Category Archives: Articles

Guest posts by expert educators

Learn like Luke Skywalker

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach was recently cited by a popular website as a Top 50 “Eduprenuer” for “paradigm-shifting professional development.” Through her company Powerful Learning Practice, she and co-founder Will Richardson have prepared and inspired thousands of K12 educators to “make the shift” to 21st century teaching and learning — on behalf of their iGeneration students — by becoming connected educators themselves.

A 25-year educator, Sheryl has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor, and digital learning consultant. She’s a leading advocate for virtual communities of practice as essential components of professional learning in a connected world and the lead author of the Amazon bestseller The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age.

But it’s her commitment to passion-driven learning that often first catches the attention of teachers and school leaders who are drawn to her work. This article — excerpted from a recent essay posted at her blog 21st Century Collaborative — captures her powerful vision of passionate learning.

by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

I am helping to lead an online community of practice initiative in Alberta, Canada. In reading a thread in the community this morning I noticed one of the participants responding to a video someone shared. Here is what she said:

Why does it always get back to what we learned when we were in Kindergarten? Once again I’m reminded of the simple truth that so much that it is important just has to do with seeing someone as just another person like me and then treating them as I want to be treated. So simple and yet hard to do.

Going back to what we learned in kindergarten struck a cord with me. It represents a time when, as learners, we were hungry to know. We still had a sense of wonderment and learned mostly from self driven experiences. Kindergarten educators are typically still willing or free to nurture that sort of curiosity and passion. If we are early-childhood teachers, we let children explore and take control of their own learning. We are willing to situate them in immersive environments that encourage discovery and learning, standing back and watching as they make sense of their environment and the world in which they live.

But for some reason when kids get older, we shift that scenario. Play and exploration are cast aside as not important or controlled enough to result in deep learning. Education becomes something more simulation based, something we develop and deliver. As children progress (is that the right word?) through the grades, learning becomes filtered through teacher and master lenses.

Rather than provide a rich learning environment and then stand back as the young scientist makes sense of their world, we predetermine what it is we feel they should learn and know. We mold, shape and impose rather than letting learners pick and choose what they want to explore and dabble in. We convince ourselves that direct instruction produces better learning. We agree that adults who simply serve as helpers, facilitating a child’s chosen learning journey, are just too laissez-faire. We are certain that we as teachers know what is best for learners and that education happens only when a teacher-student relationship exists. They are kids. They can’t be trusted to know what they need or should learn at this immature stage. Right?

Why do we do that?

Maybe some of the reasons for our need to control learning so tightly are embedded in the fact many of us are educating the masses. When you educate 20, 25, 30, 40 kids at a time, you have to standardize to make certain that things are effective, efficient and flow smoothly. There’s no time to deviate, to explore down roads less traveled, to follow up on interests that one child might have, because everyone is on the same train heading in the same direction and expected to get to a certain destination at the same time.

Imagine what would happen if 40 kids showed up for your biology class and you gave them all bicycles and a bucket and shovel, and let them take off in different directions, rather than everyone getting on your carefully scheduled and organized train. Chaos, right? I mean seriously: how would you control the learning if they were all on their own path? It would be impossible to cover all the content and have them all test well. And therein lies the problem.

What if we restructured a bit?

Just think how deep the learning would be if it was driven by “want to” rather than “have to” motivation. By rocket fuel, not lighter fluid. What if we developed environments that were created intentionally so that they fostered a passion to learn? What if our primary role as teachers was to be a catalyst for learning — always on-hand, answering questions, pointing out exciting things along the way? What if the child’s passion and interest in the materials, the manipulatives, the media and books we provided — what if that directed the learning journey?

What if education wasn’t about efficiency and control, standardization and economies of scale, but was instead about each child’s personal learning journey, steered by the headwinds of wonderment? What if your role was to be a learning travel agent, arranging journeys that ensured each child immersed in your learning trips would not only learn (often very different things) but have a great time doing it? What if their learning was always full of authentic purpose, aligned with personal passion for the topic?

Think about the “Choose your own adventure” books many of us loved as kids. What if your role was to design learning like that? What if — instead of teaching them, you helped them to be fully engaged learners? What if instruction wasn’t  content focused but environment focused, heading off in surprising directions determined by a learner’s interest and choice of content along the way?

Take, for example, my grandson

My grandson is really into walking. Luke Skywalker Walblay (right) turns one next week. And he is REALLY into walking. He has taken lots of first steps on his own for short amounts of time, and we all cheer and he likes it – some. But what he really likes is holding your finger and traveling long distances around the house, yard and driveway. It is his passion, not mine (it is uncomfortable for me to lean over like that for long periods of time).

Because of his intense interest in walking fast and far, he is motivated to do it for long periods of time. When I care for him I have a choice: I can spend my day distracting him so I can do what I want (read books, play on the carpet, swim in the pool), or I can leverage his interest as a means to help him learn new things. I have chosen the latter.

When Luke comes to visit, we walk together everywhere (he is very happy), and I use the opportunity to constantly label, vocalize, and encourage him to repeat sounds and words. I stop on our walking circuit in the backyard to look up in the tree and say “bird,” or on our track in the house where we stop here and there to say: “television” or “cabinet” or “dog.” Luke is moving and mastering his passion while being exposed to lots of learning on the journey. It works. I am respecting him as a learner who has his own desires and interests, but as long as he is interested, I am also sharing what I know with him along the way.

Hungry to learn

Learning is personal knowledge construction, fueled socially as we schematically connect ideas and concepts — as we do things and discuss them with others. Just like we shouldn’t eat until we are hungry, I believe learning should be natural and likewise fueled on demand.

Give children a rich, interesting environment or scenario filled with beautiful literature, authentic problems to solve, and places to explore or create a journey, and you will have kids who are motivated to learn and engage. A steady diet of force-fed content with no authentic and ongoing opportunities for application goes against the natural way we are designed to learn.

The way we learned in kindergarten.

Advice for Passionate New Special Ed Teachers

Elizabeth-Stein-brite-120by Elizabeth Stein

When I became a special education teacher two decades ago, many colleagues told me that my excitement for teaching was because I was new. They sighed, groaned, and said, “Wait a few years.” I remember thinking, what are they talking about? I knew way back then that my passion for teaching and learning would never diminish—it would only intensify. And it has.

It’s a passion for teaching that leaves me raring to go to work each day—even after all these years. What’s my secret? The source goes deep down to my core and vision, and can easily be summed up explaining that I am constantly asking myself: What can I do for children?

This simple yet profound question provides the focus I need when the going gets tough. This question keeps me in the mode of turning my passion into performance. I’m talking about purposeful performance that links my core values with an empathetic awareness of the views of those around me.

Courtesy of Education Week Teacher

Special education teachers have challenges similar to those of their general education peers: mastering content, fine-tuning technique, and collaborating with colleagues. Yet special education teachers face additional responsibilities that include, but are not limited to:

• understanding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);

• considering accommodations and modifications for learning;

• aligning IEP goals, state standards, and district expectations;

• creating a climate of tolerance for diversity at the classroom and building level;

• researching and applying strategies to help make the general education curriculum accessible for a diverse group of special needs students;

• collecting data to monitor students’ progress of IEP goals;

• apprising themselves of behavior modification techniques.

At a glance (and even when given considerable thought) the job can seem overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. I think the secret to success lies in building a strong sense of “self,” so that you can focus your energies on answering that question of mine: what can I do for children? This sense of self is an absolute must as the year slowly cranks into high gear.

The challenges of Co-Teaching

Inclusion is one setting where a special education teacher’s core teaching values can get lost in the shuffle if we don’t stay completely tuned in to our purpose. In an inclusive classroom setting, the special educator joins forces with the general education teacher. The challenge of implementing well-thought-out lesson plans or finding the co-planning time can become a bit daunting. Over the years, I’ve identified three possible realities that can emerge from the inclusion experience:

1. You find yourself in a co-teaching relationship where instructional philosophies match perfectly. Life is great.

2. You find yourself balancing your instructional philosophy with your co-teacher’s, with mutual respect for each other’s perspectives, roles and goals. Life is good—and balanced.

3. You find significant differences between you and your co-teacher that are not easily resolved. And you become frustrated, quiet, passive, intimidated, and hesitant to set the teacher in you free.

Most special educators would agree that the third option is a shameful situation to be in. I have far too many memories of special education colleagues over the years who have said to me, with a note of despair: “Please don’t let me be observed in my inclusion class—because that is just not me.”

On the bright side, this third option can be avoided. A balance can be found. One sure way to accomplish this balance is to keep your values firmly in place while considering the perspective of those individuals you must collaborate with. Let’s think about this by joining in on an imaginary meeting. Get comfortable and pull up a chair. Here are the points of view you must bring to the table, if you want to be successful:

• First, you will see instruction from the perspective of your students. This view will reveal all of their interests, experiences, thoughts, and needs.

• Next you will see the parents’ view, which includes the hope that their children can become independent and successful.

• Then you will see the perspective of (and the demands upon) your co-teacher. You’ll have a clear view of the curriculum, standards, assessments, and grade book.

Breath deeply and focus on your core values

Take a deep breath. And never forget to breathe out. Take it all in, because you must think about all views as you consider how best to do your job. You must know your students’ needs and goals. You must search for the best possible outcomes for them and their families. You must track students’ progress and provide specific data-based evidence for that progress. You must never, ever become quiet or intimidated. Because your students need and depend on you, you must look your co-teacher in the eye and ask: What can we do for all these children, in partnership?

When we keep in mind the perspectives of all involved in the education of our students with special needs, we can guard against feeding the frustrations that an inclusive setting can evoke. So keep an open mind and don’t forget your core values—they will help you sleep at night.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: A clear understanding of your core values is critical when embarking on a special education teaching career. You will teach alongside many colleagues each day—some who share your teaching philosophy and some who do not. But it’s all about what you can do for your students and how you can guide them to become self-advocates. This sense of values, this mission, becomes your focused strength. When your core values are set, you grow personally and professionally. And your values will evolve as you evolve.

Finally, you must keep expanding your knowledge and skills. Continuing the learning process for yourself helps sustain your passion for teaching and learning. You must always take some time to learn from:

• your students

• the views of everyone around you

• current research and current events

• your everyday experiences

• your significant observations

Our students need us to teach every day to the very best of our ability. We must do everything we can to build the strength and wisdom—and sometimes the courage—to keep our promise to them.

Elizabeth Stein (@elizabethlstein) is a 20+ year teaching veteran, with experience as a special education teacher in both upper elementary and middle school. She’s currently a teacher coach, specializing in coteaching, in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. She also writes the popular MiddleWeb blog Two Teachers in the Room and co-hosts the Twitter chat #coteachat. She is the author of Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Scholastic).

Note: This article first appeared on the web at Education Week Teacher. Republished with permission of the author.

Photo: Emile Wamsteker, Education Week

Students Can Do Hard Things

Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and a Project Based Learning workshop leader. Visit his website Teachers Lead and follow him on Twitter at @anthonycody.

Since 2007, Anthony’s policy-oriented Ed Week blog Living in Dialogue has become a rallying place for teachers who value their professionalism. He also writes about practice, as this 2007 advice for new teachers indicates.

by Anthony Cody

I recently observed a teacher passing out an assignment to a class of high school English students. “This is hard,” complained one. “No, it’s really not hard, it’s easy!” replied the teacher.

Even though I could recall saying the same thing myself on occasion, something about this exchange bothered me. What can our students possibly learn if we only gave them easy tasks? On the other hand, how can we motivate our students to accept a challenge if they doubt their own ability?

I asked Lynn Scott, an experienced teaching colleague, what she thought. Her reply: “If my second graders say something is hard, I say ‘That’s ok. You can do hard things!'”

To make her case, Lynn talked to her students about hard things they had mastered. They all were born not knowing how to walk. Did they just stand up one day and run around? No, they taught themselves, by grabbing onto furniture and other people, and they gradually learned to walk without falling. They learned to ride bicycles the same way — by hard practice and by sometimes falling down.

Research shows that students who lack motivation are often not convinced that the effort they invest in themselves is going to be rewarded. They simply have not been academically successful in the past, so why bother? Furthermore, their parents may have been ineffectual in school, creating a template for failure easier to live up to than disprove.

So how do we teach our students they are capable of doing so much more than they even realize? This is the true art of teaching. Here are some ideas:

> Keep a portfolio of work, beginning with samples from the first week of school (or any fixed point in time). Then, in November or December, you can take a look at their earlier work, and highlight all the things they know how to do now that they could not do in September. This helps students understand their goal is to improve from their current level, and no matter where they are starting, they can learn and grow.

> Researchers tell us that if you give students a letter grade along with feedback, all they focus on is the grade, and the value of the feedback is lost. Therefore I try to avoid giving grades, especially on first or second drafts. Instead, I try to give specific suggestions to guide students toward improvement. Rubrics that describe your expectations can be especially helpful with this. Look at the path to quality work as a ladder, not a leap, and support them as they climb.

> Sometimes students do not really know what high quality work looks like — or how to produce it. The first time I asked students to do science projects, I was disappointed by some of the work they turned in (apparently assembled the night before with a roll of scotch tape and a magic marker). But when I thought about it, I realized they did not have any clear models.

The next time, when I introduced the assignment I shared some of the better projects I had saved. I also had the students take a close look at the projects and develop a list of characteristics associated with quality work. What do the great projects have? What do less successful projects look like? We took the notes from this discussion and created a rubric the students could use to guide them as they worked. Then the students used the rubric to score their own projects with the help of their peers and make improvements before turning them in.

Anthony Cody

I’ve really come to see the power of peer review after years of practicing this teaching method. When students are involved in reviewing each other’s work using a clear set of guidelines, they not only have a tool that promotes honest and objective judgments, they also become more familiar with the hallmarks of quality, and they can apply that understanding to their own work as well.

Our students can do hard things, but they do not always know that. High self-regard is important for all the kids we teach, but it is not built through empty praise. It grows as the student actually succeeds in creating quality work. True satisfaction comes when we know for sure that we have achieved excellence. Then let the celebration begin!

This article first appeared at Education Week Teacher. Used with permission of the author.

The Homeroom Is a Home

this-is-not-a-test-cvr-194We are more than grateful to middle grades math teacher Jose Vilson for giving us permission to publish this excerpt from an early draft of his book This Is Not a Test, now under contract with Chicago’s Haymarket Books for publication in June 2014 (see our review). A man of many talents, Jose also helps MiddleWeb solve its website conundrums and taught us the word modding. We’re grateful for that, too.

José Luis Vilson comes from the Lower East Side and grew up in the projects. He teaches today in the Inwood-Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He’s a graduate of Syracuse University (computer science) and the City College of New York (masters, mathematics education), and a prominent national blogger on matters of education, race, Black Latino culture, life in urban America and, most recently, fatherhood.

A visit to his website/blog The Jose Vilson will be revealing. You’ll find his 2012 presentation on teacher leadership at TEDxNYED here.

This story about how a homeroom became a home likely doesn’t need much context, but you can find out more about Jose’s background at his About Me page and by exploring his many blog posts.

[ © 2012 Jose Luis Vilson, used with permission ]

On the first day of class, I looked at the roster, and I said to myself, “14 kids. Hmm.” I nodded and approved of such a roster, when a little girl with glasses looked up at me and said, “you know it’s not going to be this size forever right?” Scarlett was good for reality checks.

Seventh graders are at the bottom of the theoretical behavior parabola, based on some informal surveys I’ve taken with dozens of teachers (and non-educators) across the country. Upon telling them I teach 7th grade, many of them cringe, sigh, or just pat me on the back and wish me well. My naïveté got the best of me my first year. A pleasant group of 14 students, all nice and quiet and still, nothing like I expected my first day to be.

Day 2 came the rush. After 14 kids took their seats in the first few minutes, a lady walked in with about 16 children, loud and clamoring for lockers while getting their registration cards changed. I stood there waiting for the process to finish, observing a whole period of math gone for no reason. The administrators collapsed two 7th grade classes into one; 14 students became the congress of 30 known as 7H3. Of the three classes on this floor (7H1, 7H2, 7H3), this group was hand-engineered to run me through the rigors of teaching in an urban setting.

I was also assigned two high-level classes, one in the 8th grade (8A4), and one in the 7th grade (7A4). My advanced classes had better levels of student attendance, high levels of parent engagement, and uncanny levels of idiot savants. Only one of my students in those classes achieved the pinnacle of my tough grading policy. For me, 100% isn’t a gift; it’s a hard-earned grade, and I’ve only given this grade out to three people in my entire life. Pury from 7A4, who thought I would settle for her cute handwriting when her math wasn’t on point, was the first to earn a 100. Poor her.

7H3, despite their lack of academic thoroughness, had character. And characters. The loud and secretly nerdy group of Sonya and Salome, who I semi-adopted as my school daughter. The mellow cool of Dalido, Felix, and Rafael H. The young maturity of Bianca, Scarlett, and Josh. The dedication and commitment of Yuleisi, Christina, and JP. The giggly gum-chewers Destiny, Jennifer C. and “just L”. The extra-quiet Thannya with the extra talkative Kelly, and the radiant smilers who frequently came late, Ashley and Amber. The mischievous Jonathan O, the excitable Jonathan P, the beanstalk Jonathan S. And there was the calamitous Alex, whose job it was to make my job that much harder; the introvert Christopher, who just needed a pat on the back every so often; the quizzical Mahaish who always had a round of intelligent questions about everything we did, and Shanaya and Whitney, who snickered their way through every conversation.

They made it really hard to present myself as detached, but I tried really hard to stay as objective and measured with them as possible. I didn’t smile once until December (more on that later). I made them work mightily on almost everything, and chased them down through their English, science and social studies classes. I found out the talent classes they were assigned to, and if I saw them in the hallway, I’d escort them back to where they belonged. I was brutally honest to all of their parents from the first minute I called home.

One time I kept the kids after school because they kept uttering the n-word. Rosa Parks had died the day before, and I got so furious to hear it spoken aloud that I had a tutorial on why I feel the way I do about it. I shut the door, and wrote the word on the blackboard. Silence. “Now, you listen to me. We didn’t fight for you to sit here where you can get an opportunity to do better for yourselves and your communities so you could use this language around each other.” It’s one of the standard diatribes we concerned folk have, and what amazed me was that, soon after, the whole school learned of this lesson. 7H3 spread it. They slapped people’s shoulders when they used the n-word around me. The amount of respect they had for me personally stirred me, even when many of them didn’t try as hard as they could academically. They reciprocated the dedication I had to them two-fold. I was tough but they understood why.

My co-English teacher had exactly the opposite relationship with them. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, with his insistence on his perceived expertise in English-specific pedagogy. What hurt him most, though, was his hatred for the kids. He never had to say it. The students became so aware and in tune with that hate, they would run, scream, and shout to get into my room. In a raised voice, I’d simply look at all of them and say, “WHAT is GOING ON HERE?! Now, you all step back out of the classroom, quietly line up, and try that again.” Later on, they’d try to explain it to me, but I’d already heard the commotion. My wall grumbled from the energies the other classroom gave off.

At some point, a situation occurred between the English teacher and the class that resulted in Sonya, the unofficial spokesgirl for 7H3, bursting out of his room, shaking and in tears. Then the other students ran out, yelling their disdain for this guy, and eventually found their way to my room. One of my coordinators stepped in and asked me to look after Sonya while we resolved the situation. That moment pulled me out of Mr. Vilson mode for the day; I wasn’t taught how to handle these types of situations. In that building, she only trusted me and she wanted someone to listen. It’s a moment that I keep nearby, like a well-worn bookmark, so I can remember my place in this particular story. She called for me.

The horror stories of men getting into trouble for showing any sort of care for a young student made me pensive to cross my professional (read: cold) barrier to help her out. I sat next to her in front of the coordinator’s office in the shorter hallway while she cried her eyes out. She kept saying, “I don’t know why, I don’t know why …” I just sat there. When she exhausted herself, she put her head on my shoulder. I put my arm around her and let her cry as she long as she wanted.

Twenty minutes passed.

“I think I want to go back to class.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I think I’m done.”

“Alright. Cool.”

“Thank you.”

We walked back to her class. After dropping her off, I sat there in my room and let the walls vibrate, the ring in my ears nothing more than the quiet that occupied the big room.

Without trying to sound too dramatic about it, that was the day I discovered what people meant when they tell you teaching is a calling.

After that, the memorable moments brushed past like looseleaf notes. The surprise birthday party I honestly didn’t know was coming; the afternoons playing basketball with them in the upstairs gym; the faces we made when different assistant principals came in and tried to exert themselves. (“Mr. Vilson, can you tell her to leave us alone please?”) The times when I had to tell boys that there would be other girls who wouldn’t break their hearts.

The times I felt I let them down. One time, I just decided to write all the notes on the board when they totally tuned me out. I didn’t teach or anything. I just sat there and didn’t stop them from doing whatever. A couple of the kids took notes, but the majority of them did exactly what they wanted. They went to their lockers, chatted with their friends, doodled in their notebooks, and didn’t mind just doing as they pleased. It was a huge failure in classroom management. But even more it was a disappointment, a breach of what I thought was a trust bond between that group and me.

After the class was over, I sat there in utter disgust at what just happened, rethinking this teaching business. What the hell was I doing? Did I really want to invest this much of myself on behalf of kids who totally disregarded me on a whim? Did I just need to quit and prove my doubters right?

But the pity party was short. This isn’t how it’s going to end.

That afternoon during homeroom, I sat them all down, their heads hanging and silent, knowing they were going to get the business. Then I had them all stand behind their raised chairs, and I gave them my version of the story you’ve read up to this point. They were astonished and ashamed. I lined them up, as we were wont to do, and dismissed them from the stairs. I looked away from them. I walked down the hallway, past my other classes. I ran into my AP and coach’s office.

I broke down.

Mrs. King (the coordinator for the floor) and Ms. Michel (the math coach) looked on as this young, usually composed gentleman told them the source of this emotional outburst. Then they did their best to make sure another math teacher didn’t bite the dust. I won’t share everything they said, but at the time, their words meant everything. I took the 1 Train to one of my graduate classes, ready to spill my guts about the terrible day I’d just had. My friend Indira, who I was still taking classes with, said it was about time. Most of my fellow Teaching Fellows said they’d had their breakdowns back in November. (One, in fact, had had hers right in front of me.)

Mentally drained, I had a hard time concentrating in my night classes. I wanted to apologize to my professors from throughout my college career. But I never felt inclined to make excuses for my own failures. After getting home at 8:30 pm, I said nothing to my mom about the day I had, only that I was tired and not particularly hungry. But I was. I was hungry for another day to make it up. I didn’t want a mental health break.

I came back the next day, renewed. I’d needed to be pushed to my limits — to find out where and what they were. Reminiscing on that, my UFT chapter leader at the time said in his burly gruff, “Vilson, you’re doing a yeoman’s job.” “Huh?” “A yeoman’s job.” “What?”

“You’re doing a HELLUVA job, Vilson!”

Thanks. Every teaching year undulates in the moments that make them unique, but every teacher’s first year is the foundation upon which we build ourselves forever after. For all the mini-dramas that played out in Year One, I would never trade that experience for any other. They are the stories I love to tell to friends. Those were the kids that inspired me to try for some of my own.

People in my position (along with researchers and experts) like to enforce middle-class values on non-middle class students who already come with a set of values that work for them. We’re well-meaning but we’re off track. We just need to work with what kids bring and use their values to our advantage. My homeroom doesn’t always care to behave well. They’re going to interrupt you, yell at you, curse at you, disrespect you. They’re not always going to walk in formation for you, or do all your homework, or speak in The King’s English. They’re not often going to love your  lectures when you speak firmly to them. If your response as an adult is to highlight how much more perfect your class or culture is compared to theirs, then you really need a warm cup of empathy builder.

First round’s on me.

The kids of 7H3 ended the seventh grade knowing that the next year would begin with new school dynamics. They’d pushed every other core teacher to the brink of retirement or off the deep end by the last day of May. In the process, they’d developed forms of advocating for themselves like petitioning, letter writing, and telling parents to call the school whenever they had issues as a collective. I wasn’t sure about the source of their activist spirit, but I certainly had to respect it. Looking back, I think they were the first to teach me that homeroom classes often become a reflection of deeper truths about teachers — things we don’t necessarily reveal openly to them about ourselves.

Not everyone invests themselves into any set of children the way I learned to do that first year. But when I did, the homeroom became a home. For all of us.

Student Web ID: 5 Big Ideas

Jenny Luca is a middle grades teacher and librarian currently working as Director of Information Services at Toorak College, a secondary school in Mt.Eliza (outskirts of Melbourne) Australia. She’s an internationally respected education blogger at Lucacept: Intercepting the Web. This post originally appeared at the Powerful Learning Practice group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution. She presented on this work at the ISTE 2012 conference in San Diego.

by Jenny Luca

I work in an Independent School in Melbourne, Australia, and this past year we made a commitment to help our students (grades 7-12) create ePortfolios, using an Edublogs campus as the platform. Here are 5 reasons why we are making student blogging and portfolio development a high priority.

1. Positive digital footprints

These kids need to establish a positive digital footprint. Without question, it will be the norm for these students to be Googled when they begin to seek employment. Even employment of the part time variety! They need to cultivate their personal brand, and we can help them by encouraging them to post about the great things they are involved in at school. This can reflect what they are learning in their classrooms, or it can be a discussion of the co-curricular activities they enjoy. We want our students to understand that they can control the message about them that exists on the Web, and they can point prospective employers, colleagues or university admissions officers towards a digital footprint that they themselves have created when the time is right.

2. Communicating with digital tools

We want our students to have a handle on how you use digital tools for communication purposes, and not just through networks like Facebook. Plenty of our students are Facebook users, but there is a higher order skill set required to maintain consistent posts in a blog. We’ve taught our students how to set up categories, add widgets, use the HTML editor to embed code, and even how to tell the difference between a legitimate comment and someone who is spamming you. As our world moves ever more closely towards the Internet as the main vehicle for communication, we feel that we are helping our students understand the language they will need to navigate this new territory.

3. Transparency for parents and family

Our curriculum is becoming more transparent for our parent population. As our students write more and more about their learning, we now have a means for our parents to feel more connected to what happens at school. Where once a child would write for an audience of one – their teacher – now they are writing for a potentially much larger audience that includes their immediate and extended family. When you see a grandparent leave a comment on a child’s blog, it brings a bit of a tear to your  eye!

Just think, these students will have a digital archive of their learning, but not only that, they will have comments from friends and family members that they can revisit in years to come. Their access won’t be limited to the box of cherished school records and momentos at the top of the bedroom cupboard. For these kids, an internet connection will enable them to pull up their account from anywhere and revisit their childhood and adolescent school years.

4. New ways of thinking about Web tools

We need a digital space to demonstrate new methods of learning using Web tools. Already this year, our student ePortfolios have been used to embed Slideshare and Google Docs presentations, Glogsters, podcasts created with Garageband, Google MyMaps, Prezi’s and links to Wiki pages they have edited for differing subject areas. Just having our students understand how to hyperlink to other people’s content, and the potential this opens for two-way conversation, has been eye opening for them. These spaces have helped provide even more reasons for our teaching staff to utilize Web based tools and teach themselves new skills in the process.

5. Effective digital citizenship

The ePortfolios support our commitment to assist our students with the skills they need for effective digital citizenship. We are having the conversations we need to have about how you conduct yourself in digital spaces in the context of our curriculum, and not in isolated lecture style presentations that may hit a chord with some students, but miss the mark with others. When I talk to my 7th grade students, they can clearly articulate why it is we are using these ePortfolios. It makes sense to them, and they know it is important for their future lives. Believe you me, when a student tells you they need a really good digital footprint, it makes you feel like you’ve earned your keep that week!

Amazing or what?

I know I said I’d give you 5 reasons, but I can’t resist adding a very important 6th. For many of our students, their world view is changing as a result of posting in public spaces. Many of them have embedded clustr maps into their sidebars, and they can see where people are visiting from. Recently, one of our year seven students posted about the effect this global audience has had on her.

“Okay- so this is amazing.

I’ve used this blog since March 30th and so far it’s been a great resource and an amazing display of some of my work this year. It hasn’t just been my teachers, my classmates, my family and I that have looked at it- as of August 6 my blog has had 533 visits worldwide.

Amazing or what? WOW.”

Wow indeed.

photo: pixelsrzen, CC

Hungering for a Better World

Bill Ivey is Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield MA, where he also teaches Humanities 7, French I, and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands — and co-teaches ESL Humanities. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program.

Stoneleigh-Burnham School is a small independent school for girls in grades 7-12, founded in 1869. Bill is a bit younger than that. He was a charter member of our MiddleWeb e-listserv community, back in 1999, and helped organize several face-to-face gatherings of participants in that group. He continues to be active in its successor, AMLE’s MiddleTalk. This post first appeared at his school’s blog A View from the Nest.

by Bill Ivey

For those unfamiliar with it, The Hunger Games is a book by Suzanne Collins that describes a dystopian future wherein children representing their geographical district, known as Tributes, fight to the death for the (sarcasm on) entertainment (sarcasm off) value. There are three books to the series, and of course, the eagerly anticipated movie “The Hunger Games” was released this spring. As a middle school teacher who follows members of the #nerdybookclub on Twitter, I couldn’t have missed the release date if I tried. Many of my friends were braving the masses at midnight showings, which were as crowded as they were festive.

But as the release date drew near, an unexpected and disturbing dynamic arose. “I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned a black girl was playing Rue.” “And for the record im still pissed that rue is black…” “EWW Rue is black? I’m not watching.” (tweets quoted in “Racist Morons React to The Hunger Games: Rue is Black“)

Amandla Stenberg as Rue

Yes, Rue is Black. The 12-year-old Tribute is so described in The Hunger Games on page 45: “She has dark brown skin and eyes…” (Collins). That so many people missed that altogether might be perceived as a hopeful sign we are nearing a truly post-racial era, were some of people’s subsequent reactions a little less, well, racist. But even in a positive context, it would seem to suggest that assuming white skin as a default is such a strong instinct for some people that even when evidence to the contrary is presented, they still miss it. That in itself reveals a certain systemic racism and privilege even among some of those people of good will who are sincerely committed to being anti-racist.

And so, on discussion boards, blogs, Tumblrs and other sites, the Internet (became) populated with comments left by people who were infuriated by the racism… of people pointing out instances of racism. “There are more blacks that are racist than white because they have the feeling everyone owes them something.” wrote Kay in commenting on a blog that (middle grades math teacher) José Vilson wrote for CNN, titled “My View: Are we doing enough to make sure our kids aren’t racist?” Later on, WCT wrote, “People who complain about racism are the ones who are only going to perpetuate it. As long as somebody is going to continue to complain about racism it is going to continue to exist. If you want racism to stop just shut up about it…”

Right. Because historically, ignoring prejudice has worked so well.

Facing up to reality

In point of fact, I would argue, the most positive changes have been made by people willing (and/or forced) to face up to reality. It is easy to decide you are or want to be anti-racist. It is much harder work to act in a truly anti-racist fashion. You have to acknowledge that you see race, examine the assumptions you make so quickly you might not even notice them if you weren’t looking, and then work both to excise those assumptions from your thinking and to, very deliberately, avoid acting on them.

Stoneleigh-Burnham School 7th & 8th grade students

One of the most moving comments on Mr. Vilson’s blog came from a 15-year-old named John, who wrote: “i am a 15 year old boy and i have struggled with racism for a while. im white and was grownup with a fine family. but my dad being racist rubbed off on me. same with his brother my uncle who is around. it has taken me nearly a year now to fix my racism problem… now that im way less racist i hate people who are open about it. i hate my old self…” As much courage as it took to write that, it was probably less than it took for him to face up to the problem in the first place.

Therein lies my hope that one day we can, as Mr. Vilson put it in a companion blog to his CNN piece, “The Dreamer, The Believer [The Race-Man Cometh],” “create new [realities] where we can simultaneously love one another and recognize that we’re the same and different at once.” My hope grows as I see my Humanities 7 class sharing knowledge about and a deep sense of sadness tinged with anger at the death of Trayvon Martin, as MOCA agrees to propose dedicating a day in support of Trayvon Martin, and for that matter as MOCA discusses the Day of Silence in support of LGBT people.

Those new realities of which Mr. Vilson and I — and most, if not all, of our students — dream won’t just happen by themselves, though. You have to build them slowly, moment by moment.