Thursday, October 11, 2012

Too much handholding for new teachers?

I'm a part of our county's steering committee that determines how we will roll out professional development, materials, and support for teachers through the transition.  It's been an interesting ride that I've not always agreed with (I tend to agree with Dr. Yong Zhao when he says he would like the common core standards a lot better....if they weren't "common" or "core").

In our last steering committee meeting, our director of curriculum did an excellent job of refocusing the group on the purpose of what we've been doing since the start of last year.  The various content-level teams are working with teachers to create a common set of transfer goals (what skills we want students to have when they leave), learning principles (what we believe about learning), enduring understandings (main concepts/content), and essential questions (provoking questions that lead to explorations of the topic at hand).  These foundations are then put into course maps and sample units that teachers can rely on in their teaching.

The curriculum department basically states that we will work together to create these common items but the actual delivery/instructional methods is something that is completely up to teachers and their PLC's.  When first hearing this I thought it sounded like a good approach.

But then I started wondering.  Our curriculum director relayed a story of his first year of teaching that was very similar to my own- he was handed a textbook and a pacing guide and then left to figure out everything else on his own.  That's exactly what happened to me as a first year kindergarten teacher- I was thrown to the (cute) wolves and had to literally figure out every activity, every objective, every facet of my day as I went. That process fundamentally changed the teacher/educator I would grow to become for the better.  It forced me to be creative.  It forced me to work hard.  It forced me to think deeply as I was planning how each student would accept or reject what we were doing.

I've talked with a lot of GREAT teachers with similar first year stories.  So I've begun to wonder- where is the line with supporting new teachers?  How much should we hold their hands, give them all the materials, give them the questions they should be asking, etc.?  Do we run the risk of stunting a good teacher's growth into a great teacher by holding their hand too much?  Is the common "safety net" we're casting to make sure poor teachers achieve at least a base level of competency also dragging our potentially great teachers back to the middle?  Is there a way to support poor/average teachers to become better without hindering the good ones from becoming great?

I don't know the answers to these wonderings.  It just struck me that one of the primary goals in education is to create students that are confident, independent problem solvers. We try to foster independent problem solvers that can define, approach, and attempt to solve whatever problem or obstacle they find in their way.  And handing teachers a common set of expected materials/requirements/sample units seems to do the very opposite of what we want to be doing with students.

While I think new teachers need all kinds of support, I wonder if one of the best ways we could help is to do what we often need to remind ourselves to do with students....."be less helpful."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Size of the Minecraft World

I came across this really awesome new version of the Scale of the Universe objects.  I always love these things and they're great to show to students to start all kinds of conversations.

But I simply love that they put the size of the Minecraft world in this one.  If you're in a school with kids (mostly boys, interestingly enough) aged 3rd grade and up, you probably have some Minecraft players.  Whether you know it or not!

So maybe armies of kids out there building a world larger than Neptune should be able to do more of this kind of stuff in school, right?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Impact- Breadth and Depth

As educators, we all got into this game to have a positive impact on kids.  Lately I've been thinking about what is the best way to maximize my own impact on kids.  Maybe someone else out there is thinking the same thing, or maybe the way I've been thinking about this will resonate with someone.  Who knows and here goes.

When thinking about the kinds of impact we can have my mind categorizes them in two ways:  

Breadth of Impact - Things we do that reach a wide range of students.  For myself, this includes writing my book, creating TeacherTechVids and putting it out there for free, speaking/presenting, and my current job- as tech facilitator at a middle school.  These kinds of impacts are by their nature more shallow, as they don't include a personal, long-lasting connection or relationship with students.  The draw here, of course, is having a positive impact on a lot of learners, known and unknown.

Depth of Impact - Things we do that reach a small range of students, such as within our classrooms, as a leader of a club, or other personal student connections made throughout a building.  For myself, this includes my 6 years as a classroom teacher (2 in kindergarten, 4 in 2nd grade) and some of the work I do with kids now, leading clubs and trying to make as many deep, personal connections as possible.  These kinds of impacts are the ones that last a lifetime, the ones that kids can look back on later and point to as something that changed their lives.  They are deeply personal.

There is obviously room for both types of impact in our education system.  I've come to believe, though, that all of us in the education system, from top to bottom, need to strive for a balance between the two.  

If you reflect on your career  or present position and see that you are operating almost entirely on the breadth side of things, you should be thinking about ways to cross over into ways you can have a more personal, deep impact on students under your purview.  If you are an administrator, actively find ways to make this happen- whether it's hanging out with some of the more troublesome kids after school, leading a club, or even going back into the classroom for a period of time.  If you are a policymaker, get yourself into a real classroom, with real students, and spend some real time with them in order to better their lives in some way.

If you reflect on your career or present position and see that you're leaning heavily to the depth of impact side of the equation, you should be seeking out ways to have a broader impact on students outside your classroom walls.  Think about connecting with other educators through Twitter or blogs.  Think about connecting your classroom to others around the world through services such as  Think about publishing your own blog and sharing the great stuff you are doing (you never know what other teacher will see your ideas and try them out with their students, to great success). 

For myself, in the past 4 years I have strayed too far away from the Depth of Impact side.  As difficult as it can be with my current job responsibilities (I'm mired in technical difficulties and troubleshooting all too often now), I need to actively find ways to personally connect with students in my building.  And if that doesn't work, maybe I'll go teach 2nd grade again (which would be AWESOME).  I feel the yearning for those deep connections and I plan on being aware of it at all times this school year (and beyond).  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Yes Business

As an educator and parent, I'm in the Yes Business.

"Can my students crash in your room and learn _____?"
"Can our students bring in technology from home?"
"Can I take apart that computer and take pictures?"
"Can we do this with our iPods next year?"
"Daddy, can I write a book?"
"Daddy, can we make a princess castle out of those boxes?"

"Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!"

Being in the yes business means being in the let's-make-it-happen business.  And that's exactly where we all need to be.

We don't want to be in the:

  • "Yeah, but" business.....  -- Don't let the logistics of the challenge be the first things to come up.  Everything worth doing has logistical challenges and risks- let them arise naturally as part of the problem-solving adventure.
  • "What you don't understand is _____" business  -- Don't be this person.  No one likes this person.  They are a fun squasher.
  • "What is everyone else doing" business  -- Don't be like everyone else.  Honor the idea as novel, develop it, then cross reference how others might be attempting.
Because when someone is coming to you with an idea, they are already excited by it.  They are already psyched to do it.  They wouldn't be asking you if they weren't.  The worst thing you can do is respond with anything but an unqualified YES.  Because the minute you qualify it, the asker becomes deflated.  The idea loses it's present power.

So when someone asks you if they can try something:

1.  "Yes!  That sounds cool!"
2.  "Let's work together to figure out how to make it happen"

With those two simple steps, I think we could encourage a ton of great ideas and innovation.  And before you know it, the process will flip- when you ask your students if you can try something new, guess what they'll say?  When you ask them to approach something in a new, challenging way, guess what they'll respond with?


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Quick thoughts about Yong Zhao keynote, ISTE 2012

Quick thought after watching the brilliant Yong Zhao's keynote at ISTE this morning:

This guy is brilliant. Imagine a leader like this on a national level, how much our schools could change for the better

The point about confidence is so critical. The spirit of innovation is grounded in belief in ones self working in an environment that grows freedom and risk.

Love the point about tolerance leading to innovation and success. The more diversity that is valued, the more opportunities those diverse talents will be recognized and cultivated. This is a major reason why I have a lot of faith in our youth, despite their current bastardized version of schooling- they are the most tolerant and accepting generation to ever come up.

It's so interesting to see the opposite directions of USA and china's approaches to Ed reform- both trying to become the other.

One thought that always runs through my mind when the testing agenda is revealed- why are we teachers always so ready to nod and go along with reforms that we know will harm kids? Is it because the vast majority of teachers were good students who respected authority? Is it because we've become so accustomed to the flavor of the day changing so often that we just try to weather the storm? What could it possibly take for all of us to finally come together and take a stand?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wanna fly some paper airplanes?

So I'm very excited to be presenting 2 sessions titled "Nurturing Collaboration, Creation, and Publication in Today's Digital Classroom" in Honolulu on June 5th and 6th.  Part of this session will be about how we need to shift our thinking in schools in regards to digital/global collaboration.  I'm going to push to move past connecting with other classrooms/schools in superficial ways (sharing knowledge about each other's day to day life, for example) and toward a deeper level of collaboration which involves building knowledge together, tinkering, experimenting, and problem solving.....together.

As part of this, I was going to be creating some paper airplanes with participants and would love to invite more to contribute!  If you have about 5 minutes, could you play along and make some paper airplanes with us?  Check out the directions and Google Form below to help and THANKS!!!!!

And I almost forgot to ask- if anyone wants to Skype in during the session and do this live, that would be awesome! - The times would be around 7:05-7:30 PM EST on June 5th and 3:05-3:30 PM EST on June 6th.  Email me at to set this up!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 thanks

Just a heads up on some numbers I was running today from Apple.

Our associate gave us a quote for 30 iPad2 at the new retail price of $399 and included the Applecare+ program with it- which costs $79 per device and covers up to 2 cases of accidental damage.  For each time the device needs replaced/repaired, there is a $49 deductible.  Applecare+ covers the device for 2 years.

So here are the numbers I ran for a cart of 30 (which is how they're packaged for schools):
30 x $79 = $2,370

Let's assume the pretty much worst case scenario- 5 broken ipads over the course of 2 years (a high number, especially if they're well protected...which we'll get to in a second).  Now, this would be 16.7% of the ipads breaking, or 1 in 6.  As a smaller-scale reference point, our school has had 350 ipod touch devices for over three years and in that time we have had a total of 8 ipods with cracked screens from accidental damage (2 of those were teachers/admin, by the way!).  Now, that's a bummer, but the reality is that these things don't break very easily because they're very good products (and even with the cracked screen they still function just the same, by the way...).

So, let's go with the high number here- 5.  That would be another 5 x $49 deductible = additional $245.  For a total of $2,615 out of pocket...

Now, what I'd do with the money instead- buy 5 additional ipad2's at the retail price of $399 (could be even cheaper for edu, but haven't checked prices lately there) for a total of $1,995.  Then take the additional $375 (or $620 if you count the money you save from the deductibles) and put it toward good cases that will stop them from being broken when dropped in the 1st place.

This gives you 5 backups/replacements up front that you would never have to worry about filling out a work order form, shipping things back/forth, going to the Apple store, etc., plus provides your ipads with the protection they need so they won't break in the first place.

The bottom line on this is that Applecare might be a good idea for a very small number of devices, but on a large scale (anything 30 and above) I would not recommend it at all.

I know where my money would go if I were making the purchase!


I just tweeted back and forth with Tim Gwynn (tgwynn) and he reminded me of another good point- the cost to completely replace an IOS device without Applecare is half the retail price of the device (plus tax).  For the iPad2, this works out to be around $215 now that the retail price has dropped.  So to get to that $2,370 mark for 30 ipads, you'd have to bust 11 ipads!  Unless your students are using them as frisbees (which would actually be kind've cool...hmm could take video and study motion that way..hmmm but I digress), then you should be much  better off when buying in bulk to skip Applecare and save your $$!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Our BYOD Policy and Process

Our school is in the midst of piloting BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) with students.  I like the way we've done the pilot- we basically opened it up for students before creating an official policy.  By doing this, we were able to see problems or issues come up naturally.  Instead of trying to guess and overthink all the potential dangers, we just dove in and dealt with reality.  If your school is moving in the BYOD direction, I highly recommend doing it this way.

So our process has looked like this:
  1. Start school, give students the password to the wireless and allow them to access the network with their devices.  Allowing this was completely at the discretion of each individual teacher.  Some teachers did not want to deal with it and some (many) went whole hog.  I think the variety was good to get different perspectives throughout the pilot
  2. Teachers experienced and dealt with issues that might come up (minor bullying issues, losing their stuff, items not charged, taking pictures without permission).
  3. Halfway through the year, we brought it up as a discussion point in our leadership team meeting- teachers/staff/parents voiced their concerns, issues, and solutions.  We are a school that already is progressive with things like grading policies (going for mastery, allowing multiple attempts, no zeroes, no grading on behaviors, but other more natural consequences).  Team decided to create a draft policy for next meeting.
  4. I researched other BYOD policies out there that addressed some of the same concerns we had.  I incorporated their ideas into our draft:  Links:  ,  (great ideas here!!)
  5. I brought the draft to our leadership team and we went through and made some significant changes that reflected our unique needs and perspectives.  
  6. This policy will become part of our official school policy that we work under moving forward.

So here is what we came up with- hopefully the process we went through and the policy itself can help steer you in your own directions with BYOD- feel free to use any ideas herein (and definitely check out the policies and ideas above):


JN Fries Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) Policy

Technology plays a large role in our students’ lives.  Personal devices can enhance and enrich learning opportunities both at home and at school.  JN Fries is committed to allowing responsible, learning-centered use of personal devices at school so as to provide as many pathways to understanding as possible for our students.

General Info
Access to the JN Fries wireless network, whether with school-provided or personal devices, is filtered in compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).  However, access from personal devices is limited to Internet use only.  Students will not have access to any documents  that reside on the school network from their personal devices.

Access to the JN Fries wireless network is a privilege, not a right.  Any use of the wireless network entails personal responsibility and compliance with all school rules.  The use of the Cabarrus County Schools’ network also allows IT staff to conduct investigations regarding inappropriate Internet use at any time, by administrator request.

Guidelines for use
·         Use of personal devices during the school day is at the discretion of teachers and staff.  Students must use devices as directed by their teacher.
·         The primary purpose of the use of personal devices at school is educational.  Personal use for personal reasons is secondary.
·         The use of a personal device is not to be a distraction in any way to teachers or students.  Personal devices must not disrupt class in any way.
·         The use of personal devices falls under Cabarrus County Schools’ Acceptable Use Policy, found in the student handbook
·         Students will refrain from using personal devices outside of their classroom unless otherwise directed by their teacher
·         Students shall make no attempts to circumvent the school’s network security and/or filtering policies.  This includes setting up proxies and downloading programs to bypass security.
·         Students shall not distribute pictures or video of students or staff without their permission (distribution can be as small as emailing/texting to one other person or as large as posting image or video online)

Consequences for Misuse/Disruption
(one or more may apply):

·         Device taken away for the period
·         Device taken away and kept in the front office until parent picks it up
·         Student is not allowed to use personal devices at school
·         Disciplinary Referral resulting in ISS or OSS

School Liability Statement
Students bring their devices to use at JN Fries at their own risk.  It is their duty to be responsible in the upkeep and protection of their devices.

JN Fries Magnet School is in no way responsible for:
·         Personal devices that are broken while at school or during school-sponsored activities
·         Personal devices that are lost or stolen at school or during school-sponsored activities
·         Maintenance or upkeep of any device (keeping it charged, installing updates or upgrades, fixing any software or hardware issues)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

“Always Try Your Best” – Impossible? Unreasonable?

Yesterday was the first rough school day ever for our 5-yr-old, Emily.  She had to move her monkey down to ORANGE…  (kids start at green, can move up to blue or purple…or down to yellow, orange, or red based on behavior throughout the day).  She had been removed from her small group for talking and being silly and she had played with and pulled another girl’s arm late in the day.  For Emily the ultimate rule-follower, this was just horrible.  So at the end of the day, our little Emily broke down and was very upset with herself.  She shed many tears before she got home, my wife and I huddled up to talk about how we wanted to handle it, then we went to talk to her.

As we spoke to her, I found myself saying something I’ve said to many, many kids over the years “We want you to always try your best.”  Sounds simple and I’m sure it’s something many of us have said to our students…but later I started thinking about it more and more.  Is this an unreasonable request?  Has any human in the history of mankind actually ever done this?  I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t always try my best….Most of the time I try to do really well, sometimes I try my best, and well sometimes I coast a bit on things (flag football  games with our church come to mind….).  Isn’t this what we all do?

So is it damaging to tell kids to always try their best?  Or is it good to place that high bar in front of them, even though they will never achieve it?  Could we change it to “always do your best on the things that truly matter to you?”  Or does adding a qualifier take away the simple impact of the phrase by itself?

Just some things I was thinking about and thought I’d share.  Oh, and Em bounced back- she insisted on writing cards to her teachers and the girl whose arm she pulled and today came home on purple and was thrilled…pretty sure this setback won’t end up in a life of crime...

Em on a much happier day, rolling around in the leaves...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Unsolicited Educon Advice

I saw the most amazing thing the other day while I was driving to work.  It was a grey and windy day as I was putzing along behind another couple of cars and I happened to notice something out of the corner of my eye.  As I rounded a bend there were three leaves gliding perfectly along the road in front of me, weaving in and out between one another as if they were completely choroeagraphed.  It was really beautiful to see them glide like this- just enough wind to make them glide, but not enough to lift them off the ground.

As I drove away I started to think about just how complex of a thing this was that I just witnessed.  The conditions had to be absolutely perfect- just the right amount of wind, coming from the right direction.  The cars in front of me had to be in exactly the positions they were in and moving the exact velocity they were moving to create the effect. The leaves themselves had to be an exact size and shape, and had to have fallen and been blown into the exact position they were in for this seemingly simple beauty to happen.  And I had to notice it (perhaps the most incredible part, as I've usually got "driving to work" blinders on)...

This seemingly simple thing was in fact an incredibly complex and delicate balance, working together to create something incredible that couldn't possibly be duplicated.  It is with this that I reflect on the Science Leadership Academy, led by Chris Lehmann alongside his incredible group of staff, students, and parents.

I've only been to Educon half a time, last year.  I say a half because the night after I arrived I came down with a stomach bug that just wrecked me and kept me away from SLA until the last half of the experience.  I'm by no means an expert, but I know an excellent group of staff and students when I see one - and of course SLA has this in spades.  But my advice is this- don't go into Educon trying to duplicate or "scale up" SLA back at your home schools.  You can't.  It won't work.

You see, a great school is very much like those leaves- a complex group of leadership, staff, students, parents, funding, resources, curriculum development, philosophy, support, politics, and timing in the community (and so much more).  You can't recreate a great school like SLA, no matter how hard you try- because you can't scale up people.  You can't scale up the precise environment they impacted their world within.

So what would I suggest you do at Educon?  First, keep your eyes open and notice the beauty of a great school.  Then, go into it thinking about how you can take the ideas shared, the work presented, the students you experience, and make these ideas your own in your school or school system.  Don't try to do school like SLA- try to mold your own school into it's own greatness and then work hard to make it happen!

I'm going to miss Educon and all my friends this week, as we are getting ready for our 3rd child, due in the next 2 weeks- I will miss you all and am really looking forward to reading the ideas presented.  Have fun and I'll see you soon, I hope!