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Introduction to CEC

Posted by phourigan on May 21, 2010

I was asked to put together a course description for next year.  I’ll be working twice per seven day cycle with our 8th graders.  If you have comments, please share.

CEC class (Challenge, Exploration, Creativity) challenges students to dive deeper into subject area knowledge, solve problems and share their work and experiences with students around the world through the innovative use of technology.

Students learn to apply 21st century skills to essential questions rooted in the core curriculum.  Project parameters do not dictate a particular solution; instead, students tackle these essential questions by applying multiple learning strategies, engaging in problem solving, making global connections and producing original and creative solutions.

Creative work must meet the project requirements and detailed rubrics track progress and measure the effectiveness of the end product.

The Internet provides factual knowledge at a moment’s notice and many traditional projects suffer by asking students to regurgitate facts and do not encourage creative thinking or problem solving.  CEC approaches learning with the understanding that all facts are available – students must use those facts to create a new product that demonstrates higher order thinking, creativity and innovation.


Old project: Write a paper that discusses symbolism in Animal Farm.

Pre-Internet, students researched the characters to find their real-life analogues and conducted further research to construct a historical context for those figures.  The student wrote the paper, turned it in to the teacher and the project ended.

Post-Internet, students type “symbolism in Animal Farm” into Google, find a paper that discusses the symbolism in Animal Farm, and spend several hours trying to turn the paper into their own words.

New project:

Essential question: “Why do we still read Animal Farm today?”

The Challenge: Retell the Animal Farm story in a way our lower school students will understand.

Acceptable solutions:

Student created comic book

Student created movie

Student created video book review

Student created trading card game

Assessment: Did our lower school students “Get it”?  Were deadlines met?

Global connectivity:

Post student work on the Internet

Students blog their experiences


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Twelve month school

Posted by phourigan on May 17, 2010

I love throwing ideas out to my advisory.  Today in the car I was thinking about why schools refuse to practice what we preach.  From September to June, we (allegedly) teach the kids that it’s not about cramming, it’s about problem solving.  We insist that the reinforcement of skills is critical and that we have to master a skill before we can move on.

Then June comes, the seniors check out, all the seventh graders want to be eighth graders . . . and we disappear for three months.  All of our reinforcement goes out the window.  The kids don’t use their brains in the same way over the summer; most of our students will attend summer camp, but it’s almost always sports camp, then they come home and watch tv and play video games.

Along comes September, and we spend the first month of the new school year trying to get everyone caught back up to where they were in June.

Ask any teacher about the month of May and they’ll say it’s pretty much a wasted month.  Now we have four months of the year (May, June, July, Aug) that are useless, and one (Sept) that is review.  We give sad chuckles at Senioritis and shrug our shoulders, “What can ya do . . .”

We accept this?  We can do better.  If you want a laugh, the next time you’re in a faculty meeting, bring up the idea of a twelve month school year, then sit back and watch your Facebook friend count plummet.

According to my quick count, my school had thirty-eight weeks of school this year, not counting Thanksgiving, winter break or spring break.  Nine of those weeks are in September, May and June, so it’s more like twenty-nine “real” weeks of school.

I know kids (and teachers) need breaks, so why not have school for five weeks followed by a two week break, repeated seven times throughout the year?  There are three weeks left over, so we can use those for senior projects, field trips, or extra days to make the two week vacations line up with the winter holidays, Thanksgiving, Arbor Day.

Of course the first thing the kids said to me was, “What about summer camps?”  This question exactly reflects the current locked-in mindset of schools: we can’t do what we know is right because the System won’t allow it.  We have summer camps because . . . school is not in session.  Therefore, we can’t have school in the summer because . . . we have summer camps.  Ugh.

The biggest battle would have to be waged with the teachers.  The kids will adapt to whatever we provide.  If we had a critical mass of schools, the parents wouldn’t mind either.  But teachers?  That’s a tough sell.  We need our summer break.  Why?  To get away from the kids.  But this is what we do.  Imagine an investment banker taking three months off in the summer to get away from money.  Imagine a doctor taking three months off in the summer to take a break from seeing patients.  Can a sportswriter stop writing through the summer months just because  the basketball season is over?  No, his editor puts him on other assignments because the newspaper needs his writing skills.

Our society is telling us loud and clear that they NEED our teaching skills.  By almost any measure, schools appear to be failing our kids.  Yet part of our Systematic approach is to unleash our young people on that same society for three months of the year.

We ask our students to think creatively and problem solve every day.  When it comes to schools, teachers and administration, we in education are huge hypocrites.  Our System is broken, but we’re going to continue to plug away in the same old way.

I know the chances of anything like this happening are practically nil, but it’s an intriguing idea.  I don’t know how long I can sit idly by and watch something that I know is broken continue to break.

For the record, my advisory thought it was a terrible idea.

Two thoughts for the future: how distance learning affects this plan, and the frustration of standardized testing.  Stay tuned.

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The times they are a changin’

Posted by phourigan on May 14, 2010

This morning on the way to work, Bob Dylan came up on my iPod and I realized he’s actually a 21st Century Educator:

“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don’t criticize what you can’t understand / your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / your old road is rapidly agin’ / please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand / for the times they are a-changin’.”

The song was released in 1964.  If you look at our schools there’s a good chance that some of the teachers still teach like it’s 1964.

I’m not going to get into making symbolic comparisons (okay – except for one: information superhighway, anyone?) but I was most struck by the fact that the times are always changing and always will be.  Almost forty years ago parents (and teachers?) were falling behind their children (and students?), and here we are now going through the same process.  But there’s something about technology that causes this particular change to be characterized as an ominous one.

Where will we be in forty years?

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EdCamp Philly

Posted by phourigan on May 13, 2010

I’m getting excited!  May 22nd is quickly approaching, and there are over 200 registrants for EdCamp Philly.  This, and conferences like this, are the future.  Collaboration, sharing, exploration – all the concepts we’re trying to illustrate to our students we can put into practice through these kinds of participant-driven workshops.

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What students want in a teacher

Posted by phourigan on May 11, 2010

I’ve been filling in for a colleague the last two days and because one of the classes had completed the assigned work yesterday, I took the opportunity to ask them a question.  I asked this group of seventh grade boys: “What makes a good teacher?”

I was amazed at their answers.  It was as if they’ve been reading the same sources I’ve been reading about good teaching and learning!  Here’s a summary of what they answered:

A good teacher answers every question.  [Me: Every question?] Well, they take the questions seriously and make sure that everyone feels they’ve been able to ask a question.  They also know that they should let students work by themselves without watching over their shoulder all the time.

A good teacher calls on everyone equally – not just the “smart” kids.

A good teacher shouldn’t move on until everyone gets it. [I took this opportunity to talk with them about the different ways a teacher can tell when it’s okay to move on.  I’m intrigued by the use of cell phones and texting to accomplish this, through websites that allow you to create a poll and have students text the answers.  Every kid in the class had a cell phone (three kids had theirs on them which is currently against our rules) and all but one had an unlimited texting plan.]  It’s not fair that the teacher keeps teaching when some of us don’t understand what we just learned.

A good teacher recognizes that each student learns differently and that each student can be a good student if given the chance.  [This insight was particularly notable because it was made by a boy who does get himself in hot water from time to time.]

A good teacher takes the time to get to know you.  [Me: What difference would that make?]  It would mean what [the previous student] said: that the teacher knows that you learn differently from someone else.  [This comment was made by perhaps the “weakest” student in the grade.]

How is it that a group of seventh grade boys can come to these conclusions while many of our teachers can’t?  As educators in an independent school, we have the advantages of small class size, involved parents (sometimes too involved), motivated students (for the most part) and students with diverse talents.  But we have the awful habit of clinging to the “tried and true” methods where one size fits all and there’s no room for improvisation or innovation.

I know I’m going to start asking my students more questions and paying attention to what they’re saying.  If this is another way to get them to engage, why not?

Posted in Ed Tech | 1 Comment »

The future of libraries

Posted by phourigan on May 10, 2010

I got a request from a history teacher asking me to help his students make documentaries on the US Civil War.  I sent him a quick link on Documentary Making 101 and asked if I could come to his class and ask questions of his students, so I could better understand the point of the assignment.  I stressed how important the research and preparation were going to be, rather than jumping right into the filming.  I offered up GarageBand as a platform, but also that we could explore iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

He had CC’d one of our librarians, who e-mailed this back to the both of us: “You may have some problems with finding adequate material as the  7th grade is currently working on Civil War research, and they have borrowed many of the Civil War books.”

I love our librarians – they are an under-appreciated group.  But this sentence worries me.  At the very least, it emphasizes exactly why paper resources have to go.  Imagine if Google gave the answer, “Sorry – your search couldn’t be completed because someone else was searching for the same thing at the same time.”  At best, it shows how librarians need to be at the cutting edge of technology.

Technology is about information – finding it, analyzing it, keeping the good stuff and throwing the bad stuff out.  Being a discriminating researcher on the web takes practice, and we need librarians to shepherd students in the right directions.  Limiting a search to book resources only is cutting out a huge (the biggest!) source of information available.  You can argue all you want about a book being more factually accurate than any random person’s web page, but there are far more credible web pages that are updated far more often than a dusty book that’s checked out twice a year.

Imagine – problems finding material on the Civil War.  I can’t remember the last time I had trouble finding information on anything.  I now have to think about how this is a learning opportunity for more than just the students.

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Rethinking Faculty Development

Posted by phourigan on May 8, 2010

As I’ve said before, I’m trying to shift our “tech development” to “curriculum development that takes advantage of what technology has to offer”.  I should come up with an acronym for that.

I’ve been working on a professional development model that is based on incentives, to get our teachers over the fear of taking a look at their curriculum.  It’s based on getting them together with other teachers just to talk about what they teach, why they teach it, and how they teach it.  It’s a three part model, so bear with me:

Part One: Faculty Incentive Plan

A comprehensive professional development plan with a technology incentive upon completion.  Faculty apply to a PD Committee and approved teachers match up with a PLP Year One member.

Participants must complete the following:

* Coordinate kickoff workshop in August with [coordinate school] participants [Our school has a coordinate partnership with a girls’ school down the street]
* Attend two workshops hosted by Intermediate Units addressing specific issues in their field [PA has IUs who support public and private PD efforts]
* Creation or expansion of their Professional Learning Network through social networking tools (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc) with assistance from a PLP member
* Two offsite visits to other schools through contacts in their Professional Learning Network
* Attendance at their discipline’s national conference (participants may opt for attendance at a regional conference)
* Ten monthly coordinate workshops with [coordinate school] participants to exchange ideas, build community and further increase personal and professional learning
* Presentation at a faculty meeting demonstrating their process and progress
All participants will be required to keep a public blog chronicling their experience

Participants who complete these requirements will receive an iPad for personal and professional use.

Part Two: Ongoing Technology Training

A year long training plan designed to increase facility with tools being used on our campus.  Faculty volunteers conduct weekly before school sessions under the supervision of the Director of Educational Technology [that’s me] demonstrating the use of various tools found in our classrooms: SMARTBoards, laptops, digital cameras, video cameras and software.

Teachers who lead three sessions receive an iPod Touch.  Teachers who attend ten sessions and demonstrate their use of these tools in the classroom receive an iPod Touch.

Part Three: In-Service Day UnConference

The participant-driven UnConference provides for meaningful collaboration and professional development.  Participants moderate and participate in workshops of their own creation.  A simple and dynamic process lies at the core of the UnConference: on the morning of the in-service day, faculty and staff use Google Docs to either sign up for an existing workshop or create their own (and offer to moderate) if they find no other topic of interest.  As more participants create workshop opportunities, every faculty and staff member has the opportunity to attend or facilitate a session in which they have interest.

Each teacher signs up for or creates as many workshops as interests him.  Each workshop nominates a scribe who generates summary notes for the workshop and posts the notes to the [my school] Ning.

Our Year One PLP team proposes that [my school] dedicate the November 8, 2010 in-service day to an UnConference with the goal of bringing teachers together to exchange ideas about good teaching and learning.  While PLP promotes the appropriate and effective use of technology in teaching and learning, we stress that the workshops do not need to be technology oriented.  Because the faculty, not the technology department or the administration, design the conference workshops it is our hope that the environment generates authentic and frank discussion over myriad topics and relevant faculty interests.

Cost: Five iPod Touch devices for raffle

I like this proposal because A) I wrote it (with help in Part three from our PLP team) and B) it abandons the idea that tool training is how to conduct good faculty professional development.  I don’t know if my school is quite ready to embrace this idea, but I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. If I’m to get started in September, I need to identify the people who want to participate in Part One as soon as I can.  There are great summer conferences out there and I don’t want to start too late.

If you have any comments, please feel free to share.

Posted in Ed Tech | 2 Comments »

Tech tools vs. faculty development

Posted by phourigan on May 6, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot today about the role technology currently plays in our school and the role I think it should play in school.  Whenever I mention a new resource to a teacher, the usual response is, “That sounds great; I just don’t have any time.”

I don’t think technology should be an add-on to anybody’s curriculum.  I want my response to that teacher to be, “This should be what you do – not an addition to what you do.”  We’re still stuck in an old fashioned model that separates technology from the curriculum and requires a separate coordinator to deliver tech skills.  That coordinator is me, and I’m disagreeing.

Throwing new tech tools and toys at teachers doesn’t solve the problem either.  You can install all the SMARTBoards you want and even offer workshops to show people how to use them.  But all you’ll get is SMARTBoards in the classrooms and empty workshops.  Until you challenge teachers to examine their curriculum from the ground up, asking, “Why do I teach that?  What do I really want the students to walk away with?” I just don’t think we’ll make any headway with the next generation of learning.  That’s too bad because it could be really exciting.

Instead of tech tools (the tool du jour being iPads), let’s get teachers together with other teachers in their discipline and start the conversation of what makes a good teacher:

A good teacher is flexible.

A good teacher listens.

A good teacher hands work back quickly.

A good teacher pushes students to their potential.

Yet how many teachers do you know who are rigid, hate talking to students (closed office doors, no “free” time to talk), take weeks to grade assignments, and complain about how lazy the students are these days?  A teacher who is unwilling to consider how technology might help with each of these factors can’t be long for education.  And by speaking to other teachers in his or her discipline, they will realize that good teachers are using technology well because it happens to be the best tool around.

But that’s all it is – a tool.  Just like paper, just like a calculator.  I can teach someone how to use a tool.  What I can’t do is convince them that their teaching needs to change . . . but their peers can.

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Interesting student observation

Posted by phourigan on May 4, 2010

After attending a conference or a workshop, I frequently try some of the ideas out on my 7th grade advisory.  The boys (my school is all boys) love giving their feedback and a lot of the time it’s very useful.

They typically love the ideas that come out of all these Web 2.0 workshops and can’t wait to investigate Challenge Based Learning.  They’re under the impression that learning will be more fun and engaging in that environment, and I agree.

This morning I talked about one of Alan November’s recommendations (for lack of a better word) that I have had reservations about ever since reading about similar models in other schools: the idea that we invert the school day, having students listen to lecture at home and complete “homework” problems in class.  In theory, this is a great idea.  The boys all related stories of times they’d been stymied by their homework and couldn’t complete it.  Coming in the next day, the teacher was frustrated by this backward step and couldn’t move forward until everyone caught up on the understanding of the homework.

But one boy right away saw the critical flaw in this model.  He said, “We’re already in school for eight hours.  I don’t have eight hours to listen to lectures at home.”  It reminded me that the reason we continue to stick to our current model of lecture at school and homework at home is because the reinforcement of the skill takes less time than the introduction of the skill.

I don’t think our curriculum should be based on the idea of saving time, but what he said does make sense.  It underscores the kind of revolution that has to happen in education to take advantage of what technology can do for learning.

Alan November said something to the effect of, “Kids still have to come to school for things like sports, arts and socialization,” when an audience member asked if he was advocating for 100% distance learning.  I was surprised to hear this, since the arts are the core of the creative process of learning (a la Daniel Pink) and don’t require physical attendance at school.

Same with socialization – on the one hand, face to face communication and problem solving is extremely useful.  On the other, kids today must be able to represent themselves well (and assertively, fairly, responsibly, resolve conflicts, etc.) online to a much greater extent than just a few years ago.

In summary, until we completely overhaul education and use exploration as the building block, we’re only going to be tacking on eight hours of lecture after an eight hour school day.

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Retreat lunch break

Posted by phourigan on May 3, 2010

So far so good at the ADVIS retreat.  Alan November has some really interesting ideas which I’m eager to get going with back at school.

Some of my personal favorites:

Shared Google Maps for presenting country or place research.

Google Docs for collaborative note-taking – assign roles to members of the class.  For example, break notes out into People, Places and Events in a history lecture.  Share the notes out at the end of the class and make sure they’re perfect.  Everyone gets the best possible notes.

Google Custom Search – for teachers who grumble about their students citing Google as a resource.  Perfect for librarians and others who teach research skills.  Can’t wait to implement this one at school!

Inverted classroom – students should do their classwork at home (view/hear a lecture, read, compose questions) and homework at school (solve problems, get immediate feedback).

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