Who is Your Critical Friend?

I spent last week in a Critical Friends’ Workshop. I was supposed to leave feeling I could facilitate CFG’s  (Critical Friends’ Groups) and I did. It was an extremely well organized, structured, and engaging week. The leaders and the format lent themselves well to excellent teaching practices as well as wonderful community building.

I took away the idea of Humility. Conversations are structured so everyone can talk- and this means everyone also has to listen. And listen I did. I realized I can be quiet-and that others have ideas and can solve problems without me.

I loved the energizers. We took time to push in our chairs and play silly games. We giggled uncontrollably- and were refreshed- and able to move right on. Each day flew by!

The photo above is a group created list of things that make up a Critical Friend. This was an interesting exercise. Who is your critical friend- and why? I realized that mine is someone who I know respects me highly and therefore I feel save receiving honest feedback from them. Your critical friends, are in fact very often, your very dear friends. Critical has many meanings- including very necessary!


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Raging Rivers!

In January I posted Intergrate and Collaborate – a piece about a special annual thematic unit at our school. This year the faculty decided on Rivers Around the World. All of our K-4 teachers planned the unit together and then executed it in April and May. Last Friday marked the end of this investigation.

Friday was finale day. The boys toured each other’s rooms and then we met in the theater for each class to sing a river song. Our final note was the entire Lower School singing Proud Mary. As the official photographer (and the curriculum coordinator!), it gave me the opportunity to observe and reflect on this particular unit and on this eleven year old tradition. My main thoughts were:

1. The boys learning was shown in so many ways. I love Darren Kuropatwa’s phrase of “Gallery of Thought,” and I saw plenty of different types of galleries: paintings, sculptures, models, journals, websites, videos, photographs, poems, brochures, murals, and more. A fresh unit each year lends itself to such creative, hands on, and investigative learning.

2. The boys were so engaged and connected to their work. Knowing that their peers were all studying the same theme- and then being empowered to teach those peers- brought their level of engagement to new heights.

3. Priceless, priceless moments of younger boys teaching older boys- all so serious and considerate- and so well behaved.

4. Technology in the classrooms. The lab used to be part of the tour- now the teachers do it and display it in their rooms. Ebooks made on ipads, video streamed on Smart Boards, netbooks running websites and blogs- integrated into the classroom as just another tool!

5. Community- Community- Community. I cannot say enough about teachers helping teachers and boys and teachers learning together with common goals. As we sang, “Rolling Down the River,” as one voice, I knew that I had to find the energy to do this all over again next year.

But I need the summer first!

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Diving Deeper: A Progress Report

Making a big Splash with just 8 IPads

10 weeks ago I wrote a post, “Paddling.” We had only just received our 8 ipads and I was experimenting with them. In the time since, our use has exploded. Teachers K-4, both homeroom and subjects, have been signing them out. The good news: they are in demand and overbooked. The bad news: we need more! We now have over 80 apps loaded on our ipads. See them here.

A crucial part of this increased use amongst the faculty was involving them with the ipads. I did this a number of ways:

  • Suggested teachers take an ipad home to play with them and investigate the apps.
  • Find apps and make suggestions for the teachers as they reached different parts of their curriculum.
  • Include iPad use at our faculty meetings. In one, as we were preparing for our integrated unit on Rivers Around the World, I gave them assignments using Rivers of the World and Easy Globe Lite. In another, I had them free explore in partners.

Here are 3 notable projects to share with you.


Science Project: Earthquakes

In a third grade science class, the boys went on to the app Earthquake Lite to see earthquakes as they were happening around the world. They were able to see the time, the locations, and the strengths as each earthquake happened. They then played with Quake Builder.

Tap DJ

Music Project: Create!

Our music teacher eagerly gave out the ipad and had the boys explore three apps with partners: iDaft, Touchsounds, and Tap DJ. He then had them use Beatwave to create several layers of music.

Creating with Strip Design

Afterschool Photography Project: Strip Design

I began one of my afterschool classes by introducing the boys to Photo Shot. This helps them practice zooming in and out to take careful pictures. We then took pictures to use in the app Strip Design to make cartoons. A huge hit and easy for the boys (second through fourth) to use.

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Lofty Thoughts

TEDxNYED attendees thinking high- 40 floors up!

I was tempted to write about TEDxNYED 2011 the day the Sunday after the event. I was somewhat overwhelmed having heard so many great voices speak (and sing) about so many big things. On the Monday, my feelings of elation fell to dismay as I struggled with the seemingly impossible idea of changing out existing structure of education. I now can only offer a few of my takeaways that have been simmering around in my head for 10 days.

1. We all have to keep attending these events- whether it is BLC, ISTE, Educon, or TEDx- or even an edchat on Twitter- it is such a gift to interact and learn from such a great group of educators and thinkers.

2. I took the phrase “Professional Generosity” away with me. It is almost unique to our profession that we are almost all so generous with our craft.

3. Heidi Hayes Jacobs spoke of the new literacies; media, global, and digital. Each seem so important to our students and yet are we really preparing them?

4. Which brings me to Will Richardson. His points are still in my head and won’t go away. This is the coolest time to be a learner right now and we have some of the worst teaching. What year are we preparing our students for? And this, “This system is killing our kids…Let’s not do schools better, let’s do them different.”

5. The day was a wonderful mixture of practice and theory. Lucy Gray told us all about her wonderful global collaboration projects and Brian Crosby let us peek into his classroom with his mantra, “Teach kids to be learners.” He went on to say, “Send your students work to the world rather than the refridgerator door.”

6. And finally. Watch Kiran Bir Sethi Teachers Kids to Take Charge TED talk. It will make your heart soar!

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My Thoughts on Educon 2.3

Darrn Kuropatwa helping Nicole Thompson

I won’t attempt to summarize Educon 2.3- many others will do it far better. I can however compare my experience with that of my experience last year at Educon 2.2. I have highlighted a few differences that dawned on me as my train went north yesterday afternoon.

Connected I was astounded with how I felt more connected and confident this year. My number in my pln has increased and I felt I was able to stop and talk and therefore learn more readily. I spoke up at sessions, was able to contribute, and felt comfortable doing so. It is important for all of us to remember that everyone starts somewhere and although it is easier to converse with those that you know really well, we must all reach out and help involve newbies. A wonderful example of this was an impromtu lesson at breakfast when Darren Kuropatwa started teaching my colleague, Nicole Thompson, about using his camera on his ipod and some resulting projects.

Positive Last year, I was part of many discussions that became rather negative in nature. People were frustrated with structures that did not support good learning. This year, I only heard wonderful stories of success and met leaders who were initiating and supporting change. It was heart warming to see solutions and possibility and see practical examples of how to get there!

Jon Orech talks about Digital Storytelling- Passionately!

Big Ideas Tools and technology play a back seat role at Educon. Last year, I think I chose sessions that featured the “how to’s” and were more focused on integrating technology. This year I saw a marvelous tweet: “Stop integrating… Just change.” In Zac Chase’s session about project based integration, he did not touch upon how the students had made their presentations. One audience asked how he had taught the students how to use the technology and he stated he did not have to. I think we are all realizing this is not about the tool but more what the tool allows us to do.

It’s Just Good Teaching I’ll end with a similarity. I walked away each year having a solid sense that everyone at the conference has a common understanding of what good teaching is. What I find surprising is that not everyone realizes it is the same (or almost the same) good teaching we have been struggling to do for many years. When I was at College, I learned all that the passion based fans are talking about. Somehow the structures get in the way. Back then (way back then) we were big fans of the integrated day and of Lillian Katz and her project approach. The only difference is that new technologies are making the need for change more transparent- and hopefully more inevitable.

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Integrate and Collaborate

We all know the advantages of collaborating and integrating in the elementary school. How can we fight a schedule and building that does not allow for connections to be naturally made?

Our Social Studies curriculum is left open for April and May. All elementary grades then study the same theme. The teachers gather in January to choose the theme. In mixed groups they deliberate and create. As themes are put forward, passionate arguments are made, emails swirl around, and connections are made. As we discuss we aim for our theme to be:
  • something to go around the world
  • boy friendly (to include building)
  • to be of value
  • to be appropriate K-4
  • to be teachable across subjects
On Friday we had our second meeting for this year. We had weeded our original list to 6 finalists: food, forests, instruments, rivers, and underground. I asked the faculty to choose the one they would like to explore. Teachers who barely knew each other went off to work with focus and engagement- the conversations should have been recorded. Their goal was to prove to us it was a valuable and practical curriclum idea. Each group then stood in front of us and amazed us with their ideas and passion. The voting takes place on Monday- I’ll let you know!
We had little idea over ten years ago that this project would still be alive. I saw as a vehicle to get teachers talking and to build community amongst the grades. We hit those goals and more. Each year, we have to build new curriculum following backwards design and using essential questions. Each year, we are forced to look for new resources and new ways to use our community. Our students anticipate the project eagerly. This year I asked some boys what the teachers should keep in mind when they were planning. A fifth grader poingnantly stated, “Do something unusual- not the usual things we learn at school. This is a time to really enjoy learning- not like the usual stuff.” 
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English definition of to paddle: to walk about in shallow water !

Goal: Integrate iPads into K-4 classrooms. I have a set of 8 iPads to experiment with.

Step 1: Play with – muck around- work out the kinks- myself.

Method: Use in my reading group in first grade (my only teaching assignment). So in one week I planned my reading and integrated the following 4 apps:


Spell Blocks with Sight Words A simple app that tells the students words to spell and they move the blocks to the correct place. I used this instead of sight word practice on flash cards. I noticed that having the sound on 6 ipads all at the same time was annoying (solution: headphones) and that the boys heads were down and they were not collaborated (solution: put in partners where possible).

Quick Voice After the students had read a Syd Hoff book of their choice, I asked them to choose their favorite section and record it. They were then able to reread a number of times to see if they could improve their fluency. This activity was successful. The app is incredibly easy to use so the boys were able to do it as they finished.  A good way to have them read aloud but privately! I was then able to listen before I had report comments to write!

Magnetic Land For the phonics part of my reading group, I often have my students make words. I let them play with this app for a few minutes and then directed them to make words, changing consonants and vowels. I quickly found the sound needs to be off for this group activity! An easy to use app- I like the simpler magnet ones as well.

Draw Free  When we had read all of our Syd Hoff books, I asked the boys to draw their favorite character on this app. There wasn’t much value to this activity but I wanted to check the emailing process. They drew easily except for one boy who wished he had a pen (solution: we ordered pens) and then after a brief demo, they were all able to email me the pictures. This drawing app has no bells and whistles so is perfect for a quick activity.

It was a great first dip into the water. I cannot believe how easy it for the students and how readily they help each other. No comparison with netbooks for this age group. No charging, sign on, mouse issues at all! A breeze!

Next step: move them into the classrooms, inspire and guide teachers, find new apps…. stay tuned!

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IPad Practicalities

Last week I sat in my office looking at a cardboard box of 8 iPads. They are part of our pilot program and are available to be used in our K-12 school. I had seemingly shown the most enthusiasm so was hijacking them- or at least taking the initiative- in our K-4 division.

My first thoughts were about storage and maintenance. This may not seem a lofty enough subject for a blog but if you have ever supervised a shared laptop cart in a school, you will understand. Take care of these things in the beginning and avoid a lot of headaches! The following 3 photographs show my progression:

First I tried a large plastic bin- too heavy too carry around and wires not easily fed in.

Then I tried a file rack. Wonderful for wires- reaching out to 2 powerstrips each side but prooved difficult to slide ipads in and out.

Finally, after a suggestion from a member of my PLN, I put 4 in each plastic file holder- more space, easy to carry, and makes charger outlet easy to find. I think this might be it!

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As I read blogs, tweets, articles, newspapers, and books, I realize that I am collecting ideas, nurturing them, spreading them, and then often guarding them.  I have to take those seeds, decide which ones I can grow, and most importantly how I will make sure they will survive. As I have to put these “seeds” into other people’s gardens (I am a curriculum coordinator and therefore do not have my own classroom) this is often a delicate but highly rewarding, yet at times frustrating, pursuit. Some of these are big. I recently selected Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman. I planted it well and our school is overgrown with discussions of schema, visualizing, and synthesizing. Others are much smaller such as the whisper phone or easy to grip pencils (one to help fluency, the other wonderful for little boys’ hands). I am fortunate to have a job where it is my job to help everyone grow. I believe I have a model of curriculum developement that is effective- we collaborate, motivate, experiment, and all are empowered.

My latest seed is the iPad. This blog will contain the story of that journey as well as other initiatives and thoughts. I want to thank you all for being the beginning of many of my journeys. Some are short- others are long. But I am not afraid to take a seed and throw it out there and do my upmost to cultivate it, if it helps the learning of my young students!

What is the seed that you are currently working on?

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