The Civility and Civics Of Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia. I argue with anyone who says it is bad, and I’ve even created a document to help teachers use Wikipedia effectively with their students.

There is something special about this giant collective work and the community that has helped create it. I often think about the authors and editors and how they arrived at the decision to give up their time to share their knowledge.

This morning @Braddo tweeted a link to a post on Big Think about Wikipedia and its community. Here is a quote from the transcript.

… I think it would be wonderful to make as part of the curriculum from, say, sixth grade onward part of your task and what you’ll be graded on is to edit and make the case for your edits to an article on a service like Wikipedia and then we’ll have new ranks of people being supervised by teachers who are working on the articles and on the product and that maybe even will apprentice to the norms by which you have an argument over what is true and what isn’t. And maybe some of them will choose to continue on as Wikipedians even after the assignment is over.

 I have proposed authoring or editing Wikipedia articles as school projects many times. I’m guessing this is not such an innovative concept now that Wikipedia is 14 years old. What I like about this proposal is the last bit.

So to me if I think of an advanced civics class, it’s great to learn that there are three branches of government and X vote overrides a veto, but having the civics of a collective hallucination like Wikipedia also be part of the curriculum I think would be valuable.

We would be teaching Civics for citizens of an online world. 

So go take a look, and scroll past the write-up to the comments, where one reader offers advice for teachers willing to take on the challenge.

Training Vs. Professional Development

I have a really fun job. I provide professional development and training to teachers, often embedded in the classroom teaching model lessons, co-teaching, or just stopping by to help everyone troubleshoot. I also help teachers in one-to-one appointments during the school day, in brief after-school sessions, and in long format sessions over the summer.

Is there a difference between providing training and providing professional development? Absolutely! Training is all about how to do things: click here, drag there, type this, do that. Professional development is about why we should do things: pedagogy, mission, philosophy, ethics. For the most part, it is very easy to train. Sequencing events or procedures is not extremely hard, when working with teachers who are comfortable with technology as most of our teachers already are. Providing professional development requires a very different approach because the process often involves changing teachers’ attitudes, both towards their students and the technology I’d like them to use.

I always make an effort to provide both training and professional development in a balanced approach when I work with teachers. I don’t just show teachers how to use a new tool. I point to how the tool can be used to solve an instructional difficulty the teacher might have or how it can help us meet our goal of providing deeper learning opportunities for students. Of course, there are issues that rely solely on training, and for those I try to push out some help using a handout or a video on my blog. The clearest recent example is the simple fix for a misbehaving Mail app on our laptops. There is no benefit to any student from a teacher knowing why or how to do this, and the DIY approach will save teachers the effort of walking to my office. But, when working with teachers to adopt something that the students will use, I have to be face-to-face with teachers, or in an extended interactive online class. This is why we have our firm two-hour minimum tech class requirement for all our teachers. 

Of course the tech team can make tutorials on how to use Garage Band. We could even grab some ready-made videos off a million different places and email those to teachers. We could have every teacher making amazing podcasts about their cats and their favorite recipes in no time. The challenge lies in changing the way teachers approach students’ role in education. Instead of lecturing day after day, allow students to formulate and answer questions, and share their findings with the rest of the class via serialized podcasts. We could write lengthy articles (like this blog post) with lots of tables and citations, but text doesn’t always convey messages like personal interactions do. Just like teachers in classrooms, we, as providers of professional development, need to read our audience and see the light dawn in teachers’ eyes.

This post I read recently asks whether we should train first and provide professional development later. The author and I agree that the two should go hand in hand. Not doing this would be a disservice both to teachers and students. Otherwise…

…training without professional development could just lead to poor teaching being delivered faster and more efficiently. While training should certainly be part of the equation, it should take a back seat to professional development. When it comes to education technology, pedagogy should be the driver and technology the accelerator — otherwise, technology will simply end up being the brake.

Reading Is an Evolving Skill

I am always interested in research that gives me real information about opinions I have formed based on anecdotal evidence. For example, I read an article in The New Yorker yesterday about the nature of online reading. I had blogged about some of the issues years ago*, and had concluded that the problems or benefits would continue to evolve. I’m glad serious people are devoting time to the changing relationship between text and people.

If you are a teacher in a school going through a digital conversion**, you might want to take a look at the article. There are lots of ideas to think about. For example:

  • kids must be taught to read differently because comprehension and retention seem to be closely related to self-control (This is the part that goes immediately back to my old blog post linked above)
  • kids who are avid gamers seem to deal better with on-screen distractions
  • all readers, young and old, need to make a conscious effort to read rather than skim. This one seems to be more of a problem with scrolling as opposed to flipping digital pages.
  • sometimes it might be a good idea to take a device offline when reading lengthy texts
As the article says, online reading is new. We’ve been reading ink on surfaces for centuries, and we have learned to cope both as writers and readers. This new trend is not going away and we won’t really understand what is happening to our eyes, our bodies, and our brains for many years. We just have to wait and read on.


*Why am I surprised that I can say “years ago” when I refer to a blog post I wrote? I guess before coming to Goochland I never thought I’d ever do any writing. Now I have eight years worth of blog posts and three books. I’m so thankful to have this ongoing record of my work and reflections.

**I’m not fond of this term since, to me, it says we are taking all the old stuff, making PDFs, and not really changing how we do school.

About the Author

Ms. Kass and her students are making books about plant and animal cells on their iPads. They are using SketchBook and Book Creator to gather everything they are learning through labs and research. The books are going to be great and after Spring Break, we are going to make them available for download.

To make these books more like books, the students will be working in Ms. Ray’s classes to write biographies to use on an “About the Author” page to append at the end of the cell information. Although we are close to the end of the year, during the course of our conversation about rubrics and peer editing, we realized this was a great year-long project, and even a great project to last the full three years of middle school. 

Next year, we will start early. Students will interview each other write each other’s biographies. This will help the kids get to know each other as they come together into a single middle school from three elementary schools. They can use this bio at the end of all their books. But, as the year goes on, kids will have newer accomplishments to mention in their biographies. They will also improve their writing and wish to make changes.

As the kids go on to seventh and eighth grades, they can continue to add accomplishments and revise their writing. Towards the end of their third year in middle school, the kids can compare versions and see how much they have grown, both in their writing and in their lives. These biographies could be used in applications to Governor Schools and for scholarships later on.

I wonder what the effect on the students will be.  Having all their accomplishments written out in front of them will show them how much they have done, and how much they can do when they set their minds to it.

Archie and Veronica Explore the Internet

For the past few minutes, I have been flipping through a copy of Exploring the Internet published in 1999. Surprisingly, I have found the Amazon link. The book is a very interesting stroll down memory lane.

Do you remember Archie and Veronica? How about Lycos, Atavista, and Infoseek? Did you know that Lycos is still in operation? Back in the day, I was a big fan of Infoseek, knew all about Telnet and IRC.

The book is full of names and acronyms that have come and gone over the past two decades. The statistics are hilariously quaint. Did you know that there were 35 million people accessing online content from home in 1998? Did you know they were posting as many as 250,000 articles to Usenet each day? Usenet posts were the nerdy precursors to tweets. How many tweets are tweeted each day?

Despite being hopelessly out of date on the tech front, the book has a lot to offer. The main focus is on finding and using information, a topic in which there is always something new to learn, no matter how much expertise you might have.

I am a firm believer in the mission of this book despite the goofy spider graphic.

Information literacy and digital citizenship must be a part of the recipe in every single learning activity involving any digital tool. They are not the exclusive domain of Language Arts teachers suffering through formal research projects with their students. I might hang on to this book to pull out ideas when I work with teachers.

Technology changes, and it changes teaching. The truth remains that good teaching always covers the most important concepts.

As Captain Picard Might Say…

When I tweet, I feel like I’m talking to myself and my words will simply come back to me in perpetuity as Timehop entries. Yesterday, my name was mentioned in a tweet and I got notifications about it all afternoon.


Dr. Gretz picked up that quote when I was discussing Phillip Schlechty’s levels of engagement. What I was saying to my audience was that assuming students are engaged because the classroom is quiet and everyone looks busy is not a good idea. Until you see what the outcome of the work is, you can’t know whether the kids were engaged or not. It is not just about observing the behavior. When students are truly engaged, they care about doing the best they can, not just meeting the minimum requirements set forth in a rubric. If students are constantly asking if the paragraph they wrote is “long enough” and you keep sending them back to their desk, they might be busy, but they are not engaged.

I’ve been pointing to Schlechty’s work for a while when talking to teachers in Goochland because, while we might know what engagement is, he puts it into words that can help teachers reflect upon their practice.

I believe engagement is made up of two separate components.  The first is the relationship between the teacher and the students. If you want your students to be engaged, you have to know them and you have to get along with them. You don’t have to be their friend, but you cannot lead students in learning if you have an adversarial relationship with them. The relationship between the teacher and the students is the main ingredient in the mix that makes up the classroom environment, and a toxic environment discourages collegiality and collaboration, which are so important to learning.

The second component in engagement is thoughtful and carefully planned instruction that is accessible and relevant to all the learners in the group. If tasks are too difficult, students will be frustrated, and if tasks are too easy, students will be bored. Allowing for some choice and creative flexibility lets students find the right combination of their own skills and the challenge in the task to be successful. Notice that there are tasks for the students to carry out. Instruction should be an activity in which the students are doing something, not passively listening or watching.

So how do we get here? Stop lecturing. Embrace project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, plan student-centered activities. Need help? Remember I’m just an email away.




Feedback: Google, TD, and Schoology as Puzzle Pieces

It is funny how sometimes we have to go far away to hear what people nearby are saying. While I was in Ireland last month, I was sitting in a presentation and the following quote was on a slide:

Providing written feedback at the culmination of a writing product is like doing an autopsy. It’s deconstructing a dead document.

The quote was attributed to Samantha Morra (@sammorra on Twitter) who teaches in New Jersey. I usually do not take pictures of slides during presentations. I find that looking at the pictures later, out of context, is not very useful at all. But, in this case, I did hold up my phone and snap because feedback is something I discuss with teachers every single day. And, while this quote is specifically referring to writing, I believe it applies to all projects regardless of the medium or subject area.

When I work with teachers to plan projects, I discourage single due dates. I encourage teachers to break up projects into smaller parts of the process, each with a deadline and maybe even a grade. While we want students to be independent, we have to understand that they are children, students just developing those skills that allow them to be independent. These intermediate deadlines let teachers see where the final result is headed and help correct the course before it is too late to turn the cruise ship around. Of course, the frequency of the feedback and the size of each chunk in which teachers break down projects should be different at each grade level.

The best part of this idea is that we have the perfect collection of tools for students to share their work with us and for us to provide feedback.

Regardless of what your students are working on, the work can be shared with you using Google Drive. In the past, this was a cumbersome process. Now we have Teacher Dashboard that lets teachers access student work very easily without getting lost in piles and piles of shared documents. Once a student creates or uploads any file, teachers have access to observe and comment. While almost anything can be shared via Google Drive, the easiest way to give feedback from within Google is to type comments on the sides of documents.

In addition to these two tools, we also have Schoology. Instead of creating a single final assignment, teachers create multiple assignments in a folder, with the last one asking for the finished product to be turned in. Anything a student has in Google Drive can be turned in via Schoology. And inside Schoology, teachers can give feedback using text, annotations, voice recordings, and video.

Imagine a classroom full of students turning in a particular assignment to you. You write “Great work!” across the page of a bunch of papers. Or you draw a smiley face. Or you simply check boxes in a rubric. You could have done all these without really telling the students what you think of their work. Now imagine a classroom in which you record a ten second audio message telling the student something about their project. Those are not just words on a page. Students can tell you really liked their work, or not. And it takes no longer than typing or handwriting repetitive, mostly meaningless feedback.

As you see, there is a great area where Teacher Dashboard and Schoology overlap, but the tools are both necessary and useful. I have put together a handy cheat sheet outlining the differences and similarities between the two. Below is the portion related to feedback. If you would like the full sheet, I’ve made that available, too.

Now it is your turn to provide some feedback for me.

What do you think of these tools? What can I do to help you incorporate their use into your everyday teaching routine?

Learning the Old-Fashioned Way

School learning is a relatively new development in the history of the world. For hundreds of thousands of years, nobody went to school, and the world did not end. Everything progressed slowly, but I’m sure they will say the same of us in 500 years, right?

How did anyone learn? We learned by doing. But before we could do, we could play. It turns out we can still learn through play.

Yeah! Break out the Angry Birds!

Not yet. There are better games with much more thought and research behind them. You can read about Physics Playground on the Mind/Shift blog from KQED. This is no ordinary game, and the people behind it have put a lot of thought and research into the project. They explain it much better in their own words on their website. Here is what what I found most interesting:


I’ve been known to complain about “educational” games that simply hone fast reflexes behind a thin veneer of content (Cool Math Games,, etc). I wish teachers who let students fritter away their time on these sites would take a more honest look and ask themselves the questions in the above screenshot.



Ideas Worth Sharing, iPad Edition

Yes, I’ve borrowed the TED tagline, sort of. Why not? When you have a good idea, share it.

Apple has put together a small collection of books perfect for our teachers in the iPad 1:1 program who might be looking for lesson ideas that go beyond Google Docs and for teachers who like to check out the shared iPad cart. The books describe lessons that can be adapted to fit different classroom environments. The books are created around specific apps, and luckily, we have all the apps in the collection.

But please don’t restrict your work to this small collection of lessons. If you have a good idea, share it with the rest of the 1:1 teachers. Remember we have the 1:1 Campfire group in Schoology.


Deeper Learning Has Legs

It is easy for educators to sit in a faculty meeting or professional development session seemingly paying attention and nodding along to what they hear while secretly vowing to wait until this new fad passes by. Deeper Learning, however, deserves true commitment from all of us.

A recent study by the American Institutes of Research (AIR) shows that students in schools that adopt and successfully implement Deeper Learning initiatives graduate on time more often. They also had higher rates of acceptance to competitive 4-year higher ed institutions. You can read more about it at the KQED Mind/Shift blog.

I’m sure you have heard Dr. Geyer and Dr. Hendron discuss Deeper Learning. It is a central goal of our iPad 1:1 initiative, as well as our G21 project-based model. Deeper Learning aims to reinforce academic rigor by creating an environment where students apply the content standards they learn across academic fields to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills. This new study provides evidence that our G21 initiative should be implemented across the board, not just with Honors or AP students, which is a common tendency.

The model is often critiqued as a framework that only works for high-achieving learners. The Hewlett Foundation commissioned this study to test whether the model works for all learners, choosing schools with a high proportion of low-income and English-language learners who often face more barriers to achievement. AIR investigators were also careful to choose schools that did not have a selective admissions process that might skew the student population toward high-achieving learners.

What? You “don’t have time for fluffy, fun projects with kids” because you “need to cover the standards before the test” and “snow days will get in the way” if you give this a try? Remembering that covering the standards is the bare minimum and knowing a bunch of facts without knowing how to USE them will not make these kids very successful in the future.

If our mission is to unlock the potential of ALL learners, we need to give Deeper Learning a fair shake and allow ALL students, regardless of the classes on their schedule, the chance to develop skills more important than test-taking will ever be. 

Data-driven Games?

Over the weekend I traveled to an event in Florida and got to talk to Marcelo Stavale Molina very briefly at the end of a session. He is a Brazilian educator and his students do quite  lot with Scratch (link to his Scratch page). He described a game for visually-impaired players developed by 7th graders that I can’t wait to try out. So, I’ve been thinking about the role of programming in problem-solving and creativity all day.

I was skipping from one web page to another earlier today and found this FlowingData website. One of their recent entries links to a very detailed analysis of the frequency of letters in specific positions in words. Since I like playing word games like Scrabble and WordWrap, I had an idea. What if the points awarded by a digital version of Scrabble took into account more than what letters you used? What if we could apply this dataset to a scoring scheme so the value of the letter varied based on the difficulty of placing that letter at the beginning, middle, or end of a word? Imagine assigning a multiplier that either rewarded  you for an uncommon placement, or penalized you for a very common one.

If nothing else, this would be a great example of math in real life. Any takers for this G21 project?

More Than Names and Dates

It is that time of the year when kids are walking down the hall talking about Standards of Learning tests, how they did, and how much they hate this or that.

When I was in high school, I hated history. I remember slogging through an American History class where we had to memorize the dates and names of Civil War battles. It was one of the few tests I failed and didn’t care. I just wanted to move on to a different topic. In college, I signed up for the required History of Western Civilization with nothing short of dread. I walked in the fist day and sat close to the door, ready to bolt as soon as I could. Instead, I ended the semester seriously considering changing my major to History. I have to thank Dena Goodman for making history a fun story, for letting me take a peek at amazing stuff at Hill Memorial Library, and for talking me out of majoring in history.

Of course, since I mentioned the Encyclopédie, you can guess we talked a lot about the French Revolution. That was fun: the scandals, the riots, the atrocities, the fashion, the music, the plays, the poetry… We talked about dates a bit, but those were so minor compared to the big personalities and juicy gossip. It was an incredible time in history, and back then it was not history. It was life.

What if we covered history the way CNN, MSNBC, and Fox cover current events? Clearly those three have people who willingly listen and read. What if students produced news segments about the French Revolution and the decades that led to it to create a collection that could run like an hour’s worth of CNN programming? I think we could pull it off. Of course, we’d have to take insane liberties with some dates since not everything would have happened at the same time…

Head chef at Versailles shares his favorite appetizer recipes

The rich and famous entertain: a visit to Madame de Pompadour

Rameau’s inspiration for his latest chart-topping tunes

An interview Voltaire and Rousseau: their opinions on Shakespeare, constitutional monarchies, and religion

Commercial break – Marie Antoinette’s Cake Bakery

I’m sure the kids could come up with many more ideas by following their own interests. It would be a great way to cover all the content and let each student shine by focusing on what they find most interesting. Once the collection is done, it would become an excellent digital resource for everyone to reference when it is time to review.

Any takers at GHS for next year? I’d love to be a part of this.

Thinking About Citizen Science

I’m currently working on a children’s book about ladybugs, and after collecting video of a larva eating an aphid this weekend, I was trying to find out if ladybug larvae have teeth. In my searching, I ran across something I had heard about before, but forgotten: The Lost Ladybug Project. This, combined with an article sent to me by a friend earlier in the month, made me think this and other citizen science projects could be resources for a really interesting G21 Project next year.

What if kids with iPads went outside a few minutes once or twice a week, or even volunteered time during recess, to document the biodiveristy of the playground? Teachers could create a classroom account on Project Noah and other similar websites. Using LeafSnap, students could learn to tell the difference between oak trees, or even more relevant, between poison oak and ivy. Instead of ordering a butterfly kit from a school supply catalog, students could find their own caterpillars, watch them grow, and document the process.

I have not searched my blog, but I think I’ve written almost exactly the same paragraph above at least once before. This is something I value. It is something important to me. I believe in using the technology kids enjoy to help us better understand and save the ecosystems that keep us alive. I also believe it is important that kids see things outside of books, in real life, to connect school to the outside world.

Note: The ladybug larva is not the cutest bug out there, and watching it eat is not everyone’s cup of tea. I have it here if you would like to see it.

Engagement, Hope, and Caring

How engaged are you with students in your classroom? Do you talk with your students, or do you talk at your students? Do you think your students believe you care about them? How important is any of this?

Goochland High School participated in the Gallup Student Poll last fall. Those of us in charge of logistics rolled our eyes, of course. How many surveys will we have to manage this school year? Despite my eye-rolling, I am glad we participated. It seems there is a lot going on with the data collected at the time. I do not have time to analyze the data myself, but there are smart people doing that, and other smart people writing about the important bits for us. KQED’s Mind/Shift blog has republished a blog post by Anya Kamenetz originally posted at the Hechinger Report.

 Gallup found that students who agreed with the following two statements: 1. “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and 2. “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” were 30 times more likely to be engaged.

Our mission statement expressly states that we are to unlock the potential of every student. Our strategic plan has an entire section dedicated to engagement. And at every faculty meeting at GHS, Mr. Newman encourages us to care for our students, to get to know them and understand them a bit better. He certainly leads by example. Every morning as I walk in the door, Mr. Newman is surrounded by students waiting to talk to him. He knows their names and even a few details of what might be going on with their families.

When you take the time to know your students, it shows you care. If you care about them now, it is more likely you will care about them in the future. If you don’t care about them now, when you see them as often as you do, it is quite certain you don’t care what will happen to them after they leave your classroom. When someone cares, there is hope.

The Gallup survey also attempts to measure hope to find out how it affects student outcomes.

Gallup researchers have found in peer-reviewed studies that their “hope” measure was a better predictor of grades in college than SATs, ACTs or high school GPA. In a third study, students’ levels of hope accounted for almost half of the variation in math achievement and at least one-third of their variation in reading and science scores.

Yeah, that’s nice. How do hope and engagement affect my SOL scores? I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t care, either. As Ms. Kamenetz wrote in a post all about metrics in education.

Tracking outcomes is more complex than reporting test scores. It’s also more relevant.

The Mechanics of Understanding

How do we learn? Pick your favorite answer. We learn by doing. We learn by repetition. We learn by teaching others. We learn by…

We learn when we are challenged and supported, when we have something to aim for and the goal is attainable. We might compare this to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of entering a state of flow.

There is more to it. Being aware that learning is happening and understanding how the learning happens leads to better outcomes. The research on the effects of metacognition is cited liberally in the National Academies Press report on 21st Century Skills.

Yes, it is a huge, dense book. It is full of very useful stuff, but teachers’ time is a precious commodity. And, of course, it is often more effective to cite a notable example involving someone we (or maybe just me?) love.

Joel Achenbach has written a beautiful piece on Carl Sagan for Smithsonian. You can read about his documents at the Library of Congress, the Cosmos reboot, and too many other interesting topics to list here. There are many quotes throughout, all worded in that beautifully-recognizable Sagan style. There is one particular quote that jumped out at me and made me think of teaching and what we are trying to achieve.

I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.


When I think of Carl Sagan, “brilliant” is the first adjective that I assign to him. He did not see himself as brilliant, but he saw this as an advantage. He was aware of what, how, and when he learned, and we are all aware of his achievements and his influence on scientific culture.

As part of our push for Deeper Learning, we must help our students develop metacognitive skills.  A good way to start is to let students talk through their learning. Having students explain how they work through a process is very helpful. In explaining, students have to justify everything rather than guess when they are stuck. And when they are stuck, they have to figure out why, then look for an answer or ask for help. This learning out loud also gives teachers an insight into what has been learned, what has been misunderstood, and what is missing altogether.

If you have access to iPads (and if you are in our school division your answer is probably yes), think about using Explain Everything to let students talk through their learning. The app combines visuals, animation, and audio. Students get the opportunity to listen to themselves and share with others, too. If you have not seen Explain Everything, take a look. If you are interested in using it with your students, let me know. I’m here to help.

My Kids CAN Do That

This year we gave students control over their own passwords for Google Apps. I was a bit worried when we decided this, and we have tools to help teachers manage potential classroom disruptions. I am happy to say this has, for the most part, been a great success. Wherever it has not been a success, I believe we need change some attitudes.

Passwords and user names are not going away just yet. Maybe one day they will. For now, keeping track of these things is a life skill.

Maybe the problem is not in what we want the kids to do, but in how we are framing the conversation. I was reading a blog post by Jennie Magiera in which she addresses a shortcoming in a service she recommends. Her solution is a workaround that requires students to make a selection and remember the name of the group to which they belong. Rather than saying, “kids need to know” where to click, she says students are empowered to make their selection.

Is a word choice really that important? I think so. Kids need to understand the power they will have over their own lives when they know how to do certain things without relying on someone else to give them access.

Learning Through Photography

With all the talk about 1:1 computing coming to Goochland, there has been a lot of talk about inquiry-based approaches to teaching and creativity. We have moved away from discussing what apps to use and towards how to use every feature of every device for the benefit of the students. One of the features I believe is a bit underused is the camera.

Some of you know I have been interested in photography since I was in elementary school, and I devote much of my free time to macro photography with my iPhone. If I had had this as a kid… Ah… The pleasure of having a camera within reach all the time, of taking pictures and seeing them immediately still makes me smile. Our students have this now. Every student in our 1:1 pilot has outstanding photographic tools right there, every day, all day. The iPad is a camera, a darkroom, a photo-editing light table, a portable gallery. We have so many opportunities for teaching students to use photography as art, for communication, and most of all, for exploration.

Of course, having a great tool does not mean we will have 100% beautiful pictures from all kids. We must guide students, and we must learn with them.

Nicole Dalesio has been incorporating photography into her teaching practice for a long time, and she has very helpful advice for all of us in this article published in THE Journal last year.

Dalesio wants her students to learn how to take effective photographs, so she teaches them the “SCARE” principles in a little checklist:
  • Simplify: Get rid of excess objects — the water bottle on the picnic table, the junky papers — that clutter up the background; make the canvas as “blank” as possible.
  • Close/closer: ”A lot of times people take pictures too far away,” explains Dalesio. Get close and closer to your subject. That doesn’t mean using the zoom option; it means “Zoom with your feet.”
  • Angle: Be creative as you’re taking your picture. Try to find an unusual angle from which to shoot. That could mean standing on a picnic table or tree stump and looking down or lying on the grass and shooting up.
  • Rule of thirds: The best compositions are often the ones where the main subject is either in the right third or left third of the image. So shift the image that way.
  • Even lighting. “You want even lighting,” says Dalesio. If there’s some kind of shadow across the face, move the camera or the subject around to eliminate that. “Usually the best time to take pictures is early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the lighting isn’t as harsh,” she notes. “Foggy days are great for taking pictures — or overcast or even rainy days.”

Here is my own advice:

  • Start small. Take pictures inside your classroom. Have kids share their pictures and discuss them in small groups.
  • Look at pictures students see regularly in posters, books, and magazines and discuss what makes them good. Also discuss how they could be better, or more to the kids’ taste.
  • Discuss how different types of photography are intended for different purposes: artistic versus scientific research, documentation versus marketing, etc.
  • Build a collection of student-created images to use in class projects.
  • Give your students an audience. Use your blog, use Edmodo, organize a photo exposition for Back to School Night, share student photographs with the team assembling the school and county newsletters.
  • Most of all, have fun. Let kids follow their own interests and curiosity and feel good about the images they capture.

Of course, as always, I’d love to help. Just email or drop in for a visit.

“Grading” Digital Citizenship

Seeing technology as a distraction rather than a learning tool is ridiculously common. I see teachers struggle with this predicament and I feel an obligation to change their minds. When ball point pens were invented, some schools banned them because… well… I don’t know why. This is something my mother told me about years ago. Ball point pens were new technology and maybe kids would draw mustaches on pictures in textbooks with them. Who knows?

Of course. My job depends on teachers using technology. I have to defend my job. I also have to defend the future of the digital citizens these teachers are shaping.

Technology in schools is not a passing fad. We have transitioned from typewriters and radio, through film strips, television, desktops, laptops, tablets. What’s next? Who knows, and who really cares? We have to adapt or retire, I say. If you disagree, read a bit of Marshal McLuhan’s writings obsolescence and adaptation (Wikipedia link). Technology changes society, and education is an integral part of society. Therefore, education MUST change as technology changes if it is to be relevant.

It all sounds very nice in theory, but we don’t live in theory. We must put this into practice. We must use technology in teaching.

I doubt there is a silver bullet that will eliminate every single incident of misbehavior when using technology. We work with children, and it is perfectly natural for children to get distracted, to push their limits, and to misbehave sometimes. What we can do is guide students in order to minimize misbehavior and help them grow to be good digital citizens. We must set expectations and remind students of those expectations often.

A great way to keep digital citizenship in every students’ mind is to include it as a component in grading rubrics. Grades should reflect academic growth, so any part of a grade that is not related to required learning objectives should be small enough not to be punitive. If a teacher is planning a project worth 100 points, a small portion of that (5-10 points) can be set aside for digital citizenship. Rather than telling students what NOT to do, tell them what will earn the full amount of points:

  • time on task (distraction)
  • responsible use of technology (vandalism)
  • use of appropriate sources (media literacy)
  • collaborative effort (disrespectful or bullying behavior)

Having these on a rubric lets students know that you are serious. It will also prevent a teacher from reacting too harshly and shying away from technology in the future.


Six Years Into G21

Last week, at the VSTE annual conference, I attended a session about project-based Language Arts classrooms. During the Q&A at the end of the session, I mentioned our G21 framework and a project from a teacher at GMS. The teacher next to me listened, and when I finished, she said, “Oh, you guys copied our idea!”

My first reaction was to be offended. We launched our G21 initiative in the fall of 2008. We blogged about it, met with teachers, did a lot of persuading. By the spring semester, John Hendron and I were busy presenting at conferences about our framework and what we were seeing in classrooms. By the end of the year, we had incredible projects to share. By 2010, Henrico launched its own initiative. More recently, Isle of Wight put together its i-sle21 program. I know there are other “(insert your word or letter)21″ initiatives out there that have emerged as we refined our ideas over the past six years.

My second reaction was to think, “Well, this is so good nobody can fathom that a small county like Goochland actually did this!”

I am not sure which school division the teacher represented. I don’t know that it really matters. Who came first, second, or third is not as important as how much of a difference these ideas are making in the lives of students, in Goochland and other counties. I’ll file this under “Fair Use” and  hope the teacher who spoke to me is letting her students really grow and learn in her classroom.

Civil, Polite, Informed

Should we teach our students to tweet? Is tweeting more important than cursive writing? I don’t know. Depends on who asks and when the question is asked. This was my response yesterday.

As I was typing that response to my friend Larry, I was getting ready for a virtual visit by Congressman Eric Cantor. His office contacted our schoola few weeks ago, and we welcomed the chance to offer our students this opportunity to engage in face-to-face conversation with the people they read about as part of their Government curriculum. I took care of the technology and Mrs. Yearout-Patton took care of the students’ participation. We had visitors from Central Office and the event went on without a hitch.

It is part of the Goochland County Public Schools culture that we highlight special events using our well-established online presence. We posted about the event on our GHS page. Dr. Gretz blogged about it. Mrs. Yearout-Patton, Dr. Lane, Dr. Gretz, and I tweeted about it.

We had many positive responses. Then, late last night, there was a tweet from @JoeBobLee about Congressman Cantor’s visit that denigrated our learning activity and insulted our school community. I thought I would just ignore it, but it is not in my nature.

As educators, we expose students to the full breadth of the political spectrum. It is our obligation regardless of our political leanings. In fact, as educators employed by taxpayers, we MUST maintain a neutral environment in our schools. We have hosted Senator Mark Warner, Delegate Lee Ware, and Governor Bob McDonnell over the past three years. I am unaware that we have turned down an offer for an onsite or virtual visit from any politician, Democrat, Republican or anything else.

As educators, we also encourage good digital citizenship. We teach students not to plagiarize. We combat cyber-bullying with special programs and events. We engage our students in collaboration and civil, polite, informed discourse through online tools such as Edmodo, Moodle, and Twitter.

Civil, polite, informed discourse. @JoeBobLee must have been absent the day that was taught at his school.



The 3D Printing Question

I think 3D printing is really cool. The possibilities are endless. I can print my own spare parts, or create my own toys… There have been incredible stories 3D printed bones, or casts to help heal broken bones. There is even a beautiful story about 3D printing helping blind kids “see” their Google search results.

We have 3D printers in Goochland, and I hope to see lots of cool things come out of them. However, I fear 3D printing may turn into a meaningless, routine activity. This would be truly tragic.

Back in early 2012, there were lots of articles about the Smithsonian making 3D-printed replicas of some of its artifacts to lend to other museums. Here is a link to one I read back then. I thought that was really great. I mean, I’d LOVE to see originals in museums, but the practice of displaying replicas of fossils and statues is not new, and 3D printing made this so much more inexpensive and easy. Now there is a new development. The Smithsonian is making the 3D files available for download and printing.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen lots of educators talking about this on Twitter. I know, not everyone has the Smithsonian just 2 hours away like we do. 3D-printed versions of artifacts would be really cool to have. However, once the object is printed, you have to store it. And really, all you did to create it was send the model to the printer. My guess is that it would be a teacher who did this, not a student. So, in addition to transforming printing from “killing trees” to using up resin, how did we improve instruction?

I think it is very generous of the Smithsonian to let us have their 3D models to print in our own classrooms.

I think it would be much more valuable to let students research objects, figure out why they are important, make the case to the class, create their own 3D model, and then print it. In fact, the Smithsonian is already giving us a great starting point with their 100 Objects that Made America. Would your students add any objects? Which of the 100 objects in the book would they replace? Maybe, after researching and deciding as a class, the students could make their own 3D models and have their own museum exhibit. That might be a better learning activity than passing around a piece of plastic.

The Case For Downtime

Last week I read an article in The Atlantic about the importance of daydreaming. The author cites studies and makes the point that giving the brain time to drift from one idea to the next, unprompted, helps cognitive function. In daydreaming, while people appear idle, the brain is fully-engaged in cementing knowledge, making connections, and just practicing invention.

This idea of unstructured thought reminded me of a couple of reports I had heard on NPR long ago. I had to search for them, and was surprised I was still wondering about something I heard on the radio back in 2008. I talked about these reports  for weeks, but never got around to blogging about them. The first report focused on old-fashioned play and the development of executive function. Executive function is the ability to self-regulate.

This was the portion that most impressed me from that report:

We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says, the results were very different.

“Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.”

That’s quite a drop. And, yes, a very sad drop. Here are the implications:

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, “Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.”

I remember thinking, “No wonder some people have issues about ‘kids these days.’” We expect kids to behave in certain ways, but we raise then in environments that don’t support the development of self-regulation.

The second report showcased what can be done to encourage the development of executive function in a world where old-fashioned make-believe play is so scarce. Most of the report focused on a school in New Jersey where students engage in lots of pretend play and activities designed to help them control their impulses. Again, as with daydreaming, this time spent in pretend play, while it seems idle, is crucial. Pretend play helps kids learn to abide by rules without necessarily being subjected to punishment as they learn. 

Ms. LAURA BERK (Psychologist): We often call it free play, but it’s the least free of children’s play context in that children are always during make-believe acting against immediate impulses, because they have to subject themselves to the rules of the make-believe scene. And those rules almost inevitably are the social rules of the child’s cultural world. So that a child pretending to go to sleep follows the rules of bedtime behavior, another child imagining herself to be a parent conforms to the rules of parental behavior, and the child playing teacher asserts the rules of the school and classroom behaviors.

With the push towards higher academic achievement, we have cut out lots of downtime from children’s schedules. We have short recess in elementary and a 25-minute sedentary lunch in secondary. We flip classrooms and make kids spend more time watching videos at home. I know there are schools in surrounding counties where teachers are required to assign daily homework. Now we are discussing year-round school pilots.

Are we paying attention to what all this research shows us? With all our efforts to focus on time-on-task and seat hours, we might be doing more harm than good.



Minecraft and Spatial Thinking

How long has SketchUp been around? My earliest blog post referencing SketchUp is from December 20, 2008, but I know it had been around for a long time before that. I enjoy working in SketchUp, and I have encouraged teachers to use it many times. I always warned teachers and students there would be a steep learning curve and an adjustment to working in three dimensions. Today, however, something clicked.

This morning I was working with students in Mrs. Kass’s Science class on creating zoo enclosures for endangered species. As I did last week in Ms. Curfman’s class, I started our SketchUp project by helping the students build a house. This is a great introduction to all the most commonly-used tools. In the past, I would have to spend a long time discussing what students were seeing on their screens, learning to use the orbit tool, zooming, etc. In Ms. Curfman’s and Mrs. Kass’s classes, the kids jumped right in and started working. Nobody was confused. Nobody ended up looking at their house from underground, trying to figure out how to get back to the top.


As the class was wrapping up and students were putting their computers away, one girl said to another, “It is like Minecraft, but you build with lines instead of blocks.”

There you have it. These kids can navigate virtual 3D spaces effortlessly. It is what they do in their spare time. If we make the most of this spatial thinking ability (see why it is important), if we apply it to creativity and problem-solving, I think we are going to see some interesting things.


Playing = Learning

Last week I attended my son’s Back-to-School night and walked away smiling. His math teacher, Ms. Griffin, spent a long time talking about games and puzzles and very little time talking about SOL tests and homework. At the end of her presentation, she gave us a puzzle for us to bring home to the kids. Can you solve it?

Take eight eights and, using only addition, find a way to make 1000. Don’t Google it. That will ruin the fun.

One particular puzzle tool Ms. Griffin shared with parents were pentominoes. She told us she likes pentomino puzzles because they teach students to step back, think, and try new approaches every time they get stuck. Perfect! It is a great problem-solving habit of mind to acquire, this iterative, creative approach to problems. Ms. Griffin also mentioned spatial reasoning, something that was in the news this summer (at least the news I follow). Researchers at Vanderbilt University had good things to say about spatial reasoning that back up Ms. Griffin’s use of pentominoes in the classroom.

 Exceptional spatial ability at age 13 predicts creative and scholarly achievements more than 30 years later, according to results from a Vanderbilt University longitudinal study, published today in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Yes, I know. I don’t like it when I walk into a room and the kids are playing games on the computers. The thing is, there are games and then there are games. Shoot-em-up games are not the same as BigSeed or Kickbox or Contig, all of which are on our iPads here at GCPS. Good games make players think, not just push buttons faster and faster. Good games teach players to be persistent, to be creative, and most importantly, that there can be many ways of arriving at a solution that does not have a 25% chance of being right if selected randomly from a list. Good games take time to master and lots of thinking. Good games are hard fun.



Craig’s Creative Writing

Yesterday, my very creative friend Tina posted a status update on Facebook in which she commented that Craigslist posts would make interesting book titles. I have to admit I have never visited Craigslist despite all the time I spend online, but the idea sounded really funny. This morning she posted her proposed cover for a book with a title. I love it.


One of the best things about having friends from all over the world who work in so many different fields is that I can borrow their ideas for classroom use. I love ideas that are not in a teacher manual or popular educational website because the possibilities are wide open. Instead of a ready-made rubric or a student sample, you have infinite space to let your mind roam.

Here’s my idea:

Find the item listed on Craigslist, create the cover, and write the first chapter of the book. Or, instead of a book, create the first three minutes of the movie adaptation. Or both. What else can you think of?