Friday, December 28, 2012

The Ignite Show

Education needs more advocates.  Students, teachers, and administrators need more advocates.   The Bammy Awards is one such initiative that is attempting to shine a bright light on the many amazing people in the trenches that are doing great things in the field of education.  Thankfully there are others who are beginning to step up as well.  I recently met Anne Ostholthoff at the inaugural Bammy Awards and have seen first-hand the work she is doing to launch the web based The Ignite Show.  Be sure to check out all the highlights and interviews from the Bammy Awards by clicking HERE.

Anne's interest is to raise the level of public awareness and respect of education, and to engage the voices of teachers and students as part of determining the content they feature. She has asked for our help and I hope that you will do the following to assure we are involved in the kick-start of this worthwhile effort.  Just go to the Ignite Show Website to take a look and then click to help contribute thinking to their efforts.  Let’s help The Ignite Show become a resource that brings awareness to our work and the topics that matter most to you!

Thanks in advance for your help. We all want to move our profession forward, and I believe this effort is working hard to do positive things for us all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Observing the Common Core Classroom

Educators across the country are grappling with the Common Core Standards and the significant changes that have come with them.  Many Districts spent the end of last year and this past summer re-writing curriculum to address the new standards while also spending a great deal of money providing needed professional development to teachers.  With upgraded curricula and the knowledge gained from trainings teachers began in earnest this past September developing lessons to implement and assess the new standards.

With all the hoopla it took me a while to realize that something was missing.  Then it hit me last week as I was conducting an observation in a 10th grade English class.  How do administrators tasked with observing teachers know what they are looking for in a Common Core classroom?   Are students being assessed on the standards to demonstrate conceptual mastery and if so how?  Where is the professional development for administrators?  These essential questions need to be addressed if we are to provide valuable feedback  to teachers we observe and evaluate.  I needed help and fast.  As I continued to ponder some of these crucial questions while scripting the lesson on my iPad I remembered a free app that I had recently downloaded from Mastery Connect.

I know what you are thinking, this is one of those sponsored posts that a company has asked me to write.  I can assure you this is not the case and that I have absolutely no connection with Mastery Connect.  Now back to my story.  Once I launched the app I was kicking myself for not using it sooner.  I was able to quickly select Grade 10 Language Arts and locate what I thought were the Common Core Standards being addressed in the lesson. The key point here is that I was pretty sure on the standards being addressed, but not one hundred percent.  What is really great about this app is that it let me select the specific standards by content area and grade level, which then displayed key ideas and details related to the standards. It even broke down the corresponding College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standard.  Now I was sure of the standards that were being addressed and the effectiveness of the lesson.  This also led to, in my opinion, a much better prepared observation write-up and a discussion with the teacher on ways that she could better assess the standards during the lesson.

In my opinion a great deal more training needs to be provided to principals on observing the Common Core classroom.  Until then, I highly recommend that any administrator download the free Mastery Connect App, which is available for iOS, Android, and Windows devices. For more resources specifically for school administrators check out the list from NICHCY.  You can also visit my Pinterest board highlighting come Common Core resources, but be advised that this is still a work in progress.  How have you prepared to observe the Common Core Classroom? What resources have you found to be helpful with this transition? 

If you want to learn more about Mastery Connect and the resources they have for teachers check out this article from Getting Smart.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A School's Transformative Journey

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

Recently my school was recognized as the “School of the Month” for November/December by eSchool News.  The resulting article described New Milford High School’s many accomplishments pertaining to the use of educational technology to enhance the teaching and learning process.  We are extremely proud of the current culture that now exists where technology is seen as one of many necessary tools that are pivotal to student achievement and overall success.  As technology’s role in society continues to become more prevalent, it only makes sense to integrate it effectively in schools so that our students are not shortchanged upon graduation.

NMHS is a shell of its former self.  The many shifts, changes, and resulting transformation did not occur over night, impulsively, or without calculated risks. As I look back on our journey and the path that was taken, I have been able to identify some key elements that have driven change.  It was these changes that took an average comprehensive high school and transformed it into the current institution that many have come to know through social media over the past three years. 

Technology was viewed as an expensive frill that we would love to have, but not worth its weight in gold when push came to shove.  Being a technology leader, in my opinion, meant making sure our computer labs were up to date and available for staff to use when needed.  The notion of using social media was never a thought as the perception was that it lacked any potential value for learning or education in general.  As for cell phones, the only role they served was as a communications’ tool for students as they journeyed to, and returned from, school.  Never under any circumstances would they be used for learning during my tenure as principal.

The above paragraph provides a brief, honest synopsis of where we were just a few years ago and the role I played in creating the exact opposite school culture described in the eSchoolNews piece.  So what changed?  How did New Milford become a technology-rich school where potential and promise is emphasized as opposed to problems, challenges, and excuses?  How were we able to get everyone on board to initiate and sustain change?  Here are some answers to these questions.

Connectedness Matters

It wasn’t until I become connected that I truly understood the error in my ways and views.  My social media journey has been well documented, but it was this journey that provided me with the knowledge, tools, and ideas needed to initiate change.  Knowledge is everything and it influences our decisions and opinions.  For me, I lacked the fundamental knowledge on how technology could truly be integrated effectively.  Once connected through social media, I was given the knowledge I desperately needed.  For my school, connectedness was the original catalyst for change.  It has also enabled us to form numerous collaborative partnerships with an array of stakeholders who have assisted us along the way.


The seeds for change will only germinate if a coherent vision is established.  It is important that all stakeholder groups contribute to a collective vision and work to subsequently create a plan for integration.  With this being said, it is extremely important that leaders have a concrete vision that clearly articulates why and how technology will be used to support education.  Without these two crucial elements any resulting plan will fail.


One of the drawbacks to educational technology is the perceived lack of value it has in terms of student learning and achievement.  With current reform efforts placing a greater emphasis on standardized test scores, the value of technology in the eyes of many has diminished or is non-existent.  The true value of technology rests on how it is used to support learning and create experiences that students find meaningful and relevant.  This, in my opinion, is the key and should be included when establishing a vision.  Technology has the power to engage students, unleash their creativity, and allow them to apply what they have learned to demonstrate conceptual mastery.  If stakeholders understand and experience technology’s value firsthand, change quickly follows.


Support comes in many forms.  Teachers need to have a certain amount of access to technology in order to experience the types of changes that have occurred at NMHS.  We made a commitment at the District level to install a wireless network four years ago and have consistently upgraded it over the years to its current 100mb/s capacity.  This allows for the seamless and uninterrupted use of mobile devices by both teachers and students.  We also made a commitment to transforming a very old building (circa 1928) by outfitting rooms with the latest technology.  This was a slow process that has occurred over the past three and a half years.  To put some perspective on this, not one traditional classroom had an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) in it four years ago.  Currently we now have twenty.  In addition to providing access to technology, another essential support structure is removing the fear of failure and encouraging a risk-taking environment that fuels innovation.  Driving change does not happen without this element.  As a leader, it wasn’t until I addressed my technology fears head on and then began to model its effective use that many of our initiatives began to flourish.

Professional Development

Without this element in place change surely will not occur.  Transforming a school culture based on significant shifts in pedagogy requires opportunities to learn how to effectively integrate technology.  As there were not many quality professional development options in place when we started our journey we made our own.  This was accomplished by leveraging our teacher leaders and available resources.  The majority of the knowledge, ideas, and strategies came from the formation of a Personal LearningNetwork (PLN).  By harnessing the power of a PLN, I was able to impart what I learned to my staff.  Trainings on various Web 2.0 tools were held after school.  A year later the Edscape Conference was formed to provide more relevant and meaningful growth opportunities.  The most recent initiative involved the creation of a Professional Growth Period (PGP), a job-embedded growth model.  This resulted in giving my staff the time and flexibility to learn how to integrate the tools that they were interested in, as well as form their own PLN’s.


The final element that I found to be critical in driving change was empowering my staff to embrace technology as opposed to securing buy-in.  To me there is a huge difference.  Embracement is attained through empowerment and autonomy as described above.  Buy-in requires a salesman-like approach that might contain if-then rewards.  We have no mandates to use technology at NMHS.  By empowering teachers to shift their instructional practices and giving them the needed autonomy to take risks and work on effective integration techniques, this worked to intrinsically motivate them to change.  This approach was found to be instrumental in our recent renaissance and less prone to resistance and resentment. 

There you have it.  The elements described above put into perspective how we were able to drive change and eventually be recognized for the culture that has been created even with limited resources.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Visual learning made easy with Lucidchart

A good graphic organizer reinforces key concepts in a fun, engaging way.  Unfortunately, graphic organizers have traditionally been hosted on outdated websites with a poor user experience and no organization to speak of. Are you frustrated with stale content, zero digital options, and a lack of customizable features?

Give Lucidchart a try. As a popular diagramming web application, Lucidchart offers a modern solution to the age-old challenge of visual learning. They recently added graphic organizer templates to their educational template section, so you can make great-looking graphic organizers in a snap.

Plus, Lucidchart is completely free for educators and students. After an initial demo, I was quite impressed and wanted to pass this along to my readers.

What you get with Lucidchart:

  • Community templates - Access to thousands of customizable community templates, which include outlines for education-specific diagrams such as:
- Graphic organizers
- Flowcharts
- Venn diagrams
- Mind maps

  • Real-time collaboration - If you want your kids to be comfortable with modern, cloud-based technology, Lucidchart is an excellent place to start--all you need is an Internet connection.  Students can work individually on assignments or with an unlimited number of other classmates to create and edit diagrams in real time. Great for group projects!  

  • Useful integrations - Lucidchart is integrated with popular platforms like Google Drive and Google Apps. If you or your students use Google in any capacity, this deep integration will make your job that much easier.    
  • Flexibility - Whether you start from scratch or from a template, your diagram is fully customizable. Tweak shapes, text, line direction, and even the size of your canvas.  They have hundreds of shapes in their native library, and you can also import Visio stencils and shape libraries, which are available all over the web. Another fun feature for students is their design functionality. Drastically alter the look of your diagram by playing with colors, borders, gradient, drop shadow, fonts, and more.

  • Ease of use - Lucidchart’s drag-and-drop interface is highly intuitive and easy to learn.  Give it a try here to see how fast your students will pick it up.
They also make it easy to share your diagram in a number of ways, including:
-Traditional print-outs
- Unique webpage hosted on the Lucidchart site
- Permanent online PDF link
- Popular image formats: PDF, PNG, and JPEG
- Embedded in a blog or wiki
- Share on Twitter, Facebook, or the Lucidchart Community page

Remember, all of these features are offered at no cost. Let’s spread the word about this great resource--if you use Lucidchart and love it, I strongly encourage you to mention or review them (on a school district site, classroom blog, resource list, etc.) and link to their website.  If you need support or more information related to your Lucidchart review, please email and he will be happy to help.  

How to sign up for a free educational account:

Sign up here for a professional trial account, preferably using an educational email address, and you can start diagramming right away.  Once you do that, click here to apply for your free educational account.  Then they’ll approve you and any requests for additional student licenses.

One caveat: You will only have access to Lucidchart’s educational templates once you’ve signed up for a trial account and your educational upgrade has been approved.  I’ve included a short video on accessing the graphic organizer templates once you have an educational account.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Blueprint Worth Following

As part of the PDK International Emerging Leader Award, I had the opportunity to attend an amazing professional development experience in Washington DC.  During the first session there was a presentation on the Finnish Education System and the characteristics that make is the most successful system in the world in terms of student achievement.  

Here are some aspects that called out to me:

  • Culture of trust and moral/social responsibility.
  • No inspections or continuous monitoring by state/federal agencies.
  • No standardized tests until the 12th grade.
  • A country that truly values educators so much so that they are on par with doctors and lawyers. Everyone aspires to be a teacher, which translates into the best students pursuing this as a career.
  • All students attend higher education for FREE.
  • All teachers have a Master's Degree.
  • All administrators also teach.
  • Free lunch for all students.
  • The basic education curriculum is only 128 pages.
  • Free market for publishing, which means teacher has total autonomy as to the resources he/she wants to use including textbooks.
So why does the US Department of Education not take any cues from the Finnish blueprint for success?  Seems like we are doing the exact opposite.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Creativity and Why it Matters

A recent U.S. study, Creativity and Education: Why it Matters, sheds new light on the role of creativity in career success and the growing belief that creativity is not just a personality trait, but a learned skill. A summary of some of the key findings are listed below:

Image credit:
  • 85% percent of professionals agree creative thinking is critical for their career success, and 68% of respondents believe creativity is a skill that can be learned.
  • Nearly three-quarters (71%) of poll respondents say creative thinking should be “taught as a class – like math or science.” 
  • Many more believe creativity is important to their career now (78%) than they thought in college (57%).
  • The majority (82%) wish they had more exposure to creative thinking as students.

Check out this infographic on the value of creativity created by Adobe.  Be sure to also check out the recent Adobe press release emphasizing why creativity should be taught as a course in schools.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Use of Blogging to Address the Common Core

First year New Milford High School teacher Mrs. Westbrook has been tackling the Common Core in an engaging and innovative fashion.  One major instructional shift required by the Common Core Curriculum Standards is the increased emphasis on the use of informational texts.  As students engage nonfiction, they learn to grapple with complex ideas and arguments and use those ideas in forming their own opinions.  

One strategy for helping students meet these demands is the use of blogging to scaffold challenging texts and to encourage students to consider evidence and the perspective of others.  In the study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Mrs. Westbrook’s class discussions have centered on the playwright’s purpose – a purpose the famous author described in a 2002 interview we use as our informational text for the lesson.  In the interview, the author presents a complex argument that links the events in the play to events in modern society.  

The blog assignment requires students to consider his argument, find evidence to support his argument in the play, and to evaluate the quality of his argument using their own observations.  At the same time, the assignment provides a powerful learning tool.  On the blog, students can access the informational text by replaying the interview. In addition, they can read salient quotes from the author to reinforce their comprehension.  Finally, they can use teacher-generated questions to guide them in crafting a thesis-driven response to the author’s argument.  

Once students have posted their responses, she can comment and question them to raise the level of student discourse, provide personalized writing instruction, and teach to their misconceptions.  Here is a screen shot of the task/question:

Here is a screen shot of a student response with a response meant to deepen and sharpen his concept while addressing a misconception:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Video as a Tool to Understand CCSS Mathematical Practices

Success at the Core is a free resource available to teachers and leaders to assist in the successful implementation of the Common Core Standards.  All materials are designed to complement—not supplant—existing school improvement initiatives. Video, print, and online materials can be selected by leadership teams or teachers, and tailored to fit their needs.  One of the powerful aspects of Success at the Core is the use of video to to illustrated effective pedagogical techniques in mathematics.  The following piece by Deb Gribskov provides a great example of how video can aid teachers in their math instruction.

They were 100 strong – an audience of teachers sitting at cafeteria tables, waiting. They had come here at 4:00 pm, after a long day, to learn about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Mathematics. The evening’s session was to focus on mathematical Practice #1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
I was part of a group of teacher leaders and coaches from two neighboring school districts in Washington state who’d come together to lead this session. We hoped to create a critical mass of thought and effort to promote understanding of the CCSS in our districts, with a first-year emphasis on the mathematical practices. Our job that night was to help the assembled teachers understand Practice #1; gain insight into how to intentionally address it in their classrooms; and stay engaged and awake enough to want to come back for focus sessions on the remaining seven practices! I was the “opening act.”
As an instructional coach, I hear time and again: “Show me what it looks like. Let me see it, so I can understand it.” Tonight, I answered that request, specifically focusing on visual examples of perseverance. I began the session with a video of an elementary-school child working through a word problem. The video documented the student struggling with the problem – for almost two agonizing minutes. When he finally came up with his answer (the correct one, I might add), our teachers clapped and breathed an audible sigh of relief.
When I asked the teachers to reflect on why the student succeeded, the two most common answers were: “The teacher gave him the time he needed,” and “The teacher didn’t help him.” Indeed, the video drove home the teacher’s patience. As I watched it – and reflected on the audience’s responses – I thought about how often I’ve come to the aid of a struggling student. In those moments, I often find myself asking whether I’m actually keeping that student from developing the perseverance needed to solve the problem. Clearly, I’m not alone.
After this discussion, we watched a TED talk by Dan Meyer, who talked about why many students struggle with mathematics and don’t persevere. He addressed students who don’t and won’t engage, and how to change the way we present problems to change the paradigm for their learning. In the video, Meyer states, “Students need to decide, ‘All right, well, does the height matter? Does the side of it matter? Does the color of the valve matter? What matters here?’ — such an underrepresented question in math curricula.” Teaching students to think about problems, rather than spoon feeding them the answers, will also teach them to stick with it. This is critical in addressing this part the CCSS.  When I watch this video, I am inspired to think deeply about my own curriculum – not the texts I use but the standards I’m helping students learn.  Meyer models how to create the questions and tasks that really help students grow and learn.

As the second video faded to black, the light bulbs came on over the teachers’ heads. The nodding heads around the room confirmed that the videos drove home the idea of persistence and empowerment in ways that discussion alone could not. With these videos, the stage had been set for my CCSS group of 100. The teachers were now ready to move on to “grade band” sessions. For the remainder of the evening, they focused specific, grade-level skills that would help them intentionally address CCSS mathematical Practice #1 in their classrooms. In these break-out sessions, the teacher leaders asked probing questions and provided concrete examples to help teachers really grasp the essence of this practice.
Now, I’m busy planning next month’s session, which will focus on CCSS mathematical Practice #2: Reason abstractly and quantitatively. Again, I’ll kick off the session with a video to illustrate the practice. This time, I’m planning to use aSuccess at the Core video, “Challenging Students to Discover Pythagoras.” And we’ll examine and discuss quantitative and abstract reasoning.

Over this entire school year, my colleagues and I will repeat this coaching process again and again, until we’ve covered all eight mathematical practices. Each time, we’ll be sure to include video examples to answer their persistent request: “Show me what it looks like. Let me see it so I can understand it.” I can think of no more effective way to bring this rich discussion about CCSS to life.