Anyone Home Here?

So … where the heck have I been? Why no posts here in almost 4 months???

Well it hasn’t been for a lack of wanting to. Along with “issues” at my school that have something to do with “school reform” that have sucked my time in a major way (see my Twitter feed) I had a major nasal infection that became “anti-biotic resistant” and then surgery on my nose at Thanksgiving that I was expected to bounce back from in 3 to 5 days … but last week my surgeon informed me I needed to expect things to be good in a month or so (3 months after surgery). Needless to say my usual “high energy-ness” was compromised and is only now reviving. Apparently I broke my nose 2 or 3 times and once “really bad” many years ago – must have been in my high school hockey playing years in the suburbs of Detroit and LA … but I never remember even being hit in the nose (maybe that’s part of the problem).

Anyhow my intention is to get back in action here and elsewhere soon … and more consistently as well.

Learning is messy! (and you should see the photos inside my nose … well probably not)

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Leaving Their Mark – Redux, Redux

This is a first I think, a second repost of a post on my blog. I’m doing so because of my appearance on NBC’s Education Nation Teacher Townhall. I talked about things my students have done and an innovative pedagogy, and although this post is 2 years old it shares many examples of that innovative pedagogy.


The end of the school year is always tough. Lots still to do, lots of emotions, lots of memories. This one is tougher than most because not only are we closing in on the end of another school year, we are coming to the end of 3 years together. As I was reflecting upon this the other day it occurred to me just how large a legacy this class is leaving behind.

This has been my first experience in a 1:1 laptop classroom. It certainly isn’t all about the technology, but the technology really has leveraged what they have accomplished because it has connected them easily to so many and allowed them to share and archive those connections easily along the way.

It started in fourth grade when we began blogging and learning about being understood and being careful with language so it meant what we meant and was clear to the reader. Their blogs became a way to share their stories, but also what we did and learned and what we accomplished- and we accomplished a lot. When I broke the news to them in December of 2006 that we had a student that showed up on my attendance over a month earlier and that we had never seen her … but that there might be a way to include her in our classroom using Skype video-conferencing, they were intrigued and awed that we might do that. After our first experience we decided to share it with the world and in just a few short weeks the students had designed and produced a video that taught the world just how powerful these new tools can be.  Their video has been downloaded thousands and thousands of times. (Update – about a million times now)

Not only did we use Skype most days to include our classmate, we also began making connections with others. We were interviewed over Skype by Lee Baber’s class in Virginia about our experience and made connections with other classrooms about science and other topics.

We were very fortunate that our classroom was chosen to have a special guest. Grace Corrigan, the mother of Christa McAuliffe, the  “Teacher in Space” who died tragically when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch, visited our room, and we Skyped out her visit to classrooms in Virginia and New York and they were able to take part in the question and answer period Grace agreed to.

To finish off that year we visited a local animal park, Animal Ark, and afterwards designed a wiki page to help further anyone’s learning about the animals there and included a lesson and video about designing your own animal.

In fifth grade as we continued to blog about our experiences, my students’ exploits became known to others and so we would get contacted by schools to participate with them – usually because they didn’t know of anyone else that knew how. One such experience was Skyping in George Mayo’s middle school class from Maryland. They had made some short videos and wanted us to watch them and give them feedback. It was easier for them to have us do this than the elementary school NEXT DOOR because they were at lunch when this class met and they couldn’t work out the details. We watched  and wrote our reactions to their videos and gave them feedback when we Skyped, and they asked us questions about including our classmate.

I was contacted by Skype about making a short film about our “Inclusion” experience. They sent a film crew to our classroom to shoot a mini documentary about how we did it. Even though our classmate was now with us in the classroom, they had her stay home one day and do school from her computer. They hung lights in our room and shot video all morning as we did what we usually do. They interviewed students and then packed up and shot in the afternoon from our classmate’s house. They produced 2 versions of the video. Here and here.

We continued to blog almost every day either writing new posts or reading and commenting on others. We built relationships with a number of classes around the world and to help keep track we began adding links to them on our class wiki page. Most of my students are second language learners and when we started blogging it would take most of them a week to edit a post into publishable quality. I don’t require my students to have zero errors on a piece before it publishes, but my students’ writing skills were very poor in general. They used poor English and grammar, and punctuation was almost nonexistent in some students’ work. They left out the details that made meaning for the reader, and we won’t go into spelling. At first students would write their posts by hand on lined paper and edit them several times before word processing them. Next they would print them out in a large size, double spaced to have room for editing. Many students would have 5 or more copies of their story all marked up by me in 1:1 meetings with them before their work was “publishable.” That’s why it took a week. By the end of fourth grade about half the class would publish in 2 days. And by the middle of 5th grade some students were publishing the same day as the assignment was given, and almost all were publishing in 2 days. We killed a lot of trees the first year, and I (and they) felt bad about that, but the impact it had on their English, spelling, punctuation, style and more was worth it. And the students continue to write and write and write (but we don’t print very often anymore).

During fifth grade, I believe initially over Twitter, but then in email, a fifth grade teacher in New York, Lisa Parisi, mentioned to me how much she liked the comments my students left on her students’ blogs. I explained that we had really been working on the quality and substance of our comments, not just saying, “Nice post” or “I liked your post” but also explaining why. Our students began doing more reading and commenting on each others posts.

Lisa and I wanted our classes to do a project together and so the “Mysteries of Harris Burdick” writing project was bornThis book, written by Chris Van Allsburg, is the ultimate writing starter I’ve ever seen. After reading and discussing the book in class our students wrote collaborative stories using Google Docs so they could work at the same time on their stories even though they were thousands of miles apart. They even discussed things over Skype so they could meet their co-writers and have discussions about where their stories were going. Other teachers joined the project and paired their classes. The project won an award.

This year we participated in 2 projects that stressed being safe online. We talk about safety fairly often, pretty much anytime we use a new application – blogs, wikis, Flickr and so on and anytime it comes up in the news we tend to review the issues and what the people involved did right or wrong that caused or helped the problem that came up. We participated with a bunch of schools all over the world in the “7 Random Facts” project … sharing seven random facts about yourself without revealing any information that could identify you. By request we followed that up by participating with another class in another safety project where the students wrote vignettes about someone NOT being safe online and then wrote a moral to the story. We shared them in a Skype session with the other class. During this time students in my class shared that they had MySpace and other sites that they were really too young to have and that they had taken down inappropriate information about themselves.

The “Around the World with 80 Schools” project this year has been incredible in how it has made my students more aware of world geography as they met and talked with students on almost every continent.

Most recently we are finishing up our Reno Bike Project, project where we are helping a local non-profit organization that rehabilitates old bikes and sells them inexpensively, spread the word to get people to donate bikes to them. The Public Service Announcementand web pages they designed were just published and we are doing some other activities to help get word out.

I’ve left plenty out here to save space, but the point is these students have left a mark, a legacy that will survive their graduation to middle school and beyond. Not only have they done community service that effects their community, but they have participated globally and left the archive for others to ponder and I hope improve on. Most importantly they have vastly improved their writing, research, communication and numerous other skills along the way. They were only held back by my limitations and the limitations of the system.

I’ve learned at least as much as they have and I believe I’m a better teacher for it. I’m chomping at the bit to take what I’ve learned and share it with my new class. As of this writing I’m being moved down to 4th grade again to begin a roll up to 5th and hopefully sixth grade again. I’m really going to miss this class and I want them to know that and to know they have made more of a difference in this world than they realize. They can be proud!

Learning is messy!

Posted in 1:1, Blogging, Brian Crosby, Change, Cooperative Learning, Education, Field Trips, Grace Corrigan, Inclusion, Literacy, Podcast, Project Based, Reform, Skypecast, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology, Video Skype, Web 2.0 | 10 Comments

My “New York Minute”* Continues

*In a New York Minute – Definition: “Equates to a nanosecond, or that infinitesimal blink of time in New York after the traffic light turns green and before the ol’ boy behind you honks his horn.” (World Wide Words)

I just got off the phone with the producer at MSNBC that is my contact with The NBC Education Nation Teacher Townhall, and she informed me of the following: I will be onstage with Brian Williams and John Hunter of  The World Peace Game Foundation in the second 1/2 hour of the 2 hour Teacher TownHall talking about innovation (It begins at 12:00pm EDT). There will be 3 sections to our time: 6 minutes, 7 minutes and 6 minutes long that will include Brian Williams asking us questions – and questions and comments from the teachers in attendance. I’m considering how to make my opportunity valuable, hoping I learned something from my short panel yesterday on how to be more concise (yeesh).

Yesterday I had an enjoyable time at The New York Times – Schools For Tomorrow conference, and I want to thank them for their hospitality and for running an informative and generally wide ranging conference with differing points of view. There seemed to be a good balance of opinions (I did not see every panel discussion, but close to it). “The Teacher Perspective” panel I was on with AFT President, Randi Weingarten and Jeff Piontek, was an “add-on” panel that they set-up in response to complaints of a lack of teacher voice – therefore it was a frustratingly short panel discussion. We each got to make some short comments and the time was up. They assured me that this was their first attempt at this, that they do plan to do it again next year and they have learned from this initial production.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Brian Crosby, Change, Education, Inclusion | 2 Comments

When It Rains It Pours

Just a quick post before I’m off for New York. I’ve been contacted by NBC and they have asked me to stay a few days longer in New York after the New York Times Schools For Tomorrow conference to be part of an on-stage panel talking about “Innovation” in education during their Education Nation Townhall this Sunday. I’ll be on-stage with Brian Williams and others to be named that day.  This year the Townhall is the kickoff to their Education Nation week of focus on education.

Readers of this blog might note a bit of irony here in that I took NBC to task last year for their this same Townhall. Watch this space. : )

Learning is messy!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

My Panel @ The New York Times “Schools For Tomorrow” Conference

I’ll be participating in New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference next week. From the web site:

” …  we’re bringing together 400 of the most influential leaders in teaching, government, philanthropy and industry. The goal: to harness the power of technology to improve the learning experience. Democratize access to quality education. And elevate the American student to a higher level.

It’s not a question of “Can we do it?”

It’s a question of “When?” … “

The updated agenda came out today. This conference is not in the typical presentation style, but mostly a series of panel discussions. The panel I’m on is:

Brian Crosby, Elementary School Teacher, Risley School, Nevada
Jeff Piontek, Head of School, Hawaii Technology Academy
Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

My first reaction was to wonder how this panel represents “The teachers’ perspective” with only one teacher, from one level of K-12 education (and no higher ed?). My understanding is that the audience will be well represented by teachers, but this seems to illustrate  one of the issues education is facing – a lack of teacher voice.

The conference will be streamed live.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Brian Crosby, Change, Education, Literacy, Reform, Student Access, Teacher Access, Technology | 1 Comment

New York Times: Schools For Tomorrow

I was informed recently that I am a speaker (a member of a panel) at the New York Times sponsored “Schools For Tomorrow” – Bringing Technology Into The Classroom Conference. They bill it as: “Technology is transforming how we live. This conference will transform how we learn.”

This ultimately came about because of a number of tweets about how here is yet another education conference upcoming that involved everyone but actual teachers (other than audience members with a chance to ask questions – perhaps a somewhat unfair description, but … one of my major peeves about the non-discussion happening about education). So I shot off an email pointing out this obvious error (spurred on by several friends) and lo-and-behold the sponsors got back to me and after a conversation via email I was invited to participate. This, of course, coincides with the start of the school year, not a perfect time to be missing a few days of school, but on the other-hand I better be willing to put my “money” where my mouth is.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Change, Education, Messy Learning, Reform, Technology | 3 Comments

Getting to Know You

Each year one of my favorite first week of school activities helps me figure out my first quarter seating arrangement while also helping students get to know one another. I’ve done this with 3rd graders through seventh graders. I don’t have a name for it, but here is how it works:

The first day of school as students enter the classroom they are instructed to find a seat anywhere they want. My classroom, by choice, has tables instead of desks because I like the collaborative nature of a shared space. What tends to happen is that we mostly end up with “Girl Tables” and “Boy Tables” with an exception here or there. This year (I’m teaching 6th grade) there were no exceptions, all the tables were boy or girl tables.

The second day of school after we have settled in for the day, I explain that we are going to change seats, so gather up your things. Next I explain:

1) You may not sit with anyone you have already sat with. 2) You may not sit at a table you have already occupied. 3) All tables must have at least one boy and one girl. 4) You SHOULD try to help by being willing to move so things can be worked out if someone is having trouble finding an appropriate seat. (Note that back in the day when I taught 4-5-6 multi-age classes you had to have at least one 4th grader, and fifth grader and a sixth grader at your table – just another problem to solve.)

We also have a conversation about “inclusion” and making others feel included and what it is like to be not included (and we do more lessons during the week about that using books like “Crow Boy” and “The Brand New Kid” and “Chrysanthemum” and others).

What happens next is that a few students quickly find a new table and sit down like they are playing musical chairs. Occasionally this is followed by a look of relief on their face. Others mill around looking for a table where there are students they know or a table that looks “safe.” Others hold back to see what will happen and fill in where they can, and others wait to be “helped” either by other students or the teacher.

Next we trouble shoot what happened and make sure everyone has a seat. This year only one student was left seat-less on the 3rd day only because she had been at the same table, that was solved by a student that volunteered to move so the seatless student could find closure.

The third day of school we do it again after we review the day before and think of ways to help each other … that was today and although many students still lookout mainly for themselves, there was more thoughtfulness. We discuss that and why it is so hard to give up a seat to help another … it mainly comes down to worry that the new table will not embrace you … major scary for 6th graders. We talk about that too.

The fourth and fifth days can get really hard … at least a bit more complicated. By that time most students have run out of “safe” friends to sit with. Usually we end up with more standing around. This gives us a great lesson on how this feels … how scared we are of rejection and not being included … it’s  a bit scary for me because you have to handle this part well if there are really at risk students involved … although I’ve never had a major issue, we’ve gotten close … this can be somewhat scary stuff, but a great point of reference for the rest of the year. Students that have nowhere to sit … not because they really don’t, but because they are afraid to sit and have a comment made – feel it, but you can tell almost everyone else feels bad for them (if that even happens) so it is a great discussion … it’s breakthrough awareness for some.

Usually the groups we end up in the last day become my groups for the first quarter (I keep my students in groups for longer periods now – I used to change them a lot, every week or so, but at risk kids often have less experience with commitment and this makes them have to deal with each other and work things out over time … not assume that in one or two weeks I’ll be away from that kid).

Learning is messy!

Posted in Cooperative Learning, Inclusion, Messy Learning | 12 Comments

If Media Reported on National Security (for example) Like They Do Education

Crisis in national security? If we follow the lead of NBC and their Education Nation and other media outlets’ education coverage, their coverage of the “National Security” crisis might look like this:

We would put together a panel to discuss national security “in depth.” The panel would consist of college professors and online university presidents that have studied national security and toured military and other “security” bases, and business people (1 or 2 of them would be billionaires) and a lawyer or two that have very strong opinions about national security and may have visited military bases, a few members of at least fairly extremist US militia groups and a politician or 2 also with strong opinions not considered seriously by the military people actually running national security. In addition only one of the panelists can have as much as 3 years experience in the military or other actual national security service and the experience must have happened more than 5 to10 years ago. Almost all the panelists should have similar opinions and attitudes that mostly run counter to what the actual experts believe. The host should likewise have little to no experience in national security and ask almost no follow-up questions, mainly because they don’t know or understand the background or issues involved. (I’d add the US Secretary of Defense as part of this group, but it is too unrealistic to place them here, wish that was true of the US Secretary of Education … but I digress)

In the audience you can have generals and other high ranking military folks and national security experts with 10 to 30 or more years current experience, but they only get to make a few short comments or ask a few short questions from the audience with no chance for follow-up no matter how poorly their question is answered or taken out of context or they are belittled (knowingly or unknowingly) by the panelist answering or commenting on their question. Now advertise this panel as a broad ranging, in-depth, expert discussion on national security issues that face our nation

Next, decide as a public service, to put together a week or more of these panels to discuss this vital topic (“National Security Nation”, perhaps), and set the panels up pretty much just like the description above except a few times include one panelist that represents a national security think tank that is only considered a barely adequate expert in the field by the people they represent, and that hasn’t worked directly in the field for 10 or more years outside of the think tank. In addition do one-on-one interviews with some of the most controversial panelists where they say what they want and even belittle the actual experts and their ideas like it is common knowledge with no follow-up questions from the host (who is really the celebrity reporter or anchor, not a national security or even military reporter that might know enough to ask follow-up questions).

Now be shocked, shocked! that the actual national security experts are mad as hell that they are continually ignored and that only these controversial opinions are given voice and weight. In addition they are angry at uncritically being labelled as against what is best for our country’s national security and only care about keeping their jobs and pay when most have given their whole professional lives to national security. Add news anchors and reporters that aid in spreading this perception (knowingly or unknowingly – not sure which is worse) by constantly repeating it or allowing others to repeat it unquestioningly like it was common knowledge. And perhaps most vexing, when pushed condescendingly mention how they are sure “Most” national security experts are great at their jobs and are probably the most cherished and valuable members of society (just not worthy of of having a voice in their area of expertise apparently).

Can you imagine any news organization having even one panel exactly as I described above being promoted as an “in-depth” and “broad-based” discussion about national security? Well apparently that is OK when education is discussed “in-depth.” To be fair there have been a few (very few) well done discussions lately, but we shouldn’t even have ONE like I described above. I’m hoping that we are turning the corner in this one-sided “debate” about education, it will be interesting to see what transpires.

How could we make the discussion about education valuable? Who should “be at the table” when education topics are discussed?

Learning is messy!

Posted in Change, Education, Reform | 1 Comment

Models of Education Innovation: What Else Should We Try?

This is my latest post on Huffington Post.

In comments on this and other blogs about education, one of the constant complaints from commenters is that no solutions are proposed, only reasons why some program or policy won’t or doesn’t work. These are frustrating and non-productive since usually the solution is implied (if too much testing is the issue, less testing is part of the solution for example. If very regimented models are being railed against, then less regimented is what is being promoted). I decided sharing some ideas might be productive. I provide just a brief synopsis of each.

We have KIPP, other charter schools and regular public schools trying that model, and it is the model that Race to the Top seems too laser-focused on, let’s try other things too. Here are just some ideas, this is by no means an exhaustive list, add your own in the comments. Some of these ideas would be expensive and others less so. My goal was a great education, not less cost, although if any of these models are found to be  successful, cost savings might be realized over time or perhaps thought worth the investment. NOTE: I’m an elementary teacher, so my ideas are influenced greatly by that.

  • If too many bad teachers are the real reason why children do poorly in school, here is an approach to ferret that out. Since the promoters of this thinking claim that if we just put a great teacher in a classroom they can overcome poverty, health, language issues and more, let’s spend some of the Race to the Top money to find out for sure (and maybe Gates or Broad or someone else could support this too). Let’s assemble a staff of great teachers (award winners? Teachers whose students have great test scores?) and have them take over a high poverty elementary school with horrid scores, for example, and give them 3 to 5 years to turn the school around. To make this model legit, no other funds or special programs, extra staff or health care beyond what is already funded by the school district or grants already in place (because remember, it’s just about the teacher) can be utilized.
  • Let’s try schools that follow the “bottom to the top” model where teachers and other educators on-site have most of the responsibility and autonomy to design the curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and professional development (training). The administration is there mostly in a support role to gather resources, advise and provide other support. Since the teachers/educators at each site make the decisions on what pedagogy and materials they will use, this will look different at different sites. This is a benefit since what each site finds works and doesn’t work can and should be shared.

  • Models that include the example above and provide a broad, rich curriculum for all students starting in pre-school, including science, social studies, physical education, field-trips, during and/or after-school sports programs, arts programs, literacy, health and counseling programs for students and families (as opposed to a narrower curriculum offered in too many schools under NCLB). In addition, since research shows easy access to lots of books makes a huge difference in student reading ability, students in the school (and their families, including pre-school age children) will receive libraries of books for their homes (which would be collected and recycled to others over the years), each classroom and the school library will be very well stocked and updated with books. Technology should be ubiquitous and students should be taught to use it as a tool for learning, exploring, connecting, collaborating and becoming learners. Ethics, safety and responsible use would be taught and discussed daily. Some schools in this model could also try extending the school year and include outdoor education and sports leagues (maybe run by the parks and recreation department). Some of the health monitoring and care may be covered already when the new health care program is fully implemented. This model might be the closest to what they do in Finland, which is the highest scoring country in the world according to PISA scores. I model this approach somewhat during a TEDx talk I gave in Denver in 2010.
  • Re-draw boundary-lines in school districts to make schools as diverse as possible, socio-economically and otherwise. There is research that shows that diversity helps everyone. There are plenty of school districts, especially large districts, where it would be fairly easy to try this intervention on a smaller scale at first. For example, in my school district there are schools where higher socio-economic schools and a lower socio-economic schools already border on each other so long distance busing would not be required, and many students could still walk.

  • All the models above should be tried with ongoing professional development decided by what teachers require to support their teaching.
  • Hybrid approaches using combinations of the above ideas should be tried as well.
  • Any of the models above could (really should) include paying teachers to spend more contract days collaborating, planning and preparing lessons and receiving professional development before and during the school year.
  • Assessment of each model could be done through observation, NAEPPISA, or other assessment.

OK, please add your ideas (the flipped model or anything else) in the comments.

Learning is messy!

Posted in Change, Reform | 3 Comments

Innovation Starts With Having Autonomy

My lastest Huffington Post, post: Innovation Starts With Having Autonomy published today. John Thompson left a comment there that reminded me of a quote I’ve used in the past. It is from Renee Moore’s blog where she quotes David B. Cohen, who teaches at the upscale Palo Alto High School in CA :

“What I wish people would realize is that “good” schools with high test scores don’t think of their instruction as some kind of reward for the test scores. They don’t focus on basic skills and then suddenly reach a point where they…develop deeper knowledge, enrich learning, engage students’ interests, etc. It’s not basics and then enrichment. The basics can be addressed more covertly, more authentically, and more effectively, when those skills are developed in a meaningful and motivational context. That type of environment shouldn’t be the exception, the unearned privilege of the children of privileged parents, and those lucky enough to attend schools that test well. That type of education is the birthright of every child.”

Learning is messy!

Posted in Change, Education | 4 Comments