May 3, 2018

How do schools get more out of Professional Development time? Gamify it.

Candyland route (Hasbro)
Most schools have in-service days built into the end of the year to professionally develop teachers. In my career, I've found these days are rarely successful. Teachers don't have the energy or the interest at that point in the year to learn something that they won't use for three plus months. And the person who leads the PD sessions is usually wholly disconnected from the teaching faculty, whether it's an outside consultant or an administrator.

To address the problems described above, this year I designed our PD days this year to use gamification as a way to make it collaborative, personalized, and exciting. I envision teachers working together to incorporate new pedagogical trends into their curriculum for next year. Rather than accomplishing this goal with "talk-at" programming, the game facilitates "work-with" programming. Rather than commissioning a speaker to teach something new (something better saved for end-of-summer PD), this PD is fully personalized. Teachers get to work on their own needs within their own curriculum, and they get to choose which sessions to attend and which colleagues to work with. And by gamifying with Habro's help, I hoped to capture nostalgia and promoted (faux) competition to motivate teachers to enjoy their time on campus without students and to commit to pedagogical development with peers.

We wanted to highlight and expand upon successes from the current school year, so teachers shared successes via Google Form. That way their colleagues can emulate them and/or collaborate with them. To gamify this learning, I blended the various teaching successes into 7 pedagogical trends. These trends became the locations (or "incubators") on the game board that a teacher can visit to learn from and work with colleagues.

Candyland PD Gameplay:

On the Candyland game board, there are 9 locations. We will use the first (Gingerbread Forest) and the last (Candy Castle) as a starting space and ending space. The Gingerbread Forest functions as a space to reflect on successes from the school year. The Candy Castle will be the space to celebrate when a player "wins" the game. In the other 7 locations, called incubators, teachers have to complete a pedagogical task to improve their teaching for next school year [visit this document to see what pedagogical work each of these incubators entails]. We budgeted an hour and a half at each incubator, so that each player has enough time to thoughtfully plan something ready to be used next year--not something that will be forgotten come September. Finally, each player gets his own game board to write down what he does at each incubator in order to win the game.

The incubators range from planning student-centered classes, to using images for formative assessment, to developing interdisciplinary units with colleagues, to switching to competency-based grading for a unit (there's more detail in this document). The tasks get progressively more challenging as a player moves up the board. If a teacher doesn't make it to the Candy Castle, that's totally okay; after all, the best games are challenging.

Teachers Helping Teachers: Powerful Stuff
At first, teachers enhance an existing unit, but by the end, they rethink the way they disseminate information and present themselves to the outside world. Realizing that these are tough tasks for some teachers, the incubators will be staffed with teachers who have successfully completed the task this past year (based on their skillset and self-identified successes received by Google Form). Additionally, for each incubator there is a write-up about a colleague's successful implementation of each pedagogical task. So at each location there's an example to learn from and a teacher to consult with.

For the teachers who aren't comfortable running an incubator, I will recommend using the coaching model, where a teacher asks questions to push a a player to develop a project on his own, or using Sugata Mitra's "granny cloud" technique, where a teacher just provides lots of encouragement.

This game structure requires reflection, planning, and collaboration. Not only will this help individual teachers improve their class and grow professionally, but it will also generate a lot of ideas for the community at large--organically from the grassroots level--to discuss and work on together.

The Secret Sauce: Engagement

All this planning is for naught if we don't also generate energy and buy-in from the teachers. In general, teachers have an internal desire to improve their craft, but that's not enough to sustain PD days in June (summer vacation piques all five senses). To promote collaboration between colleagues and to improve pedagogy at the school as a whole, this game design makes for both light & easy and exciting & entertaining PD. There's no consultant, there's no "expert," there's not even an administrator with a long-term, strategic plan-heavy talk. And there's no preparation other than self-reflection. Teachers are working with colleagues who are in the same head space, with the same goals. That means everything.

The Candyland invention gives the PD days a silly but endearing aura. The game is quirky and unique by design, because we need our teachers to be creative and innovative when they engage in PD. For example, I intend to create a gimmick for the teacher leading the incubator; Lord Licorice can have a licorice crown or Grandma Nut can have some nuts to snack on. I will also use construction paper the colors of the Candyland board on the floor or wall to direct teachers to sessions. These gimmicks inspire smiles and jokes; the smiles and jokes open up conversation which can be quickly steered to pedagogical pursuits. Ideally, this fun improves faculty morale as well. 

There's nothing more engaging and empowering than PD by faculty for faculty; schools always win when they flip their PD goals from institutional demands ("talk-at") to what teachers want for their own development and their own classrooms ("work-with"). The PD described above creatively celebrates and spreads great teaching. It promotes collaboration, trying new things, and keeping up with current trends in education. But most of all, it's fun, exciting, and it builds morale!

April 15, 2018

Fortnite vs. School

A few weeks back, I read two articles about a hot new game that everyone is playing called Fortnite. I knew my students would be playing, so I kept a close eye on the widespread adoption of this new game in my school. This Friday, I became so fed up with the amount of students I saw gaming as I walked through the commons, I sought some data from the IT Department. A colleague of mine ran a report and we found that:

  • 51 students played Fortnite during the school day on Friday. That's 1/10th of the school. 
  • While 24 of those 51 students played between 15-30 minutes, 15 of them played for more than an hour (the school day runs from 8 AM to 3:30 PM). And 5 of them played for more than two hours. 
  • The top player clocked 3:26 hours on the game.
  • The vast majority of these players are boys (and underclassmen at that).
These numbers make me seriously consider shutting down the game on Monday. Prior to seeing these statistics, I would have argued that if you try to shut down Fortnite, the students are just going to find another way to play OR they're going to find another way to distract themselves online. I would also argue that if students are playing games in class, that's something that individual teachers need to address. But in investigating this game, and seeing these statistics, I'm starting to change my mind on how to use a firewall in schools.

What bothers me the most about this game in my school is that it requires a player's undivided attention and the rounds can run long. As a result, our students are tuning out their friends and their teachers. Even if they're just playing during a free period, this game drives students to check out of conversations for a number of minutes at a time--and by check out of conversations I also mean students who try to sit with friends in the lounge and play this game at the same time, as that doesn't lead to fruitful conversations. When large numbers of students play this game together it also excludes those students (and teachers) who don't play the game, or don't want to be playing (or talking about) the game during a free period, during lunch, or after school. 

I also worry about what visitors to our school will think when they see groups of students glued to their screens. This week, I was stunned when I stopped in the English hallway where I could see through the window of four classrooms. From that vantage point, I saw six students gaming. And those were just the screens I could see from the hallway! Again, it was mostly boys, and mostly underclassmen. While it's easy to blame this on the individual teacher, if students are gaming in three out of the four English classrooms, there must be a systemic issue worth addressing 

Finally, in a more philosophical way I worry about our student's inability to converse with students and faculty as a result of their addiction to this game. This critique is not reserved for Fortnite, but for screens in general. I've witnessed large groups of boys all in one place together, but on their individual screens gaming. I feel like we (students and teachers) are missing out on opportunities to have discussions and make connections. And that's why I'm seriously considering shutting this down tomorrow. 

Let me know what you think (including students!). Tweet me @MrShakedown and fill out my Twitter poll. Thanks!

January 1, 2018

21st Century Teaching Includes Teaching Students What to Ignore

Today, teachers must teach students what to learn and what to ignore

Our most productive citizens and employees today are those who locate pertinent information efficiently, ignore irrelevant information consistently and avoid undue distraction. They are media literate digital citizens. It is a particular challenge for all of us to become media literate though, especially in our now hyper-connected world that can overwhelm rather than clarify.  We need instruction. It is more important than ever for our teachers and our schools to play an increasingly important role in preparing our students for this new form of digital citizenship

Everyone who has access to the internet has experienced information overload. And the amount of time we spend accessing information online is only increasing. Information overload is amplified by things like email and social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of music and video streaming. It's compounded by the ubiquity of wifi and smartphones. Even when we are not using our devices, we make sure to keep them close enough to us physically so that they can interrupt us at all hours.

Surprisingly, citizens are less concerned with information overload. Pew research discovered that, since 2006, fewer people have reported that information overload is a problem for them (from 27% in 2006 to 20% in 2016). Naively, 66% of Americans think that "having more information at their disposals actually helps to simplify their lives."

If we are using information to simplify our lives, we should be able to acquire relevant information quickly. But we're using our devices to consume information for longer. Common Sense Media reports that teenagers spend 8:56 a day "consuming media" (6:40 on screens). Similarly, if we are using information to simplify our lives, then multitasking should be declining. That's not the case either.  The Distracted Mind found that teenagers multitask for 31% of their day.

Spending 8:56 hours a day consuming media can't be conducive to meaningful learning, nor can 31% of a day be spent multitasking productively. Research has shown that more time online increases fatigue and stress. More specifically, increased time on social media negatively impacts well-being. And every study on multitasking concludes that it decreases productivity. One study concluded that IQ can drop as many as 15 points while multitasking.

Schools are the venue in which we educate and train our future citizens and employees. In order to succeed, our graduates need to know how to access pertinent information quickly, without distraction. We need to teach a new skill--how to ignore irrelevant information and how to single-task. But we are not, and what we are doing now is only compounding the problem. We are adding multiple classes worth of information to the pile of information our students already consume on a daily basis. We are assigning several assignments per night (sometimes multiple assignments per class, per night). We are assigning these tasks in a number of different mediums from textbooks, to the internet, to learning management systems, to pencil and paper. And we are demanding students access email and add spaces online where they get and submit information. These conditions are driving our teenagers to spend hours a day online and to multitask. And anxiety and stress have skyrocketed as a result.

I'm not arguing that school should stop asking students to complete the tasks mentioned above. The process of going to school and completing assignments should force students to access relevant information and complete tasks efficiently. But in today's hyperconnected world, students need explicit instruction and training on how to complete their work efficiently and effectively. We can't assume they learn this on their own. For example, when teachers assign research papers, it's implied that students will have to choose what information to include and what to exclude. Currently, instruction for assignments like this (one that many students only complete once a year) focuses on locating information rather than ignoring irrelevant information. Similarly, when administrators get involved in our students' online lives, it is invariably because something went wrong, leading to reactive disciplinary action rather than proactive instruction.

We need to retrain our teachers so that we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We also need to revise our curriculum and provide explicit instruction to students about what they are consuming online whether we are preparing them for research projects or explaining to them our disciplinary policies. These are first steps to developing media literate digital citizens who can identify misleading or irrelevant information, intentionally consume media, thoughtfully experience social networks, and focus on a single task.

December 20, 2017

Leveraging Twitter for Lifelong Learning

In education, we need to rethink the hackneyed expression "lifelong learner." Most schools have that expression in their literature, but how do schools measure it? Lifelong learning requires teachers to overcome two parameters, learning course content (even if it’s tangential) outside the classroom and learning course content beyond the school year. In my Contemporary World History class last year, I used Twitter to do just that; and I've measured the success this year with the amount of students who still use Twitter to learn about international news and events.

When students arrived in my class last year, they had to create a Twitter account and follow a list of 85 accounts that tweet about international news and current events. Almost everyday we started class by logging onto Twitter where each student would find an article (or two) to read about what's going on in the world. This paired really well with the course content--a project-based learning course covering major international events. For example, last year we covered events in Syria, Venezuela, Turkey, the South China Sea, Russia and the Philippines.

Frequently what students read on Twitter connected perfectly to the topics we covered in class. There was something really powerful about the fact that students were learning about events in the classroom while also keeping up with developments online in real time. For example, later in the school year, after studying the Syrian Civil War, students saw tweets and read articles about chemical attacks or the refugee crisis. So this style of learning reinforced the course content. It made the learning more tangible by helping students make connections between what we studied to what was going on in the real world.

This curriculum taught students the basics of a number of controversial international issues so that it was easy to keep up with them beyond the end of the course. Often a major obstacle to teenagers’ keeping up with current events is that they don't know where to start. News articles frequently don't tell the whole story, just the recent developments and students lack the background knowledge necessary to contextualize the piece. With Twitter in Contemporary World History we overcome this obstacle. Whenever I could afford it, I built extra time into our current events sessions to allow for questions and discussion. Students asked questions about current events that we didn't cover in class that appeared in their feed. More often than not, one of their fellow students had a read an article about it and could fill them in. If not, I would provide the backstory, or I would tell them to look it up. They then used the sources in our Twitter network for reliable, up-to-date information on the topic about which they were unsure.

Clearly I'm a fan of this course, and the most important benefit was using Twitter so that when my class ended, my students can keep using the Twitter network to learn about international events. A number of times this school year, my former students have come up to me and mentioned logging into their class Twitter to see what's going on in the world. One student said, "I check your Twitter when I wake up in the morning." Others have sought me out to talk about international events that they learned about online. I can't think of a better metric of success when it comes to lifelong learning. Students immersed themselves in a space where informed citizens and news outlets discussed the state of our world. And they continue to learn from that space beyond our time together.

It's essential for History Departments to train lifelong learners. My Contemporary World History class helped convince students that studying history requires a knowledge of current events and that it involves sustained study and the ability to make connections between past and present. And my colleagues who teach my students the next year reap the benefits when my students make current events connections in their U.S. History classes.

Finally, the structure of this course helped convince my students that they can and should use social media differently. They can use it to keep up with current events, to learn about controversies online, and to follow causes that they care about.  I'm not naive; I know I didn't reach all of my students.  Many went back to using Twitter for sharing memes and subtweeting friends. But just the fact that they've used a social media network to learn about something they care about (even if they had to this time), will help them do this again in the future. Teenagers are already using social media applications for hours a day. We need to inject that space with opportunities for “lifelong learning.” That’s how we fill that expression with meaning again in education.

December 14, 2017

Creating a Culture of Classroom Visitation

One sign of a healthy school is frequent classroom visitation followed by reflection and open dialogue. At Flint Hill, we’ve had success with a new program called Faculty 2 Faculty that has increased visitation numbers, pedagogical conversations, and interdisciplinary collaboration at our Upper School.

Teachers benefit in a multitude of ways when they visit classes. They can reflect upon and assess their own work when watching another teacher, which improves their teaching. Teachers can emulate the successes and avoid the failures of the teacher they’re visiting. And they get to experience class as a student--a feeling teachers quickly forget--including observing their fellow students in ways they can’t while teaching. Not only does that help teachers evaluate how lessons impact students, but it also helps them get to know the individual students better.

Most importantly, peer observation fosters productive conversation that leads to greater pedagogical development and interdisciplinary collaborations. Teachers genuinely want constructive criticism, especially from a peer (rather than an administrator that might be evaluating for a different purposes), and so are particularly receptive to feedback.

In my career, I can’t think of a time that I didn’t learn something from a classroom visit--be it something as small as a hand-gesture  I saw an English teacher using to get his students to dig deeper into the text or to a way a teacher incorporated movement to keep her students energized and engaged. Even when I witness weak lessons, I still learn things not to do in the future in my own classroom. Weaker lessons can frequently affirm the positive strategies and practices I’m already employing in my classroom.

Given the amazing benefits, how do school administrators build a culture for classroom visitation that includes reflection and constructive dialogue?

The "Faculty 2 Faculty" Solution

I have always valued classroom visitation, but until this year, there was almost no culture for visitation at my school. In fact, it was awkward when I asked people to visit to their classes. And when I invited people to my classes, surprisingly few people accepted. We had an Instructional Coach who hosted “instructional rounds,” but the same two people were the only attendees. Despite a tough culture to overcome, we started a new initiative called “Faculty 2 Faculty” that has started to changed our culture for the better.

1. Make it easy

After consulting faculty, we heard that one of the biggest obstacles to classroom visitation was that it was hard to organize. Faculty felt they had to ask a colleague in advance, which meant they had to plan, and it meant they had to put themselves out there with an email or a conversation asking for something out of the ordinary. To alleviate these concerns, we created a symbol (seen below) that any teacher could use to signal to another teacher that they’d like to come in. That teacher can accept the guest by returning the sign or reject it with a simple palm stop sign. These symbols are an easy way to welcome a visit or acknowledge it isn’t a good day for it without any awkward interaction.
Two faculty members using the "Faculty 2 Faculty" symbol
In order to get teachers to embrace this symbol, we performed a comedic skit for our faculty meeting when we encouraged more class visits. Then we followed the skit with a few timely emails reminding people to take advantage of the new Faculty 2 Faculty program. Though we pitched the program as something that can happen at any time--and it has--we found that with an email reminder, we got a much higher rate of visitation. These visits set off a chain reaction where those who were observed decided to return the favor, either later that day or the next.

2. Build in reflection

Understanding that reflection is instrumental in improving performance, we created a fun card (see below) that teachers fill out when they attend another class. The purpose of the card is to celebrate good teaching and write down some actionable takeaways. The observing teacher writes, 3 ideas, 2 questions, and 1 complement. They then submit the card to the observed teacher. This ensures that both teachers reflect (double the Professional Development!).
Reflection cards from an organized "Faculty 2 Faculty" day
3. Promote conversation

These reflection cards facilitated conversation between faculty members because the observing teacher had to exchange the card with the observed teacher. This proved particularly effective for professional growth because both teachers were learning together from the observation, the reflection card, and the conversation. The Faculty 2 Faculty program has been successful because teachers converse on equal footing. The visit is not an evaluation between a boss and her subordinate. It’s a collaborative process that benefits both people involved. In the same way that our dedicated Faculty 2 Faculty days created a chain reaction of visitation, so do these conversations. More often than not, the observing teacher invites the observed teacher to return the favor. 

The feedback we’ve received about this program has been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers genuinely want to improve their craft, and they recognize classroom observations as way to do so. Teachers are thankful that this program gives a fun, low-stakes way to observe colleagues. And we’re thankful for the pedagogical conversations, the collaboration, and the excitement that it generates in our community. 

November 26, 2017

Decentralizing the Technology Integration Department with "Tech Deputies"

In the last decade, schools have contributed significant resources to educational technology in an effort to improve instruction and to prepare students for a rapidly changing workforce. Schools have created new positions, or entirely new departments, for technologically savvy faculty members to act as liaisons between teachers and technology departments and to act as integrators of new educational technology software. In theory, for that faculty member or department to succeed--to integrate technology fully--they would have to run themselves out of a job. In other words, they would have to train a technologically savvy faculty, which in turn, wouldn’t need a specialist. So how do we get there?

Our Tech Deputies and their specialties in the Faculty Lounge

The Tech Deputy Solution

At Flint Hill, one unique way we--in the Technology Integration Department--have chosen to train our faculty is by deputizing additional members of our faculty. Two years ago, we started a new program where we recognized technologically savvy members of each department called “Tech Deputies.” Instead of having to answer every educational technology question ourselves, we could outsource it to the Tech Deputies in each department. As the Tech Deputies taught their peers, we hoped the amount of technologically literate teachers would increase. Additionally, by starting this program within departments, we hoped it would encourage departmental teams to try new things knowing they had support from within the department.

Interestingly, one of the greatest successes of this program is that we really didn’t know what was going to happen, so we pitched it as a fun idea to recognize some faculty members that are leading in the area of educational technology. That turned out to be the greatest strength of the program. The first time we met, one member thought it’d be funny to call the group, “Tech Deputies.” Of course, the title was about all we could do for them, there was no compensation involved, and they were doing us a huge favor.

Using humor as a buy-in, the deputies met with us biweekly to help us identify complications and prepare for tricky technological projects in the future. When we pitched the program to the rest of the faculty they laughed too. But it worked. The faculty was happy to recognize their peers who had gone out of their way to help out in the past and signed up to continue to do so with nothing more than a humorous (yet meaningless) title.

In the first year alone, we saw many unintended benefits grow out of this program. Our Help Desk staff saw a decrease in tickets for simple troubleshooting, like connecting to projectors or issues with Apple TVs. Our Tech Integration Specialists received fewer questions about how to use the CMS (Content Management System) and basic GAFE (Google Apps for Education) issues, which allowed for more and deeper conversations about pedagogical and instructional strategies being used in the classroom. With regularly scheduled check-ins, we successfully created a network within our faculty to learn from one another. It also allowed for a forum to explore topics beyond the scope of tech integration where we discussed institutional deficiencies and how we as a team could approach them and support each other. Finally, it led to a lot of fascinating interdisciplinary connections and opportunities.

The Tech Deputy Solution: Year Two

Continuing with our planned obsolescence mission, in year two we expanded the amount of Tech Deputies from one per department to anyone interested. Several people willingly signed up to join, again with no incentive other than this silly title. Building off of our success with humor in year one, to ensure buy-in from the faculty, we created playing cards. The cards display department, location, “specialties”, “interests,” and a humorous narrative (see below).

We unveiled these cards at a faculty meeting to highlight which Tech Deputy faculty members should see if they need technological help. And we encouraged faculty members to see deputies if they wanted to try a new application or streamline a classroom technological process. Once again, the biggest reaction we received from these cards was laughs, but those laughs have turned into questions that faculty members ask Tech Deputies all the time, in meetings, in the hallways, via email, etc. Once again in year two, the Tech Deputy program has made a huge difference for us in the Tech Integration Department and in the IT Department.

Having introduced our new and expanded lineup of deputies, we then posted the cards on a corkboard in the faculty room so that teachers will always know who they can go see if they have technological questions. The colored thread stretches from each Tech Deputy to his/her “specialties,” the applications that he/she uses and would like to help others use as well. Want to add exit tickets to your class? See Mr. Uher to teach you Go Formative. Want help with Google Classroom? See Ms. McKain, she’s an expert.

The Tech Deputy Solution: Applying Our Success

First, we intend to continue to increase the number of Tech Deputies on our team. We’d like everyone to feel comfortable enough to be considered a Tech Deputy. We also hope to apply the success of this program to our students, and to other areas of student life at Flint Hill like Diversity and Inclusion, Advisory, and Instructional Support.

November 19, 2017

A Case Against Rubrics

In the last two school years, I've taught a project-based learning course in the History Department called Contemporary World History and a personalized learning course in the Innovation Department called Disruptive Innovation through Social Media. Educational leaders have heralded these types of courses as innovative because they encourage individual agency, strong research, problem solving skills and real-world application. But in practice, I've found that students aren't prepared for these innovative courses. As a result of education's obsession with comprehensive rubrics and completion points, students are more concerned with graded outcomes rather than process and self-discovery. Consequently, many teachers have been dissuaded from developing innovative courses or, even worse, they have brought rubrics into these courses, which defeats the purpose.

More and more, our students want to be told what they have to do and how to do it in order to get an A on an assignment. That's what success looks like to them, as it will give them their best chance to get into a selective college. Teachers rely on rubrics to make grading fair and efficient. They're a great way for teachers to protect themselves from students or parents angry about a grade. And when the stakes are high, teachers don't want to be the person standing between a student and her grade.

Rubrics in Education

Rubrics make for less subjective grading; either the student did something or he didn't. Easy. Objective grading allows teachers to easily defend the grades they're giving. Teachers have even adapted rubrics for traditionally subjectively graded assignments like essays. For example, does a student have a certain number of quotations? Even when evaluating something complex, like analysis, the difference between an outstanding paper and an average paper is represented by a one-column difference in said category, and with some rubrics, that might carry only a one word difference ("excellent" analysis vs. "good" analysis). Regardless, a teacher just has to circle a few of the rubric categories and voila! Done grading.

This is not to say that all rubrics are bad.  They can be useful to make the teacher's expectations clear to a student and push him to do more. In other words, they can be helpful in evaluating effort. But when students are working to complete a rubric, they're extrinsically motivated. We want to encourage intrinsic motivation as well.

Another way to think about this problem is with student homework completion. A student is more likely to complete an easy assignment than a hard one; he's more likely to complete a straightforward assignment than a creative or open-ended one. That's because we've reduced grades to the most straightforward measurement possible: checking boxes on a rubric. Students know that a teacher will tell them exactly what they need to do to get an A. And that's what we're getting back from students: "I'm going to do what I have to do to check these boxes, and no more." We're pushing them towards that lowest common denominator attitude.

Beyond Rubrics in Education

By the time students get to my course, they've lost their intrinsic motivation to learn, their creativity, and their understanding of the real world outside of education. In both my project-based and personalized learning courses, I have to teach students how to unlearn traditional school, and embrace a new style of learning that I want going on in my classroom.

Creative, open-ended projects where students have choice confront many of the problems described above. Students have to think for themselves, set their own goals, and learn something that they care about. This type of student agency leads to better, more meaningful projects and increases retention. Students won't be turning in the same project meeting the same requirements; they will be defining their own.

Now that we've thrown out the rubric, the question becomes how to assess this style of learning. I submit the coaching model as a solution. As long as teachers ask the right questions to learn from the student what he's doing, why, and how. It then becomes easy to provide feedback and steer the student in the right direction. One consistent question I ask in my personalized learning class is, "How will I know if you're learning?" Asking that type of question, that encompasses an opportunity for self reflection, should be enough for a teacher to know if a student is truly putting in effort and learning in the course. Only with this style of assessment and feedback is it fair for a teacher to say that a student "exceed expectations," a term that ironically appears in many teacher rubrics.

Project-based and personalized learning courses that are evaluated in this manner emulate what our students will do in the real world. Workers that just complete the tasks of a rubric, or training manual, are low in demand and paid little; in the future, box-checking jobs will be automated. Instead, we want to train workers that are intrinsically motivated learners with strong communication and creative-thinking skills. Finally, we want to prepare our students to be resilient in the face of constructive criticism. This is a tough lesson to teach in schools, but it's made tougher when students work off a teacher's rubric, rather than defining their own projects and metrics of success.

Ultimately, we're trying to change student attitudes from "what do I have to do" to "what do I get to do." We're working to train creative, lifelong learners, who break the mold. We can't do that when teachers are grading them with a mold.

November 5, 2017

Pushing back on the STEM Craze

Schools all over the country are spending a disproportionate amount of time and resources trying to build up STEM programming at the expense of crucial humanities education. This approach is no doubt driven by the statistics promising bright careers for STEM graduates: According to the US Department of Commerce, over the last decade, STEM occupations grew 24% while non-STEM field grew by just 4%. And they're going to grow by 9% from 2014-2024, versus non-STEM growing by just 6.4%. This week, New York Times pointed out that the vast majority of the available jobs come in the "T" of the STEM field, notably in computing (the article also noted a $70,000 median base salary for computer science majors over five years). To be sure, statistics like this prove that there's good reason for schools to be proactive about teaching computer science and robotics.

However, schools should not push STEM at the expense of other educational pursuits--most crucially our students' communication and critical thinking skills developed through humanities education.  The erosion of these skills comes at the worst possible time, corresponding with a shift in the way people connect with each other and understand the world around them thanks to technology. For example, never before has the country been so politically divided with its citizens stuck in echo chambers often duped by hyper-partisanship and misinformation.

It's no secret that the country is becoming more and more politically polarized, and that polarization is making us more stressed.  This past week, the American Psychological Association also concluded that "nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, slightly more than perennial stressors like money (62 percent) and work (61 percent)." And "when asked to think about the nation this year, nearly six in 10 adults (59 percent) report that the current social divisiveness causes them stress." Some of this polarization is no doubt caused by changes brought by technology. Advances in technology, and especially social media, result in users becoming stuck in echo-chambers, whether willfully or as a result of algorithms, in which they are not exposed to ideas contrary to their own. The nation is polarized and the two poles are not being forced to engage with one another civilly.

Students, too, are feeling the effects of the intersection of technology, polarization and stress. Over the past few years, I've noticed (and have recently written about how) our students don't converse face-to-face anymore when it comes to controversial issues. Like many adults, they'd rather have it out behind screens in social media applications than in the classroom. As I have argued, it is our job as educators to draw students into in-person conversations. (I have noticed my colleagues tend to shy away from these controversial conversations, whether out of fear of parents or administrators, or an unwillingness to have difficult exchanges.)

These problems in our schools--echoed nationally--are the product of advances in technology. Carefully orchestrated reward systems (that work exceedingly well on teenagers) keep us hooked on our apps. And, algorithms coded behind closed doors push us the information we want to hear.  But neither of these creations by coders has helped us become more informed citizens, quite the contrary.

As schools continue spending time hiring computer science and engineering teachers, adding STEM classes to the curriculum, and providing technology-based professional development for teachers, we're missing a problem that's right in front of us. We need to invest just as much time and resources into revamping our humanities curriculum, providing professional development for teachers to encourage them to host tough conversations, and working to bring our parents in on these conversations. That's the only way we can push back against our current politics of division, hatred, and fear. Face-to-face conversations where students, parents and teachers have to listen to understand one another's opinions will go a long way.

At a very fundamental level, our obsession with STEM education reflects the capitalistic urges of our schools. We want our students to be prepared for the workforce, poised to make money and benefit our country. But at what cost? Our tech companies are booming, making billions and billions of dollars. Our democracy on the other hand, is far from stable.

I am not arguing that we shouldn't teach STEM. But we have to be able to do that and teach the humanities. We can't graduate STEM students without them understanding, and prepared to address, the moral and ethical problems created by technology in the past decade.  We need students who value and seek an exchange of diverse ideas. We can't graduate citizens that don't know how technology is mining their data, taking advantage of their emotions, misinforming them, and dividing them. We need citizens that have the critical thinking and communication skills that can push back against the current state of technology and politics that's dividing us. This comes from humanities education. Now is not the time for educational leaders to overlook the value of humanities education just because STEM promises paying jobs to our graduates.

What's at stake here is the strength of our democracy through one of democracy's most important institutions (education) and its most important members (the youth).

October 19, 2017

OESIS 2017 Talk: Passion-Based Learning through Social Media

I presented a "Class of the Future" at the OESIS Conference in Boston on my Innovation Department elective called "Disruptive Innovation through Social Media."

This is the second year that I've had the privilege of presenting to this conference of educators thinking critically about online and blended learning. Both times I've presented at OESIS, I've benefitted form connecting with a ton of solid educators who want to collaborate beyond the conference. A week after OESIS, my class collaborated with an English class from Greenhill School in Texas. And two weeks after the conference, I connected with two Computer Science teachers at Winchester Thurston school in Pittsburgh to help me with my website. I've also spoken to an administrator from Indian Creek School in Crownsville, MD about a faculty cohort model. Finally, I discussed digital citizenship with the Academic Technology coordinator at Princeton Day School in NJ. All of these connections have pushed me to become a better educator.

Even if you missed OESIS and some of the great collaboration opportunities I described above, you can still see my talk here: 

October 7, 2017

Controversial Conversations Belong in the Classroom, Not Online

Last week, I wrote about the problem teens are having discussing controversial political issues in school. TL;DR: they're not. They're having these conversations online, almost exclusively. I had a few interesting responses confirming some of my points that I'd like to highlight before getting into solutions.


The teenagers who responded to my post agree.  So much so that it makes me think the issue is worse than I thought. For example, I heard that when teenagers have controversial conversations online they are almost always discussing with people that they don't talk to in person. And these online interactions don't drive them to meet and talk face-to-face. Sometimes the next day they'll connect through intermediaries or through the rumor mill, but not to clarify or further discuss, face-to-face, what was typed.

I heard a unique story from a student that exemplifies the problem. She told me she knew of two friends who sat together while they engaged in a political conversation online; one student researched information, and the other tweeted their opinions bolstered by the researched information. Clearly these students were suffering from confirmation bias, carefully cherrypicking facts to "win" an argument. This emulates the national conversations we're seeing online. Unfortunately, both in our schools and nationally, conversations have become zero-sum games in which one party wins and one loses.


First, as I mentioned last week, this country needs to have more political conversations face-to-face. Second, we need to dispel the notion that there's always a winner and a loser in political conversations. Finally, as teachers, we need to create spaces and establish relationships where all students, whatever their politics, feel comfortable expressing their opinions in our classrooms.

Before I try to prove the thesis above, I'd like to admit that I'm no expert on this. I could spend the whole school year working with colleagues and going to conferences to help me lead better political conversations in the classroom, and I still wouldn't be an expert, especially in the current political climate. This is a tough issue, but it's one we need to address.

That said, I feel strongly that the first--and perhaps most important--solution is to flush students out of their online spaces and force them to have political conversations face-to-face. There's power in body language and tone. As I mentioned last week, these conversations promote empathy and understanding. And when these conversations happen in groups, even those who aren't speaking affect the content of the conversation through their mere presence and their physical reactions. Online, the loudest and often most extreme voices dominate conversation and push out those who hold opinions in the middle. But in a group conversation, participants can physically see reactions from those in the middle, even if they aren't speaking. And that matters.

This past week, I tried to put that into practice by hosting a student forum on a political controversy at my school related to what symbols could and could not be displayed in our senior lounge. This issue closely mirrored the problems I detailed in my post last week where students had already interacted in small groups of like-minded individuals but had never talked in person with those who disagree. Before the forum, three different students independently expressed to me that they thought the forum would get out of control or "rowdy." I patiently explained to them that I knew for a fact that it would not because I know the power of face-to-face conversation. They were right about the fact that lots of students with opinions showed up, but I was right that it did not get rowdy or even loud. It was civil.

Students adhered to my discussion guidelines, chose their words carefully, listened to each other, and treated each other with respect. The extreme position didn't monopolize the conversation. Because we sat in a big circle, everyone had an impact on the direction and outcome of the conversation, whether they spoke or not. And what was valued and respected in the forum was exactly what we teach daily: things like using evidence to support opinions, disagreeing civilly, asking for clarification, sharing the speaking time, and not raising voices. In the end, a number of students asked me to host more student forums; not only is it good for us as teachers, but it's good for the students, and they desire it. This experience proved to me that face-to-face conversations with adults present is indeed the best model to cover controversial issues.

One best practice that was integral to the success of the forum and to political conversations in general is establishing ground rules, the most important of which is that discussion is not a zero-sum game. Discussion is collaboration, not competition. We do it to better understand each other, not to defeat each other. Unfortunately, cable news (and social media) aren't helping us with this message. Nevertheless, a small reminder from a teacher goes a long way because it sets parameters and expectations for participants to work together for deeper understanding rather than to clash the way cable news guests do. I also push students to use "yes, and" statements, to validate or at least acknowledge someone's point before disagreeing, and to ask questions. These rules help create an atmosphere of empathy where people feel like they can be heard and understood.

Finally, it's imperative that everyone feel comfortable expressing their opinion. While this sounds easy, it's definitely the hardest solution in this post. Often classrooms are skewed politically, and every teacher--whether they admit it or not--has their own political biases that can be hard to manage. Again, with face-to-face conversations and the proper rules, the political makeup of the class shouldn't dictate the outcomes because everyone will be heard and understood.

In this forum, a group of conservative students waited until the forum was over to meet with each other to express opinions that they wouldn't share with the whole group. It echoed the problems we're having with online conversations, where students only want to talk to like-minded individuals. When this occurred, I immediately joined the group and asked why they wouldn't speak up in the forum. Long story short, they were afraid people would disagree. I honestly don't have an easy solution to this. I trust students would agree that we created a safe place for students to speak and disagree civilly. Regardless, we need to identify and support the groups that hold different opinions so that we can hear them in the public forum. This requires all of our teachers to seek out and engage in conversations that they might otherwise avoid.

Again, I'm no expert, but I am willing to work at this and I hope this post has convinced others to do the same. This past summer, I taught a class called Mass Media where political conversations naturally arose from our critique of the current media landscape. Trust me, they weren't all smooth. Nevertheless, to this day, the students continue exchanging messages and have asked me several times to host a Google Hangout so we could continue having political conversations together. This past week on our Google Hangout, after we discussed kneeling during the national anthem and solutions to gun violence, I asked them if any of their current high school teachers host similar conversations in their classroom. Not one of the six students said yes.

We need to empower a new generation of informed citizens who know how to articulate their opinions, how to listen, and how to empathize. That starts in our schools.

September 25, 2017

Private Twitter and Snapchat: the New Facilitator for Controversial Conversations in High School

In the last few years, I've witnessed the growth of social media as a tool for students to express controversial opinions in high schools, a trend that teachers, administrators, and parents need to be more proactive about addressing.

This blog post from Jodi Pickering inspired me to articulate my own thoughts on student conversations on social media. Her post, titled Red State, Blue State, is about her pen pal's project from students in schools with drastically different political bends. It's a great assignment, and a post worth reading. But I want to reflect specifically about this line buried in the penultimate paragraph, "I am told that there was a long group Snapchat last night, but no one will give me specifics. They exchange looks that imply that the details are not something I want to know."

I've been in that same position, where I know students have seen or expressed controversial opinions on political and social issues on social media, and I'm not privy to the details. This makes those controversial topics hard to cover in my classroom for a number of reasons. First, we're not all starting from the same point. In terms of what's been posted, some students know more than others, and all of them know more than I do. Second, it means that many of the students have already taken sides on any given issue via those online posts that have already occurred. Most of them know where their classmates stand before anyone has answered a question or offered an opinion in class. When students have already voiced support for a side and know they have support, it's harder to listen to others, compromise or change opinions.  And other students are less likely to engage a student who has already staked out a position.

Fundamentally, I believe students should have as many controversial conversations as possible face-to-face and--if we can swing it--with an adult present. I feel fortunate that that's how I learned how to articulate opinions supported by evidence, how to debate, and how to disagree civilly. Through conversation, I figured out how I felt about contentious issues. After all, it's essential to productive conversation to be able to witness someone's facial expressions, see them process information, and hear their tone. Those conversations promote empathy and understanding. And it's crucial to have an informed mediator present to help facilitate a fair and civil conversation. If those conversations take place in the classroom, teachers can push students to use evidence and find common ground. But that's not what's happening.

Instead, students are using Snapchat and private Twitter to discuss controversial issues. Here's how that tends to go: something controversial happens at school or in the world. For example, a student (or group of students) takes a stand on the issue in a public setting or in a public post of their own. Then other students react to it by responding to the individual or posting their own commentary to the individual's post. On Snapchat, that can happen semi-publicly with Snapchat stories or privately with Snapchat groups. On Twitter, that often happens via "private Twitter"--smaller Twitter networks where students only follow their close friends and only let their close friends follow them.

Here's one example to help you understand this process. A campus club did a presentation on Flint's water crisis where they mentioned and explained the term "environmental racism." Before the students arrived at my class five minutes later, there was already a meme circulated on Twitter and Snapchat by students who ridiculed the concept of environmental racism and their classmates who worked to raise awareness, writing "the trees are racist."

When this happened, I was incredibly disappointed. First, I was upset with the content of the post. It showed students were ill-informed and unwilling to listen to their peers and become informed.  Second, I was upset by the us vs. them mentality that resulted from the meeting and was enhanced by the posts. Before anyone had considered the topic thoughtfully, each student had staked a position by  "liking" the post.  It's hard to get students to reconsider their position through instruction and discussion once they've connected themselves to the cause on social media. Third, I was upset that this all happened digitally rather than face-to-face. Digital interaction allows students to run to their own polarized network with friends who are more likely to support them. And finally, I was upset that no adults in the building were aware of these posts, let alone hosting a conversation to help students articulate their opinions (in more than just a meme-style post) and respond to one another civilly. This whole event makes me wonder how frequently these topics come up and are hashed out online amongst our students without us adults having any idea it's happening.

Unfortunately, there are a number of other triggers that make students gravitate towards networks of like-minded peers to address contentious issues, all of which are bad for our school community.  For example, sometimes our school rolls out a policy that students disagree with and post about online. Our school has shut down student T-shirt ideas, modified themed dress-down days, and opposed national political decisions; these actions have resulted in angry, uncivil posts where students blame others (usually via subtweet) for being the reason something got changed or shut down. Other times, these controversies come from national politics or current events, for instance from Snap's Discover feature.

No matter how these controversial conversations start, having them online is dangerous to our school community. Obviously these online conversations are polarizing in a way that echoes the national problem social media has exacerbated; like-minded individuals are talking to one another. But even within polarized networks, disputes handled online often result in the loudest, most extreme voice being amplified. Online there's little room for complexity or nuance. It's not like people who have a complex understanding of a topic are eagerly posting in private Twitter. Private Twitter is for clashing through 140 characters or less. That often results in the loudest, most extreme, but often unreasoned, voices being amplified with "likes" even if those liking the post don't agree with it in its entirety. On the other hand, in face-to-face conversations--even those with like-minded individuals--the extreme statements get tempered by the group, by facial expressions, by tone, and by additional information (and space for more characters) that highlights the complexity of the issue.

More recently, my school (and many others) has been dealing with another controversial topic: national anthem protests. Once again, students express their disagreement with protesting students this online. Obviously, students who choose to sit during the national anthem or pledge of allegiance haven't been asked by others face-to-face about why they sit. Instead, other students make assumptions and post their opposition in networks where only like-minded friends can see their posts. Opposing groups' seeing each other's posts often doesn't result in a conversation, just polarization.  This is all happening as I write this.  How will schools address the problem? I'll attempt to solve this with a future post.

August 16, 2017

My EdTech Evolution: From Substitution to Redefinition

When I started teaching in 2010, I was all about integrating technology into my classroom, but as my career has progressed, I think very differently about just what that means. At first, I was using applications and the internet for engagement to substitute for traditional instruction. But I now use technology almost exclusively for lifelong learning and career readiness.

Fortunately, early in my career I worked at a school that allowed me a lot of autonomy in my classroom, which inspired me to try a lot of things--technologically speaking--that I might not have otherwise. I ran a BYOD classroom, where students knew they'd be asked to try new things and be assessed in untraditional ways. I tirelessly scoured Twitter's #edtech and #sschat hashtags for new applications and cool projects.

One of my early projects was a Twitter project on the founding fathers where I gave each one of my students a founding father and had them play him on Twitter. We read the federalist papers, and the students had to react if they were one of these founding fathers. This is a good example of how I was only using technology as a substitution for traditional learning. While it might not have been as much fun, I assume my students would have learned the federalist papers and their implications similarly had we held as discussion or a simulation.

Projects like that made me excited about the possibilities of using social media for learning (hence the title of this blog), so naturally, I took it to it's next logical step. I decided to run my entire class off of Facebook in 2011 when Facebook allowed users to join groups without being friends. When I ran this project, I wrote a long blog post on it here, so I'll spare you all the details to just say, it went really well for quite a few months (like all great methods of running a classroom, eventually the students got tired of it.). Nevertheless, it had a few distinct advantages: 1) I was the first person to reach the students in the evening when I assigned homework and 2) It was perfect for collaborative work. But what was most useful is that it acted like a discussion board when we weren't discussing in person. In the evenings, we could have "academic" conversations about what was going on in the worlds or at my school. Nevertheless, most--but not all--of these conversations were driven by me, the teacher. But there was one example that changed my thinking about technology.

The best experience on Facebook groups was when we had a digital conversation after Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. For whatever reason, a number of my students ran to my Facebook group to talk this through. I wish I could always be present for conversations when important/controversial news breaks. Students need and want to have an adult present who is informed and can act as a mediator/fact-checker for tough conversations (especially political ones).

Though I didn't realize it at the time, it was this experience that pushed me to keep using technology--and specifically social media--in my classroom. While many of my other attempts to integrate technology were simply me adding technology to an existing lesson or method of instruction, this was different. I was changing the way students consumed, and thought critically about the world around them. In this way, I had created a space where learning could be continuous and it would span more than just classroom topics.

Perhaps the best way to think about my technology integration is with Dr. Ruben Puentedura's SAMR model. His model pushes teachers to shoot to go up the SAMR chart from Substitution to Augmentation to Modification to Redefinition. With my early technology project, I was on level 1, S, Substitution. But that one experience on Facebook taught me that I can reach the, R, Redefine with social media.

Since then, in my quest to "redefine" learning, I've tried to set up spaces like the Facebook groups I started back in 2011 where students pursue learning outside their classroom and seek discussion where they can opine, consider and synthesize information. This has forced me to write new courses, create new resources and eschew a lot of the traditional curriculum that schools are still teaching. I've currently landed on a class called "Disruptive Innovation thru Social Media" that has students build personalized learning networks where they can consume information related to their interests. I've helped them build professional networks where they can consume information and converse about that information with an informed following. You can read a little more about my effort to teach social media here. Long story short, I'm trying to recreate my Facebook groups experience and make it self sustaining for my students.

But perhaps most importantly, I'm also trying to raise digital citizens who learn, curate, create, share and collaborate in digital spaces with informed users. This helps students develop passions about which they are informed and it helps them build a positive digital portfolio--one that will help them become an informed professional in a network that they're interested in.

This transition from substitution to redefinition has taken me a number of years and a number of failures, but this growth has totally changed how I see secondary education. Now I spend less time in #edtech and #sschat and more time in #digcit and #medialiteracy. I hope that in writing about my #edtech evolution, other teachers can bypass a lot of those years of experimentation and failure, and move up the SAMR model quicker and with a purpose that it took me a while to find.