Archives for the month of: December, 2012

candles votive

I’m saddened that my first blog in my new platform covers such a difficult topic.

This recent tragedy at Sandy Hook has haunted my nights, keeping me from sleeping well. I keep imagining what the first responders witnessed, and it seems unbearable. I question how I would react in a similar circumstance, hoping I’d be as brave and protective as these heroic teachers were.

I wanted to do something; we all want to do something. Because we cannot fight what happened directly—we can’t rescue those souls already lost to us, sometimes we fight with others because we need something tangible to fight. In the midst of our emotional outrage, we’re becoming polarized instead of coming together.  We’re reacting, not responding.

Too often when something unthinkable occurs, we understandably react immediately—out of fear, anger, pain.  I had flashes of 9/11, as did many others. In 2001, we reacted quickly with the Patriot Act, which still contains some measures that make me feel that the terrorists were able to chip away at some of our cherished American freedoms.

Instead of reacting, we should be responding thoughtfully and compassionately. This is not the time for us to be polarized—this is a time for us to come together. I understand the anger and feelings of helplessness that drive some of the current vitriolic debates on social media, but I’m saddened that this is our reaction.

I worry that we allow perpetrators of violence to change our way of life. When we do that, we allow them to win. Superintendent Dr David Gentile’s thoughtful piece champions a joyful life of freedom over continually increasing security to the point of essentially imprisoning our children. Where’s the line between being reasonably prepared and losing our way of life? It’s a good question for us to discuss.

Preventing future incidents like Sandy Hook will take a multi-pronged approach: removing the glamour from our violent culture, tighter gun control, better mental health awareness and treatment, bullying prevention, some precautions that balance safety and living a full life, and committing to focus on memorializing the victims, not the perpetrators so that harming innocents will have less appeal for future disturbed individuals, who are in so much pain and want to take others out with them in order to give some meaning to their lives and their deaths. Even if we address all of these potential contributing factors though, we still cannot protect our children from every possible violent incident.

I love the Mr. Rogers quote circulating about “looking for the helpers” in these tragic situations because it focuses us on what can be done, and that even in the midst of horror, there will always be those who come to help. On the first day of school, several of my colleagues at Perry Hall High School ran toward a student with a gun averting what could have been a similar larger-scale tragedy. I’m proud to have known so many helpers who emerged that day and in the ensuing days.

In the end, we may be trying to make too much sense of a senseless, destructive act. Instead of this tragedy causing so much divisiveness, we need to hold our loved ones, reach out to those in pain, and work together to heal our nation.

Every Monday, Tioki interviews a teacher that’s doing innovative  and inspiring work to affect change and make a difference. I was honored to have been interviewed last week!

Click here to watch interview


Varied Needs-appeared on SmartBlog for Education on December 5, 2012

When recently presenting at the Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was struck by how much things have not changed, especially in terms of professional development models. In discussions around education reform, we have begun to recognize that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work for all of our students, yet there’s little conversation about differentiating PD for teachers, despite differences in experience, content areas taught, and learning preferences.

The traditional model doesn’t work

A typical PD calendar usually includes a full day of PD in August (when teachers would rather be setting up their classrooms and planning) and usually another day or two in the middle of the year.

Faculty meetings can serve an important role for PD, but too often the same material is presented to the whole faculty in the same way, despite the expectation that teachers are then expected to implement these strategies to meet the needs of their specific students in their content areas.

When individual teachers attend a workshop or conference, there’s little expectation for how that newly learned information will be implemented or shared with colleagues upon their return.

Sometimes a school or district will bring in an expert. This approach is expensive, and in my experience, many experts aren’t willing or able to tailor the professional learning to meet specific school needs, which means teachers and administrators must still take this information and translate it for their content areas and for their specific students.

Though I love versions of the EdCamp model for professional growth, it assumes that teachers know what they need to know and how they need to change their practice to meet the needs of their students.

Instructional coaches have been shown to have an impact on teacher practice, but most schools can’t afford the number of coaches necessary to support all of their teachers in changing practice, especially in these tight fiscal times.

What does work: One story

There have been numerous research studies citing that professional development should be sustained, ongoing, focused on student learning and meaningfully integrated into the daily life of the school. The real question is how?

In order to successfully implement new practices and improve student learning, a learning community needs to 1) focus its efforts, 2) work collaboratively, 3) be willing to reflect and examine what’s working and 4) be willing to make adjustments when they aren’t seeing the desired outcomes for students. A school or district can’t wait until end-of-the-year assessments to evaluate whether or not the efforts are helping students grow. They have to be willing to update the plan and change direction if need be.

What can this look like in practice?

1. Focus efforts. Instructional leaders need to clearly articulate not just the desired outcome but also how to get there. Teachers need professional learning that is immediately relevant, job-embedded and chunked so that change is manageable.

At our AMLE session, Nicole Tucker-Smith shared the story of how she used teacher-created, short 2-minute videos to focus professional learning on improving reading at her large middle school. Different content and grade-level teachers received slightly different versions that used examples from their curriculum.

2. Work collaboratively. Once teachers have a shared understanding around a particular strategy, they need time to collaborate on how they would implement these strategies with their particular students. Initially teachers watched the short videos together, but they quickly asked to watch them on their own, providing them more time to share ideas with each other during planning times. This also allowed teachers to learn at their own speed—they could watch the videos multiple times, pausing and rewinding when desired.

In our AMLE session, a principal asked how we were able to monitor whether or not teachers watched the short teacher-created videos before participating in collaborative planning sessions. While we had the technical ability to track this information, accountability shouldn’t be about whether or not a teacher or administrator participates in a professional learning experience — accountability should focus on a change in practice.

To successfully change practice, everyone who provides feedback to a teacher needs to recognize what the implementation of a particular strategy should look like. The short video format allowed all administrators and teacher leaders to have a shared reference. In addition, for each strategy included several “lookfors,” specific teacher and student behaviors that would indicate successful implementation of a strategy. It’s important to note that these lookfors were not designed to be evaluative — they were to be used to provide specific feedback to support teachers refining their practice.

3. Reflect and examine what’s working. After teachers implemented strategies, they need time to share what works and what didn’t with each other. Small adjustments can make a difference between reaching all students and only reaching some.

4. Make adjustments when not seeing desired outcomes for students.Sometimes a desired change in practice doesn’t lead to the desired student learning. When teachers and administrators are focused on a specific, chunked strategy, it allows them to drill down to see what might be impeding student learning. At Nicole’s school, it became clear that while students were mastering the reading strategies, they needed more vocabulary strategies to be successful.

As we collectively continue to think through changes in educational practice, let’s make sure that we’re also rethinking how we provide professional learning for our teachers. If we’re not meeting the needs of our teachers, they’ll struggle to meet the needs of our students.

All photos provided by Michael Rosner

I spent this past weekend coaching at Education Startup Weekend Baltimore and was struck by how much this event said about what’s happening here in my hometown.  From the focus on developing a tech pipeline to the maker community to the generosity of the organizers, coaches and judges—it’s clear Baltimore is blowing up.

Bmore Heard

First, I was awed and inspired that two of the eight final teams were led by Baltimore City Public School (BCPSS) students.  Both teams were articulate, organized and created strong products by the end of the 54-hour weekend. Bmore Heard (3rd Prize), pitched and led by Keimmie Booth, created a platform for student voices to be heard more broadly. I particularly appreciated that they built into the system the need for students to support their arguments to avoid the site devolving into a place to complain. By Sunday night, the team already had 55 students signed up and creating video speeches.

Another student-run group, UnBlockEdTech, created a tool for unblocking websites caught in current school network systems. On Saturday this team spoke with Dr. Alsonso, Superintendent for Baltimore City Public Schools, to find out exactly what would make him buy their service—talk about customer validation! Another one of my favorite moments was when a judge asked UnblockEdTech a technical question about where their service would interact with the current infrastructure, and without missing a beat, BCPSS student Jean Carlos Cedre clearly articulated the answer.

unblock EdTech

Baltimore’s burgeoning maker community was well represented. Though SparkEngine didn’t place, the team leader was able to convince 11 people to join his team! Originally the team focused on creating a “” for makers and educators but as they continued to speak to folks in the community (customer validation!), they realized that the larger issue was a need to begin developing a pipeline for maker educators.

Dr. Octopus interviewed 22 educators over the weekend as they created a focused search for relevant content that can be shared with students (more customer validation!). Similarly BOLD spoke with a number of organizations and schools as they designed a streamlined process to support students through the college process, with a focus on students with learning differences. Nominote, which helps college instructors learn students’ names, has use cases beyond education.

The judges’ decisions and support also reflect the local commitment to EdTech in general and to nurturing young talent in particular.  It’s always wonderful to see judges give up their Sunday evenings to watch pitches, provide feedback and determine winners. What made this event different is how these judges went beyond expectations and offered their access, time and funds to help several teams move forward. Chris Tonjes, for example, the Chief Information Officer for Baltimore City, offered to build Bmore Heard, recognizing the potential power of their platform and demonstrating a commitment to Baltimore City’s young people.

Another judge offered to reach out to his colleagues to secure pilots for CourseFly (2nd Place), a product designed to simplify the registration process, in several universities.

The winning team, Challenge Box—which I love!—was also provided helpful feedback on their business model by the judges. Challenge Box provides a choose-your-own-adventure story with a hands-on component. Young people literally receive a box of materials that they use to create elements to move the story forward. I was also impressed with how the Challenge Box team went out into the community to gather feedback at different stages. They even had a local upscale toy company owner tell them she’d buy it and at what price she thought parents would pay. Sign up for their mailing list to find out when they launch.

Challenge Box winning team

One of the main sponsors and organizers, the Digital Harbor Foundation, also reflects a significant movement in Baltimore for developing the technology pipeline, creating an EdTech community and supporting Baltimore’s young people.  Students in DHF programs don’t simply learn about technology, they do technology, as clearly seen by the student presence at the event.

Perhaps Harold Eckmuller said it best when he tweeted, “So, after just one weekend, Baltimore already managed to be a more exciting city than NYC. Damn fine job.”