Remote/Virtual Learning Days


First of all, let me say this at the outset – I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THE FOLLOWING SUGGESTIONS ARE BETTER THAN BEING IN SCHOOL ON A WINTER DAY.  I’ll probably have to say that over and over again because people challenge me over and over again on the topic.

We’ve had so many snow days this year that I’ve actually lost count and need to ask the district office for the current projected last day of school.  To make matters worse, the last two snow cancellations have been 2-day stretches; one was a Thursday-Friday combo so students were out of school for four days in a row.  Then, they came back for Monday and were out Tuesday-Wednesday.

If you’re a teacher in the middle of a unit or a book, you already understand the problem here.  That topic you started two or three weeks ago will need to be restarted.  Students have forgotten the math algorithm you were teaching because they haven’t practiced and turned it into muscle memory.  YOU probably can’t remember where you left off in that book and your students have certainly lost the plot.  And, you are thinking about the so-called “end of year” tests which are rapidly approaching.  (I say “so-called” because they test the standards to be taught by the end of the year but are given one to three months before the end of the year.)

Nothing beats the interaction between students and their teachers and peers for learning.  After all, we know that learning is a social activity and that educators create the best environments for learning.  But sometimes it simply isn’t possible or safe to be in school due to severe weather, a leaking roof, or a failed heating system.  What then?  The traditional answer has been to add missed days to the end of the year.  This does nothing to address the interruption in learning that occurs over snow days.  It doesn’t push back the state-mandated testing so that it aligns with the change in where students are in the curriculum.  It doesn’t take into consideration that most elementary schools and many middle and high schools do not have air conditioning and have miserable ventilation so that late June brings sweltering classrooms that endanger student health, not to mention learning.

A few years ago, our district attempted to take the lead in making a change.  Sadly, of the three options that were put forward, the School Committee chose the worst of the three.  Every student in grades 1-12 was given a “blizzard bag” project to be done later in the year, not during the snow days, that was meant to replace the lost time on learning from the missed days.  While the topic of the project, Bees/Pollination, was noble, the additional work was not connected to what students had been learning and was overwhelming, having been assigned on top of what students were already doing.  It resulted in a near-universal verdict that this was not how we wanted to do things.  Unfortunately, the public now equates any attempt to be innovative about school cancelations with this model.

There is a better way, which was the one recommended by teachers, and for which I continue to advocate.  Thanks to advances in meteorology, school cancelations are rarely unanticipated, so with a little preparation, teachers can make sure students have an opportunity to make progress on days when they cannot make it to school without snowshoes or an inflatable boat.

Here are some simple examples from my own experience as a fifth-grade teacher:

  • read the next chapter in our core book and answer questions about the reading;
  • write a reflection on a topic from our master list;
  • revise your current writing project for (insert focus area here);
  • practice math equations/problems (I always had extra practice sheets);
  • watch one or more of the science or social studies videos I’ve assigned through Discovery Education and be prepared to discuss when we return to school (assuming you have power);
  • Read this Cobblestone (history) or National Geographic (science) article and highlight the portions you would like to discuss or learn more about (no electricity needed);
  • Depending upon the special (Art/Music/PE) we would have on that day, do the activity assigned by that teacher;

Of course, there are always people who think this is a gambit by teachers to get out of working.  Let’s just put aside the fact that I don’t know an educator who doesn’t use snow days to catch up on lesson planning, grading, IEPs, professional development, or parent communication.  Teachers wouldn’t get the time off on a remote/virtual learning day.  Depending upon the situation (grade level, subject, available resources) teachers would provide support for students and families.  A few options could be responding to questions via email, conversation threads on Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, checking in on student work through Docs.  Obviously, if everyone loses power, then there would have to be alternatives but it wouldn’t be that difficult to work something out so that districts would feel that they were getting their money’s worth out of the teacher day.

Again, there is no question that being in school would provide a richer, more supportive, learning experience for most students.  But if we are willing to let go of the “snow day” of the past, we can not only keep students immersed in their learning, but they may even discover that learning can happen outside of the classroom.

History and the First Amendment


The Acton Congregational Church. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

This story on NPR caught my attention as I drove to work earlier this week.  I’m the first one to object to the inclusion of Christmas songs in the annual winter concert or Rudolph on the classroom door.  I rant over the use of public land for nativity scenes, even when a Chanukah menorah is placed beside it, despite having been raised as a jew.  (To be honest, it was the ugliest menorah in the history of menorahs) I skip the “under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (before you freak out, remember that it wasn’t included in the original pledge and ruins the tempo).  I believe absolutely in the separation of church and state.

That’s why I was surprised at my musings after hearing the story, which discusses the debate over using funds from the Community Preservation Act to restore/renovate a church.  I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, one of those iconic New England towns.  The center of Lexington is anchored by the Lexington Common or Battleground and surrounded by historic taverns, homes, and churches. Part of the economy is dependent upon keeping that area looking attractive and as “New England” as possible; a dilapidated church would be an eyesore and ruin the background of tourist photos.  Even though I’m a (lapsed) jew, seeing soaring church steeples above the autumn riot of color in a Vermont valley lifts my spirits and tells me I’m in New England.  It just screams home!

But does this mean we should be using tax-payer money for the upkeep on historic churches?  What about places like the Old North Church which are so much a part of our civic history?  I’m still conflicted, but at the end of the day, I can’t support the use of tax revenues for churches.  If a church is truly “historic,” then the local historical society should raise the necessary funds and I will happily contribute.

Superchickens and Productivity

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about how school systems tend to promote the “superteachers” in their midst when it comes to new initiatives and changes, excluding the majority of educators who will be impacted by changes in policies, procedures, or curriculum.  The dysfunction is immediately apparent, as these individuals gather power and privilege to themselves while the rest of the staff become divided and resentful.

The result is that, no matter how great the practice or idea illustrated by these favored few may be, it is likely to fail miserably.  This TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan really hit home this week.

What will it take to get school districts to recognize the importance of building social capital and a sense of collective ownership?  Meanwhile, we watch good ideas flounder and waste more time when we could and should be working together for our school communities and students.

#IMMOOC OER as Innovative Practice

oerThis is one of a series of responses to Discussion Questions in The Innovator’s Mindset MOOC and BPS Book Group.

Discussion Question: What is an example of a practice that you consider to be innovative?  How is it new or better than what you had before?

Without a doubt, the integration of digital and internet resources into teaching and learning has spurred innovation in education.  Within this broad arena, the sharing of Open Education Resources (OER) has the ability to be incredibly impactful and accelerate innovative efforts.

There is no universally accepted definition of OER, but generally they are unlicensed or have a creative commons license that allows for use, reuse, repurposing, and modification and are free for use by educators and students.  These can come in all shapes, sizes, and formats.  I’ve integrated online videos, readings, simulations, and assignments into lesson plans – all of which came from different sources and were blended into my own teaching.

The simple act of collaborating, sharing, remixing, and resharing is a huge shift from when I started my career.  I remember colleagues who would only share their lesson plans or worksheets after placing a © in the footer with their name and the date and then would hand you a hard copy so you couldn’t change anything.  (Depending upon my relationship, I may or may not have let them know that if it was created for use in their classroom, it wasn’t their intellectual property, it belonged to the school district.)

OER has started to dismantle those boundaries.  The assumption is that we will share. No one believes that the lesson they share will be perfect for anyone else, but it is a great start for someone to launch from in creating something that works for their students. We start with the understanding that by reaching out beyond our classrooms, our schools, and our districts and contributing to the greater good, we can build something stronger. There are states that are creating curriculum materials and posting them on their websites so that anyone can access them.  Unlike in the days when you had a single program in your classroom, you can pull a wide variety of OER from all over the internet to inspire your lessons and teaching and to give your students more ways to access content.

There are a number of organizations trying to curate all of this work in order to give educators a one-stop-shopping experience.  So far, none have emerged as the perfect solution. I would like a GitHub for educators.  GitHub is an online version management space where programmers can find pieces of code (APIs) that they can download and use, either as-is or after modification.  The only rule is that if you make a change and improve the code in some way, that you load that modified version back up to GitHub for others to use.  What if we had that for educators?  I might upload my unit on graphing and someone else takes it and makes changes so that it better serves their students.  They then upload that modified version and educators now have two versions to choose from.  I might even start using the modified version because that educator saw something I didn’t.

When first talking with many teachers about accessing ideas and lessons online, many express concern that online lesson plans are often not of high quality.  In a GitHub-like environment, these would quickly sink to the bottom because they would rarely be downloaded or remixed.  Alternatively, you may see mediocre lesson ideas greatly improved by other users.  Either way, expanding our concept of collaboration beyond our current PLNs to include OER is an innovation that needs to take hold.

OER fits the definition of “new and better.”  The question is, how do we change the culture so that all educators become part of the process?

Why Do Students Need Computer Science?

(I posted a similar entry on BPS Edtech’s communal site.)

Burlington (MA) Public Schools’ Superintendent Conti’s blog post last month on Computer Science for All outlined the state’s commitment to providing computer science in all schools.

But many people are still skeptical of the idea of teaching CS and coding principles to every student K-12.

So, why DO students need to learn computer science if they aren’t planning on going into STEM careers?

There are many reasons, but I like to think of it this way. Neither of my children are going to become professional chefs; should I therefore send them out into the world without knowing how to prepare a basic meal? Of course not! The ability to use a stove and make pancakes for dinner without contracting food poisoning or burning the house down is an essential life skill (because breakfast for dinner is the best meal ever!) Sure, they could eat cold cereal but shouldn’t we at least provide them with a skill set that allows them to have a choice?

Knowing how hardware, software, and services work together is the new pancakes for dinner, part of the basics that every student should have when they step out into the world. This is especially true as the IoT (Internet of Things) makes its way into everyday life in ways that we never expected. Your fridge and stove may very well be on speaking terms with each other in the near future.

Think of something you do every day – using your ID card to open the door to your school building. As you swipe your card across the reader, you are accessing a combination of hardware and software working together. When this action doesn’t unlock the door, what might have gone wrong? Without some basic understanding of the parts that go into this process, you won’t know where to start problem-solving. Is your card damaged or is the lock not operating properly? If the lock is not operating as expected, is it a physical defect in the device, the programming that recognizes your card as granting access, or has the communication system between central office and the device not worked to let the lock know you are a trusted individual. And that’s just a 1-5 second moment in your day that can go smoothly… or not. This is followed by a myriad of other interactions with computer science concepts that continue throughout your day.

We want our students to be able to use devices, software, and services safely, responsibly, productively, and with understanding, not matter what career path they choose. Most students don’t know what career they will have until after they have left BPS. This is why we make sure that every student has a well-rounded education that allows them to move on to a wide range of advanced studies. Increasingly, this means they need a solid grounding in computer science in addition to the traditional core subjects.

This year, I’m working with upper elementary teachers to demonstrate the advantages of integrating coding and robotics into their math and science curricula.  My goal is to create a sense of urgency and agency that allows classroom teachers to take the lead in adding these skills to their programs in future years.  At the same time, I’m looking at the opportunities to bring CS to to students in grades K-3 in developmentally appropriate ways to amplify learning across disciplines.

Learning Pathways


The other day, I posted about what personalized learning is not.  This, of course, begs the question of what personalized learning is.  And that will require far more than one post can contain.  I’ll do my best to break this down into different components and address them separately, as much for my own sanity as anything else, but they all intersect.

“Personalized learning seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment – what, when, how and where students learn – to address the individual needs, skills and interests of each student.  Within a framework of established curriculum standards and high expectations, personalized learning motivates students to reach their goals.  Students take ownership of their own learning and develop deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers and other adults.  Technology is necessary to implement personalized learning effectively, affordably, and at significant scale.  Teachers leverage technology to gain detailed and timely knowledge of their students that guides instruction.  Effective use of technology allows teachers and students to focus more on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.” – Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech Consortium (MAPLE)

Individualized pathways and student agency in directing their learning are at the center of personalized learning.  What an amazing concept – that students should take responsibility for the what, how, when, and where of their learning!  If there is one thing we know in this age of accelerations it is that learning will have to be a lifelong endeavor as much of the content knowledge students gain during their PreK-16 educations will become obsolete by the time they graduate.  And yet, providing students diverse learning experiences is nothing new; it has been the calling card of empowered and empowering educators since long before computers became a mainstay in our classrooms.  No robot, no matter how developed the user interface or the artificial intelligence algorithms, can provide this level of personalization for students.

This does mean that educators need to focus more on helping students learn how to learn and less on which year Christopher Columbus sailed west.  It means that part of what educators bring to the table is a rich array of student experiences so that students can learn not only content and skills but also which types of learning experiences work best for them.  

We’ve talked about “voice and choice” in learning for decades.  I’m old enough to remember when it was considered a giant leap forward in student-centered teaching to give students  choices in how they would demonstrate understanding based on their interests or “learning style.”  Personalized learning offers students a variety of ways to learn the needed objectives as well as options for demonstrating acquisition.  A simple example of this would be to give students a wide array of “inputs” such as books, articles, websites, videos, role-playing, field trips, etc. in order to learn about a topic.  Educators and districts that build curriculum using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles are already doing this and more.

Educators play an important role in helping students develop agency and creating personal learning pathways.  They offer a variety of ways to learn objectives and a variety of ways to demonstrate mastery.  They assist students in making choices about their learning paths.  And, of course, they are integral in the design of curriculum materials and working with students in a developmentally and pedagogically appropriate manner.

Students have an important responsibility in their own education as well.  Compliance is no longer enough; students need to be engaged and purposeful in their education.  Even very young students can make educational activity choices with teacher guidance.  Students learn what works for them, their own strengths, needs, and preferences, and can explain the rationale for the choices they make.

In personalized learning, educators motivate students to reach their goals and prepare them for taking ownership of their lifelong learning adventures. Knowledge, technology, and even climate change are all accelerating at an exponential rate, making it more important than ever that our students are able to learn and adapt well after they leave the classroom.

Teacher Appreciation

There’s a Facebook post going around inviting you to name your elementary teachers and I have to admit that I can’t remember any of my teachers’ names.  Part of the reason is my age – it’s been quite a few years since I was an elementary student – and part of the reason is that I spent Kindergarten through senior year trying to keep my head down and not be noticed.  Our schools can be a tough place for students who don’t fit in even now and they were a special kind of hell for introverts back in the 70’s and early 80’s as I made my way through K-12.  In thirteen years, I had one teacher able to see through all of that and who made a huge difference.

As an introvert in a world where being popular and showing off signaled success, I was already at a disadvantage.  Add an unstable home life with dysfunctional parents and I’m still amazed that I managed to muddle through to the extent that I did.  If my high school had sent home a list of the days I showed up and remained in classes for the entire day rather than a report of my absences, they would have saved a significant amount of paper.  I skipped physical education for 3 years in a row.

I spent most of my time in the public library reading and writing.  By the time I was a senior and the end of high school was in sight, I had managed to squeak by in everything thanks to dropping off papers and taking tests, except phys. ed.  Guess what you cannot skimp on when qualifying to graduate in Massachusetts?  P.E.  I was faced with returning to school in the fall to take a whole lot of gym classes.  I was ready to drop out and take the GED test.  I was convinced I had no business being in school, despite being able to get decent grades and great SAT scores without really attending school.

All that changed one afternoon when one teacher gave me something to think about.  He asked me if maybe the problem wasn’t me or my abilities but the school’s.  Had I ever considered that perhaps schools treat everyone the same when we are each different and have different needs?  He then gave me a copy of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development which had recently been released.

My mind was completely blown.  Until then, everything was my fault – my family situation, my parents’ issues, my difficulty engaging in school, everything.  It really had never occurred to me, growing up with that mindset, that maybe the adult world was flawed and who I was as a person was OK.  This was in 1982-1983 and soon Howard Gardner would be putting forth his Theory of Multiple Intelligences and we would begin to look at teaching and learning in a very different way.  Perhaps I was born too soon.

I ended up doing a second senior year of high school in Jerusalem, Israel where I also skipped P.E. but graduated with distinction and a greater belief in myself.  And if there is one thing that motivates me as a teacher, it is the desire to create a better educational experience for my students than I had and to be that teacher who helps a student realize the world doesn’t have to be as it is now.

So, I take this moment to say thank you for everything, Alan November.  For being there, for believing in me, and for helping me to see a way forward.

Oh, and I was the one who stole your Neil Postman books on education.  Sorry.

Personalized Learning: No Robot Teachers

cup of robots ~ on whiteAs students left for Physical Education, Mrs. F. reminded them that when they returned, each student would have an individualized list of the math concepts they needed to work on later in the day.  These lists were created by looking at the classwork, homework, and formative assessments students completed recently.  This is personalized learning.

E. is in fifth grade but is dyslexic and reads significantly below grade level.  He is able to access a digital version of the Social Studies textbook with text-to-speech capabilities.  After listening to the text, he can participate fully in classroom discussions about the events leading up to the American Revolution.  Using the speech-to-text option in Google Docs, he can also respond in writing to the comprehension questions, and writing prompts, and take notes on his reading.  This is personalized learning.

Ms. M.’s class is working to increase their multiplication math fact fluency.  Once students have mastered the concept of multiplication, memorizing the facts in order to better utilize them in problem solving is most often done through the tried-and-true method of flashcards, excruciatingly boring for both the student and the person working with them.  By using a service called Reflex Math, students can practice their math facts with adaptive algorithms that repeat facts that students still need to master, have progress tracking available to student and teacher, and positive feedback.  This is also a form of personalized learning.

Universal Design is personalized learning.  P-B learning (take your pick: Problem-, Passion-, Project-based) is personalized learning.  In none of these scenarios is the teacher replaced by a robot, and yet this is the cry being made by those convinced that human teachers will go the way of the dodo and all students will spend their days from age 3 through 22 seated in front of a computer.

While some will claim that the third scenario essentially replaces a teacher, I disagree.  Flashcard practice has been a home assignment and one that teachers have found parents less and less available to do with their students.  Flashcard practice doesn’t take a Master’s degree in Education to perform; creating rich problem-solving projects that utilize math facts in order to complete them, does require well-trained educators.  Where would you prefer your child’s teacher devote their time?  As an educator, where do you think your planning and teaching time is best spent?

While technology can help facilitate personalized learning, personalized learning is about people and pedagogy, not boxes and screens.  Or robots.