plan for Transforming (as opposed to Reforming) the American education system, with an emphasis on leveraging technology to, among other things, break down the divide between how students learn outside of school and how they (don't?) inside.

And this is after attending Educon in January, METC and ICE in February, where the resounding message was to have students "own" their education through student-centered, inquiry-driven purposeful learning experiences.

How can I NOT respond?

However, an initial reaction may be to boil with enthusiasm and quixotically, sally forth into the educational maelstrom.

But that won't last. I'll just end up wet, cold, and discouraged.

Change is hard, especially for an institution like American education, that still keeps an agrarian calendar.

So instead my plan is to purposefully make small changes, one at a time.

And I am continuing with a study of what I learned at the GTA. Sure I am a "Certified Google Teacher," but really, what Friday in San Antonio showed me is how MUCH I need to learn, on my own, from my colleagues at work, my PLN, and our students.

Here's what I plan:

I will select one of the applications I learned at the GTA, and spend an evening, approaching it from this perspective: "What sound uses of this help transform how my students learn?" (Notice the emphasis on sound pedagogy, not magical tools)

One every night? no way. Surely, one night I will have to drive kids to practice, move furniture for the carpet coming, or go pick up my daughter from college. THREE nights a week is reasonable, don't you think?

As I continue, I will collect my data via: this blog, my delicious page (jorech) and by posting questions and findings on twitter (again, jorech).

Tonight, I focus on searching with Google. I'm pretty adept at advanced search, using the "site:" strategy as well as the "Show Options" (Wonder Wheel and Timeline." Instead, I think I will focus on "Books" and "Square." Lisa Thumann, whom I follow on Twitter (and you should too) who did the presentation on Search, said she has my back if I have any questions. God Bless my PLN.

Now I'll ask for a favor. Keep me honest. They say if you are trying to lose weight, to tell someone else so you have a support group to keep you going. See? now I told you. Now I am committed. Here I go.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

GTA: Now What?

Yesterday I flew home from San Antonio, Texas where I had the privelege to participate in the first ever Google Administrators Academy, a FULL day (11 hours) of presentations, innovations, networking, and hands on experience. It's hard to pinpoint any one component that really stood out to me. I mean, during a fireworks display do you remember a single explosion? It's all powerful, right?

(Image:Flickr Contributor P.O.P)

I could go on about the events, speakers, and the energy of being with some of the most dynamic, forward thinking administrators around the country. But anything I would write has already been done by one of my GTA comrades, Eric Scheninger in his first (yes first! blogpost). An inspiring read.

Like the rest of the #gtadmin folks today, my head is spinning. So many possibilities, so many! But an exciting, yet intimidating question looms:

Now what?

I know we are all bursting to get back to share with our colleagues to share all we've learned. but how do we begin to even scratch the surface of passing on what we learned on Saturday?

I do have some ideas.

First, we need to walk the walk. Start by making some changes. This post is being created on a Google Doc using Chrome. OK so that's not a big deal, but if I am going to discuss these tools and end encourage others to use them, I need to start too, right? It's sort of like playing Christmas carols when decorating the tree. It puts you in the mood.

Did I say tools?

Yes, we were immersed with dozens of applications on Saturday, and I will be reviewing again and again the agenda which includes all the slide decks and ideas from the presenters (oops "lead learners"!). But I have three suggestions:

Take a breath: avoid the desire to go back tomorrow and try to unleash everything you learned in an email to your staff. More likely than not, many will not share your enthusiasm, and steamrolling all of these ideas will likely cause people to shut down. Share initially with those people whom you know will be receptive and let them be your connectors. As time goes on, reveal those concepts or ideas gradually as a means to solve educational problems and meet needs of students and teachers. The quicker these are unleashed, the quicker they will fade.

Choose wisely: One of the "Leading Learners" made the point that most educators will never utilize all these tools, nor should they. Think carefully about which applications are best suited for what your district wants to accomplish. One of the biggest decisions is whether or not your district will be utilizing the Google Apps (capitol "A") or not. Perhaps start with 2 or 3 ideas and go from there. Personally, I am starting with Moderator and Sites to fulfill some needs that currently exist in my building. This brings me to the last suggestion, which really needs to be the first implemented.

Start with LEARNING not TOOLS: My worst nightmare is that people use these tools as an "add on" to their existing curriculum. To me this is what I think of when I hear people talking about "integrating" technology. Never before have we had the opportunity, and the need to transform education. We need to start with student-centered, inquiry-driven, purposeful opportunities for kids to learn. On of my favorite sessions at GTA had nothing to do with computers. It was a session, early in the day when we shared an innovation that we were currently using at our school. Amy, who sat behind me, shared that she had kids who were able to explore and learn outside of their grade level and either explore something at a higher level, or get help on something that was difficult. That is just one of the many examples shared that focused on student learning. Let's all continue to embrace these ideas, make these changes...and THEN use these wonderful tools as a way to solve what we want to so. If we create the need and show what can be done, then teachers will be clamoring for the applications to reach goals.

Thanks for everything, GTA peeps! Go forth.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Educon Reflections

Sometimes you need to beat me over the head.
Two years ago, I met Chris Lehmann at our Chicago area Edtech Conference. I was impressed with his fresh vision and his undying desire to do what’s really best for kids.He said I should come to Educon 2.1 held at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I didn’t go. Then, last January, it seemed that the only hashtag I saw on Twitter was #Educon. Maybe I missed something. Oh well, there’s always next year. I saw Chris again at Techforum in New York. Again, he said “Jon, you should come to Educon.” I still didn’t sign up. Then while talking to my predecessor, Dave Jakes , he looked me square in the eye and said, “you need to go.” So I finally signed up.
I am so glad I did.
Educon breaks the mold of all “conferences” at so many levels. First there are the Axioms of the conference:
1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members
2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen
3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around
4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate
5. Learning can — and must — be networked
It doesn’t take a Wordle to figure out something is very different. Notice the conspicuous absence of the words: “Tools,” “Integration,” “Web 2.0,” and while it mentions “21st Century,” it’s referring to Citizens, not skills. The emphasis is on education, not technology. But the uniqueness does not end there.
Browse through the session descriptions (notice I didn’t say “presentations”) and two points jump out. First, the quality of presenters is jaw dropping. Usually, you get one, maybe two of these people delivering a keynote address to hundreds of people…and good luck talking to them afterwards. But here you get ALL of them in a classroom setting of twenty or thirty participants. Oh, and by the way, the “participants” are all really, really smart people. I was lucky to sit in a session on teacher training presented by Alec Couros and Dean Shareski that was informational, inspiring, and thought provoking. If those two weren’t enough, who else was in the “audience” but Jon Becker, Will Richardson, Jenny Luca, David Warlick, and yes, my pal Dave Jakes was there too to engage in the conversation. I guess what struck me the most was that THESE people were as eager to learn from us, as we were from them. And I guess that's what makes Educon different: the "us" and "them" just becomes "us."
Did I mention these are conversations? “Presenters” are very careful to make the sessions completely interactive, they are truly “conversations” not “presentations.” During the two days, there are several 9o minute sessions with 30 minute breaks (equally valuable for networking). The best thing is that no one feels intimidated to bring up questions and points. It was refreshing and encouraging to have these people talk “with” me and not “at” me.
Then there’s the school. The SLA is smack in the heart of Philly (my first time, and I thoroughly enjoyed the history, restaurants, and hospitality in the City of Brotherly Love) and is a “magnet” public school of about 475 students. So much of what is “wrong” with education is extinct here. Students focus on all problem-based projects as opposed to memorizing meaningless facts. Kids are in the hallways working with each other and their provided Mac laptops, and seem to be working “with” teachers. There is a comfortable, casual respect for this bright, innovative staff, as they create and discover together. Hmmm seems like the axioms of Educon are also present at the SLA. Students here have a large, genuine role in the Educon experience. From giving tours, to planning meals, to checking your luggage on Sunday to take to the Philly airport, kids are trusted with adult responsibility. And love it. And you read correctly, on Saturday and Sunday, there were many, many, SLA students in white lab coats there to help.
Time prohibits me to elaborate on everything I learned. Bet here are the recurring messages I heard again and again:
· The importance of building relationships with students
· The need for teachers to have an online presence in order to help our kids connect with others
· The critical need to evaluate the value and purpose of student assessments
· The power of tinkering to learn as opposed to a “scientific” approach
The final note is that I came home with zero papers. No handouts, yes is quite green, but also supported the notion of “conversations.” I mean, how many of you bring handouts to a conversation.
Educon was the most valuable conference I have ever attended. I highly recommend it.
Wait, strike that. If you all sign up for Educon 2.3, I might get nosed out. It wasn’t that great.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Are these Two Forbidden? Think again

On more than one occasion, I have heard these phrases spoken by teachers:

“Do not use Google when searching.”
“Do not look at Wikipedia.”

Hmm. My first reaction is usually, “What are you afraid of?” But the bottom line is teachers are not afraid, they have their own concept of research and communication. Also, they see some of these tools and applications as distracting from learning. True, a quick, single word search in Google will return meager results at best, and Wikipedia is not always the best source, but instead of shunning these tools, teachers need to better leverage them to not just improve, but to transform learning. Here are five tools and ways that they can be utilized in the transformation.

Google: True, most kids type in a couple words or a phrase, hit search, and roll the dice. Instead, we need to educate students on how to get the most out of searching. First, as in any search tool, teach kids to use the advanced search feature to limit results. Also, teach them the purpose of quotation marks. A search for Chicago Bears may show results of a recent bear cub born at Lincoln Park Zoo, while “Chicago Bears” will result in information from my team that, yet again, did not make the playoffs. There’s also the “site:” search tool that can really help. Using this followed by a particular code can limit your search to a particular domain (“”) or results from a particular country (“site:uk” for results from Great Britain) Then there’s the Google options that enable the “Timeline,” “Wonder Wheel,” and other tools. (See my previous post on Google options). And then there’s the custom RSS feeds, Reader, Docs, and…well, you get the idea. The point is that we need to teach kids how to maximize their searching through this powerful search tool.

Wikipedia: Do kids rely too heavily on Wikipedia? Maybe. Do some teachers prohibit Wikipedia because of a perceived lack of credibility? Definitely. To some people, an online encyclopedia edited by the whole world is considered les reliable than a bound book. Here’s what I would suggest: challenge a teacher to find an error in Wikipedia. I have tried this several times, and I have yet to have a teacher find an error that Wikipedia had not already discovered. You will see the warning plastered on the top of a page. Conversely, students need to be aware that while Wikipedia can be a great place to get started, it is by no means the only source on the topic. I tell kids that they can cite Wikipedia once, the same way it would be for any other source. For those of you who really want to transform learning, I challenge you to have kids write a Wikipedia article on, perhaps a local notable. Now THAT”S writing for an audience.

It all goes back to LEARNING first. Neither of these resources is a panacea nor pariah. Teaching kids how to use these tools just gives them more ammunition.

Transform Student Writing

I have heard from some teachers lately that “technology gets in the way of writing.” When you think about it, technology and writing are inextricable. Without a chisel, or pen and paper, printing press, or typewriter, or word processor writing cannot take place. Fittingly, with every new advancement in technology, we are also privy to new opportunities for writing, and more importantly, the teaching of writing.

So why have many not embraced the new opportunities available vie Web 2.0?

The National Council of Teachers of English in its “21st Century Literacies point out that student writers need to “Design and share information for global communities,” and “Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally.” Clive Thompson stresses “that students today almost always write for an audience.” In The Stanford Study, Andrea Lunsford stated that "I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization."

Clearly, with such a paradigm shift in writing imminent, the teaching of writing also needs to change. We must create authentic audiences and purposes in virtually all student writing. Now this notion may sound old, but have we really done this across the board? More often then not, the REAL audience of a writing assignment is only the teacher. And although a “simulation” may take place (“Students, in this assignment, pretend you are a lawyer and I am a judge.”) the audience is not real, nor is the purpose, which, in reality, is nothing more than proving to the teacher that the student can write in a particular manner.

To create authentic writing experiences, students must write for a real audience, with a purpose in mind that is valuable to the writer. These experiences can be divided into, what I call, “School-Bound Authentic” and “World Authentic.”

“School-Bound Authentic” refers to writing experiences within the school community that have genuine audiences and purposes within the school. Here are some examples:
· Book reviews by students that can be published on the school library page
· A student-generated textbook wiki for the purpose of assisting others (and one’s self) to learn material.
· Creating a collaborative “jigsaw” project where students research and become “expert” in a particular area of a unit, and share findings with peers.
· Student-generated screencasts that teach peers processes.
· Designating a daily “scribe” to take class notes and post them (Thank you Allan November).

“World Authentic” consists of writing experiences with an audience outside of school that have a genuine purpose for the writer; in other words, the writer hopes to accomplish something with the writing…other than a grade. Here are some examples:

· Twenty-five Days to Make a Difference What started as a young girl’s tribute to her grandfather, turned into a viral phenomenon.
· Write a Wikipedia article. Some teachers bristle at the mention of the word “Wikipedia.” So why not pick a local historical figure and create an article to add to the largest encyclopedia in the world.
· “Hire Me” Have students beginning a work-study program create a “digital resume” where they explain their qualifications on a video.
· “Convince Your Parents” Senior writers can research why a particular college is the best choice, and present findings to those who will foot the bill.
· “Dear Michelle” Students in Texas write the First Lady to share their stories and express genuine concerns.

Most of us are faced with writing opportunities every day. I know that if there is some outcome, other than the writing itself, I tend to write more carefully, and with much more purpose; as a result, my writing is better. If we want our kids to excel, shouldn’t we afford them the same opportunities?