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Staff reflections: Sybil Anderson

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: Sybil Anderson, Teacher Ambassador in the District of Columbia.

Sybil Anderson

I came to Innovations for Learning in October 2011, after retiring from a long career in my hometown District of Columbia public school system. I taught for 25 years and coached teachers for seven more years, including as a Reading First literacy coach.

What I’m doing now is much what I did as a literacy coach, with the addition of  TeacherMate technology.

Among other things, I support teachers with guided reading, create bag-of-books with “just right” reading levels and help with classroom management and room environment. I  also aid teachers in the use of iPods and MP3 players, as well as computers used for TutorMate, troubleshooting technical issues that may arise.

I’m there, too, to lend a listening ear and to model and share best practices to all teachers and support staff when needed.

What motivates me is my love for teaching and helping children by way of coaching and supporting teachers.

I really enjoy interacting with teachers in a supportive manner, sharing, networking and giving feedback because I know how overwhelming it can get as a classroom teacher. To a teacher, having support can make all the difference.

What also motivates me is seeing the excitement and enthusiasm of teachers and students from having the latest technology — technology that’s equipped with literacy support that’s kid-friendly, teacher-friendly and fun.

The teachers love it because it requires little planning and no paperwork, it’s highly motivating for students, the feedback is immediate, and they can access the data from home or anywhere to track students’ progress.

One of my goals is to help teachers feel successful in reaching and teaching their students through the use of technology in the classroom. When this happens, they will in turn help their students succeed and achieve the district’s goal of bridging the gap in literacy.

One example: Ms. Frizzell, first-grade teacher at Randle Highlands, is new to TeacherMate. She is a young, fresh teacher and very excited about the program — especially the technology. She beams and bubbles each time I walk in her room to give her support. She always has something positive to say.

She said her students were more excited about the MP3 players when they received them than the iPods. Now, they are equally excited about both. She welcomes new ideas, suggestions, any and all collaboration, teaming and especially the tutors in TutorMate.

Sybil Anderson


Staff reflections: Tahra Tibbs

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: Tahra Tibbs, Teacher Ambassador in the District of Columbia

Tahra Achieve2As an educator first, it brings me sheer delight to serve both teachers and students as an Innovations for Learning ambassador and coach.

I have the pleasure of unlocking the door of doubt, confusion, resistance and fear, and partnering with teachers to ignite change.

This partnership is an integral component to properly cultivating change and nurturing a spirit of excellence in the classroom. Therefore, at the foundation of this relationship with the teacher is trust. My non-threatening approach encourages teachers to see me as valuable resource and team member.

I was a classroom teacher for five years, mainly in Virginia. From 2007 to 2012, I worked for Achieve 3000, a private company that provides web-based tools for teaching literacy, training administrators and teachers in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

I joined Innovations for Learning in July. Now I coach teachers to use our TeacherMate literacy-learning program most effectively, and help them become better reading teachers by serving as a resource and partner in the process of learning.

I love to visit classrooms and hear the captivating hum of engagement.

It is such a joy to see students on-task, interacting with games and activities on TeacherMate. I smile from ear to ear when I sit next to students in their comfy spot in the classroom and hear them “echo read” in Story Read and Record. This is a program in which students hear a page being read to them, and then are recorded as they read the same page aloud. They listen to the playback of both versions to see if they had read it correctly.

To hear students use phonetic clues to sound out words, then see them gleam with elation to hear the fruits of their labor!

We celebrate together with high-fives as learners match the correct rhyme unit and prevent an animal from missing the trampoline in Circus game. (That’s an activity that uses the names of animals to teach students how to identify the initial sounds of a word.)

The teachers are also beaming with excitement, as they scan the room and see their students purposefully engaged. When the class is so productively occupied, they are able to focus on the small group of students in front of them with differentiated, targeted instruction. I have observed that teachers who have established a good classroom management plan arrive at this place sooner.

It is my goal to make this model environment I have described the standard in all the classes that I serve.

I embrace the challenge and anticipate the adventure with great expectation!!!

Tahra Tibbs

Eyeing the times, these libraries chuck the books


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.

The move by the school of 1,200 students has generated a flurry of media interest, with articles here, here, and here.

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

PBS profiles Michelle Rhee: The good and bad of school reform

360_wrhee_1208Want 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.

NBC puts education front and center

NBC is airing its third annual rendition of Education Nation, an ambitious exploration of what needs to improve — and what’s getting better — in American schools.

The network has been highlighting its findings across all its media platforms: broadcast TV, cable and the Internet.

A key event was a three-day summit in New York City, bringing together education experts, politicians and journalists. Here’s a good summary of what went on, from PBS’s John Merrow:

For me, the absolute hit of the two days was the 65 minutes on Monday morning devoted to “Brain Power: Why Early Learning Matters.” We were treated to four snappy, insightful and short presentations by professors from the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and Harvard, after which NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, presided over a lively discussion about the educational implications of what we had just seen and experienced.

This hit home with many audience members because much of it was new and because the pedagogy modeled what all of us are arguing for in today’s schools.

As part of the project, the network is shining a spotlight on 10 schools or communities that are marking successes with innovative approaches to teaching — for example, an Arizona charter school’s approach to digital technology.

See NBC’s multimedia presentations about these 10 success stories here.

Tom Brokaw narrates a good overview of the NBC project here.

Kudos to the network for taking this important subject so seriously and for searching for answers as well as pointing out problems.

Check out the Education Nation website here.

Trolling for reading tutors in corporate America

Dan Weisberg holds forth to attorneys and staff at DLA Piper in Miami.

Office workers: Can you give a half an hour of your time once a week to make a tremendous change in a child’s life?

That’s the pitch Dan Weisberg has been making in Washington, D.C., and Miami, asking professionals from major companies to volunteer for IFL’s TutorMate® program. IFL is looking for hundreds of people to commit to a weekly appointment, using a phone and computer screen, with a young student struggling to learn to read.

Weisberg, IFL’s national director of corporate alliances, conducted a meeting for about 24 people on Friday at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

He was aided by top staffers from the D.C. Public Schools, including Josephine Bias Robinson, who heads the district’s Office of Family and Public Engagement. The district is hoping to line up 500 tutors for this school year.

Robinson said the district has tried out a lot of programs — but IFL’s, which combines computer technology and one-and-one tutoring to raise reading skills in first-graders, stands out. She called it a “literacy solution in a box.”

The next day she wrote in an email that the district’s chancellor, Kaya Henderson, considers the program to be the “gold standard.”

On Tuesday, Weisberg took his pitch to two major law firms in downtown Miami: Greenberg Taurig LLP and DLA Piper.

Nikolai Vitti, Miami Dade Public Schools

At Greenberg, he got help from Nikolai Vitti, the Miami Dade Public Schools’ chief academic officer, who said he’d been bowled over by the good sense of the tutoring program.

“It’s usually hard to get people to volunteer in the schools because of their schedules and the Miami traffic,” Vitti said. “And when I saw this program, I thought it was a terrific way to go. It’s practical and efficient.”

The Miami Dade schools hope to be using IFL tutors in 30 classrooms in nine schools this year. In each classroom, teachers will select 10 students, those needing the extra help,  for tutoring — 300 students needing tutors in all.

Why 10 students per class? It’s easy for a teacher to single out two students per day for a 30-minute session, over a five-day week, without disturbing the rest of classroom instruction.

Weisberg’s plan is recruit at least 20 workers per company, but 10 will do in a pinch.  At most of the participating firms, management has agreed to let workers use company time to tutor.

“If the 10 tutors come from the same organization, so much the better,” Weisberg says. “The organization thus ‘adopts’ the classroom and feels like they have a shared investment in that room’s success.  Also, they can visit the room together at the end of the school year for a ‘Meet and Greet’ celebration with the kids.  This is a great team-building, morale-boosting event for employees.”

Weisberg tells his audiences, “We don’t recruit high school students, we don’t recruit retirees. This is a program for people who are working and who want to give something back to the community.” It’s specifically designed for people who don’t have a lot of time in the hours of a school day, yet want to do volunteer work.

Besides the drive for recruits in D.C. and Miami, IFL hopes to line up 750 tutors in Chicago and 350 in Seattle for this school year. The organization is looking for smaller numbers of tutors in New York, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver.

Here’s a video that shows TutorMate in action.

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