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Appeared inEdsurge on July 12 

This is what edtech should be: teachers, administrators, and even students, and edupreneurs participating in the same conversation.

On Thursday, July 11, hundreds of teachers and administrators from public, private and charter schools from the Chicago region spent a day of their free time learning more about the 30 edtech startups and trying out their products. The beautiful, light-filled Harold Washington Library, imbued with a long history of spreading knowledge for all, provided the perfect backdrop for these lively interactions.

The brainchild of Eileen Murphy, former teacher, curriculum developer, and district-level administrator for Chicago Public Schools and now founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, the Education Technology Startup Collaborative User Conference facilitated many informal interactions among tech-savvy educators and startup teams building the tools.

Samuel Dyson, Director of Hive Chicago Learning Network, masterfully kicked off the event with a rally call: “learning as a lifestyle,” which many teachers took to heart as they volunteered a summer vacation day to learning from and helping entrepreneurs.

Chris Liang-Vergara, Chicago native and Director of Instructional Technology for Personalized Learning at FirstLine Schools, opened his keynote with a quote from John Dewey, squarely reminding participants that the focus is on education and not the technology. In both his opening and comments during the closing panel, Liang-Vergara emphasized that educators should first identify what they hope to achieve or the problem they want to solve, then determine the best tools to use–and not the other way around. “If the technology fits, make it fit. But don’t force it to if it doesn’t.” Liang-Vergara also asserted that the feedback loop between education technology and the educators using them is fundamental to the future of education.

The takeaway message of the day: educators recognizing that they have a crucial voice in the development of technology tools that meet their needs. With so many of the edtech startup teams founded by former educators, it became even more apparent that teachers have the ability to identify their needs and participate in finding and creating solutions. Not all teachers can or should become edupreneurs, but all can play a critical role in the conversations about how to develop and implement the best tools to support student learning.

The morning and afternoon format mixed 3-minute company demos with hour-long open sessions for educators to spend time with individual startups of their choice. Startups also solicited feedback during these informal sessions. Many teams took advantage of the opportunity to identify educators who were interested in continuing conversations later. One grammar-focused startup, NoRedInk, shared a link to a poll which allows educators to vote directly for the next features and topics they’d like added. (Want to add your vote? Click here!)

Teach Plus, a national non-profit dedicated to improving outcomes for urban students, also polled participants on a range of topics related to educational policy, preparedness for online assessments, and important issues in education. Projected instantly on large screens spread throughout the space, participants were able to see the room responses in real time. (Look next week for EdSurge’s recap of the poll results!)

The lunch panel’s star was a 13-year-old from Chicago Quest who offered a much-needed student’s perspective on all the technology being built. He shared that it was better to “be a protagonist than a student,” he said, illustrating his point that he preferred building technology than simply consuming or learning how to use it. (Many of the edtech startups wanted to hire him on the spot!) Fellow panelist, Neal Sales-Griffin, CEO of The Starter League (formerly called Code Academy) echoed this when he shared that “growing up, I did not know that I didn’t have to just use computers. I did not know then that I could BUILD computers.”

As Liang-Vergara reiterated, we are “entering an era where digital tools can enable teachers to guide children through curricula and experiences unlike ever before.”  He used an analogy of maps to illustrate his point about the important role of teachers. Map directions are suggestions, he said, but only an educator knows best on how to guide students through a journey of self-exploration.

Discussions are already underway for similar events to be held in the SF Bay Area and in Baltimore. This user conference may be signaling a shift in edtech conferences altogether.

When we polarize the worlds of education and business, we miss what we can learn from each other. For example, there are many ways to apply an entrepreneurial approach to become a more effective educator:

1.  Don’t wait for “someone else” to solve a problem. We know the issues that need solving because we live and breathe them, which means educators are in the best position to articulate and perhaps even develop solutions.  We don’t have to wait for outside experts to provide the answers to what works.  I continue to be surrounded by other educators who are true experts and have workable ideas. I value their expertise and experience as much if not more than researchers, and certainly more than most policy makers.

2.  Develop an online professional learning community (PLC). Entrepreneurs recognize the importance of networking and finding out what others are learning and doing. You are not the first educator to encounter the problems you’re facing.  Others are trying, often successfully, to solve similar problems. We learn from the successes and failures of others. I rely heavily on my PLC to help me discover new resources and to keep current on ideas and policy changes, which makes me a better educator.

3.  Develop relationships with mentors with different kinds of expertise.  Entrepreneurs find mentors at different stages of their careers and in different fields. Too often educators only find mentors in their specific discipline. Though this makes sense on many levels, talking with others who have different perspectives can lead to more creative thinking. My high school teachers who struggled with classroom management learned so much from observing elementary school teachers because of their phenomenal ability to orchestrate their classrooms. An English teacher can learn from a biology teacher, for example, and there’s a whole world of professionals outside of the world of education!

4. Test your “product” effectively and efficiently. I’ve begun thinking differently during discussions of pilots in schools, advocating for a more agile approach. It’s important to understand how the individual components of piloted programs are working.  What aspect(s) of the program are what make the difference? For examples, is the new resource affecting the student outcomes or is it the collaboration built into the pilot? Discovering which components are more important allows us to focus our time and resources most effectively.  When we attempt to implement too many new programs (“features” in the business world) at once, we lose clarity in knowing what’s led to a success or failure.

Instead of rolling out a program for the whole district with a single, final evaluation at the end of the pilot, advocate testing an idea in a handful of classrooms with frequent points of data collection. Make sure to know exactly what is being tested, so that the results provide the most usable feedback.

5. Think about scalability.  One of the first questions asked of an entrepreneur with a good idea is how does this scale.  As a nation, we’re struggling to figure out how to scale effective education so that all students receive the education they deserve. What works in one classroom/school however may not work in all classes/schools. We’ve all heard the “hero” stories where a teacher or principal has turned around a class or school. The problem with these stories is that they’re difficult to replicate because the success story essentially relies on charisma rather than proven strategies. Before implementing a strategy that works in one classroom (or one school), make sure that it works in several others before implementing it district-wide. This extra step can save significant time, money and goodwill.

6.  Perhaps most importantly, maintain a curiosity about the world and remain life long learners. Entrepreneurs tend to be intrigued by a wide range of subjects, continually reading, investigating and asking: what if? As teachers we should be passionately engaged with the world around us because it makes us better educators, especially when our cross-disciplinary knowledge aids our students in making connections. We also can’t expect our students to be intellectually curious if we don’t model this curiosity for them.

children jumpingBefore landing in Portland for the AMLE 2012 Conference, I just spent three fun-filled days with my nieces and nephews in Idaho, two of whom are in middle school. It reminded me how crucial the middle school years are, and how too frequently we lose students during these years because we don’t engage their natural curiosity, their need to move, to collaborate, or really take advantage of many of their strengths.

When I asked my niece each day to tell me about school, she shared that she spent the day listening to boring teachers talk—each day it was the same.  Katelynn’s a good student and has an active social life, so it’s not that she’s not good at school or doesn’t have friends there; she’s just not being allowed to be an active part of her own education.

Similarly, the highlight of Dillon’s week was an after-school trip (school-sponsored) to go rock climbing—I immediately thought of him when Dr. John Medina (check out his book Brain Rules) shared his research on how important physical activity is for supporting learning.  I know Dillon would learn much better if he were more physically engaged during his classes.

When I helped Dillon with his 6th-grade homework, I mostly understood why he was doing multiplication drills. As a former teacher, I recognize that it’s important to maintain speed. Still, I would have been happier though if he had been encouraged to set some personal goals for completing the math worksheets. It’s important for students to learn to monitor their own learning and to understand the purpose of their homework.

I was, however, appalled that he had to complete two language arts worksheets that were fill-in the blank sentences—with three choices provided! The words were appropriate for 2nd grade, not 6th grade, and Dillon’s reading on at least a 9th grade level. Instead of these language arts worksheets, what if they had done carousel brainstorming, or flipped word parts to understand prefixes and roots, learned compound words by using cards to match pairs, or used the jigsaw process to do a close reading collaboratively?

Contrasting the homework worksheets was our trip to the vet for Dillon’s two leopard geckos. I was struck by how much knew about their habitats, diets, shedding cycles, etc. He had investigated which vets handled reptiles and scheduled the appointment himself, and was incredibly articulate with his questions for the vet. Dillon had also done extensive research before choosing the species, drafted several sophisticated arguments as to why his parents should allow him to buy them, and had designed a budget for their maintenance.  He had to understand why the tank had to be kept at a certain temperature and humidity, why he had to add calcium to their food, and how to calculate their medicine doses. This was true learning—so different than filling in science worksheets!

Middle school students will go to great lengths to teach themselves when they care about the subject matter, yet we rarely tap into their natural curiosity.  I know some amazing middle school teachers who truly understand how young people learn—I just don’t know enough of them.

I’m looking forward to being inspired by the remaining AMLE presentations over the next two days!



As a country do we truly believe in independence, freedom and equality for all? On this Fourth of July, my thoughts run to the traditional topics but I tend to see everything through an education lens, so today is no different.

I fundamentally believe that a person is not free until he or she has equal access to high-quality educational opportunities. When we speak of the achievement gap, what we really mean is an opportunity gap, which I’ll continue to write about more fully.

When we think through funding equality, we need to think beyond numbers if we truly want equal access to opportunity.

Our county, for example, assigns the number of counselors at a school based on student numbers. At first glance this seems reasonably fair. Until you look the realities of the schools. Several of our schools have over 50% mobility rates, which means those counselors are processing significantly more students who are also likely to have significantly higher needs.  Each of those students receives less individualized attention because counselors are assigned “equally” based on numbers.

In an elementary school where students come to school hungry and unprepared with the skills needed to interact successfully in a school setting, the same number of counselors and teachers are assigned as a school in a higher socioeconomic neighborhood. Again, on the surface it looks like equal treatment because the numbers are the same. However, for those children in lower socioeconomic areas to truly have equal access to the educational opportunities, they need more supports initially.

We need to think about equity and access to opportunity more complexly than simple number calculations. How far are we willing to go to provide real access?

Following on the heels of Audrey Watters’ public posting, I too decided to make my response to Alice Bell’s edublogger survey.

Blog URL: and

What do you blog about?  I enjoy blogging about education issues, including discussions about reform movements, issues facing teachers and administrators, the importance of STEM education, the need to redesign professional development to make it more job-embedded and tied to improving student outcomes, a need to shift to a transdisciplinary approach to learning, and perhaps most often, the importance of educators being at the font line of developing educational technologies that support our work with students.

Are you paid to blog? No, I blog because I enjoy it, and feel that more educators need to participate in the larger conversations about education. It also ensures that I take the time to reflect on

What do you do professionally (other than blog)? I work in the central office of a large school district, primarily working on literacy across the content areas. I am also the community developer for LessonCast Learning.

How long have you been blogging at this site? I started blogging less than a year ago, and wonder why I did not blog previous to that. Blogging has lifted me into a different world, one that is more expansive.

Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?) I used to write in more print forms, but not for years.

Can you remember why you started blogging? I felt teachers didn’t have a voice in the education reform conversations, and wanted to share what I was learning over the past year. There was a moment when I was listening to non-educators at the forefront of educational reform and I realized the issue was not that many of these groups did not know how to scale good teaching—they actually did not recognize what makes good teaching. I wanted to add authenticity to the conversation.

What keeps you blogging?  Articles, events or conversations will people will trigger ideas. I also often blog about events and conferences I attend as a way to reflect and share what I’m learning.  Now that I am no longer in the classroom directly, blogging helps feed my need to share

Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How? Generally over a thousand people access my blog, but not sure how many read each entry. I often assume far fewer people are reading my blogs than really are, so I am continually surprised when someone will make a comment about a blog that makes me realize he or she has been silently following me. Of course, there are my loyal followers, who I appreciate!

What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog? The first few folks who interacted with my blogs were colleagues interested in similar issues, people I knew from face-to-face relationships. Over time I have come to interact with many people I have met through social media. At a recent ASCD conference, I was able to meet in person people I met through my blogs, which was wonderful.

Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre of blogging? (e.g. schools, science, education, museums, technology) My blogging community involves largely two groups—those in the edtech community and those on the front lines of education. My goal is to have more people from both groups talking to one another.

If so, what does that community give you?  My online community continues to challenge my thinking, provides me access to immediate information about relevant issues, and sustains me when I grow disheartened.

What do you think are the advantages of blogging? As a less structured form, blogging allows flexibility to respond more formally and more informally, depending on the subject. When I am tweeting at a conference, for example, sometimes I want to respond more thoughtfully in a longer post. Blogging makes that possible, and then I can tweet it out. A blog can begin a conversation among folks invested in similar issues. Because it’s a more immediate form, there isn’t the same pressure to make sure it’s perfect and has gone through multiple revisions before publication, which means the conversations can be more timely.

Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss)  Though rarely mention that I blog when at work, many of my colleagues, friends and family know that I do because I post links on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked? I am proud that I encouraged several principal friends of mine to blog as well!

We need to listen to what students tell us by their actions.

Several weeks ago someone tweeted the question about which students should get priority—the disruptive ones or the ones who want to learn. My response was that we’re asking the wrong questions. We need to ask, why is this student being disruptive? Is this child asking us for help in dealing with difficult situations in his or her life? Is there something we can change about our curriculum and/or instruction that would better meet the needs of this child?

Of course, sometimes the reasons a child is acting out are more complicated and involve factors outside of the school. Still, our response should then be to ask why this child is literally screaming out for our attention.   In a  blog response, Cord Jefferson shares this touching story to illustrate this point:

A kid at her school—a primarily low-income, high-minority middle school serving sixth- through eighth-graders—was acting out. His outbursts were not normal, especially considering how young he was: He was rude, aggressive, destructive, foulmouthed, so angry. I remember my mom saying she was amazed at how much rage could fit into such a tiny body.

At first, the student’s teachers tried putting him in timeout. When that didn’t work, they escalated to trips to the principal’s office. When those didn’t work, he got detention after school. And when that didn’t work either, they started sending him home. But when he’d return from a couple of days at home and immediately start tearing his classrooms apart, the suspensions grew to a week, two weeks.

Still nothing worked, and one day things got scary enough that my mom, accompanied by a police officer, felt it necessary to escort the student home to speak with his parents. When they got to his apartment about a mile away from the school, the weeks of mystery surrounding the boys’ behavior were replaced with instant clarity. His mother, his only guardian, answered the door ashamedly, and out scurried a man, her most recent john.

After some talking and crying, the truth surfaced: The reason the “problem student” behaved so badly is because he knew that if his tantrums were chronic, he’d be sent home. And that was a good thing, because when he was home, his mother couldn’t work as a prostitute. He couldn’t tell any of his teachers this, of course, because then he’d run the risk of child welfare services taking him away from his mother, and he needed to be there to protect her. The boy never hated school, he just loved his mom more. This is how you get so much rage into such a tiny body.

Students act out for reasons: boredom, pain, anger, fear of failure, fear of looking smart, mental illness, learning differences, there’s a whole range of possibilities. Before assuming students are ill-intentioned, we must discover the root cause of student behavior. This is not to say that students shouldn’t have consequences—they should. However, we must remember that students are children, and they’re often sharing information with us the only way they know how. Instead of only focusing on disciplinary action, let’s also take the time to see how we can change the origin of the problem, or change how we’re delivering our curriculum.

We need to listen.


On April 13, 2012, at 10:30 AM the first floor of the beautiful Enoch Pratt Library is buzzing with people choosing where to go first at the CityLit Project Festival—the rows of tables with books, author sessions or the welcoming rooms of books to be borrowed.  Also in the lobby is Congressman John Sarbanes who quickly introduces himself—great to see local politicians supporting events such as these in Baltimore.

The event looked just as busy at 4 PM as it did at 10 AM—despite the beautiful day outside, this was the place to be.  Many library visitors chose to remain for much of the day once they saw the wonderful authors and speakers scheduled.

Letters About Literature Awards Ceremony with Kwame Alexander

On the 3rd floor there’s standing room only in the Wheeler Auditorium as Kwame Alexander reads from his new children’s book, Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, which was nominated for a 2012 NAACP Image Award. The Board president graciously (though unexpectedly) turned pages while the audience enthusiastically completed the lines as Alexander read.

Students (grades 4-12) from all over the state were honored for their placement in a national essay program sponsored locally by the Maryland Humanities Council/Maryland Center for the Book. Level Three, first-place winner, Adam Antoszewski of Catonville High, read his eloquent letter to Herman Hesse as he made nuanced connections between his grandmother’s dementia and Siddhartha. Similarly, Claire Jenkins of St. John the Baptist Catholic School, the Level Two first-place winner, read her letter to the author of The Little Engine That Could, describing how this book inspired her struggles with reading through her dyslexia. The youngest young author, Jisoo Choi of Ellicott City, shared how Someone Named Eve resonated with her own experience holding onto the language of her parents. Years from now some of these and the many more next-generation authors may very well be presenting their own sessions at this festival!

Benjamin Busch and Tom Hall

Benjamin Busch read passages from his new memoir, Dust to Dust, sharing his first connections to Baltimore through his acting career on Homicide and The Wire. Busch quickly acknowledged that the Baltimore portrayed in these two shows is completely different than the Baltimore community featured at the CityLit Festival.

The two Baltimores continually wrestle with one another, which echoes my own experience living in this charmed city. As police sirens outside threatened to overtake the room at one point, Busch explained with aplomb that this was an “interactive reading with the city of Baltimore,” lyrical prose set against the background of urgency and alarm.

Busch’s anecdote of one of his first experiences with Baltimore painted a hilarious picture of him walking from the Homicide set (where he played a dead man) to a local church wearing only a bathrobe, slippers and a prominent bloody hatchet wound on his forehead in the dead of winter.  He was so focused on wanting to be a professional and not wanting to move until he was directed that he ended up being left on the set alone without any transportation to the catered site for the crew.  After walking the winter streets, smiling at curious passersby, he finally reached the location and inadvertently walked into the wrong room—a classroom of African American children all stopped and stared at this strange, dead white man with a hatchet sticking out of his forehead.  Quite the image! I’m looking forward to reading the extended account of this incident in his memoir.

After reading the passages from his memoir, Tom Hall, the Music Director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, asked Busch to focus on the role of memory. At one point, Busch connected his early training as a stonemason to his desire for permanence, beginning when he was eight on a trip to England where he was surrounded by stone history up to seeing so much stone during his tour in Iraq. Extending this connection, Busch shared that when he first began writing, his father, the late novelist Frederick Busch, told him that he needed to “type something that will last forever.”

Busch consciously chooses to live within the ambiguity of life as survival and our inevitable demise. While recognizing that we’re all doomed—essentially we all will die, Busch also holds to the belief that “the immortality of our efforts is still possible.” Each moment in life counts and we can make a lasting impact, however small.

Busch’s life journey has taken him to some disparate places. His time at Vassar as a studio art major, making prints, drawing in charcoal and making sculpture in steel and stone may have helped him on his goal to create something permanent, but seem less connected to his time in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer through two tours in Iraq.  Busch comments about his time at war: that “You hope for a noble mission but you get what you get,” implying that the war in Iraq may not have been as noble as he would have wanted.  His remark that “there is no reversal of damage in war” hit home with many.  Curious to see what this actor, writer, soldier, photographer, stonemason and film director does next.

Edward Hirsch and Thomas Lux: Two American Masters Share Their Love of Poetry

When Michael Salcman, Chair of the City Lit Project, introduced Edward Hirsch and Thomas Lux, he shared personal anecdotes about the influence these two great American poets had on his own work.  His advice to  “love poetry, love it hard” set the tone for the presentation.

Edward Hirsch, who mostly recently published The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2011) and is perhaps best known for How To Read a Poem, shared his appreciation for the work the CityLit Project has done in keeping American Literature alive and well before he appropriately began with “Branch Library” and then moved to “Poet at 7,” “A Partial History of My Stupidity,” and “Early Sunday Morning.”  Before reading “Green Couch,” Hirsch acknowledged that Thomas Lux had complained multiple times about this very couch over the years; Hirsch and Lux have been friends since 1975.  After continuing with “The Sweetness,” and “A New Theology,” Hirsch kindly obliged a gentleman in the audience by reading  “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad.”   To the audience’s delight, Hirsch also read several new poems, “After the Stroke,” “God’s Insomnia,”  (when church bells rang uncannily at the perfect moment!)  “To Poetry,” and “Last Saturday.” Hirsch eloquently ended with “Ocean of Grass,” another audience request. Hirsch claimed that he’s “only reading in Baltimore from here on because no one ever requests poems elsewhere!”

Thomas Lux, who wrote at least 18 works of poetry including God Particles, followed Hirsch after a glowing introduction by Salcman. Lux began with a tribute to Baltimore’s Poe, “Edgar Allen Poe Meets Sarah Hale,” and then read the hilarious persona poem “Autobiographical.”  He continued with “The Republic of Anesthesia”  “The Happy Majority,” Like Tiny Baby Jesus in Velour Pants Sliding Down Your Throat,” and “The Joy Bringer.” Referencing one of the images in this last poem, Lux added the personal footnote that “newly mown hay is one of his favorite smells.”

Lux also read from galley pages of his new book coming out this fall: “Hat Rack,” a funny litany of family and friend nicknames, “Soup Teachers,” an elegy to Lux’s mother, and “Lady’s Slipper,” a poem about a protected flower of his childhood.  Lux then concluded with other two published poems: “Dead Horse” and “Outline for My Memoir.”

When asked, Lux acknowledged Frost as an influence, explaining that Frost was more than a bucolic poet, rather he was  “the great poet of terror,” as he was called on his 80th birthday.   Instead of the “meaning of a poem,” Lux likes Frost’s reference to the “ulteriority of a poem.”  As a former English teacher, Lux’s desire not to box each poem into a simple meaning resonates because my students always seemed to want to do just that.

In response to an audience question about formal and free verse, Hirsch shared his belief that part of our patrimony of America is our capacity for inclusiveness and that there’s more than enough room for formal and free verse. Lux also stressed that he and poets like him do pay attention to craft, including sound, rhyme and rhythm, even if the rhymes don’t fall at the end of an iambic line.

Prose poetry also arose during the discussion. Lux defined a prose poem as having to follow all of the rules of a poem except the rule of line breaks, and that it should be closer to poetry than prose.  Hirsch took the discussion further by proposing that a prose poem always raises the question of what makes a poem.  He quickly walked the audience through a comparison of the American and French history of the prose poem in its relation to free verse poems, arguing that the prose poem followed different trajectories across continents.

Walter Isaacson, Best-Selling Author of Biography Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, former managing editor of Time Magazine and Chairman and CEO of CNN, now President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, is perhaps most famously known for writing the biography of Steve Jobs.

Working closely with Jobs caused Isaacson to recognize that biographers rarely have the opportunity to truly know their subjects, to spend time with their subjects the way he did. The project made him rethink his work as a biographer and the importance of capturing “the first draft of history.”

When Steve Jobs first asked Isaacson to write his biography, he didn’t realize that Jobs was ill. He felt Jobs was a bit audacious, to say the least, to place himself in the same category as Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein (subjects of Isaacson’s other books), especially given the early stage of his career.  Through continued conversations with Jobs, Isaacson came to understand his health situation and secured a promise from Jobs that he would not micromanage the project. In fact, Jobs agreed not to read the book until it was published. Isaacson did share that despite the promise to allow an unbiased account of his life, Jobs did suggest several thematic strands of interpreting his life. Unfortunately, Jobs didn’t have a chance to read the book before he died. Isaacson did read the last 6 pages to him aloud–the parts that were Jobs’ own words.  Jobs just nodded.

Isaacson stated clearly that his intent was not to defend Jobs who was clearly a genius but most definitely not a saint.  His singular focus often trampled other visions and prevented him from caring about issues outside his own personal vision. While sometimes Jobs was a major jerk, he also engendered fierce loyalty.

Still, Jobs transformed multiple industries—the home computer, the music business, the film industry. He reinvented the creation myth at large of the Silicon Valley garage startup; he gets kicked out of his own company and then is brought back, both times bringing the company to a force in the world. Isaacson saw Steve Jobs’ impatience and petulance were attached to his passion for a product.  His mantra of wanting to make great products not great profits often delayed projects about a month—just to make sure each was perfect, beautiful and ready.

Perhaps most fascinating was the connection Isaacson made between the intersection of counterculture and electronic culture.  Jobs believed that creativity would occur at the intersection of humanities-types and science-types.  Gates was recognized as a better coder and programmer, but he didn’t have that counterculture feel that Steve brought.  The time that others see as Jobs’ lost years possibly fed the success of Jobs and his company.  His time spent in ashrams in India and experimenting at Pixar taught him lessons that ultimately shaped Apple when Jobs returned. In the end, Jobs wanted his company to remain at the intersection of technology and the humanities.

Isaacson ended with sharing what he saw as the hardest thing we do in life and hardest to learn: knowing when to stay true to your passions and when to find common ground and compromise. Steve Jobs, as we all do, wrestled with this tension to the end of his short, impressive life.


The event looks just as busy at 4 PM as it did at 10 AM—despite the beautiful day outside, this was the place to be.  Many library visitors chose to remain for much of the day once they saw

I’ve been writing for some time about the need to have more crossover conversations among educators, startups, policy makers and investors.  Thursday night I saw this happen at Digital Harbor Foundation’s Edtech Link Fundraiser in Baltimore.  Audrey Watters wrote a great piece sharing the work of the Digital Harbor Foundation. When everyone thinks and works together, truly innovative ideas emerge and can be put into action.

The two young and energetic co-executive directors, Andrew Coy (Baltimore City high school teacher) and Shelly Blake-Plock (of TeachPaperless), brought together students, teachers, principals, founders of edtech startups, Maryland businesses, and venture capitalists—everyone invested in improving education. Perhaps the only group missing was higher education. Each table included representatives of these various stakeholders, which made for truly rich dinnertime conversation. At my table we range from discussing particularities of serving students with special needs on both ends of the spectrum, hearing about several edtech companies developing tools in conjunction with teachers, why two impact investors chose to focus on education and listening to student experiences with reverse mentoring.

The evening program began, where it should, with Digital Harbor High School students sharing how their experiences with iDev have opened numerous opportunities for them. Several of the students participate in reverse mentoring—these high school students regularly visit Liberty Elementary, a local Baltimore City elementary school led by the forward-thinking principal Joseph Manko. The high school students work with Liberty teachers, helping them learn to use technology strategically, particularly with their 1:1 iPad program.  It’s a win-win for everyone—the teachers learn new strategies and the high school students learn marketable skills. One young man at my table shared that he had built a simple website for someone the previous weekend for $350, a nice chunk of money for a high school student. Two other students approached several of us after the dinner to offer us their tech services if we needed them. Loved seeing such entrepreneurial skills in young people!

Further along the pipeline, the foundation also provides scholarships for college students and a fellowship for recent college graduates in Maryland tech industries. Teachers may also apply for tech fellowships that allow them to spend the summer learning to use technology in innovate ways that will impact the classroom. (Here’s more information on the application process: Imagine the impact if even just 20 teachers participated in this program every year and took back what they learned to their individual schools.

One of the other brilliant ideas coming out of this group is a project to turn recreation centers that are closing because of budget cuts into tech centers for young people.  The plan is to include 3-D printers, tech classes and tech coaches available. The only real question is why didn’t some

I’m not easily impressed but I was impressed with Atul Gawande’s keynote at ASCD, perhaps because he touched on topics percolating in my brain the past few months.  My love affair with Gawande began with his article in the New Yorker  where he advocates for all professionals having the opportunity to be coached. The philosophy is so simple—we get better at what we do if we get specific feedback on our performance—yet it happens so little in most professions, except in sports and dance. The goal of this feedback is not to be rated or graded; the goal is simply to get better.

When I danced years ago, my instructor would have us watch ourselves repeatedly in the mirror. She’d show me how to adjust my body for better balance, more grace, a longer line. No one has done this for me as a teacher. Certainly no one has done this for me as administrator.

I know when I watched myself teach on video, I found several unexpected behaviors that I didn’t know I did—for ex, I do this sort of two-step move when in front of the classroom. It’s because I move towards the students who are talking and then back up because I realize the students on the edge of the “U” are out of my periphery.  It ends up looking like a strange dance, or at least it did when my students imitated me during a school skit. I also use the word “actually” too much.  Now these aren’t horrible habits in that they’re not overtly harmful to students, but they are a potential distraction to students, so I try to curtail them.

When I’ve had teachers observe themselves, they often share with me that they had no idea how short their wait time was, or that they called on boys more often, or that they asked so many closed questions. Half the trick to improvement is identification and recognition. You can’t work on something if you don’t see it. We need to open ourselves to asking and receiving feedback. Most importantly we need to rethink how we view teacher evaluation and professional development.

Gawande made the point that most teachers, like doctors, fall into a bell curve—most are average. We shouldn’t focus all of our efforts on trying to get rid of the “bad teachers.”  Instead, we should teach them. So simple, but our teacher effectiveness systems aren’t designed this way. We should be thinking about teacher growth for all teachers, not teacher evaluation. How can we learn from the great teachers, and how can we share this wisdom?

In all of the districts I’ve worked, many teachers coast after their first five years. They feel as if they’ve mastered their craft and they don’t feel pushed to keep improving. I wonder if many potentially great teachers leave the profession because they don’t experience the challenge of continual improvement. Other professions offer these challenges. Just like students need the right balance of a challenge without crossing over into frustration, so do our teachers. So do our administrators.

Here’s the big question: how can redesign our profession so that it’s the norm for all teachers and administrators to be coached? Imagine the impact this could have on students.

I was only able to participate in a short segment of Grant Wiggins’ session yesterday—wish I had been able to come in sooner. When I worked with Grant back in 1999 as part of a Klingenstein Summer Institute, his Understanding by Design framework came at exactly the right time for my practice—over a dozen years later, Grant is still ahead of the curve. Here are some of the big questions he raises:

  • What would schooling look like if we designed it “backward” from the school Mission & using sound principles?
  • Where do mission and long-term learning goals get lost in short-term actions? What, then, should we do to change this?

Wiggins advocates for what I’ve been arguing for as well in my district: everything in our schools should be aligned—the mission, curriculum, response to personnel issues, response to students, administrative walkthroughs, and certainly professional development.

Having recently read Unmistakable Impact, Wiggins reminded me of aspects of Jim Knight’s work. Knight argues that a school’s improvement plan should be clearly written on one page—too many initiatives get lost. The strategies should be easily understood by the whole school community—administrators, teachers, parents, and students. If not, the school isn’t focused enough to experience real impact. Wiggins provides one sensible method of focusing school initiatives by tying everything together through a backwards design approach using the school’s mission.

Everyone seems to be recognizing the necessity of alignment and clarity, yet schools still seem to struggling to find their focus. I’m convinced it takes strong instructional leaders who have vision and a clearly articulated plan (developed with the support of all stakeholders) to make this happen. The most difficult task is learning to filter out all of the distractions to maintain the school’s focus, making sure the short term doesn’t overwhelm the long term.

One of my favorite Wiggins’s quotes: “The point of school is not to get good at school.” Schools must have a plan to move students towards autonomy in solving real world problems.