Learning From the “20”

As if I could possibly be reminded more why I love my job, I had the opportunity to get to know 17 of the country’s most esteemed educators last week at the CoSN Conference in D.C. From digital snow days to maker spaces, there is a lot to learn from these people. Here, in nor particular order, are my observations from the “20 To Watch” experience.

We Need to Solve Simple Problems First

There were some stories of people revolutionizing their whole district, like Roger Cook’s, but for the most part, the “20” did something that schools need a lot more of, and that was effectively and efficiently solving simple problems. Too much school lost for snow days? Invent a way to keep credit for them with technology. Implementing 1:1? Make sure your school is actually ready for it before throwing devices at students and teachers. Notice a subject area with a lack of technology implementation? Work with them to invent new ways to incorporate it into their curriculum. Even my own story is an example. We noticed students and teachers wanted a digital planner that actually works. So we made one. These are not revolutionary ideas, and one of ed tech’s biggest problems is that there are too many bad products trying to solve problems that either don’t exist or are too big. We need to refocus our attention on small problems and evaluate products that will actually solve them.

Big Change Requires Strong and United Leadership

I asked all of the superintendents and administrators being recognized the same question, which was, “how united were the administrators in your district?” This was a carefully nuanced and detailed question, because “united” is different than the more common question, which involves the word “supportive”. Being supportive to someone is relatively easy. You congratulate them, encourage them, and celebrate their achievements with them. Being united is hugely different. A united team of administrators all work to accomplish the same goals every day. They all perform different tasks towards achieving that goal, but the goal is shared and well communicated throughout the district. Every administrator emphasized the importance of a united team when I asked them this question, and I couldn’t agree more. Teachers should learn to work in united teams as well, because we tend to shy away from working for the same cause and that’s a deterrent on our own work.

Not Just Great Educators

This group of outstanding teachers and administrators is also a great group of people full of personality, ambition, and kindness. It’s easy to look at colleagues and to isolate oneself socially for one reason or another, but one of my favorite parts of this job is the wildly diverse backgrounds, stories, and personalities associated with each of us. If the “20 to Watch” are filled with these individuals, then there are plenty working in your school too. I plan on getting to know more of my colleagues as a result of this recognition, and you should too.

If You’re Not Blogging Already, Start

Another common trend amongst many of the “20” was that we all had important and valuable lessons to share about teaching and learning. This is a common trend for most teachers who care about their students in the slightest. Unfortuantely, we don’t all share these experiences with each other and we should. The best way to do that? Start blogging. Don’t worry about your audience, who’s reading, or any of the imaginary internet nonsense, just write. Write about anything that inspires you on a day to day basis. You never know when you’ll make a new friend on the internet, which is how most of our socialization gets done these days.

 

There are many more lessons to be learned from this year’s group of outstanding educators. Personally, I hope to see everyone at NSTA, CSTA, and ISTE in the coming months to learn more.

20towatch

 

Why Liking (Ok, Loving) Hockey Makes Me A Better Teacher

Ahh, my beloved New York Rangers just beat the Phoenix Coyotes in overtime after Mike Smith (great goalie) gets injured and has to leave the game. I am in a happy state. I’m more excited because I know three students who went to the game tonight, and tomorrow I’ll be able to talk about the game with them. This is not your usually Slate & Tablets blog post, because there’s no technology involved. This alone will make me a better teacher tomorrow, because teaching kids is mostly about making connections in and outside the classroom.

Analyze all the data you want from standardized tests, assessments, and performance tasks. We do not train animals in school, we cultivate the minds of growing human beings. Part of the cultivation requires the grooming and nurturing of the kids’ interests and that’s one thing that teachers can’t fake. This is why kids tend to reach out to different teachers in a school. Students interested in art reach out and connect with the art teachers to master their craft, students who like music hang out with the musicians, athletic students tend to connect with the coaches, none of this is brain surgery. Anyone who knows me might tell you I’m an easily likable guy, but even if I wanted to I couldn’t feign interests enough to make truly valuable connections with students who have interests other than my own. Sure, it helps make them feel comfortable in the classroom, which is why teacher should try to branch out into many different disciplines, but making those lasting connections requires real passion.

This is where I’ve made a strange observation. I do a lot of neat stuff outside the class, what with Slate & Tablets, hydroponic gardening, and music, but out of all of my interests I am perhaps the most passionate about my New York Rangers. Nothing gets me more frustrated than when they don’t play up to their potential, and nothing gets my heart pumping more than an overtime winning goal. This is also why, of all the students I’ve befriended and remained in touch with after graduation, they all belong to my Ranger worshipping cadre of kids in school. It’s because students will latch on to pieces of us that are truly passionate about something they enjoy as well.

Tomorrow I will go into my class, high five the two students who attended the game tonight, make a snide comment about the Detroit Red Wings (another student in the class likes the Wings), and then dig into science. In four years those same three students will likely remember little science from my class, but they will always remember my favorite hockey team.

Who Are the 20 To Watch?

This year’s “20 To Watch” is a ridiculously amazing group that I’m floored to be recognized with. I realized though that as I was browsing the list of their achievements, I would never recognize anyone on the list! This presented a problem when I was trying to meet some of them at CoSN this year, but I came up with a solution: bombard everyone with picture requests as soon as I met them during our roundtable this afternoon. Here are the faces of this year’s “20”:

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This is Elaine, who inspires girls to go into tech fields. Brad is awesome too because he makes sure a school is actually ready for 1:1 before throwing devices at people.

Barbara

Here’s Barbara. She has an awesome red dress and is heavily involved in the Maker Movement.

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Barry pioneered the use of digital snow days as a method of keeping students learning during snowstorms, hurricanes, and government shutdowns (just kidding). He also had this killer pin on his lapel.

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This is another Brad (there are three). This Brad runs the popular 2GuysShow and loves augmented reality. He also fought with his chair the whole meeting, and suspects that we sabotaged it.

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This Brad is awesome too. Whenever he sees anything awesome in his school, he tries to make his teachers do it too. He and his wife also had adorable matching outfits at the reception.

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Jennifer is awesome because she’s revolutionizing the way fine arts teachers use technology. She’s also an actress, and her mom showed me this embarrassing picture of her dressed as a rainbow because her school won a fundraising award.

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This is John, whose help facilitating BYOD in his District turned the program into a success. He also is the only one of the “20” with an accent and was the first of a million to make fun of me for accidentally calling everyone old (Sorry).

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Joli loves making all of her classes into a game, likes both consuming and learning about wine, and is a Detroit Red Wings fan, which must be difficult this season.

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This is Kecia, who is awesome. Aside from being every library media specialist’s hero, she’s also the president of ISTE. I took a selfie with her and almost fainted with glee.

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This is Luvelle, who has literally transformed his district by drastically rebuilding the physical space in all of his schools. Also, that guy behind him has no head.

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This is Rich, who is so awesome that his district made him work from home when he wanted to leave. He’s also an important guy at Google, but I like him anyway.

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Rob’s District has been in the top ten digital districts nationwide for four of five ears. He also is starting a new fashion accessories company called Headbandz. I don’t think it will be successful but his administration career sure is.

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Here’s Roger, whose video interview I barged in on and made him do a retake. Roger’s District has had zero dropouts for six years straight, largely in part due to his performance based learning methodology.

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This is Tim whose name wins the official most awesome first name award. Time pioneered a game-based approach to gifted and talented education that was ridiculously successful.

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Here’s Tracey, who managed to teach her Kindergardeners through a Blended Learning model. Most people can’t get their 5 year olds to tie their shoes.

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Here’s me. I make apps, teach computer science, and, like everyone else above me on this list, absolutely love what I do. We’re the 2014 “20 to Watch”, and we hope you’ll keep watching!

Inspirational Speaker of the Week & Social Media

I came across this video on Facebook, and obviously had to watch it. I love comedy and ever since the great Mitch Hedberg proved to everyone why drugs are bad (again), I’ve been dying for someone of his talent to come forward and unfortunately it hasn’t happened yet. No, this standup comedian with cerebral palsy doesn’t actually compete with most comics you’d see, but the fact of the matter is she is actually funny, and her story and message are ones that specifically high schoolers really need to hear. Here’s the video

At one point in her presentation, she talks about being bullied in high school. You’d expect someone like her to be berated incessantly while growing up in a time period of insensitivity, right? Wrong, she said she wasn’t picked on at all (10:46, if you’re curious). Once her fame started growing, however, it’s as if the internet made “her disability fair game”. This is obviously a trend that we all need to work to correct. As teachers, we fight the battle against cyber bullying constantly. Just this past friday, a downright evil app named “YikYak” was discovered by students at 7:30am and subsequently banned at 2:20pm. It allows people to anonymously post anything they want to the closest 500 users. While I’m sure the creators didn’t mean for the app to be such a powerful bullying tool, it turned into one, and the reason is simply because of anonymity.

It’s well documented that anonymity causes people to do things their character might not otherwise dictate. Walk into a classroom of students you don’t know halfway through the year, and you’ll see what I mean. So long as they know they won’t be caught, either because you don’t know their name or because you can’t see them, they will say things that are rude, inappropriate, and sometimes abusive. It’s the power of group anonymity. Catch them individually, however, and there is rarely a child who will be as bold as they would be in a group. Before the internet, this was no real problem, because it was far easier and within jurisdiction for schools to protect those affected most. With the advent of social media and the pure evil that is YikYak, this is far more complicated and thus presents a much bigger issue.

Maysoon Zayid then goes on to say that if she had grown up with social media, she probably wouldn’t be standing on the stage today. This, unfortunately, is the wrong message to send, and unfortunately we are sending it far too often as a society. Maysoon is an inspirational adult with a powerful story. She is the perfect role model to turn this unique torment into a much more effective message for people around the world. Cyberbullying, just like regular bullying, will only stop when its victims realize that their individuality is far more important and prized than the misguided opinions of some internet clowns. I try to preach this message to my students whenever I can, and if I were Maysoon’s writer, this is how I would do it:

It’s as if the internet suddenly made my disability fair game. I saw several messages people would post, such as, ‘Is this girl retarded or something?’ I have cerebral palsy, of course I’m retarded. I’m also famous, charitable, have my own TED Talk, and am a better role model for any person, retarded or not, than this person will ever be.

This is the response we must start to instill in our children. Bullying will not stop in high school, clearly. There will always be people who, in the words of Macklemore, will spend their time, “..calling people faggots behind the keys of a message board…” When that happens, we must look to role models such a Maysoon, people with real disabilities and real success, to send the message that the people who we must really pray for are the ones sending these messages of hate. 

Criticism aside, Maysoon’s story is truly inspirational (clearly, since I wrote about it) and, unlike her neighbors growing up, I knew right away she was not Italian. While I can’t call her the funniest comic I’ve ever heard, she certainly is funny, and I’d be delighted to see her at a comedy club during a night out. 

Statement Regarding the 20 to Watch Recognition

What an incredible ride this has been. From beginning partnership with school districts last month to receiving this award the other day, Slate & Tablets and especially myself are completely humbled by such an honor. I’ve been following the NSBA’s award for several years now because I think it accomplishes an important goal for education: publicizing outstanding educators and their achievements. I look at the list of other honorees and can only feel as if we’ve been recognized amongst giants. From the president of ISTE to outstanding superintendents and teachers, I have nothing but congratulations and respect to offer the other “20”. As for Slate & Tablets, we are just getting started. We have a lot of exciting news to announce in the next few months, so keep watching, we won’t be letting up.

Slate & Tablets’ Matt Meyers Receives National Award

We’re pleased to announce that Matt has been named one of the National School Boards Association’s 20 To Watch in Ed Tech for 2013-2014! He’ll be in D.C. for the CoSN Conference on March 19th for a reception and to talk with some awesome people. Say hi, don’t be shy!

Here’s the formal announcement from the NSBA:  NSBA Announces “20 To Watch”.

The New SAT

That’s right! The SAT is new again. This time though, it’s for real. My favorite part was, from TIME Magazine, “The SAT used to be out of 2400 points, now it’s out of 1600”.  Hold up there, TIME. The SAT used to be out of 1600 points, then it had a brief affair with 2400, and now it’s back to where it belongs. No longer do I need to be ridiculed by students asking “what did you get on your SAT?” when their scores are inflated. Not that I’m bitter.

Ok, let’s get into the important stuff.

The Essay & Evidence

Sorry College Board, this is a bad change. As many English teachers will tell you, most students can bang out an essay if you give them enough time, most students can buy one if you give them not enough time, and it’s the rare student who can put together an excellent piece of writing in 40 minutes on the SAT. This is a vital part of synthesis and assessment, and now that it’s no longer required on the SAT, I feel like we have given in to outrageous demands that the exam is biased. Look, if we’re really concerned about the ELLs in our country taking this test, allow them to write the test in another language and translate it. Writing is a universal skill. Making it optional on the exam is a bad decision.

All that said, the shift from multiple choice to evidence based response almost makes up for this shortfall. Asking students to provide evidence is the single most effective way of succeeding in being that annoying teacher who always asks, “Why?” Instead of annoying the kid, making them provide evidence not only saves your reputation, but also accomplishes your goals.

The Point Deductions Have Been Deducted

This was a good change. Nobody in their right mind penalizes a child for attempting to answer a question and getting it wrong. We may as well be saying, “don’t even bother trying to answer our questions unless you’re 100% sure you can get it right”. That’s ridiculous and is probably responsible for a whole host of self esteem issues some children suffer from, but I digress. Point is, no grading system works this way, and I’m glad that the SATs will no longer work this way either. Of course, it means all of my students’ scores are still more inflated than mine. Grrrr.

Fewer Topics on the Math Exam

Another good change. I’m a fan of this teaching philosophy in general, and that is less is more. Less content, more in depth exploration. That is what breeds a child’s curiosity, critical thinking, and problem solving skill. Nothing says that these skills aren’t important more than requiring students to memorize basic level skills in order to succeed. I feel that this change will actually make the exam more biased, because one of the important educational problems is that the lower performing children don’t have access to the best teachers, and thus do not have their skills cultivated as well, but it’s still a good overall change.

Reading Selection

This is the most bogus change. Part of reading comprehension is seeing something for the first time, reading it, processing the information, and then synthesizing it. That’s the whole point. Now that the selections will be narrowed to widely read speeches and passages, what’s to stop a kid from preparing responses for the Gettysburg Address, or various other famous monologues? That’s not the point of the SAT. There is no fundamental reason to do this, and in fact it only further contributes to its own often criticized American nationalism because you can be certain that those “famous speeches” will most likely be composed of those by American Presidents.

Paperless

I’m still shocked that it’s news for our exams to be paperless, but this is a good change. All exams should be electronic because data collection through electronic exams destroys collection through paper exams. There’s no comparison and there’s no need to argue about it. Students will get their scores back quicker, we can analyze data more robustly, see where our country’s children are lacking, and score reports can be sent more securely and reliably to colleges. I am completely under the assumption that some students will find a way to cheat through the electronic exam and I don’t care. People still find ways to rob banks and that’s against the law, so the last thing we should do is stall this conversion any longer. Good on you SAT.

Partnership with Khan Academy

This was an Easter Egg and folks, make no mistake about it, but the whole “CollegeBoard won’t be paying Khan anything” thing is just a publicity stunt. There were plenty of bids for this partnership spot and Khan just happened to say they’ll do it for “free”. Still, this is great to see. KA is one of the pioneers of digital education and love it or hate it, I’m happy to see that they will continue to grow through this valuable endorsement because innovation by pioneers should be rewarded and encouraged in education, not remanded.

Overall, I’m happy with these new changes. Certain test prep companies aren’t, but I am. They represent a shift in the way we assess students and they have good intentions. I don’t necessarily agree with all the changes, but I do agree with the philosophy behind all of them. We’ll see what happens in a few years when students start taking the exams. Certainly, all ideas of what a “good score” is will go out the window again.

#PresentationDay: A Twitter Idea

My school opened up Twitter for use this past Wednesday, and as you can imagine, the first reaction of many was negative. I can’t get over how many times I hear this nonsense: “the kids are addicted to their phones”, “it will make them more distracted than they already are”, or my personal favorite, “it is going to make them stink at writing”. Don’t worry everyone, I’m here to dispel all these rumors. Yes, the kids are addicted to their phones, no, it won’t make them more distracted than they already are, and they already suck at writing so that’s not going to change because they can tweet at school. Personally, I find it somewhat pitiful that some teachers think they are so uninteresting that they’re scared Twitter or Facebook will take away their “thunder”. The answer is not to surrender to the technology, but to use it to your advantage. I only love techniques that are mostly effort free, and using Twitter in a class is one of those.

To prove it, here’s an example of using it for student acknowledgement during presentations. You’ll notice if you do a quick #GHSCompSci search, that I live tweeted my students’ algorithm presentations last Friday. I invited my students to tweet as well. This took zero effort, time, and energy on my part, and the benefits it provides are more than worth it. Students now have a living archive of their own achievement to show friends and family, I have modeled good digital citizenship, they’ve gained experience in how professional presentations work, and they’ve been shown an example of an appropriate use of Twitter at school. Not only that, it increases their engagement with the presentation, and allows them a medium of discussion that is far more common than the facilitated classroom environment we seem to be hooked to.

We’ll also be using it once we start watching Gravity. In case you didn’t see it, Gravity is about as close as any Hollywood movie has come to accurately depicting what being in space is actually like. A plethora of high profile scientists and scientific journalists took to Twitter to discuss the film’s reality, and we will be doing the same as part of our activity with the movie. Students will be required to weigh in on this discussion using their own research, and we will be requiring them to cite credible tweets from these people.

There’s so much more to this tool than having it open for a week can unlock, and I intend to play quite a bit over the next few weeks.  Feel free to share your fun uses of Twitter. Now that it’s open at school, I will be trying many suggestions.

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