Category Archives: Professional Development

Reclaiming PD in Philadelphia

One of the hardest things about working in a large school district is the unique combination of proximity and isolation that schools have to one another. There are over 200 public schools in Philly, but I’ve only been in a handful of them (and much of that happened the year I was in graduate school getting my teaching degree). Teachers can take an “observation day” to go see another school, but this needs principal approval, and with the current substitute fill rate, I expect administrators are loathe to release teachers from their classrooms. As a result, we’re all on our own islands. It can be tough to get into a colleague’s classroom next door, much less a different school.

But! There are not one but two fabulous events taking place in the next couple of months that do much to connect and enrich the professional lives of educators.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 10.51.05 AM

The first is Educon – Friday, January 29th to Sunday, Jan 31st.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Smack in the middle of your school year, this is a place to dream. We have conversations, throw out ideas, challenge each other, and get to hear from some fabulous speakers (including Philadelphia’s newly appointed Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney.)
  • Folks from both around Philadelphia AND around the country come to visit SLA for a weekend. The opportunities for cross-pollination are huge.
  • Virtually everybody from SLA will be presenting, so if you’re interested in x y or z aspect of the school, there is a session for you. My session is going to be a workshop on how to build the right online tools for your classroom.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 10.50.56 AM

The second is the February 26th Professional Development Day, where SLA will be hosting a Collaboration of Educators. Here are a few highlights:

  • Can’t make it to EduCon on a weekend? Many of the SLA sessions (as well as sessions from other Philly schools) will be repeated here.
  • Entire schools will be attending — if you would like your school to sign up en masse, let me know and I can issue your administration a formal invite. Ask now!
  • There will be specific time for teachers from different subject areas to get to know each other, trade contact info, and share best practices.

I hope to see many of you at either (or both) events.


Becoming #FutureReady, one step at a time.

In the EEOB Auditorium.

In the EEOB Auditorium.

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at the Future Ready Superintendent Summit, organized by the Department of Education and hosted by the White House.

I have to confess: I only learned about the #FutureReady initiative when I received the invitation to speak. Admittedly, I’m not the target audience, but I felt a little sheepish about my ignorance, and I also wondered if I would be out of place at the event. Dr. Hite was present at the conference, but we’re hardly a city-wide model of technology integration. SLA has its laptop program, but that’s never been paid for by the district, always through our own fundraising. It felt a little duplicitous to get up and talk about device usage in my classroom when too many schools in Philadelphia (read: more than one) currently don’t have potable water.

But then, I dug into the pledge that attending superintendents signed that day. Here are some of the finer points:

  • We work together to protect student privacy and to teach students to become responsible, engaged, and contributing digital citizens.
  • Future Ready districts develop tools to support a robust infrastructure for managing and optimizing safe and effective use of technology, so students have opportunities to be active learners, creating and sharing content, not just consuming it.
  • Future Ready districts strive to provide everyone with access to personalized learning opportunities and instructional experts that give teachers and leaders the individual support they need, when they need it.

I am for these things. Because they are straight-up good things — but also because points go beyond content standards or standardized exams. They recognize that at least some of the most important work that students and teachers are doing isn’t being assessed by our current systems — and that maybe they can’t be “assessed” at all, at least not by anything that we currently have in our toolkit.

The best thing about the day? I heard a bunch of superintendents bring up the exact same point throughout the day, including directly to Secretary Duncan, with loud applause in support, when they met with him that afternoon. I also heard them talk about how trust is a necessary component in embracing this initiative, between all stakeholders involved. How love matters. How learning should be a joy. Not (just) how many 3D printers their districts had.

I have given plenty of talks about the subtle, transformational power of technology when authentically integrated into the classroom. Here, I was seeing it — or, at least, the seeds of it — on a national level.

That was pretty cool.

(Also, turns out that, as one of the few non-superintendents in the room, I had a useful perspective to share, along with Ben, Rafranz, John, and others. Should have trusted Zac Chase on that one when he invited me.)

#Engchat and Teacher Action Group for Social Justice.

I am beyond thrilled to be co-hosting the next #engchat! This Monday, October 14th, Teacher Action Group will be hosting this week’s discussion around the theme of social justice education.

What’s more, this chat will not just be on Twitter — it will also be a live meet-up at Fado, located at 1500 Locust Street. Come join us starting at 6:30 for some in person discussion before the session begins at 7pm!

Here’s the official write-up:

Students learn to read and write in English class. They practice their methods of observation, analysis, and response. But does school give them a chance to apply those skills to the real world and its problems?

This week’s #engchat will focus on how teachers can facilitate social justice education in their classrooms. Now more than ever, students are living in a world where their lives are marked by inequality–in income, resources, and opportunity. No matter their situation in life, students can benefit from turning the critical lenses learned in English class towards their “real life.” The chat will be a space to discuss both the big picture theory behind social justice as well as tips and tricks on how to facilitate meaningful lessons and activities in school.

First time participant in #Engchat? Great! Bring your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and we can help you get set up to participate. (Don’t have a Twitter account? We can help you with that too.)

Not an English teacher? The topics discussed in this week’s chat will be for all teachers — so join us!

Outside of Philadelphia? Follow the hashtag #engchat on Twitter, starting Monday at 7PM.

Project Based Learning, Session 5

During this session, SLA Science Teacher Tim Best shared six different project descriptions that he gives to students. A few are from senior-level elective courses, and a couple are from 10th grade Bio-Chemistry. In my humble opinion, these project ideas and write-ups are masterful. Here they are accompanied by my hastily-cribbed notes.

Food Project — students ultimately create an “SLA Cookbook” where the research different kinds of foods, and have to make their own recipe. The project is inspired by Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.” It is a combination of health, environmental, social, and other factors. They also had to come up with a “Food Rule” and turned it into a graphic, inspired by the NYTimes.

Evolution Book Club — Tim described this as an “English project with science on top.” He has a collection of 10-12 different titles that deal with different aspects of evolution and its societal impacts. Seniors split into groups and set their own schedules. THey have different roles during the book club, and at the end they have to produce a half-hour lesson to teach the rest of the class.

Evolution Over Time — This project was co-developed with SLA Science teacher Stephanie Dunda. From the introduction: “The overall goal of your Q4 benchmark is to trace the evolution of a species over time, in response to a change in its environment.  You will select an organism that already exists on earth, research its evolutionary history, and then imagine how it might evolve if its environment slowly changes to something totally different.”

Anatomy “Specimen” Project — a project that teachers about the skeletal, digestive, and nervous systems. It asks students to follow their “specimen” — from infancy to ten years old — and then make a scrap book of its development, including its manufactured medical issues. An early part of the project involves picking unique anatomical issues out of a hat — something that sounds doom and gloom, but the students love.

Genetics — This one also co-created with Stephanie Dunda. From the write-up:  “You will collaborate with your team to research and present a genetic condition. Your work should demonstrate that you understand how traits are inherited, and how changes to our genes can affect the body. After researching a genetic condition, you will then teach the class what you have learned using a case study as an example.”

Here are some of the questions and comments from our discussion:

When you have a portfolio-style project, do you accept incomplete work?

Sometimes. If the work is clearly incomplete, students can take extra time to put in the last pieces — but then there’s always the risk that students forget to return things. The other option is to just accept everything and not do quality control in the moment the work is being submitted. You then run the risk of “discovering” incomplete when there’s no time for students to improve it.

Melissa shared the issue of having intermediate steps with papers — and what happens if students don’t do the outline first? And how do you balance the fact that some students don’t need that support, while others falter?

Tim said he does frequent check-ins for small point amounts during class — so students have some direct feedback about whether they are falling behind.

How do students know what your essential questions are?

Tim noted that he often doesn’t post his essential questions on his projects — in contrast to Matt Kay, who shares them constantly with his students. However, the group felt that this project still reflected a clear goal.

How do you maintain thorough scientific knowledge and research?

This came up while discussing the food research project. Tim described how he requires research of the ingredients in the recipe that the students pick. He guides them to useful sources, and ultimately they do a write-up.

How do you encourage working together?

Tim said that, this year, he is really encouraging students to do each piece of a project together — all sitting down and working on A-B-C-D instead of assigning each piece to a separate student (the danger being that they never look at each other’s work)

Tim also described a practice that Stephanie Dunda uses — each class period, a group has 120 points, and at the end of a class period they divide them amongst themselves as they see fit. This could serve as a good wake-up call to students who are slacking early on, as opposed to getting shut out or left off of the final project. It also requires the teacher to be more organized in keeping track of the points day to day.

How do you get kids to read the directions, especially on big projects?

For some projects, it takes students a couple of days to even really understand what they are doing. During a project like the “specimen” project, he has to remind students to write scenarios for their child that involve a clear reference to one of the anatomical systems they are studying.

How do you bring project based learning into science? How do you find the balance between knowledge acquisition and projects?

At SLA we would rather have students learn the underlying theory behind things rather than memorizing tables and sketches of the human body.

Some Summary: A good project has…

  • Student choice, where they decide what the focus of their research is. The choice can even be somewhat contrived.
  • Chunking the project into manageable steps.
  • Clear directions!
  • Multiple learning styles: something to write, read, draw, present, etc.
  • Collaboration / peer interaction.

Project Based Learning, Session 4

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 3.22.21 PM

Most of this session was centered around Brad Latimer, Math teacher at SLA. He shared a downloadable collection of lesson plans and materials with us, which included project descriptions and rubrics for both Algebra 2 and Calculus projects. And then we peppered him with questions for an hour and a half.

What makes group work happen?

  • Classroom set-up matters. In Brad’s class, students are always in pods of 4 or 5 except when quizzing. At the start of a regular class, they work on their warm-up in groups, and are also assigned to occasionally present the warm-up in those groups. They are used to doing structured class work and presentations all year, so getting into group projects is less of a challenge. By the time they get into projects, they know who they do and don’t work well with.
  • You have the flexibility to both have students pick their own groups and pick for them.

How do you deal with the group work “disasters?”

  • At the first day of a project, he asks students: Have you ever done a group project? Have you ever worked in a group where someone hasn’t carried their weight? Students then talk about what makes a good partner.

Do your projects have clear roles for each group member?

  • The short answer: Sometimes. Most of the time he lets people figure out their own roles, so they figure out how to best work together.
  • You can be surprised about what tasks might “wake up” a student, so that can be an advantage to not assigning roles.
  • It can be great to have a project that relies on individual work that is then combined into a group final product / presentation. There’s more interdependence.
  • But there’s also a struggle between giving students independent autonomy and also getting them to deeply collaborate with each other. Too much freedom can encourage students to just create in separate bubbles and slap it together at the end, without integrating and proofing their work.
  • For one project, Brad had an 80/20 point value split for group/individual points in a project — so students were individually motivated, but the majority of the grade still relies on the group project.
  • From Jaimie: One way to help track progress is to have students self-assess on a chart each day: what do they think the goal was, and how well did they meet it during that class? The teacher can then do a quick check-plus check-minus on the day. This also becomes a part of their process grade for the project, so they are motivated to hold on to it.

How do you scaffold students who are new to group work?

  • Very, very carefully and with repetition!
  • For freshmen, big projects usually have a clear deadline after each class of work. Sometimes the master plan for the project isn’t even revealed until halfway through the work (or even later) to prevent students from the “sticker shock” of a big project that they think is insurmountable.

What would you do differently? What are project based traps?

  • Try to give out the rubric quickly with the project description. THey need to see exactly how it’s going to be scored and what the point breakdown is.
  • Break the project down into intermediate deadlines.
  • There is a lot to be said about showing examples from previous years. There are different ways to do this — share it briefly, let them peruse for a set period of time, or longer, but let them know you know it well.
  • Do the project yourself!
  • Be flexible with changing projects mid-stream. Or seeing a glimmer of good work for the next round of pojrects. Or tossing one when it really didn’t work for students.
  • Let students pick three students they’re interested in working with, and the option of a “no go” list for people that would be bad matches. This gives them freedom while also giving you the ability to control for productive groups.

Next week, we will be sharing and peer reviewing our draft lesson plans.

Related posts: Project Based Learning, Sesson 1 / Session 2 / Session 3

Working to improve “the education sector.”

Screen shot 2013-02-15 at 10.20.07 AM

On Saturday, February 22nd, I will be speaking on a panel at the 2013 L.E.A.R.N. Conference, hosted at UPenn and organized by a few of their graduate schools (including the education school.)

According to the write up, the “View from Inside the Classroom” panel acknowledges that, “The voices of students, parents, and teachers are all too often not heard in policy changes for education reform.”

If you look closely, you might notice that, as of this writing, I’m the only person appearing on my panel. This is because they only recently created said panel. Neither parents, nor teachers, nor students are represented in any other section of the conference. (Okay, a school band is playing during lunch.) Our session is during the lunch slot, and by necessity of the schedule, 15 minutes shorter than any other panel.

Here’s the write-up of the organizing group, from their front page:

LEARN is the hub for those interested in improving the education sector.  Active projects include policy research, pro bono initiatives, and career development.  Our goal is to harness the expertise of today’s education experts to empower the education leaders, entrepreneurs, and policymakers of tomorrow.

I bristle at some of that language.

However, I’m excited to participate and push against the notions of some of the attendees (and expecting that they will also push against mine.)

Plus, I get to see Diana Laufenberg talk about technology.

How can you go PBL? With Inquiry to Action.

This evening, I will be attending Teacher Action Group’s Kick-off event for their 2013 Inquiry to Action Groups. Last year, I participated in an ItAG called “Context for Change,” and one of my big discoveries from those sessions was that I would do well to share content from SLA with the outside world. (Hello, blog.)

This year, I’m thrilled to facilitate an ItAG about project-based learning. The group already has a clear “action” in mind — design and implement a project-based unit in your classroom — but that will obviously look different for each person. Here are the all goals for the group:

  • Create a Project-Based Learning unit for your classroom
  • Gain a working knowledge of Understanding By Design lesson planning
  • Strategize on how to bring PBL to your learning environment
  • Collaborate and network with like-minded teachers
  • Develop a session for the 2013 Teacher Action Group Curriculum Fair

Going into this process, the big thing I am thinking about is how to meet educators where they are at — both in terms of individual knowledge and the settings in which they work. One misguided response we get to our work at SLA is “you could only get away with that here” — which couldn’t be any further from the truth! I am excited to help educators from around the city play with PBL and make it work for them.

The group will be meeting for six weeks at SLA. If you’re in Philadelphia, there’s still time to register for and attend the kick-off meeting. For those who can’t make it, due to scheduling or geography, I am going to do my best to blog our group’s materials and activities here. If you plan on following along at home, please let me know in the comments!

As a preview of what we’ll be up to, here’s a short video that introduces the basic tenets of PBL — chipper, but informative.

An EduConversation about Standards Based Grading.

Screen shot 2013-01-14 at 11.39.14 AM

When it was time for SLA teachers to brainstorm sessions for this year’s EduCon, Standards Based Grading was a no-brainer.

SLA faculty has been building, tweaking, tearing down, testing, implementing, arguing, and also agreeing about standards for 2+ years now. As with many things at SLA, people sometimes assume, looking at us at a distance, that we’re an educational utopia and the learning here just magically happens. We will be happy to disabuse you of that notion, and give you perspective on what building your own standards-based grading system involves, and how we integrated that with project based learning. To give you a full sense of that picture, we have a representative from each major discipline — and we all came to standards from a very different place:

  • Mark Bey – Spanish
  • Roz Echols – Physics
  • Pearl Jonas – History (and a first-year SLA teacher!)
  • Brad Latimer – Math
  • Larissa Pahomov – English

Here’s our official write-up:

In the face of Common Core and increasing pressure from administrations, many schools are looking to produce more data about student learning. At SLA, teachers have responded to this shift by creating their own system of Standards Based Reporting. In this panel conversation, teachers from each discipline will discuss how they created standards language for their specific subject area, how they track student progress throughout the school year, and how they integrate the skills and reflection into their own classroom. The staff will also share the online system SLA uses to collect and report standards data with students.

If you have any questions or ideas in advance, we strongly encourage you to post them as a comment on our EduCon page — that way we can take it into consideration as we build our framework for the session.

Inquiry To Action Groups in Philadelphia.

How do you get your professional development in Philadelphia?

I’m not talking about the stuff that your school provides — maybe that is excellent, but in many cases it’s a bore. Hopefully you attend EduCon, and participate in your discipline’s #edchat, and follow the news. But are you registered for an Inquiry to Action Group?

In case you need a reminder from Paolo Freire via the Cooperative Catalyst, teachers must be activists. And educators do this best in networked groups, exploring issues on their own, and making plans for positive change, no matter how big or small.

Anybody can participate, and the programs are free. Last year, I participated in an ItAG called “Context for Change,” which connected me with a dozen motivated educators I had never met before, and it helped me figure out what I was doing with this blog.

The topics this year are Democratic Teacher Evaluation, Linguistic Bias Against Students of Color, Online Activism for Education, Social Justice Math, and Social Justice Unionism.

Oh yeah — and Project Based Learning, which I will be facilitating with help from everybody at SLA.

The kick off is Thursday, February 7th. Sign up here.

#Engsschat Reflection: professional collaboration in action!

While participating in #engsschat today, Diana Laufenberg asked what people were doing around the election. She brought up the idea of looking for logical fallacies, which in turn reminded me of this poster:

Click to see bigger versions and/or to download

I knew Laufenberg had done a State of the Union bingo with her history classes in previous years… what if we applied this to the election? In English, we are working hard on our skills of analytical writing, with some persuasion naturally thrown in. Reviewing these fallacies would naturally support our essay work, and what they observed during the debate could then be discussed after the fact in American History class.

We teased this idea out during #engsschat, and then I shot of a quick e-mail to the 11th Grade English and History teachers at SLA. Is this definitely going to work out, or look anything like I just described? I can’t say for sure, but we’ll end up with some variation on this idea for sure.

That’s a part of the point of this post — to showcase a little moment of teacher collaboration as it’s being worked out. Watch this space for what we come up with, and how it goes. And steal this idea and build a plan for your own students!