Archive for February, 2010

Our world may be flat, but many of our classrooms are still boxes

February 27, 2010

I have been following news about the earthquake and after shocks in Chile and the tsunami warnings in place in more than a dozen countries on at least three continents.  I haven’t turned on my tv, though, I have been on Twitter and ustream.  The fact that I now have almost total control over when I get the news, how I get the news, and what news I get is liberating.  When I was in high school (I graduated in 1983), this wasn’t the case at all.  I would have been limited to what NBC, CBS, and ABC wanted me to know about this news and I would have been on their time schedule to learn it.  Right now, I am watching live news from an Oahu TV station with 7,405 other Internet viewers from who knows where.  This is cool.  Don’t think I have grown cold to the impending loss of life as I am in awe of the power of the Internet.  Hardly.  I am reading tweets from people I know who are concerned for family members who are in danger.  This is not just scary video on the 6 o’clock news. This is real.

I remember just once in school when school was interupted for “real life.”  I was in high school in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was shot.  I remember an announcement coming over the PA system that the president had been shot but he was expected to live.  I was in college in 1986 when the Challenger disaster happened.  I was between a physics and a math class when it occured and I learned about from a fellow student who was in his apartment before class.  He told me what happened and I walked in to class without a connection to the outside world. 

In 2001, I was at a principals’ meeting when a teacher stepped into the room and alerted us about the activities on September 11.  The superintendent and division administration along with the principals began making decisions and calling their schools with the plan of action, part of which included keeping all kids off of the Internet and turning off all TVs.  Several principals had family at one or more of the locations involved and central office people were quickly designated to take care of those schools so the affected principals could begin to deal with family. 

In 2007, I was conducting a workshop when a teacher received a text message from her son at Virginia Tech.  “Mom, there’s been a shooting here.  Look at your computer.”  An, “Oh my God” from the workshop attendee shifted the attention of the room immediately.  The mother started looking on the web immediately to find news. Then, she got another text.  “Andrew hasn’t answered yet.  Go find him or wait?”  The mother had two sons at Virginia Tech, where 32 students were killed and many other shot by a gunman who then took his own life.  Another mother in the room had a child there as well and began trying to contact her.  We were all looking for news.  We did not turn on the TV.  We relied on the Internet and text message updates from the kids.  Thankfully, all of the children of the parents in the room that day were safe.  One of the children did know the shooter, and another did know a student who was shot but not killed, and all of them were impacted greatly by the massacre.

The purpose of this blog is not to relive disasters but to analyze access to information over time.  What events merit dropping everything and following?  Should this decision be made by the superintendent, the principal, the teacher, or the parents?  What are the dangers of exposing young children to the horrors of life? Should we only bring the world in to our classroom if it directly connects to the curriculum we are charged with teaching?  How can we leverage the flattening effect of the Internet to unbox our classrooms and when should we?  Does your school or your district have a policy or a procedure in place to answer these questions?



Forget charter schools, we need charters for our kids!

February 26, 2010

“A charter is the grant of authority or rights, stating that the granter formally recognizes the prerogative of the recipient to exercise the rights specified.”  Web. 25 Feb 2010. <>.

I remember wishing I had  the other first grade teacher because I felt put down and under appreciated by mine.  I got the second grade teacher I wanted and she was awesome.  I remember not feeling like there was much of a difference between the third grade teachers and I actually had them both as I left my homeroom to go to the other teacher for math.  Either way, I felt like the year would be “ok.” Fourth and fifth grades were awesome. 60% of my homeroom teachers in elementary school were awesome in my opinion.  In reflecting on these teachers as I was thinking about charter schools, I realize what made them awesome in my mind was that they chartered the kids in their classroom!  That is, they gave me the “perorgative…to exercise the rights specified.”  They empowered me.

Albemarle County Public Schools is a pretty amazing school district.  We have a supportive School Board, visionary leader, a strong leadership team, hundreds of highly skilled, professional teachers and a support staff that does amazing work.  Everything we do is connected tightly back to our Vision, “All learners believe in their power to embrace learning, to excel, and to own their future.”  Upon reading this vision statement after my earlier reflections, I think our vision really is a call to charter all students!

Albemarle County Public Schools has two charter schools.  The Community Public Charter School is an art-infused middle school program in its second year.  Murray High School is an non-traditional school of choice that is also a Glasser Quality School and is in its twenty second year.  We also have a “speciality center” that is in its first year this year – MESA, our Math, Engineering, and Science Academy that operates as a “school within a school” at Albemarle High School.  If we chartered all of our students individually, would we need these “special” places to meet their needs?

I recently wrote about the SLA kids I encountered at Educon.  I have also talked with kids at CPCS, MHS, and MESA in the past few weeks.  Across the board, it is clear that it takes a special teacher to successfully teach in a charter school or specialty center.  What kind of teacher does it take to charter the kids in a “regular” school?

Until we can guarantee 100% of our students will follow a path through school in which 100% of the teachers they encounter are awesome, I support the concept of charter schools.  I like the part of the Virginia law that requires charter schools to be public schools.  Public charter schools can and hopefully will push all schools to do a much better job of meeting the needs of every student through meaningful choices, by giving kids the”perorgative…to exercise the rights specified.”


The teachers our kids deserve

February 25, 2010

“The teachers our kids deserve” is not a new phrase.  In fact, Google just returned 11,900 references to the exact phrase.  However, when I limit the search to pages that have been databased in the past year (vs the default of “anytime”), I get no returns.  This is very interesting and is actually very ironic given the point I was interested in making as I opened up my New Post window.  My point is that the teachers our kids deserve NOW are somewhat different from who and what they have ever been. 

I, along with half the world, have recently watched Kevin Honeycutt‘s video “I need my teachers to learn.”  As a student, I needed my teachers to learn, too.  I remember asking questions and being blown off by some of my teachers.  I remember pursuing these questions on my own in a game of intellectual one-upsmanship to prove to myself that I didn’t need a teacher, especially one that didn’t want to teach me what I wanted to learn. Teaching has never been about filling kids’ heads with information that someone else wanted them to have at some arbitrary time and in some senseless order without any context.  But, there are people who call themselves teachers who seem to think their job is about teaching curriculum and not about teaching kids.

One of my “favorite” stories as a high school rebel without a cause is from 9th grade English.  We were “doing” the Poetry Unit (so, I am guessing it was April) and we were assigned a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, “To Helen.”  My mom has but one prized possession from her childhood – a really old set of Edgar Allen Poe books.  So, I tried to find this poem in mom’s books and I discovered that Edgar Allen Poe actually wrote two totally different poems both titled “To Helen.”  Armed with this information, I entered my 9th grade English class the next day not only having done my homework but ready to challenge my teacher, to see if she was a teacher or a learner as I had something to teach.  As we pulled out our anthology to read one of Poe’s “To Helen” poems, I raised my hand.  The teacher called on me and I asked if she knew Poe had published two poems titled “To Helen.”  “No, but it doesn’t matter because we are reading this one,” she said.  Thousands of thoughts crossed my mind and “I need my teachers to learn” must have been one of them! 

I gave up on 9th grade English at that point but I did not give up on learning.  I wrote the publisher of the anthology and asked them if they knew about the second poem and I suggested that they add a note to their next edition about it.  I got a letter back from them!  A publisher I had never met gave me more attention than my “teacher.”  The publisher indicated that they did not know this, they thanked me for bringing it to their attention, and they told me neither poem was slated to be included in their next edition.  I took the letter to my English teacher and asked her if it could count as enough extra credit to raise my F to a D-.  She took it from me and said she would look in to it.  I think I got a D that 9 weeks.

Just how much of a pain would I have been to “teachers” had I had access to the Internet?  How many challenges would I have offered up to them and how many traps would I have set?  How often would I have been sent to the office for being “disrespectful” or “challenging”?  Would I have lived “up to my potential” as I so miserably failed to do in my pre-Internet high school years?

Our kids deserve teachers who are passionate learners, not necessarily learned.  Our kids deserve teachers to teach them first and curriculum second.  Our teachers deserve teachers who view the world as their textbook, not some book that was out-of-date before it was ever put in the hands of kids.  Our kids deserve the best we have to offer them every “class period” of every day.  Our kids deserve teachers who are willing to reinvent themselves and the institution of school. 

Reimagining Learners as Designers-From Replication to Creation

February 19, 2010

I am in the process of working with several colleagues, many of whom I have never met face-to-face, from across the country to develop an application for the MacArthur Foundation.  Our 300 word short description can be found at and we would appreciate any feedback you give us via a comment (you do need to register at the site to leave a comment).

One of my colleagues posted a brief blog on the project and has included a little more detail at <a href="</p>

When you create something within the context of a larger piece of work, you learn from yourself and your work as well as from the impact your work has on others.  Even something as traditionally mundane as “notetaking” can become a collective, social learning experience by leveraging smart pen technology to share notes across notetakers.  Big ideas like this can be operationalized and kid- and teacher-tested if we are fortunate enough to receive funding.

Please visit, register for an account and wait for your confirmation email so you can then contribute to our project by leaving a comment for us. 

Also, please visit to learn about another participant’s perspective on this project.


On silos and the concept of “open” in education

February 10, 2010

What if we abolished the organizational structure and chart that follows and spent time matching the work and the workers without regard to pay grades and titles and departments and “report to” structures?  I heard “silo speak” come out of my mouth today and it struck me as to how much I feel like there is a divide between “my job” and “my work” sometimes and how limiting an “organizational structure” can be.  “My work” is the same as it was when I accepted my first teaching position in August 1988 – I want to change how we define “school” by changing how/what/why/when our young people learn.  I have worked on this work as a classroom teacher, as a teacher coach, and in a variety of roles within central office over the years.  I have sometimes struggled with the lines between “my job” and “my work,” but I will never let “my job” get in the way of “my work,” though the two may not always be perfectly aligned.

Open X (where X is “educational resources” or “source software”) is getting a lot of attention in education right now.  Can we save money by adopting OERs instead of published textbooks?  Can we replace MS Office with OpenOffice? Should we scrap BlackBoard and stand up a Moodle server instead?  Open X is different from “free X” in that it is built on the premise that none of us is as smart as all of us and anyone in the community should be able to take something and re-mix it, producing a derivative of it or alter the work itself by suggesting new code or modifying existing code.  Proprietary is the antithesis of open.

How can we use the concept of Open X to eliminate our silos in education?  Would an organization without an “org chart” collapse?  Is it possible that a crowd sourced encyclopedia could be more accurate than a traditionally juried and published one?

I will keep thinking about silos and jobs vs work and proprietary vs open and destructive vs constructive.  I will reflect on my own actions, reactions, and inactions.  I will work on the work!


Educators as lifelong learners?

February 7, 2010

I didn’t get very far in to reading “Curriculum 21:  Essential Education for a Changing World” edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs before I found a paragraph or two that really resonated with me.  On page 7 Jacobs writes, “…we (educators) need to become strategic learners ourselves…we are restricted by ‘what we know’ and ‘what we are able to do.'”  I have attempted to make this point throughout the years – the first job requirement of an educator must be to be a lifelong learner.  It seems this is the premise of Jacobs’ book as well.

If educators were lifelong learners, would we hear, “Because we have always done it this way” or “Because the state says we have to” nearly as much as we do?  Learners constantly revisit what they are doing, how they are doing it, all in the context of constantly questioning why they are doing it in the first place.  Learners thrive on context and don’t just do something “because” but attempt to connect the mandates to reality.  A lifelong learner would say something like, “We are being required to do mass testing of all students because there is ample evidence that when left to our own devices, we were not educating all children to meet basic standards. I would love to see us make these tests more authentic, though.”  What we hear too often instead is, “We have to give this stupid test that doesn’t tell us anything about the kids because the state says we have to.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of the regurgitation fests that occur each spring in our schools or the force feeding that leads up to them.  However, I am strongly in favor of ensuring all of our students have access to a stream of high quality learning experiences over time.  I have issues with how we test (multiple choice) and what we test (content and skills that can be easily assessed via multiple choice).  I don’t have issue with the fact that we test, I just want the tests to be better.  I have seen the state-mandated tests be an excuse for doing low-level work when seen as a ceiling.  I have also seen teachers and schools that view the state-mandated tests as being just another way for kids to show what they know and not the basis for what happens the rest of the year. 

Can a lifelong learner educator contextualize and even inform the mandated testing from the state and school division?  When left to their own devices, what data did our “good teachers” and “good schools” keep on kids?  How was the data “captured”?  What standards or criteria were used? Why is it so threatening for teachers to have to report data about their kids to their principal or the district?  What role does “assessment literacy” play in any or all of this?  What role does leadership play in contextualizing external assessments?  Are all external assessments “of learning”?  What, if anything, can educators do to improve practice with trailing data?

To what extent do teachers design classroom assessments that matter?  How can we use other assessment data to inform what we do with groups of kids and individual kids?  What if we did focus on what matters most?  Do we know enough to know what those things are?  Are we committed to learning what those things are and how to go about ensuring our students learn them?  Are we learners first?


Moving Away from Textbooks to Learning Resources

February 3, 2010

On January 21, 2010, I wrote a blog post about my recommendations for replacing textbooks (see  Since then, I have done more research on state funding for textbooks and think you might be interested in what I found.  The Texas Education Code allows for state funds to “provide for the purchase by school districts of electronic textbooks or technological equipment that contributes to student learning; and pay for training educational personnel directly involved in student learning in the appropriate use of electronic textbooks and for providing for access to technological equipment for instructional use.”  This equipment can be purchased with Texas Textbook Funds.

So, what about in Virginia?  Textbook is defined tightly in Virginia, “‘textbooks’ means print or electronic media for student use that serve as the primary curriculum basis for a grade-level subject or course.”  What about the equipment that allows kids and teachers to access the electronic textbooks? What about the necessary professional development?

In a time of budget cuts, how about more budget flexibility?  By Virginia’s own admission, “While textbooks can be valuable resources, they clearly have limitations.” Search Educational Technology Plan for Virginia: 2010-15 (PDF)  for the word textbook and you will get 13 hits, this quote being one.  Analyze these hits and you may find a disconnect between the state code and the recently approved Educational Technology Plan for Virginia as well.

I don’t know how to go about changing a law, but I know the law has to change because our kids have!  We must have flexibility in policy and funding to, as our new Educational Technology Plan suggests, “explor(e) traditional textbook alternatives such as the flexbook, a free and open-source textbook platform where one can build and edit collaborative textbooks as a means to address these issues.”

I guess I need to hit the flexbooks to learn about how to change a law!