Monthly Archives: January 2013
I am a speech-language pathologist by training and began my career working in schools and in private practice. I see fascinating connections between learning language and learning to read, and believe technology can be useful in both.
I left the classroom to shift my focus toward teacher training and professional development. For 10 years I worked with the reading-instruction program Earobics and its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, eventually managing the professional-development team for technology-focused programs for the north half of the USA.
I joined Innovations for Learning in 2010, and now I oversee the teacher training and coaching around TeacherMate and TutorMate programs. I work directly with teachers — and also manage our Teacher Ambassadors, IFL’s own little literacy army. These knowledgeable folks work one-on-one with teachers to help them get the most out of IFL’s programs. I’m so grateful for them!
I couldn’t ask for a better job. I get a front-row view of the nearly miraculous changes and growth that happen in these critical early school years.
Kids in K and 1 are still learning the “rules” of school. They are still figuring out how to “be” and how to sit still and how to focus their attention on a task for longer periods of time. Teachers are artful shepherds, gradually shaping behaviors and teaching new skills that help students gain independence. K and 1 teachers set in place the building blocks of life-long learning.
The days in K and 1 are often filled with the mundane: tying shoes, wiping noses, celebrating successes (“You did it! I knew you could and you tried and you did it!”) and correcting off-task behaviors (“I think your voice should be at a level 0. Please use your words”).
They are filled with modeling, guided practice and establishing (and reestablishing) routines (“Let’s talk about how we line up…”).
Most importantly, they are filled with wonder.
Wonder is a powerful thing. When children begin to wonder, they are taking the first step toward visualizing texts and imagining outcomes. When a teacher wonders how to improve a lesson or how to reach a child, she is taking the first step towards self-improvement.
And it IS wonderful….
It is wonderful to see a student’s eyes light up when they’ve read a whole page (or a whole book!) for the first time. It is wonderful to see little brows furrowed in deep concentration as they coax their eyes and brains to try something new.
It is wonderful to hear kids say, “I need to read now. Please be quiet.”
It is wonderful to enjoy the non-sequiter observations a child can make. Recently, a first-grader raised his hand while I was discussing the riveting concept of initial consonant blends, and — completely disconnected from the subject — told me that “Praying Mantises don’t really pray.” Wonderful.
Take a little time to enjoy the wonder that our world and our classrooms provide.
Wonderful.Michele Pulver firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out this wonderful video about Innovations for Learning. It gives a great picture of how IFL is helping children learn to read in public school classrooms.
It was produced by the group Make It Better, as a prize for winning one of its 2012 Philanthropy Awards.
Make It Better elaborates on Innovations for Learning’s work in this blog post.
We’re very grateful for the recognition!
(If you have trouble accessing the video from the links above, you can find it on our website.)
Why will kids be bored and restless all day in school — but then go home to play video games, rooting themselves in front of the screen hour after hour, no matter how difficult or frustrating the game may be?
James Paul Gee has been pondering this question for some time. A noted linguist and a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, he’s the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007), as well as the recently published The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning (2013).
The 63-year-old Gee became intrigued by watching his young son grapple with fantasy-world games that he found “fairly long and pretty challenging, even for an adult.” He writes:
I found myself asking the following question: ‘How, in heaven’s name, do they sell so many of these games when they are so long and hard?’ …
[Moreover], you cannot play a game if you cannot learn it. If no one plays a game, it does not sell and the company that made it goes broke. Of course, companies could make the games shorter and simpler. That’s often what schools do with their curriculums. But gamers won’t accept short or easy games. So game designers keep making long and challenging games and still manage to get them learned. How?
His answer is complex, as you’d expect from a professor of linguistics. But boiled down to its essence, Gee put his finger on the element that he believes makes video games so spellbinding. It’s their capacity to create environments that allow players to explore on their own, to fumble around, to be confused and “pleasantly frustrated,” and to discover the keys to advancement on their own. The cost of failure is low, so it pays to keep experimenting.
It’s when the players hit a snag and need guidance that they finally consult a manual or ask a friend.
This is what educational theorists call “situated learning,” Gee told Innovations for Learning recently.
“The analogy is, when we give people a science text — but they don’t have a real context,” Gee said. “It’s like giving them a rule book without the game. But it’s the game that gives meaning to the manual.
“Think about it: If you try to read the game’s manual without playing the game, it’s dry and technical, and you don’t know what it’s talking about. But if you play the game for a while, you start to live in that world and you understand how it operates. So when you go to the manual the things it’s talking about make sense to you.
“It’s the same with science. The text is the manual on how you play the game of biology. You need to muck around with the world of biology for awhile, so you know what the text is talking about.
“But the way we do it in school, we give the language [the textbook chapters, the teacher’s lectures] in large chunks, and do that first. The kids can’t apply it to anything. They’re not ready for it. It’s just a big book.”
If Gee were redesigning a school curriculum, he would use technology — video game-like simulations, augmented reality, computerized graphing tools — to put students in worlds where they could explore new concepts. Teachers and texts would be on hand to answer questions and supply information “just in time, when the students can use it to help them solve problems.”
Adults tend to do the opposite of this. They read the instructions first, then try to attack the problem. “We’re reminded of this when we read a manual for putting together a bike and get totally frustrated,” Gee said. “So we sit there and scream and bang objects.”
Kids, on the other hand, lean the other way: they want to try to figure out the problem on their own and read about it later, when they have to. “And they are right,” Gee said.
Technology is going to make this kind of learning more accessible, Gee said. The cost of sophisticated tools is forever dropping. You can make a professional-looking movie on a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment; you don’t need a bankroll of thousands. With the ready availability of game engines, almost any teen who wants to can create his own video game, Gee said.
And the future of the economy is going to make this kind of learning more important. “It’s pretty clear that all of today’s kids are going to be living in a very transformative, fast-changing, high-risk environment,” Gee said. “We need kids to be able to be very adaptable, to be able to transform their skills, be able to change.”
In other words, kids are going to have to learn to be problem-solvers and to think about complex systems — not just pass tests to show they’ve attained a certain reading or math level. “You need a lot more than the basics,” Gee said. “In the 21st century, it doesn’t do any good to read if you’re not reading to solve a problem.”
We should also be gearing our schools toward collective problem-solving, Gee said. “If you apply for a high-tech job, they’ll bring you into a room with a bunch of people and put a problem on the table, and ask the group to solve it,” he said. “And if anyone tries to solve it himself, he doesn’t get hired.”
Each team member is supposed to be a specialist — but that specialist must know how to work in concert with everyone else. “That’s the motif of modern work,” Gee said.
Schools cannot be truly improved, Gee said, without reckoning with the world of rapid change that is upon us. He pointed out that three-fifths of all workers are in service industries; Walmart is our largest employer. But robots may soon eliminate even those jobs (and low-wage jobs in China and India, too).
Already, economic inequality in America is “greater than the Robber Baron Era in the 1880s,” he said, “and it correlates with social malaise and poor health on everybody’s part because of the stress.”
But other trends are emerging as well: The balance between consumption and production is changing. “Sophisticated tools are available to everyday people—young and old—to produce their own media, news, art, science, and even products,” Gee said. Schools should respond by teaching all students to be productive and innovative with new technologies — for example, to think critically about the design of the new media they’re using.
With many present forms of jobs disappearing, fewer people will be able to get “ego satisfaction, status and a sense of urgency in their jobs,” Gee said.
Therefore, “we need schools to prepare all students to be able to find interests and passions at least ‘off market.’ where they can gain mastery and feel a sense of satisfaction and a sense of counting in society.”
“Look, we can have two school systems: one for the basics, and one for the more privileged kids to prepare them for the jobs that pay well and offer satisfaction,” he said, “or we can have a system that teaches everyone to innovate. Those are two different visions, and that’s a choice for society.”
My main role at Innovations For Learning is to train tutors, assign them to students, and then manage them throughout the year. This is quite a rewarding job, as I know that these tutors are helping students all over the country improve their reading skills and develop a passion for books.
As a former pre-school teacher — and lifelong, avid reader myself — I am very proud to be part of this process.
TutorMate and TeacherMate are IFL’s two principal endeavors, but during my two years with the company, I have been lucky enough to be part of several smaller projects. These projects excite me to no end, because they demonstrate IFL’s unlimited creativity and potential.
Of course there are many reasons that children fall behind in reading, but one such reason is that students, especially those really struggling, don’t find it exciting enough. When kids are excited about something and when they can relate to it, they are more likely to try harder and persist.
The project I worked on last summer involved writing out scripts for dozens of books and then recording myself reading them. I also added my own questions and comments to make the reading more engaging for the students. These recordings are targeting students who are unable to read these books themselves without assistance.
We put the recordings onto mp3 players, so that students can listen to my voice and simultaneously follow along with the actual books in front of them. While this is going on, another group of students can be reading on their TeacherMates, and yet another group can be receiving instruction from the teacher.
While I admit that it’s pretty neat to think that first graders all over the country are hearing my voice read these stories, this is genuinely an incredible idea on its merits. It allows students who would otherwise just look at the pictures without getting much out of the books to actually comprehend what’s going on and even make predictions. They can feel as though they are really reading, which will enable them to stay engaged and excited.
I was lucky enough to have parents who read to me every day and bought books for me whenever I asked. Not all kids are this fortunate. So I am thrilled and proud to be part of an organization that helps kids all over the country learn to read and develop a passion for it.
I find it exhilarating to think of the possibilities that the future holds with IFL. There are so many potential projects to undertake and so many students to reach. I look forward to being a part of it all.Heather Kamenear email@example.com
It seems the time has come for the tomes to go.
Say hello to the book-less library.
A Catholic prep school in suburban Minneapolis cleared almost all its physical books out of its library. Students at Benile-St. Margaret’s now sit at tables and chairs and work at their laptops in the place where stacks of shelves used to hold 5,000 books.
According to School Library Journal, the school’s Moore Library remains a vital educational space. Students still do research, investigate questions, and learn.
“We used to think of a library as a building with stacks of books,” High School Principal Sue Skinner told the Journal. “Now we should think of it as a space where people come together to share ideas, be creative, access information, and even read. Instead of thinking of it so literally, we should think of it as a more active space and evolving.”
What’s helped the “no books” policy succeed, Skinner said, was the school’s heavy use of technology, generally. Each students is issued a MacBook. The school has been 1:1 (one laptop per student) since 2010.
According the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the school’s veteran libarian, Lynn Bottge, was opposed to e-books at first, but then saw how inexpensive they were.
“It would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars” to maintain stacks of hard-copy books at Benilde, she said. Under a deal available with one distributor, the school would have access to a catalog of about 200,000 scholarly e-books but pay only when they’re downloaded. The school subscribes to dozens of databases, which students can access throughout the building or at home with passwords.
“I think we’re in the era now where the library is not in one place,” said Bottge.
It’s tempting to lament the fading of the printed book, but students had been reading fewer and fewer of the books in the stacks over recent years, the newspaper said. Before she made the library all-digital, Skinner allocated money for English teachers to buy printed books of fiction for their classrooms. She told the Journal her students prefer to read this genre on the printed page, as many adults do.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, that’s so sad you have no books in the library,'” Skinner told the Star Tribune. “Well, there are books — they just look different.”
Meanwhile, San Antonio’s Bexar County has decided to build the nation’s first book-less public library — book-less that is, as far as physical books. All the reading at the BiblioTech, scheduled to open in the fall, will be done on computer screens and e-books.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told ABC News he was inspired after reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s Steve Jobs.
“We all know the world is changing. I am an avid book reader. I read hardcover books, I have a collection of 1,000 first editions. Books are important to me,” Wolff told ABC News.
“But the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community.”
Library goers will be able to take out books on devices in the library, take out one of 50 e-readers for a period of time or bring their own e-readers to the library and load books onto their own devices, The library plans to partner with e-book providers and distributors to provide access to thousands of titles.
According to Amy Wickner, who covers this subject extensively in a blog for Education Week, no public schools have gone all-digital with their libraries. But at least one other private school has: Cushing Academy, a coed boarding school in Massachusetts.
The 250-student school got rid of three-quarters of its 40,000 physical books in 2009 and went instead with digital formats, said T.H.E. Journal.
“We wanted to create a library that reflected the reality of how students conduct research and that fostered what they do,” Tom Corbett, the library’s executive director told the journal. “We needed a facility that went beyond the ‘stacks’ and embraced the digital future.”photo credits — Top, Star Tribune; BiblioTech, ABC News
I came to Innovations for Learning because of a passion for its mission: spreading blended learning models and digital learning in order to individualize instruction for kids.
I’ve worked as a building principal, then in the for-profit e-learning sector for 15 years. I kept seeing a recurring issue: Districts spent millions of dollars on technology and software only to see it “sit on the shelf” after a year or so.
Vendors came in with a sexy PowerPoint promising incredible gains, the latest in functionality, real technological change and ease of use. Yet education as a whole does not look much different than a classroom from 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
If you were to take away the desks, chairs and chalkboard (whiteboard) in a classroom, the teacher would be frantic; however if you were to remove the four or five computers that might be sitting in the back of the classroom, the impact would most likely be minimal.
Why? Because the technology still is not integral to a teacher’s daily instruction. To really be effective, digital learning requires a change in instructional design, in the daily schedule, in how instruction is delivered.
Most of all, digital learning requires simple, raw change. Change is hard unless you have a mentor, a coach, a solid partner.
That is what IFL is. We are that solid partner. We seek out innovative districts that want to implement sustainable, blended learning models, and help them get there.
The IFL model is unique in that we provide digital technology along with a fulltime, on-site Teacher Ambassador, so that technology becomes essential to a teacher’s daily instruction. We stay with our partner districts year after year to ensure the success of this blended model. And we help provide the funding to do it!
As the National Director of Education, I am charged with finding the innovative districts to partner with, then working to ensure the integrity of those partner-relationships through the years.
Though I live in Seattle, my office is … the nation! I meet with district leaders across the U.S. to share our nonprofit work and to discuss what a partnership entails. After multiple meetings it becomes clear rather quickly if our innovative work is a fit for the district.
My work is amazingly rewarding — I’m able to see changes that make an impact in classrooms. I work with some of the most savvy innovators in public education. And I serve an organization that truly desires to be a true partner to school districts.Barbara Gilbert firstname.lastname@example.org
In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. Today: Howard Goodman, Staff Writer
I’m Howard Goodman and I write and manage the blog you’re reading.
I came to Innovations for Learning in August, after a long career in newspapers as a reporter, feature writer, columnist and editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, South Florida Sun Sentinel and elsewhere, including newspapers in Shanghai and Hong Kong, China. No, I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Those papers were in English.
I’ve covered everything from cops, prisons and city government in Philadelphia to the botched 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach County, Florida.
But my first reporting assignment was K-12 education in Salem, Ore. And for three years I covered higher education for the Philadelphia Inquirer. So I have a longtime interest in this field and a strong appreciation of education’s importance to our nation’s future.
Immediately preceding my stint on higher ed, I had been the Inquirer’s prisons reporter. And I came to see the two beats as opposite sides of the same coin.
With higher education, the underlying story was aspiration — the crucial issues involving students’ access, whether the cutthroat competition to get into elite private colleges or the increasing financial struggle for a good public education. What the aspirants understood was that higher education was the gateway to society’s better-paying jobs and a brighter future for themselves. Take the larger view, and you could see that the spread of higher education meant a more innovative economy for the nation.
The prisons beat held the opposite story: the story of American failure. The United States was setting world records for it incarceration rate and the bulging prison population had an unmistakable profile. By great majorities, the inmates were black and Hispanic and male — young, poor and ill-educated, coming from the most crime-ridden and hopeless of city neighborhoods.
There was no easy way to reverse this. These young people had grown up amid family dysfunction, absent fathers, the barriers of racism, the allures of gang membership and drug-trade riches. But there was one place in this morass where society might — just might — make a difference: the schools. If educated, these kids might be equipped to face some better future than prison, than a drug-corner death.
So I feel privileged to be able to work for an organization that doesn’t just believe it’s possible to improve education for so many of the disadvantaged young — it’s doing something about it.
My goal as staff writer for Innovations for Learning is to tell the world that positive change for education is possible. In fact, change is taking place — not just by IFL but by many organizations and individuals. Conceived by people with vision, shaped by digital technology, often funded by philanthropy, new ideas and initiatives are springing up all over the educational landscape.
It’s the education story that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. And it’s the one I hope to tell.
Want a quick understanding of the school reform movement?
Public Broadcasting ran a terrific documentary last night on Michelle Rhee and her controversial reign as the head of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. You can catch it online here — and if you’re at all interested in the state of public-school education, you should.
PBS is following up with a live online chat tomorrow [Thursday, Jan. 10] at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, featuring the film’s correspondent, veteran PBS NewsHour education reporter John Merrow, two reporters from USA today who extensively covered standardized testing during Rhee’s tenure and others.
Cameras from the show “Frontline” followed Rhee over a period of years, starting in 2007, as she waded in to one of America’s worst-functioning school districts, determined to make big improvements in a hurry.
We see what motivated her: The fights in the hallways, the lack of discipline, the tuned-out faces of the student body. We see principals who look overwhelmed with the simple task of keeping order.
We see her demand change: Pressuring principals to identify laggards on the teaching staff, firing the low-performing. We watch, startled, as she invites a camera crew to witness as she hauls a principal into her office and fires him. We see her arouse the anger of the teachers’ union and some city council members when she starts using student test results as a basis for giving raises to teachers — or firing them.
She closes half-empty schools, sends hundreds of teachers their walking papers, and registers huge gains in student test scores — but many of those glowing test scores come into question when reporters discover suspiciously high numbers of erasures on test papers.
She stirs so much backlash that her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, is defeated at the polls in 2010. Soon after the election, Rhee resigns.
But since then, she has taken her reform ideas national, heading the organization StudentsFirst (which this week issued its first report card on how well each of the 50 states adhere to Rhee’s reform agenda — chiefly, using student test scores to measure teacher performance.)
Is she a hero, standing up for children against entrenched groups: teachers, district bureaucrats, politicians? Is she an overbearing zealot? Watch and decide.
Rhee’s ideas, embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, are at the core of most of the political battles now going on in school districts and state legislatures — as seen in the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, which hinged largely on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to tie teacher evaluations partly to students’ standardized test scores.
A compelling rebuttal to Rhee and the reform movement comes from Diane Ravitch, a veteran educational thinker who was once in the movement’s forefront, but has changed her mind and is now probably the movement’s foremost critic, charging, among other things, that the emphasis on standardized testing is crushing student creativity and is a poor measure of teacher quality; the most difficult kids to teach — those with learning disabilities, for instance — won’t show the most dramatic test gains, and neither will the gifted, whose scores are high to begin with.
The crisis in public education, Ravitch says, has been much exaggerated.
The New Yorker profiled Ravitch in November, and Chicago’s public-television station, WTTW, interviewed her that same month. Both reports are worth your while. And here’s a lengthy interview in the American Prospect.
photo: Time magazine
UPDATE: John Merrow, who reported the “Frontline” story, gave an insightful interview to the National Education Writers Association.
Rhee, he said, is “charismatic, smart and hardworking. She said to me early on, ‘I’m going to wear you out.’ And she did. I think even if I had been her age she would have worn me out. She wore us out in another way when she became so elusive and didn’t want to answer any questions, particularly about the test-scores scandal.”
“I don’t think people know how strongly she resisted the investigation of the erasures,” he added.
Read the interview with Merrow here.
In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. Today: Barbara Goodman, Co-Editor, Publications.
I’ve long had an interest in children and literacy.
I majored in elementary education as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. My primary interest was looking at alternatives in education – trying to find ways to reach kids of all kinds who weren’t being reached or challenged by standard classroom methods.
By the time I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher, but I was keenly interested in reading and in the materials and resources that were out there for young people. I returned to the University of Michigan, this time for graduate studies at the School for Library Science, where I majored in library materials and services for children and young adults.
I worked as a librarian for young people for a couple of years post-graduation, but have been serving adults since then. For the past 22 years, I have worked part-time as an Adult Services Librarian at the Wilmette Public Library in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs.
Nearly four years ago, I joined Innovations for Learning on a part-time basis, working with my colleague Caryn Weiner as co-directors of Online Tutoring Chicago, coordinating the tutoring efforts in IFL’s home city. But IFL’s tutoring program — now known as TutorMate — has grown so much that it now requires a full-time staff. So last summer, Caryn and I moved on to a new shared position: co-editors of publications, and our biggest task now is to create IFL’s first annual report.
While the public library serves a population that’s much different from the people we reach at IFL, my personal goals in both professional arenas are ultimately quite similar – and I believe my working life has now come full circle.
Whether trying to reach well-read adults at the public library or first graders at urban schools, my longtime hope has been to foster literacy among all. And while the contrast between the two groups may be enormous, keeping my hands in both worlds constantly reminds me of the possibilities.
As I see IFL fostering literacy in young students, I can’t help but think that those very children have the potential to become literate, well-read adults in the future, their lives made better because they learned to read during the critical years.
My hope is that the children served by IFL grow up with a love of the written word and a lifelong desire to read for pleasure.
And what a bonus it will be if those same children also became regulars at their own public libraries.Barbara Goodman email@example.com
My name is John Friedman and my title is Director of Software Development.
In the late 70’s my interest in visual and audio art, math and science led me to investigate the use of digital technology for creative production and teach myself programming.
I started working with Innovations for Learning in 1997 after having been an independent contractor in educational software and the video-game industry for about 15 years.
I have some responsibility for almost every bit of technology that IFL uses, but my primary responsibility is managing our relationship with the development team located in Chennai, India.
There are no down periods in our development cycle; with Innovations as our first name, we are constantly developing new applications and upgrading and maintaining our existing technology.
My work day normally begins at 6 a.m. Central Time (I’m based in Chicago). That gives me a few hours of instant communications, either by chat or by phone with our developers before the end of their day in India. Tutoring on the East Coast starts around 7:30 Central; at that time, I also begin fielding requests and bug reports from IFL staff.
Most of the day is spent addressing staff needs, verifying reports of software defects, clarifying our requirements to our developers, and testing new releases. Meetings, staff requests and tutoring on the West Coast generally conclude by 5:30 p.m. Central. That’s when my day usually ends. But if there is a technology problem that prevents our teachers, students or tutors from using the system, I’ll keep on going.
And sometimes, problems crop up that demand greater urgency.
In those crisis situations, I will be involved in testing solutions to the problem that was delivered to us by the developers. The developers generally start their day around 9:30 a.m., India time, or 10 p.m. Central — although the business analyst I work most closely with frequently contacts me before and after her normal business hours. She and I will discuss the results of my testing and address the priorities for the next day. We usually talk no more than an hour or two, but occasionally I will also help the development team with testing through the middle of their day — meaning, the middle of my night.
Generally, these kinds of emergencies last no longer than a few days or a week, but on occasion they’ve continued for several weeks. No doubt many technologists would recognize this story.
There are several joys that I derive from working at IFL. Each member of the IFL staff is personable, expert in his or her field, and hard working. And even though we work remotely, I find their humor and camaraderie supportive and their expertise and commitment inspiring.
And though even more remote, I enjoy working with our developers, learning something of the slang and festivals in Chennai, and even trying, without much success, to learn some Tamil script and phrases. My Indian contacts are a lot more than voices at the other end of the phone calls, chats and emails. They’re individuals, and friends.
Whenever I hear some piece of information that a staff member picks up from a client regarding the growth of IFL — or a report of positive feedback from a tutor, teacher administrator or even researcher — it makes me feel proud to be a part of our organization: doing our best to do good.
Ultimately, I feel a sense of duty to everyone who relies on me to do my job as well as I can, whether our founder, funders, coworkers, partners, tutors, educators, students and families.John Friedman firstname.lastname@example.org