Welcome Back: A letter to parents from a teacher

Dear Parents

Welcome to the new school year! We are so excited to have your child in our school, and I am even more excited to have your child in my class. I get a chance to lead your child through a wonderful and fascinating experience over the next few months. I hope to share with your child my deep love and passion for this area with hopes that your child will learn to share in that passion.

I wanted to tell you a bit about class and school so you can best know how to help your child succeed. That success will be based on much more than the grade. My students will work really hard on everything we do. There will be bumps along the way. There will be some incredible victories and some efforts which do not go as well. Emotions will run high sometimes; there will be distractions; and there will even be some very low points. They may love and hate class all in the same sentence. And all of this is part of the learning experience. In fact, there is some research which suggests that emotions are critical to deep learning.

OK, get ready…I am about to suggest some things which may make you (and your child) a bit uncomfortable:

in order for your entire family to have the best experiences related to this class, your child must take an active part in his/her own education.

What does that mean?

Students won’t be able to stand on the sidelines and passively make their way through class. Your child will need to be on top of every project, assignment, activity, and effort that we do. There will always be something your child can be doing for this class, so if she tells you that she has nothing to do in here, she may be missing something. At those times, we do not want you to take over. We don’t want you to call the teacher to find out what the assignment is/was. We don’t want you to go on the webpage to write down all the assignments. We don’t want you to take away soccer or video games to get their attention. (In fact, there is research which suggests that games have tremendous value in our lives). We want you to support your child as she does what is necessary to figure out what is going on, what’s due, what the expectations are, and what’s on the horizon. You will not be able to solve this problem for your child. You will not be able to plan the next week for your child. But, you can certainly help them lead themselves through that, so they come to a good plan “on their own”. And of course we can help with that as well. So, stay involved but in a supportive role. If you do not, your kids are not prepared in college to take care of themselves. If you do not, your kids are not developing the skills they need to solve problems, learn to communicate, and figure out how they can best make progress. Give them some room to explore their own judgment, but knowing that they may fail.

FAIL?!! WHAT?! Let them fail.

Ask questions...not necessarily more...but better questions

Does that mean stand by quietly and let them get a 45 as the course grade and say I told you so? Of course not… of course not…it means you keep an eye on what they are doing. How? Ask lots of questions and ask better questions. Questions like “How was school?” are useless. If you ask those types of questions, you are going to get nothin’ back. Ask specific questions, “Hey Tom, I know you were a bit worried about that first History quiz, do you feel like you prepared well for that?”, “Good night buddy. Hey, don’t you have that Computer Science project due Friday. I know you were struggling to get the sort routine working, were you able to make progress on that? Are you on target to get that done like you hoped?”, “Ok, Suzanne, I’ll pick you up at 3:30 today. Are you sure you don’t want me to come at 4:00 to give you some extra time in the library for the math test you said was going to be so hard?”, “That project sounds pretty cool…you said it’s due in 3 weeks, right? I’ll tell you what, why don’t you finish that list you are working on for stuff needed and if you need me to, I am happy to go with you to Wal-Mart in an hour and get some supplies, ok?” So, what I am talking about is being fully aware about the academics of your child, but not doing everything for them.

Grades……ahh grades…hmmmmmm. Necessary evil, but potentially valuable if used appropriately…but they are not as accurate or thorough as you might think. Be careful dangling grade-related carrots–it might backfire for all the wrong reasons.

Grades are a dangerous slope to go down if that is all you focus on. While they are at least one way to measure performance of some aspects of a class, they are far from accurate for the total picture. As teachers, we always strive to have students fall in love with (and develop an intense curiosity about ) our subject area…whether it’s language, art, math, economics, or Computer Science. Some classes are hard for some students; other classes come easier. There are so many factors that go into how a student connects with a class: personality of the teacher, delivery of content, amount of and type of homework, style of evaluation, variation of evaluations, time of day of class, class as part of the entire schedule(i.e. a hard & time demanding class by itself might be something students can bite their teeth into, but with 2 or 3 other similar classes, students may not connect as much), number of and type of other students in the class, the life of the teacher at that time(are they going through any major issues in their own life that might detract their passion and attention) ,age of student(a certain maturity might be needed to connect with some material or delivery methods or methodologies), division principal administration turnover or policies,boyfriend and girlfriend problems, social issues, etc. Most likely the priorities you have for them are somewhat different than theirs. So, my point is that there are so many factors that go into how a class is perceived by a student. So, you as a parent simply demanding that they get an A is probably not your best way forward. What parent doesn’t want to have a student who is a life-long learner who studies because she loves it and dives into a class with all her body and mind? So, don’t interact with your student about that class in ways which go against that. He wants to tell you about why he loves that math class…and it is not because he got a 96 on the last quiz. For a student to be asked simply what grade he/she has in a class is like a tennis player going 7-6,6-7,7-6,6-7,22-20 in the finals of a tennis match and all you ask is “Did you win”. Ask better questions. And also realize that your child is not going to hit a home run on every test or project in every class. It may be that the 82 he got on the last quiz was 10 points more than he expected. She was so proud of the 89 on the group project (especially since she did all the work as part of a slacker group), so you asking why she didn’t get an A is a slap in the face. Some grades are not about measuring knowledge, so the definition of what an A is changes in each class and also depending on the type of assignment. (See my BLOG post on the meaning of GRADES)

...great discussions can take place in surprising places....

Is the relationship between you and your child one that can be used to help them work their way through the rough spots? For example, do you have the courage to let your child fail on his own? And don’t forget, the definition of failure in this case is simply not getting what they are used to or expecting. And if they do fail, how do you handle it? Do you take the cell phone away? No going to the movie Saturday night? Instead or in addition to, have you considered having a discussion with your child about the entire experience, letting them work their way through what happened, places where they might have acted/reacted differently, and even how they themselves handled the low grade. Perhaps it was not a failure in their eyes and they would love the chance to explain what that means. In years past (in my classes) I’ve had students fail a quiz just to spite me. I’ve had students fail a project because they were so focused on another part of their life that my project just was not on the radar screen. I’ve had students not prepare for a test just to get under the skin of an overbearing parent. So, especially when the motivations of your child are not necessarily obvious, if all you do is focus on that low grade, you may be missing the entire message. Your desire for them to go to your alma mater Ivy League may or may not be their goal at this point in their life. And considering how little your high schooler lets you into their life, you’ve got to listen better. While they may have earned an F on that evaluation, your child may have earned an A+ on getting someone’s attention. What you have been focusing on may not be what they are focusing on. One last note in this area: there may be a time where your child studies or works really hard on an assignment, and does put in enough time, energy, and mental energy to earn an awesome grade, but simply just had a bad day, or worse, the teacher had a bad day–meaning your child misread the question on the test, or perhaps the teacher focused the test on an area he did not really focus so much this year (but in years past had). And there are times where the project or test was just one of the hardest things your child has experienced so far, and so whatever grade they earned is accurate. And that is where grades are best–giving a non-biased, accurate, precise, and helpful reflection of what was done or what was learned compared with what was expected. It may be that your child’s understanding of and ability to demonstrate some material was about 79% of what was expected, so the 79 he got on the test may very well have been exactly what he should have gotten. And do you as a parent have the courage to celebrate that? Lose the battle to win the war. Lose the round to win the whole fight. Let the emotions associated with the experience sink in naturally. You may be surprised that your teen, because you HAVE BEEN DOING A GOOD JOB RAISING HIM/HER, will learn from this experience in the ways you value.

And if there are other questions to be asked, or conversations to be had that do involve the teacher, encourage your child to initiate and have those discussions. Don’t rob your child the experience of thinking about, planning and following through on that critical part of active learning. Don’t do that FOR THEM. You might be surprised to find that your teacher has been looking forward to that interaction to happen. I am on your side; I want your child to succeed, but in ways that are in addition to the ways you might solely be focusing on. I see your child every day. I see the good days and the bad days. I see the successes and the failures. And as a professional educator, I also see different aspects of the whole child that all interact together to give us what we see. I see the light bulb turn on, and I learn the facial expressions and body mannerisms that your child uses to communicate when in a class full of peers. And those expressions, mannerism, and even way-of-talking are probably different than what you experience at home. It may be that while this minor quiz grade was not up to par, perhaps something else we’ve been working on was more successful. And it may be that even your child was not aware of that because he was only focusing on the grade as well, because that is what you were focusing on.

The expectation you have set for your child may not be the the same as the expectations they have set for themselves. That does not mean they have a lower standard, it may mean they have a different standard. Your expectations may reflect your own experience, not their experience. It is crucial that your child be given the support to develop their own expectations and motivations. And that is hard and it takes time. And I think you’ll find that if you put your faith in your child, give them your support, and spend the time developing a relationship like I’ve discussed here, that your child will far exceed your expectations—and even better than that—they will exceed the expectations they set for themselves.

Let me end with a story that brings all this together. A student of mine I’ll call “Sachiko” really wanted to be in my senior level AP class(Oh God, I cannot believe I am using an AP class as an example to prove my point. I hate AP. I am sure I’ve written a BLOG post about that) She probably did not really qualify to be in there if I based it on previous grades and performance alone, but she really wanted to challenge herself and was so genuinely interested to being part of class that it made complete sense for me to let her into the class. All semester she worked hard, turned in all projects, and was an active part of class. She consistently submitted work at a mid B grade level. The final exam in that class was a really hard exam that would push them far out of their comfort zone, but if they relied on what they knew and could do, they should be able to figure out the challenges on the exam. (Ok, for those of you who know that I have very serious opinions of EXAMS, this was before I saw the light)

Our school policy is that we are not allowed to share exam grades with students during exam week for fear that a great or poor performance on one exam will have dramatic impact on other exam performances (whether good or bad). But, I was so excited for “Sachiko”. I graded her exam and she got a B+. Wow! Nice! Awesome! I could not wait to see her face when she found that out. She thought she had done really poorly. I ran into her that afternoon in the parking lot and yelled across for her to come to my car. She ran over, with a very concerned look on her face. “Sachiko, I am so proud of you! You got a B+! Congratulations!” What happened next to this day I will never forget. She burst into tears and said, “My mother is going to kill me ‘cause I didn’t get an A.”

That experience went from incredible success to incredible failure…but I ask….whose failure was it?

I am truly looking forward to getting you know your child this semester. I look forward to the challenge of figuring out what makes him tick, and also what it will take for your child to deeply connect with my class and my subject area.

-Sincerely

Your child’s teacher

There is a different way to look at education. As a parent, teacher, student, administrator, or policy maker, keep your eyes and ears open, but look differently and listen better.

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DO vs. DO NOT: The new Digital Divide

crossroadsWe are at a crossroads. We’ve been here for years, and just seem to be parked here, not moving or at best… going in circles. Other cars are zooming by honking at us from all sides, but we just keep our blinders on and look straight ahead. We seem lost (but do not admit or accept it), and if we would just look left or right or up or down (or any direction other than “the status quo road ahead”) we would see the sign that has the directions to anywhere all around us. And all are places we want and need to go.

What is the issue?

So during the “first digital wave”, the Digital Divide was between those that had access to technology and those that did not. Some of this digital divide was by choice, some by economics, some by lack of understanding, and some by luck. It was a recognition that not only was it a good idea to use some of the digital tools available, it was crucial. And so we saw that first wave jettison us into the 21st Century.

So, here we are in the beginning of the second digital wave.

And it is here and now that we see two types of people. Both are crucial to success in an economy. The first: USERS of technology. These are the people that are tech savvy and use their digital devices commandingly to help solve the problems in their job or industry. They understand how the software and hardware work and can use it as it was supposed to be used. They are excellent at what they do and effective at using what digital solutions are available to manage business, promote ideas, and address problems. This group of people is also becoming the sought after norm, that if you are not part of this group today, you are probably not able to succeed in business and school. This group of people is very important.

However, this group is also completely dependent upon a new type of person.

Now we introduce the nuts and bolts of new Digital Divide: Those that DO, and those that DO not. Those that GET IT and those that DO NOT get it. Those that CREATE, and those that DO NOT create.

This new second type of person is a CREATOR of technology. They are the ones who create new devices, new software, new apps, new technologies, new ways to program or reprogram existing devices to do more, new solutions, even new tools. They are the ones who take their own ideas, needs, and wants and turn them into something real that be used to solve some problem. There was a time where this group of people was only highly specialized and trained PhD research scientists who took years to develop something, engineers who spent months in the back of a lab tweaking and tinkering until it was ready. And yes, this traditional style of CREATOR still exists in some industries and in some technologies where extreme breakthroughs require that type of commitment. Actually, I might argue the today’s CREATORS are even dependent upon this traditional CREATOR for what they do. But, for many industries, that is not the case. Today’s CREATORS are simply good people, who GET IT, and who are in command of today’s technology. They are the ones who are not afraid to open up a device to troubleshoot, upgrade, replace, reprogram, or fix. There are not afraid to explore “inside” to make something do more than it was intended. They are not afraid of failure because in Computer Science, failure is actually crucial for success. They are not afraid to say “what if…” and “how can I…” and “let’s try this…” They are people in industries and jobs that were chosen because of their passions, but they had the additional forethought to let Computer Science be part of their world as well. They are the real estate agents who are not satisfied with the software that is available to them. They want to do things differently—better– and so they write some software that gives them the tools to do things better than their competition. carbon analysis appThey are the biologists who are studying dolphin DNA, but cannot get the software analysis tools to access the data like they want it. They have new ways of looking at the data, so they make an app on their tablet that does allow them to access that data in those new ways, thus distinguishing themselves in their industry, and perhaps making new discoveries. They are the small business owners who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to invest in branding and marketing for their website. They design their own webpages, transaction databases, inventory slide shows, product demonstrations, and online payment buttons. They are ones who look at their smartphone, which they carry everywhere (and so do their customers), and decide to make an app that addresses the needs of their customers. They are a local bow-tie business who designs an app that lets their customers “try on” a bow-tie to see how it looks, without being in their store. The CREATORS are a new breed of student, parents, business owner, leader. They are not saying “we cannot”, they are saying “I just did”. They are not giving reasons why not, they are saying “how do I get started”. They are not saying “it is not possible”, they are saying “look at what is possible.”

So, the new Digital Divide is about schools developing CREATORS vs. USERS, and unfortunately in far too many schools…ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….neither.

WHAT?!!!

Few schools are developing CREATORS. We are barely developing USERS. We are still asking ridiculous questions like, “should we use technology in the classroom?” Our internet filters still block more than they do not block. Think of how that looks and sounds to our students. They have always had smartphones, laptops, tablets, digital toys, and access to information right at their fingertips. To NOT have those is almost funny to them. When we way things like, “this new technology….”, they are looking at us with cock-eyed stares because this technology is NOT new. We are past the days where we adults can still use that excuse. Digital technology like we know it today has been around for 10-20 years. We have got to stop looking at it like it is new. It’s like us saying to our kids in the morning, “I am still deciding whether or not to use this new “car” device to help take us to school and work.” Or, “…these new time pieces that fit around our wrist which automatically tell us the time during the day without using the sun, may be distracting in the classroom with kids always looking down instead of at the teacher…students will not be able to learn to manage their own time…” “This idea that electricity can flow into my house and automatically power some of our devices is something I think will take advantage of, but it may affect the way we live…” When we say things like we are not sure how to integrate technology into the classroom, our students and parents lose faith in our educational system. They are looking to the schools for leadership in WHAT should be taught, and HOW it should be taught. And they are not looking for outdated and thoughtless ideas and solutions. They are not looking for schools to work like they did when they were kids. They assume our schools are keeping up, and even leading, with the world around them.

When we do not lead in regards to technology….for them it is no different than hearing that we’re not sure how to integrate pencil and paper into the curriculum.

Enter Computer Science. This is how we give our students the tools to be CREATORS.

This discipline has a terrible image problem. And a vocabulary problem. Most people do not know what it is, and is not. Yet, we use the term as if we do.

We have schools who are still teaching (ouch……it hurts me to write this) keyboarding, in name of Computer Science, to middle schoolers. We have schools which still teach word processing to high schoolers—in the Computer Science class! Computer Science is NOT word processing, spreadsheets, photo editing, desktop publishing, video editing, and internet searching. So many schools interpret those skills as the ones that should be taught.

And…….give me a second to explain…they should—but NOT in the Computer Science classroom.

No problem if the Foreign Language teacher is having the students make newsletter travel brochures in the native language as a tool to help teach their content. No problem for the math teacher to use spreadsheets to do budgets, statistics, and graphing. In fact, that is exactly what they SHOULD be doing already. Those are both excellent uses of technology to learn and enhance a lesson with real world application. No problem for the art teacher to edit photos in class to study different types of visual art styles. No problem for the Physical Education department to use video editing to studying throwing and jumping mechanics of their kids.

All of those examples excellent uses of USING technology.

But, those projects should NOT be considered Computer Science, and they should NOT be done in the Computer Science classroom. Applications are excellent tools of all subject areas. In those areas, set the expectations of the faculty that technology will be one of the integral components of their educational experience. Students and parents not only want it, they expect it. And when we don’t ever use it as part of the classroom learning experience, THAT gets noticed. Why would we not use it? How could we not use it? As teachers we lose credibility with an inability, or worse a resistance to , the commanding use of technology in the classroom. For so many reasons, this is crucial. Teachers in all subject areas, at all grade levels, must use technology in a variety of ways, in transparent ways, throughout the day, throughout the year.

When this happens, it finally allows us to provide time and place for Computer Science education. What has traditionally been a Computer Science “responsibility” is finally handled elsewhere (and hence enhancing the development of USERS)—and that allows us to direct our efforts on building CREATORS.

Ahhh…..yes…..then we can commit to offering Computer Science as a required course as important in your curriculum as a math or science or language course. Define what Computer Science looks like at your school. Offer it. Require it. Encourage it.

But do not have students choose to do this in place of something else.

In fact, that is opposite of what we need. We need those students who love history to also think like Computer Scientists, so they can go into the world with a passion for History, but also with a new set of tools which let them develop new tools. So, yes, it is time we add a CORE discipline to the standard set of CORE classes that have defined our educational system for decades. Yes, we will have to make room for it. Yes, education is going to have to change. Yes it is also time to look at the daily schedule. Yes, it is also time to look at graduation requirements. Yes, it is time to look at what we are teaching. Yes, it is also time to look at 2 ½ month summer breaks. Yes, it is also time to look at the standard 8:00-3:00 schedule. Yes, it is time to look at what we are evaluating. Yes, it is time to look at how we are evaluating. Yes, it is time to look at how/why we use standardized tests.

Yes, it is time. Yes, it is time. Yes, it is time.

And perhaps those same technologies which have been at the center of so many issues can also be the tools through which we can solve these problems. Maybe there is even a Computer Science solution to how we do this? I imagine there is. Perhaps students who have been through a new type of school will be the one who help use change our educational world.

Logo Design by FlamingText.com

Logo Design by FlamingText.com
Computer Science, as a tool of CREATION, is crucial to society, to economy, to innovation, and to business. But, it is different than other disciplines. Much like math is fundamental to other disciplines and language is part the backbone of other disciplines, so is Computer Science. Recognize that. What industry is not overwhelmingly dependent upon digital hardware and software?! Just as nails and hammers and wood are fundamental building blocks for construction, Computer Science is a building block for “digital construction”. But the Computer Science discipline differs from others in that it is constantly changing. New technologies, even completely new breakthroughs, develop frequently which force us to reconsider how we approach our thinking in this area. Whereas a French class has only 1 language to teach and those constructs and grammar are relatively constant, Computer Science has literally hundreds of languages and development environments that are all important in different scenarios. Some languages will appeal to a specific industry or type of problem or project because of the nature of the language itself. There is no way to say that one language or environment is “better” than another, in same way that we cannot say that one novel is “better” than another. But, just as in English class we study many novel s and types of writing to give students a broad exposure to the type of writing that is possible, Computer Science does the same thing. For the school that is inspired to bring Computer Science into their curriculum, that is encouraging because it allows the passions of your faculty to lead the way. If game design is what you want to focus on, excellent. Love robots? Lots of choices there are well. Love the engineering approach? Arduino is there for you! Need something small and cheap? Raspberry Pi to the rescue. Love iPhones and iPads? Develop software and apps. Love to tinker? Taking apart and rebuilding old computers is a blast and a great way to learn about “under the hood”. Android users can develop apps for their tablets and phones. Even Blackberry phones users can develop apps. Web surfer? Lots of tools to develop for websites and web apps.

I have not even given you the coup d’état……
most of the tools for Computer Science are FREE, tons of free tutorials online, tons of resources, tons of groups to join for collaboration. Almost seems like it does not make sense, huh?! A discipline which is direly needed in our schools. Materials, resources, people, software, even some hardware—all free. And people wanting to help. Companies like Microsoft and Google even offer their employees to come into schools to help get them started. Why are we not doing this?

But, I’ll also add a twist to this way of thinking….I suggest that the world is better suited if we develop a new breed of graduate: students who have a broad range of educational experiences in a variety of subjects, who do specialize in an area of their passion, but who have a Computer Science minor behind it. That gives them access to a set of tools, a way of thinking, that allow them to develop new types of solutions, new design ideas, new types of solutions in whatever industry they choose.

Colleges and Universities can require minors, or emphasis tracks that gives those students an experience in a variety of technologies, languages, and with a variety of hardware devices , so that they can know what is possible. It is crucial that they have a variety of experiences in programming in a variety of languages, taking apart different types of devices, creating apps, developing desktop software, writing web-based scripts, and programming device specific software, such as a robot or Arduino or Raspberry-Pi.

High schools can prepare students to know what Computer Science really is. And instead of giving it an elective status (communicating that is not required), let it be one of the requirements for graduation. And I do not mean one class during the spring of their senior year. I mean in the 9th grade, Computer Science is required. Then follow that up in the next 3 years with more Computer Science. This can be done on the shoulders of a Computer Science education starting in elementary school and continuing through the middle school.

The new Digital Divide is something which is starting to get the attention of leaders across the United States. This year’s Hour of Code was embraced by millions of people across the country, and was even endorsed by our president. Organizations such as Code.org are bringing Computer Science(or rather lack of Computer Science) to the forefront of the educational discussion. The traditional Digital Divide was focused on having vs. not having technology; the new Digital Divide boils down to whether we know Computer Science or not.

It’s an important question and an even better discussion. One that we cannot wait to have. Other countries are having the discussion and changing the way they do business. Did you ever stop to think why some companies have to go overseas for customer support ? We all assume it is to save money….but perhaps it is in part because they cannot find enough qualified people in our own country. What is at stake for any country that does not embrace Computer Science is losing the edge in innovation, research, and business………..and ultimately respect.

There are new ways forward in education. If something I said resonates with you, we should connect.

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250 * 4 = ? (or Microsoft in Education Global Forum Barcelona)

Subtitle: Microsoft in Education Global Forum

What happens when you put 250 educators from around the world in one place for 4 days?

My team had members from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Mauritius, Malaysia, Finland, and the United States

My team(#49 yes we rocked!) had members from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Mauritius, Malaysia, Finland, and the United States

Borders break down, politics don’t matter, despite the Law of the Conservation of Energy,–energy is in fact created, differences are embraced, cultural differences are cherished and discovered—and even sought out. Ideas are shared. Collaboration happens. Friendships are made. Relationships are built. Connections are made. You can see the bar rising. You can feel education literally getting better right in front of your eyes. The world became both a bigger and smaller place all at the same time.

What was the Microsoft in Education Global Forum?

Each teacher was excited to present about their own  project

Each teacher was excited to present about their own project

For 2 days, teachers present their project to fellow educators, judges, friends, political leaders, and educational leaders. I gave my “3 minute pitch” on the airplane, in the airport, in the hotel, in line at the store, in the conference center, at lunch and dinner, and of course to my judges. I think I gave it a couple times in the hotel lobby as well, and probably on the elevator. You see, the people there were passionate about what they did, excited and qualified to be there, and take every chance to make a connection and share an idea- to get to know a fellow educator.

What an incredible time connecting with people from all of the world

What an incredible time connecting with people from all of the world

Ever been in a crowd where you really wanted to meet someone? Now, imagine that room is full of people who all think like you, believe what you believe, and have the same vision as you. We had the best first line. “Hi I am Doug from the United States. I’d love to hear about what you are doing”. And any person there was so excited to be able to give you their pitch. And I equally as excite to hear it, and figure out how I can bring some of their energy and ideas back with me . I remember we were right in the middle of breaking down our tables, judging was over, people were leaving to get ready for dinner, and I was still “presenting” to people who came by my table. I think eventually, they kicked us out because they were closing the room. I noticed that there was a large number of people who also were doing the same thing as I was. Sorry, we just couldn’t stop. No apology was necessary.

Michael Braun "selling it"

Michael Braun “selling it”

But, it’s just another conference right?

Wrong.

First, it was a tremendous honor to be there. Only 250 educators were selected out of over 22000 applications. I am not saying that to boast, but more so to qualify the people who were there. This group of people is the inaugural Expert Educators Class of 2014. What that means is that you are meeting some of the most innovative teachers from around the world. Each of us spending 10-20 hours on our applications and making it through a rigorous judging process just to be here. One of my friends, David Renton, was the only representative from Scotland; he WAS Team Scotland. What a tremendous honor for him! And a pleasure to meet him and see the great things happen there!

U.S. Team member Kelli Etheredge holds her award with pride

U.S. Team member Kelli Etheredge holds her award with pride

Yes there was an element of winning, but what is interesting, there was not necessarily an element of losing, at least in the group I was with. And that is rare. Because I met so many people from all over, all doing amazing things with their students in the classroom, it was very likely that someone you knew would be recognized with some type of award. And when you heard any name that you knew, you rushed over for a photo and a high five because you wanted to share that joy with your new friends- and they wanted to share that with their new friends. While I did not win an award, I still won.

We had 2 days to share our ideas, explore other ideas, talk, and meet new people. Most conferences, such as ISTE, while there are some great people there, are centered on the idea of 1 directional presentations. Those conferences do have value, and I do enjoy them, but they are a different type of experience. You are more likely to get some good resources, rather than make real connections.

So, what exactly is this “conference”? Well, the idea of getting innovative global educators together in a forum such as this has been something that Microsoft has been doing for many years. They don’t advertise this; they don’t get much credit in the media for doing it; yet they do it anyway. Each year, the location is different: South Africa, Washington DC, Barcelona, Prague. In some years, there were similar events held at regional events (i.e. just for Europe or Middle East-Africa and these award winners from those events would be invited to the international forum). But each year, hundreds of educators and school leaders from around the world are invited to come to the forum, sponsored by Microsoft Education.

When most people think about Microsoft, they think “Word”, “PowerPoint”, “Windows”, “SQL”, “Xbox” and certainly those are great tools and products, but that is not the side of Microsoft that puts together this event; welcome to Microsoft Education: Partners in Learning, an arm of Microsoft dedicated to providing resources, software, networking, and partnerships to any and all schools and educators around the world. I am sure in the back of some minds, there is a hope that by supporting and sponsoring and leading events like this, there will be recognition for Microsoft, which indirectly can affect their commercial side, but in truth…this side of Microsoft is spending more than it makes. Events like this, put on in a world class fashion, bringing together people from over 90 countries costs money, (wo)man-power, energy, effort, attention, time, and commitment. Last year, Microsoft announced it was infusing 750 million dollars into promoting efforts such as this. Why would they do that? To support and promote innovative teaching and teachers; to show the world that there is another way to “do” education; that those innovative ways are not only working—they are changing the educational landscape as we know it. And it is not just going to take a village—it is going to take the whole world to change the world.

School systems around the world must be embraced/owned/led by the people, not government. It is important that the people of the world take ownership of bringing education into the 21st Century. The days of rote lectures, random note taking, multiple choice tests, doing the questions at the end of the chapter, and standardized tests must start to become the old ways, outdated in pedagogy. The students of today, in order to be problem solvers and leaders for the current and future generations, need a different style of learning environment. The world around them is interactive and dynamic, why cannot their learning also be vibrant and alive? With the advances we’ve made in science, understandings and discoveries in history, computations in math, the ability for us to communicate instantly and widely on an international level, and analysis of data like we’ve never been able to before–our education systems have the potential of being as dynamic as that world outside of school campus–yet many of our schools remain stuck in 1950-style of content delivery with students passively sitting in chairs, missing most of what comes at them. Is that the best we can do? Hence the need for this conference. People now are able to write their own software, build their own devices, and command those devices to solve problems–we can literally design our own tools to solve the problems that we do not even know exist yet. Think about it, how many digital devices do you have in your own life right now? 10 ? 20?

Technology is an integral part of life. Those who command it will be the leaders of the next generation.

Technology is an integral part of life. Those who command it will be the leaders of the next generation.

The world around us is different than it was even 20 years ago. No longer is life one directional. Life has become interactive. We are longer able to sit on the sidelines and watch the world go by. We can communicate, problem solve, play, learn, read, study, participate interactively—and not just with those we know, with anyone in the world who wants the same thing. It is because of that world, that it is crucial that the people of the world change the way we educate. All across the world, our governments have grown so large and the world has become so complex, that it is no longer practical that our governments lead the way in education. Top down policies and laws that helped us find our way over the last 50 years do not make as much sense anymore. The role of our governmental leaders, still incredibly valuable, will transform into support roles helping cities, states, and countries accomplish the goals that are being defined by the people in the schools.
This is what our classrooms must start to look like.  In all grades. In all grade levels.

This is what our classrooms must start to look like. In all grades. In all grade levels.

The only way for “education” to work is if it is from the ground up. Teachers, schools, districts, parents, and students must take ownership. The companies that are going to hire these students must communicate the qualities that they need. School is preparation for life that we are going into. We have to be careful that schools are not preparing students for life as it once was. If our students are going through school memorizing vocabulary, formulas, and dates…and then regurgitating that back to us every 2 weeks on a content-heavy test, and then taking a 3 hours scantron exam at the end of the class, then we are failing at our jobs.

That is why conferences such as this one are not only valuable, but crucial. We cannot wait for our political leaders to raise the bar of education…it’s not their job…that is the responsibility of the people..us…you and me…and him…and her…and that guy…and this lady…and that school…and that district…..

It was great to meet Ismail from Jordan.

It was great to meet Ismail from Jordan.

There is a different way forward in education. If something I said makes sense to you…we should connect. Find me.

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Innovators and Explorers Sandbox

Introducing a style of classroom experience that’s extremely different than what you are used to reading about.
Warning: What you are about to read is different, out-of-the-box, 100% student-centered, innovative, creative, and does not have any reference to multiple choice testing….continue on at your own risk but I warn you…you may just find yourself wanting more of this style of learning in our educational systems.

Phil Zaubi (our IT Director and fellow teacher) and I have been sharing the responsibility of teaching our 12th grade Computer Science course. These are students who are in the 4th year of our 4-year program, so this is their last year with us. The year has been a combination of capstone experiences, projects, and real world experiences. Over the last 3 or 4 years of teaching the class, while it has been a good experience for our kids, we always felt like something was missing. Well, I think we found it.

Thanks to a working lunch at a Mexican restaurant where the stars aligned and the brainstorming came together, Phil and I put something together called “The Innovators and Explorers Sandbox”.

andersonThroughout our program, at the end of each semester, students complete a rather lengthy and thorough evaluation of all the projects, assignments, and overall experience of the class. Sometimes that is in video format, audio format, or just text based. But, the one thing that seemed to always come to the surface was that students craved the experience of working on a project without all the requirements and “rules” of a graded project. But I was not able to figure out how to implement that into a hard core Computer Science curriculum and yet maintain the rigor of an honors or dual-credit level class. Until now.

After spending the entire first semester learning Object Oriented Programming with Java, they had a culminating project which took about 7 weeks: the complete game of Monopoly. The project included 5 java classes and was massive: Every possible Computer Science concept and skill is required to complete the project. It may have been the most challenging thing we’ve done in 4 years: hence, there was a need to open it up some and let them spread their wings.

Enter the Sandbox: We listed every technology, language, and programming/design environment that we had access to (or had in the closet), plus some that we knew existed “out there”. Then we asked students to consider their dream challenge. They are going to choose any technology they want, plan how they are going to learn that, propose how they will be evaluated, and not have any fear of failure. No homework assignments to distract. No pop quizzes. No tests. “…WHAT? Are you serious? You gave the kids the freedom to just explore on their own? Are you crazy? No one does that! They have to be evaluated with a quiz or reading check! Do it now! This will NEVER work. Please stop this nonsense. This can never succeed. Students will never be able to learn like that, much less at the level you are expecting. You have finally gone too far out of the box. What about the even problems at the back of the chapter? How will we evaluate this with a bubble on a standardized test?….”

Right?

Wrong.

joe leapLet me start by saying, for me as a teacher, it has been one of the most enjoyable, satisfying risks I’ve done in a while. Expectations of class are still high. Rigor is still there. Passion is still high. Student learning is still central to class. And every student is making progress.
Let me start by sharing with you some of the technologies that they are working with:face
o Face Recognition with Kinect sensor
o Multiple Skeleton recognition using Kinect Sensor
o NeuroSky Mindwave brain wave detector using C++
o IOS Programming using XCode using Objective C
o Unity 3D environment creation and scripting using C#
o HTML5 and CSS
o Android App Development using mobile Java
o Drone helicopter control using Node.JS
o Gesture interpretation using LEAP sensor
o Skeletal and Voice Recognition using Kinect Sensor
o Maya 3D modeling and avatar skeletal and joint rigging
o AutoDesk and ShipConstructor ship modeling and design
o Oculus Rift and Unity integration
o Arduino breadboard with Processing
o Fusion & Kinect Sensor to scan and model real life 3D objects
o Network server , client, and switch configuration

shipHow did we set it up the project? Well, we started with a fictitious, yet real scenario that these kids will face at some point in their educational or work career. They go into office and your boss says, hey (you) …we just found out that we were selected to complete this project and it is crucial that we do it right. We’ve never seen this technology or software, so we are not sure how it works. Figure it out. Use whatever resources you need to. No excuses. Deadline is in 7 weeks. Go.

We felt strongly that we communicated that as they choose their project, we made it CLEAR that: as long as they are working hard, trying, and making conceptual and skill progress, there is no way to fail. In other words, take a risk to try something crazy and out of the box without the fear of the grade. Work hard every day in class, research as needed, experiment, explore, ask questions, work with peers, and use your resources. Hmmmm…those also seem to be the skills that would help someone be successful in the real world outside of school. Interesting.

Students spent 3 days researching their technology and also the resources available to help them learn this. This would be a project where the learning itself, and even finding the medium through which they would learn, even the evaluation, falls 100% on the shoulders of the student. Then they submit a formal proposal to the teacher for approval.
droneHere is what each student submitted to the teacher for approval:
• Describe what technology you will explore. What is it? Where/how is it used?
• Why did you pick this and what is your connection with this? Why learn this technology?
• What is your goal of learning this technology in the next 7 weeks?
• Briefly discuss the long term value for learning this type of technology. What field,major, industry would have value for the skills learned in learning this technology?
• How will you learn about this technology/language? Identify at least 2 specific ways. No generalities–be specific with book titles, url links, blog url, people names, etc
• What software needs to be installed? What is the URL to get it? Have you already downloaded it?
• What hardware needs to be bought? What is the URL for where it can be bought? Have you already arranged to have it ordered?
• Describe if you are thinking you will do a major project, series of small projects, demonstration of skill, etc for your “final project” you are working towards.
• This project will involve a great deal of thought/energy/frustration/willingness to explore/effort. Are you willing to put forth what is needed to really learn this technology/language/environment at the level expected?

kinectparabolaOk, this sounds nice, but there has be some type of accountability, right? Of course there is. In a project like this, the final outcome is the learning itself, not what is produced with the project. So, it is crucial that if they identify what is important—then that is what we evaluate. So, each week, the students complete a BLOG post 200-300 words where they communicate the new concepts and skills that they have learned since the last week. They specifically identify the progress that they made since last week. They reflect on the challenges, successes, and the failures—the ones that they conquered as well as the ones they are still struggling with.

About 3 times throughout the project, each student sits with the teacher for about 10 minutes for a “project review” where they show us the progress, we ask them specifics about what they have been learning, and they communicate their progress. That is how they earn their “grade”. Some students have decided to work on a specific project, while others are simply taking advantage of the time just to learn the technology.

What was the experience like for the students? What were they actually able to accomplish and learn? Well, certainly we have had every part of the spectrum. Some students have gone far past even our highest expectations. Some of the students learning IOS, LEAP, website design, Unity and Maya 3D modeling had early successes as their strategies for learning proved to be very effective! We have seen tremendous learning, as well as tremendous progress in advancing into much higher skillsets. For others choosing more risky and leading edge technologies, there have been challenges from the get-go. It took the students using the Mindwave brainwave detector a couple weeks to actually be able to pull data from the sensors…but…YES!!! Finally!… they did it and are working on interpreting, displaying, and analyzing that data using code. The Face recognition and Drone folks have had most difficult time just trying to connect and communicate with their technology. We have seen numerous mini-successes, but have made our progress by failing, learning from those failures, finding new sources of knowledge and learning, and making small , but crucial steps, forward. I am so excited for the Face Recognition students because they have just identified some code which should allow them to see their efforts come to life. Literally, they found a couple lines of C# that have eluded them for 3 weeks. And Michael is making great strides with the drone helicopter. Very exciting

We also felt strongly that there be a “research” component (similar to the IB program, but not at long or complex) where students explore their technology in the real world. What colleges offer degrees related to it, what jobs are available involving it, what are some possible future uses for it, what industries might develop uses for it, and even to describe the “dream” job that involves the technology: Where would they be, what problems would they be solving? Who would benefit from solution developed using the technology? The medium for this part is the creation of a video where they speak freely, but use the guiding questions to steer their thoughts

This “Sandbox” project is a 7 week project and will conclude with 2 1/2 days of Pecha-Kucha style of presentations to the class. Each student will be given 10 slides, each slide is on the screen for 20 seconds and automatically advances. They will briefly describe each slide, but are very limited in their words. The presentation itself, as well as the content and preparation, will be evaluated. All presentations are recorded. There is a peer evaluation rubric that each student submits for each presentation as well as rubric for the teachers to evaluate during the presentations.(We’ve got about 2 weeks left and we’ll be doing the presentations after that, so I’ll have to re-post this with afterthoughts of the final presentations.)

Things I have learned about the project: While there is value in students finding their own best learning tools, they also will not have a way to evaluate until they actually get into it. I might suggest 1 video tutorial, 1 text based screenshot tutorial, a couple developer websites, and even 1 book that each kid submits in the initial proposal. How long are you willing to let students fail before stepping in to help? Some students are extremely resourceful, some not as much. How much help will you give? How much will you be involved is software installation and hardware purchase? How much outside of class work will you expect. Students must be vested in the project and engaged in the class; they have to want to learn. This is about as different of an educational experience as the students have probably had, so you may have to help them learn like this…with their own interest and natural curiousity guiding the way. In fact, you have to keep on them. That rigor will be there if the expectation is there and they know that. Overall , we’ve had no major issues with motivation; sure you have an occasional Friday afternoon class that may not quite be as focused as you hoped, but all-in-all because we did the legwork to set it up, we’ve seen exactly what we hoped for—and YES…this is something that we will be making an integral part of our 12th grade year from now on.

Most importantly, you have to be able to step back and let learning happen, even through failure and struggle. I know our natural teacher impulse in to ride in and help (and even I admit I did on occasion), but we have to willing to just let learning happen. And it will.

There is a different way to approach education.If something I said, you read, you saw, or heard make sense to you, we should connect.

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Anti-Exams: A different approach to final exams

(Please note, this idea was also the idea that I submitted for my application to the Microsoft Expert Educator Program for which I was selected. Here is the video I submitted as part of that application. I’ll be presenting about this topic in Barcelona, Spain in March.)

Ahhhhhhhh, it’s that time of year, and if you’ve read my BLOG posts over the years you know I am not big on standardized tests and exams, but instead of dreading the upcoming exam “season”, I am so excited because it’s one of my favorite times of the year.

WHAT?! Better let me explain

I do have exams in my classes, but they are different than you are imagining.

Students present and demonstrate their expertise in robotics, game design, and hardware.

In my 9th grade classes, students pair up and put on a demonstration/presentation table for two of the topics that we studied this semester in class. They prepare an entire table display area as well as an engaging hands-on presentations to show-describe-present about-explain-teach what they’ve learned. They dress professionally and for an hour one evening, we invite all the parents in as our guests. So, we’ll have 40+ parents and 20+ students in our library with sounds of robots, sound effects from programmed games, and various clankings of computer components being put together and taken apart as parents build computers piece by piece. Lots of proud moms and dads who are charged by us to ask lots of questions and find out “why” as often as “what”, but also to enjoy their own hands-on experience with their children as teachers. Parents wander around and interact with other students, parents, board members, and other teachers. Truly a wonderful night! What a great chance to finally find out the real answer to the dinner-time question, “What did you do in school today?,” “nothin”. Uhm, I beg to differ. And, you know what the hidden secret here is: They spend so many more hours preparing for this evening than they ever would studying for a normal exam. And I’ll argue that most students forget within hours what they crammed in their head for exams….yet my students will remember their presentation for years(and for some a lifetime).

Finally, students really do know more than their parents

In my 10th grade class, students will again have their parents involved in their final exam, but this time the students will actually be leading their parents through an learning workshop. Each student will choose to lead their parent(s) through the entire process of either 1) building a small XBox game , or 2) building a small website with SQL database and data entry form. Students are not allowed to touch the mouse or keyboard, so pressure is on them to explain and teach well, so that parents can not only design it, but understand how they did it. As any teacher will vouch, it’s one thing to do something; it’s an entirely different thing to teach someone else to do it. In preparation for the event, students spend the week before designing the entire project and practice “teaching” the entire project to a fellow student–that way when mom and dad get there, it’s not their first time. When students start to realize that they have to lead their parents without any notes or cheat sheets, they start to dig in! And because they are all “in this together”, the collaboration that occurs during that week before is amazing. As in the previous year, students spend so much more time preparing for this than they ever would for a paper exam. The look on the faces of mom and dad when they complete the project is worth all the time and energy that goes into this. Now, when dad asks, “What did you do in Computer Science today”, he gets a dramatically different answer. That’s what I’m talking ‘about. This year, I added a small component which I really liked: students are allowed to bring in a TweetCheat: 140 characters of anything they want to have at their fingertips during the workshop…otherwise they have to lead the entire project from their head. Some use it to list steps, others to jot down hard to remember code samples, some use it for notes.

A student demonstrates her Kinect interactive simulation: a CSI crime scene investigation where you collect evidence, extract DNA, process the DNA and use that data to determine the culprit.

In the 11th grade classes, students present yet again, but this time it is to a panel of expert Venture Capitalist judges who will hear their presentations, run the projects themselves, and evaluate each student’s performance, code, and project. Students spend an entire semester working on one project (a game, activity, or simulation for the Xbox game system using Kinect, Dancepad, and/or hand controller) In a science fair-like scenario, judges tour the room spending time with each student, where students can present however they see fit depending on who the judge is. The presentation they give to a successful entrepreneur business executive is very different than the one they give to the Marketing Director of a company and even more different than the one they would give to a professional game designer. At the end of the evening, our “Venture Capitalist” judges panel will be investing money into the projects in which they saw potential. Each judge gets $5000 that they can distribute as they like. (The panel consists of one high school senior, one alumni from our Computer Science program, one professional game designer, one game design firm marketing director, one Computer Science teacher, one math teacher, one Microsoft executive, 1 professional from the IT industry, and two successful entrepreneurs from the community. Throughout the semester, we also discuss about the business side of Computer Science as well, so students think about marketing, promotion, target audience, demo and phsycho-graphics, and elevator pitches as it relates to their own project. Because each judge is looking for something different, students have to determine the best way to present and demonstrate. The Computer Science teacher wants to hear about the challenges they faced in order to figure out how to overcome programming problems, the game designer wants to hear about the sound effects, and graphics of the game, the marketing director wants to hear about the storyline of the project, the gamer wants to experience the “flow” of the game, the college student wants to hear how they programmed their game, etc. At the end of the evening, just for fun, we announce how much venture capital investment money each project received. What we see is that an average project with a great presentation can be effective…and in the same sense a really great project with a mediocre presentation can be ineffective. We try to help students have well-done, unique projects and that they determine the best way to present to each judge.

Some of the most amazing projects we’ve had over the year are:

  • 3D Flight Simulator using the human body as the wing control device, and the DancePAd for the flap controls.
  • Track and Field simulation with the player actually running down the track as they answer questions about history.
  • DNA Crime Science CSI investigation where you collect samples, extract and analyze DNA with your hands.
  • SAT Vocabulary Practice using the Dancepad.
  • A discus throwing motion analysis program complete with demonstration videos.
  • A bow and arrow hunting game where you are hunting math problems as they fly across the sky.
  • A air piano style of music maker where you use your hands in the space around your body to play music

But, were these really exams?

Well, if we define exam as a culminating experience that requires students to bring in what they’ve learned and apply that to use it in new ways; if we define exams as a rigorous experience which really “tests” to see if students have learned the material and requires them to demonstrate that understanding; if we define exams as a chance to synthesize a large quantity of information….if the allow ourselves to let the exam itself be a learning experience which is actually something students look forward to and enjoy and take great pride in….

Then I’ll argue our exam not only meets all those criterion, but exceeds them. Students will spend 2-3 times longer preparing for this kind of effort than they would “studying” for a traditional exam. And because they cannot cram for this; because they can’t fake it; because we are not asking them to regurgitate a bunch of words but use them as a vocabulary to demonstrate , teach, and explain; because they are forced to create an entire presentation , it allows us to bring creativity, expression, visual, presentation, written, motion, language arts, fine arts, and Computer Science together in true cross curricular nature

The exam itself is a learning experience on its own.

Imagine if every exam they took was like that? I imagine the impression people have of exams would be very different than what most people have.

I’m getting a few hundred hits per day on this BLOG, so I know there are people from around the country (or world) reading this right now steaming with disagreement and anger, full of reasons why their objective multiple choice exam is better than this…still grasping onto the coat-tails of a long since outdated & shredded & broken & ineffective exam process. And this in-your-face BLOG post like this is not going to persuade them.

But, do I believe there are teachers, administrators, political leaders, community members,……even students out there who think there is a different way to look at education.

If something you read here makes sense, we should connect.

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Why Computer Science?

In celebration of National Computer Science week, I am republishing this post. ENJOY!

What will the world look like in 10 years?

The digital world is such a dynamic world. That’s what I love about it. But how can we possible know or even imagine what our world is going to look like 10, even 5 years from now? We do not know what technologies will be available or even what kind of problems the world will be facing. How can we possibly prepare our students for that world?

Regardless of what country we come from, what culture we grow up in, and what economic conditions we live in…we all must solve the problems in our world……our local world…and our global world. We need tools in order to do that. And the tools of today are digital. The people who are in command of those digital tools will be the leaders of academia, research, business, politics, entertainment, and philanthropy.We’ve got to teach the students now how to learn to design, build, program, and reprogram their own digital tools so they can solve those problems.

What is Computer Science?

So, how do we do that? One of the greatest digital “tools” available in our world today is Computer Science. It is central to all subject areas and vital in almost every known industry. It is the cross-curricular by definition. And solving problems is what it does.

Computer Science teaches students how to use build something, maybe a new tool, using technology, computation thinking, imagination, logic, problem solving, and creativity. I tell my students if they can think of it and describe it, we can make it happen on the screen in front of them. That might be a new game to teach difficult concepts to kids, a mobile app for the smartphone to help better manage business inventory, a new data analysis software program for the medical research lab, maybe….. even a design for an entirely new device. It gives people the power and ability to build their own digital solutions to solve their own problems. They can program, or reprogram whatever device is available to accomplish what they need. Computer Science gives you the tools to do that yourself, right there, with your own mind, with your own hands

Students can develop apps for any of the mobile platforms

And what’s great about many of the Computer Science development tools…they are (mostly) free. Many international level companies (such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple) and universities (Carnegie Melon & M.I.T.) provide almost everything FREE of charge. So, schools with limited economic resources can actually design and implement a good Computer Science program.

Educators love to say that we embrace failure and that we’ve got to let our students fail. But, in reality we do not do that. When a student fails a test, we send letter home to the parents, the advisor is notified, the teacher writes on the test “Johnny, I was expecting much better than this”. The student’s average goes down. Johnny probably gets grounded at home and the parents start asking about tutors. That low grade may keep him from entering honors and AP classes. It may keep her out of certain colleges. It may keep him from receiving certain awards. Hmmmm….far from embracing failure, huh?

Can we embrace failure?

The Computer Science classroom has no choice but to embrace failure. When we write programs and work with various devices, we’ve got to rely on trial and error and failure to help us figure things out. The messages we get, the things we see on the screen, the incorrect outputs we generate, and the crash reports are our tools for success. In a typical class a student will “fail” 20 or 30 times. In fact, it’s hard not to fail. Most computer programs can be solved in a variety of ways; rarely is there a “right” way to do it.

If you talk with successful project-based Computer Science teachers, you’ll get the same stories about how kids love class, enrollment numbers are going up, the energy in their classrooms, the collaboration, how they create some incredible programs, how they also come up with solutions and strategies that we never expected. Why is that? Well, think about it this way–for most students they are told what to do every day of their life. From the moment they wake up, they are told what to wear, where to go, when to go and when to stop, what to do when they get there. When they get to class, the teacher tells them what to do and for how long. At practice after school, coach tells them exactly what to do. At home that night, mom and dad make them study then say when to go to bed. The Computer Science classroom offers an escape from that. We say come into our room. Here are some challenges to attempt. There is not necessarily any one answer to our problems and projects. In fact, even what we are assigning can be interpreted differently. Finally the students are in control… not just of their own life, but of their own learning. They get to decide exactly what the computer will do, how it will do it, how long it will do it for, and how it will communicate that it did it. And they can change it right there and instantly see the effect. They can fine tune it, or they can overhaul the entire project. All right there.–right in front of their eyes. They are encouraged to “try it, let’s see what it does” It’s one of the few times in a student’s life like where they have complete control. That’s partly why they love Computer Science.

Ok, I’ll bite. I get it and I see your points…..So, what are the first steps?

Are our graduation requirements outdated?

First: recognize what Computer Science is, why it’s crucial in our world, and consider Computer Science as a fundamental core component of education. What I mean is we have to value Computer Science as central to education as we do language, math, chemistry, and history. In an academic career, students should have as many Computer Science projects as they do essays is English and history class. Programming a computer or device must be looked at in the same way we look at reading and writing. Middle schools, high schools and universities must make it required for graduation. Universities must require Computer Science courses in every major.

Applications such as Microsoft Office, blogging, and photo & movie editing are excellent tools in the various subject areas we teach in our schools. But, those applications must be taught in subject area classrooms, not in the Computer Science classroom. Subject area teachers MUST embrace those tools as much as they value the pencil, paper, and book. Expertise of those applications must be part of the science, math, science, and language classroom experience. Teachers at each grade level must all agree that students mastering technology is a regular part of the day.

That allows us to start Computer Science early. In my school, we’ve got Computer Science introduced as early as the 3rd and 4th grade. If they choose, students can take Computer Science every year until they graduate high school. It cannot be something they take above and beyond an already determined academic path. To accomplish that requires us to ask some really tough questions. Do we really need to teach history, foreign language, and math so many years? Do all classes really need to meet every day? Do all classes really need a full year or even a full semester in order to accomplish their goals? Are the standard required courses in all divisions still relevant?

We must prepare students for the world they are going into, and that world is digital. We are still stuck preparing the students for the world that we went into a generation ago. Students of today see the obvious need for Computer Science in their future. They “get it”. Some of the parents “get it”. Some teachers “get it.” But education in general does not. There will be a time in our future where we will look back and say, “…what took us so long?” Why must we wait for that time to change?

Taking your exisiting passions to new levels

What I am NOT suggesting is that we abandon other disciplines, subject areas, and majors. In fact, quite the opposite, we need those doctors, entrepreneurs, engineers, vets, small business managers, and lawyers to follow their passion and be leaders in their industries, but to also have a Computer Science edge to them…..the ability to create and modify their own tools. As they look to be innovative and distinguish themselves, they will be able to design their own tools, exactly as they need. They will be able to embrace and use new technologies as they develop. Technology and the ability to use, program, and reprogram that technology is what will allow them to be leaders in their fields.

The ability to be in control of and in command of technology, not the other way around…is such an obvious need to me. Yet, I am amazed that colleges don’t require it of incoming freshman; few high schools really teach it; few high schools actually requite it to graduate; almost no middle schools teach it; and it is nonexistent in elementary schools. Sometimes I feel like I am standing over a wooden maze in laboratory. Inside is a rat making the same wrong turns, going backwards, hitting dead ends. And because I am standing over it, I can see the exit right there, just one corner away. It’s so obvious the correct way forward. And “winning” is so close, yet so unclear to the rat. The rat does not even know that it is in a maze, or that it is trying to find its way out. It’s just wandering around. Eventually, when the rat does accidentally find the exit, then it will be obvious to it as well. That cannot be how we educate our students.

I would give credit if I knew who said it, but in the end…..“…program or be programmed…”

update(Thanks to Alfred Thompson)…….That is the title of a book by Douglas Rushkoff

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2013-14 Microsoft Expert Educator

Along with 256 colleagues from 158 countries around the world, 30 of which are from the U.S.A. I am honored to have been invited to spend the next year working with some of the most innovative teachers on the globe. These teachers see a different way forward in education and have found ways to push the envelope in their own schools.

My project submission was based on “The anti-exam”. It is one of the things I am very passionate about. I think that the way schools tend to do exams is a system which does not meet most of the objectives we say/think/assume it does.

Here is the video submission I made as part of my application.

Wanna know more about the Expert Educator Program?

What is my philosophy of education and what do I believe is the key to striving towards excellence in the classroom?

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That’s Computer Science?

I understand many people in the world don’t really know what Computer Science is. First let me explain clearly what it is not: It is not Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or Google Apps. It is not photo editing. It is not making a movie. It is certainly not keyboarding. Those are all wonderful tools to learn and YES they are practical and helpful , but-—NO–they are not Computer Science.

Learning to type is NOT Computer Science

So, what then is Computer Science? Probably not what you think. And certainly not what it was 25 years ago, 15 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It has a dynamic property of being redefined, and in some cases reinvented continuously. The world of technology changes so rapidly, the science(and art) that has been developing around that continues to develop as well. But, we do know that there are ways to bring together creativity, puzzles, imagination, software and hardware, algorithms, and hard work to help solve problems. Some of those problems are simple and local, and some are world wide and life changing. That’s Computer Science.

So, how does that look when it’s implemented in schools?

Be careful, this is probably not how class looked like when you were in school and it very well may not be how most schools look today. And it does not involve multiple choice tests and the questions at the end of chapter. My classroom has no “front”, so it is not possible to lecture to the class while they wait for knowledge to come to them. All chairs and tables have wheels so they can move into any configuration needed. Whiteboards are on every wall, so students and teachers can discuss ideas together where-ever they are.

All desks and chairs move. White boards on all walls. No center or front in the room.

Student do not have to raise their hand to talk and they are encouraged to get up out of their seat anytime they like. Class is loud, not quiet–and that’s all on purpose. You see…knowledge and understanding is not mine to give to them. My role is simply to connect them to it. They’ll have to earn it, work for it, figure it out, and apply it to their own efforts. Enough of my ideas…let’s take a look at what’s happening every day:

In high school, all athletes must take an online concussion test; Trey developed another concussion test. While standing in front of the Kinect camera, the athlete is led through 3 sequential tests of balance that are analyzed by his program as you do them. The results are recorded for future comparison.

Carter developed a digital cheerleader routine tutorial. Standing in front of the Kinect camera, the athlete is led through the experience of an actual complex cheer sequence. As the camera “detects” the person has correctly completed each step, there is confirmation on the screen.

Elen developed a virtual chemistry lab that leads students through a series of activities, practices, procedure directions, including putting on your lab coat. The student does this all while standing in front of the Kinect camera.

Students demonstrate their final projects to judges and parents

Courtney developed a virtual crime scene analysis program for her AP Biology class. Standing in front of the Kinect camera, students collect potential DNA evidence, go to the lab and actually extract the DNA, and finally compare it to other samples to discover the culprit.

Katherine developed a cartwheel tumbling analysis. While in front of the Kinect camera, you actually perform a real cartwheel, 3 snapshots are taken: one before, one during, and one after the cartwheel to allow you to analyze your motion and position.

McLean developed an interactively practice for learning the English language. As you stand in front of the Kinect camera, random words fall from above you, your challenge is to determine the part of speech of each falling word, actually “grab” it with your hand and “drop” it into the appropriate bucket.

David developed a program that allows the human body, standing in front of the Kinect camera, to generate angles and geometric shapes.

Benjamin developed an interactive language learning experience. Standing in front of Kinect camera, the human body can be used to highlight & unhighlight words, move phrases around, and interact with words on the “air” around you.

Ryan developed a geologic time discovery activity. Standing in front of the Kinect, students must grab various animals and place them in the correct geologic period.

Merritt developed an interactive SAT vocabulary practicing activity. Standing on a dance pad, students control all the activity using their feet. Be ready for the high energy intense speed bonus round.

Richard developed a history learning activity that combined his love of track practice and history. As you literally run and jump hurdles in front of the Kinect camera, you have the chance to respond to questions…all before you make a mad dash for the finish line.

Wyatt programmed his tablet to take GPS satellite readings in order to command a robot to move towards it’s destination.

Travis and Jacob created a voice controlled currency converter app for their mobile phone.

Elizabeth took her part time cashier job experience and put it on the screen to allow younger kids to learn how to calculate correct payment amount when buying things. Using the game controller, the customer pays the exact amount of bills and coins by dragging them onto the coin tray.

These programs took anywhere from a month to 3 months to develop. And they all involved some pretty serious Computer Science to figure out how to implement. But they also required artistic design, storytelling, marketing and sales, math, logical algorithms, some advanced physics, and face to face presentations. They all involved collaboration with other students. Students were evaluated by their day to day work, by their completed program, by their weekly BLOG posts, by their peers, and also by an “unknown” panel of judges. I did not administer any pop quizzes or tests…and yet not once did I ever have any issues with students working hard, learning very challenging topics and skills, pushing the envelope, or losing interest. We had many speakers in class including a copyright lawyer, an executive manager at an international game website, the CEO and entire game design team of a major game design firm, staff from a marketing department, a visit by the head of school to discuss mission statements, and even employees in the Xbox division of Microsoft.

Presentations to others are one of the ways students are evaluated.

The final presentations were done for 2 hours in the library by demonstrating their completed project to a panel of judges ranging from a professional game designer to Computer Science teachers to hard core game players to Computer Science college students to fellow high schoolers to a head of school to a national board certified teacher. You see my point: students had to consider their audience as each judge came to see their project. How you present to a Computer Science teacher is very different to how you present to a college student and even more so different than how you present to corporate marketing manager and yet different again to how you present to a person who designs games for a living. I am 100% certain that this type of experience is more valuable than any paper exam I could give.

Learning Computer Science early on is crucial to our future as leaders in the world

Learning Computer Science early on is crucial to our future as leaders in the world


I am firm believer that Computer Science should be a core subject area from the time students can read and write and express themselves. Those who command the technology of the time will be the leaders of business, entertainment, philanthropy, research, and academia. We cannot wait until students have already developed their learning styles and passions to introduce Computer Science. It must be incorporated into that learning throughout their entire educational path. This is crucial and fundamental to the United States maintaining its place as one of the world’s leading producers of thinkers, great minds, and game changers.
There is a different way to approach education. If something I said in this post makes sense to you, please browse my other posts…you will most likely find that we have a tremendous amount in common–in which case we should connect.

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The Role of the Teacher

I have a very simple question for you: “What is your job as a teacher?”

Is it to teach the kids math formulas, battles dates, English literature, or vocabulary words? They will learn whatever you ask them to…in fact they have to because you are going to test them on it. Is it success if your kids come through your class, do well on every homework and test and make an A, yet have no connection with what you teach? How many of your students walk out of your class after the exam thinking “thank God that’s done!” ? In the same spirit, have you ever had a student who struggled in your class, but loved it and left class every day with a smile?

is math class simply learning formulas?

If you are a math teacher, the reason you are teaching them Algebra is not to prepare them for Algebra 2, it is open up their eyes to the beautiful world of math. If you are a language teacher, the reason you are teaching them French 1 is not so they can enter French 2…it is so they see the beauty of speaking another language, and the culture that surrounds that language. If you are a Computer Science teacher, the reason you teach them for-loops and arrays is not so they can do well on the AP exam, it is so they can create things and turn their ideas into something real on the digital screen in front of them.

If our job as a teacher is simply to tell them what to know, when to know it, and even how to know it, then where in that do we allow learning for learning sake? In fact, if that’s all you do, put it all on handout and just pass it out early in the year and don’t make them come to class. Are state standards what drive your lessons and lesson plans? Where is the passion, both for the teacher and student? “Kids today are not passionate about anything”, you say? Maybe that’s because you’ve never given them a chance to dive into your class. Maybe it’s because in their classes— standards, quizzes, and grades are what drive the class—not passion. How often do students leave you class, even when it’s really hard, thinking “Wow, that was awesome!”

Can they feel the electricity in your classes?

It’s easy for some students. They love your subject area and there is not a bunch you can do to mess that up. You could not show up to class for a week, and they would still love it. But what about that next group below that? What about the kids who have not yet embraced what is so wonderful about your discipline? Do you think the questions at the end of the chapter will seal the deal for your history students? Do you think your popquiz that you gave because you know most kids did not read the homework will really turn them on to English? Do you think having them memorize a huge list of words and definitions for the test will bring out their passion? I am not suggesting we do not bring rigorous content and material into the class…in fact quite the opposite..I am suggesting if your kids are motivated and passionate..they will thirst for more than you ever gave them. They will stay late, come early, and do more than you ask.

Your role as a teacher is not simply to transfer knowledge from your mind into their mind like a dump truck.

Your class has to be much more than a dumping ground of content

It is to help them acquire that knowledge and understanding. And depending on the situation, that may include lecture, group work, demonstration, field trip, speaker, project, homework, video, article, textbook, a phone conversation, a website, heck…even a worksheet if it helped them understand….but not just understand WHAT it is, HOW to do it, or WHEN it was……..the goal of that lesson must also include WHY they are are doing it. I’ll argue that the WHY is more valuable than the WHAT. The HOW will come when they see the WHY. Any teacher striving for excellence knows that application of understanding is the gold standard of learning. If your kids can take what they’ve learned and apply it to a new situation to solve a problem, then they have truly “got it”. That is when you see lightbulbs go on. Great teachers know that the lightbulb will not turn on for every student, and the lightbulb rarely turns on when you, or they, expect it to. Some of those light bulbs are instant on and some take longer to get to full power. That rare “thank you” may show it’s face when a returning students pops into your office years later. And as teachers, if our role is to produce lifelong learners who love what we do and what we teach, that late “thank you” is perfectly timed because our role as a teacher meant that they appreciate and value what they learned in your class LONG AFTER class was over.

There is a different way to approach education. If something I said in this post makes sense to you, please browse my other posts…you will most likely find that we have a tremendous amount in common–in which case we should connect.

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Ben: Why teachers do what we do

It’s the end of the year, exams are coming, teachers and students are a bit cranky and stressed, spring fever is still lingering as students are exhausted from a long year of rigorous academics. AP exams have wreaked havoc on schedules. Everyone is ready for the year to end. Except Ben.

These past couple years have been inconceivably rough for him. Within a few short weeks, he went from being a typical teenage to being a human being on the verge of a future unknown. It was discovered that he had cancer. And so as the rest of the world went about its business of homework, quizzes, reading novels, and presenting projects, Ben set out to survive. And survive is what he has done.

But, this is not a story about his ordeal in the hospital, but it is a story of what came next, and what is coming next.

I had the honor of being involved in two events recently which are quite simply amazing.

Hunting Island class camping trip

Our 11th graders decided to put together a class camping trip down to a beautiful state park near Beaufort, South Carolina. It was a sunny day full of beach soccer, Frisbee, beach football, playing in the waves, walking in the sand, building sand sculptures, bon fires, and ‘smores. But, the defining moment was when the class officers split up the grade into 5 teams, and created an obstacle course race that would pit wit vs. wit, speed vs. speed, and agility vs. agility. One of the events involved running 100 yards at full speed out to the surf, collect a bucket of water, balance it on your head as your ran back to deliver and dump it through a hula-hoop, then run back, dip your face in the ocean water yet again, and sprint back to the finish line. I had been helping to manage and keep score, so was not necessarily playing attention to who was actually competing…but more so that people were competing and following rules. And then, I looked up and saw two people sprinting towards the “finish” line. One of them was Ben…a huge smile on his face, chest out like Coach Salley and Coach Knight teach in cross country and track practice. Yes, there he was, head full of hair, barefoot in the sand, and running towards us. I am glad no one was paying attention to me because they would have seen a 46 year old man tear up and just stare in amazement. Only an English teacher could lead us through the many levels of symbolism and meaning in that sprint.

As if that needed a follow-up, I had the privilege of witnessing yet another powerful Class of 2014 event: Honor Council elections. I remember several years ago, when Ben was voted by his classmates to be the class representative to serve on the Honor Council, a student-led organization that helps promote and enforce the school’s 100+ year old honor code. It’s one of the most important, yet gut wrenching and challenging jobs at our school. Once you are elected to the council, you serve for the remainder of your time at the school. Anyone would surely understand and even support Ben stepping down from that role to focus on more important things, such as beating cancer.

Nope. Far from it.

Each spring, the members of the Honor Council vote for who will lead them as Honor Council chairperson the following year. It was a not a sprint down the beach like before, but instead it was a sprint of honor, integrity, dedication, commitment, and perseverance. Ben was elected to serve as the 2013-2014 Honor Council chairperson. Here is a boy who has survived perhaps the greatest ordeal possible to humankind, and yet one of his first acts of survival was to step up and lead his school.

That’s leadership; that’s humanity at it’s best and it is because of students like Ben that is why teachers do what we do.

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