Tag Archives: technology

The AltSchool: Progressivism Redux (Part 2)

[Progressive schools] as compared with traditional schools [display] a common emphasis upon respect for individuality and for increased freedom; a common disposition to build upon the nature and experience of the boys and girls common to them, instead of imposing from without external subject-matter and standards. They all display a certain atmosphere of informality, because experience has proved that formalization is hostile to genuine mental activity and to sincere emotional expression and growth. Emphasis upon activity as distinct from passivity is one of the common factors….[There is] unusual attention to …normal human relations, to communication …which is like in kind to that which is found in the great world beyond the school doors.

John Dewey, 1928

Were John Dewey alive in 2016 and had he joined me in a brief visit to the AltSchool on October 20, 2016, he would, I believe, nodded in agreement with what he saw on that fall day and affirmed  what he said when he became honorary president of the Progressive Education Association in 1928.

The AltSchool embodies many of the principles of progressive education from nearly a century ago–as do other schools in the U.S.  Just as Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago (1896-1904) became a hothouse experiment as a private school, so has the AltSchool and its network of “micro-schools” in the Bay area and New York City over the past five years (see here, here, here, and here). Progressive schools, then and now, varied greatly yet champions of such schools from Dewey to Francis Parker to Jesse Newlon to Alt/School’s Max Ventilla believed they were already or about to become “good” schools.

One major difference, however, between progressives then and now were the current technologies. Unknown to Dewey and his followers in the early 20th century, new technologies have become married to these progressive principles in ways that reflect both wings of the earlier reform movement (see here).

In this post, I want to describe what I saw that morning in classrooms–sadly without the company of Dewey–and what I heard from the founder of the AltSchool network, Max Ventilla.

Alt/Schools

There are five “micro-schools” in San Francisco. I visited Yerba Buena, a K-8 school  of over 30 students whose daily schedule gives a hint of what it is about. I went unescorted into three classes –upper-elementary and middle school social studies and math lessons (primary classes were on a field trip to a museum)–which gave me a taste of the teaching, the content, student participation, and the level of technology integration. I spoke briefly with two of the three teachers whose lessons I observed and got a flavor of their enthusiasm for their students and the school.

For readers who want a larger slice of what this private school seeks to do (tuition runs around $26,000 for 2015-2016) can see video clips and read text about the philosophy, program, teaching staff, and the close linkages between technology in this and sister “micro-schools” (see Alt/school materials here)

Since I parachuted in for a few hours–I plan to see another “micro-school” soon–I cannot describe full lessons, the entire program, teaching staff or even offer an informed opinion of Yerba Buena. For those readers who want such descriptions (and judgments), there are journalistic accounts (see above) and the AltSchool’s own descriptions for parents (see above).

Yet what was clear to me even in the morning’s glimpse of a “micro-school” was that theoretical principles of Deweyan thought and practice in his Lab School over a century ago and the evolving network of both private and public progressive schools in subsequent decades across the nation was apparent in what I saw in a few classrooms at Yerba Buena. One doesn’t need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing.

But there was a modern twist and a new element in the progressive portfolio of practices: the ubiquitous use of technology by teachers and students as teaching and learning tools. Unlike most places that have adopted laptops and tablets wholesale, what I saw for a few hours was that the use of new technologies was in the background, not the foreground, of a lesson. Much like pencil and paper have been taken-for-granted tools in both teaching and learning over the past century, so now digital ones.

What I also found useful in looking at a progressive vision of private schooling in practice was my 45-minute talk with the founder of these experimental “micro schools.”

Max Ventilla

The founder of AltSchool has been profiled many times and has given extensive interviews (see here  and here). In many of these, the “creation story” of how he and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He sees beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wants to do well by doing good.

His conceptual framework for the network and its eventual growth is a mix of what he learned personally from starting and selling software companies and working at Google in personalizing users’ search results to increase consumer purchases (see here). Ventilla sees the half-dozen or more “micro-schools” in different cities as part of a long-term research-and-development strategy that would build networks of small schools as AltSchool designers, software engineers, and teachers learn from their mistakes. As they slowly get larger, key features of AltSchool–building personalized learning platforms, for example–will be licensed to private (see here) and eventually public schools.

Ventilla mixes the language of whole child development, individual differences, the importance of collaboration among children and between children and adults with business ideas and  vocabulary of “soft vs. hard technology,”  “crossing the threshold of efficacy,” “effects per costs,” and scaling up networks to eventually become profitable.

Progressivism–both wings (see Part 1) are present in AltSchool’s collecting huge amounts of data about students and  engineers (on site) with teachers using that data to create customized playlists for each of their K-8 students across all subject areas . Efficiency and effectiveness are married to progressive principles in practice.

That is the dream that I heard from Max Ventilla one October morning.

Part 2 will describe my visit to a nearby micro-school, South-of-Market (SOMA) where 33 middle school students (6th through 8th graders) attend.

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Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

Since January, I have visited classrooms, schools, and districts in Silicon Valley to see exemplars of technology integration. Posts appeared regularly over the past months describing individual elementary and secondary school teachers teaching lessons that put technology in the background, that is, laptops and tablets were as mundane as paper and pencil, in order to reach the content and skill goals they have set.

I intend to complete all of my observations and interviews by early December. Then I will re-read everything I wrote, reflect on what I have seen, read about “best cases” elsewhere in the U.S., and talk to people across the country whose work intersects with mine, place all of this in a historical context, and finally begin tapping away on my keyboard.

Oh, do I wish that the process in the above paragraph were so linear. But it ain’t. I have thoughts and intuitions now that have accumulated with every visit to schools and classrooms. This blog is a place where I can try out these thoughts before getting hip-deep in my analysis of what I have observed over a year and tackle the writing of a book. So here goes.

Recently visiting the private San Francisco AltSchool and two public elementary schools in Milpitas (CA) have triggered my pausing to write down emerging thoughts. Those three schools pushed me to mentally scroll through all of the classroom lessons I have observed since  January. Those visits occasioned much thinking about John Dewey and Edward Thorndike intellectual leaders in the progressive movement that was the dominant reform between 1900-1950. I saw many parallels then and now between deepened interest and practice of student-centered learning and the persistent quest, again then and now, for efficient operations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

What I am thinking about is the periodic blossoming of yet another progressive reform surge anchored in the principles of student-centered learning and increasingly efficient schools of the earlier movement but this time fueled by new technologies and much money that make possible what has been considered impossible during recent market-oriented reforms concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability.

Since I have a blog where I can try out these intuitions and thoughts publicly, I will be writing a multi-post series  showing links that I see between past efforts of progressives to reform schools that were then thought to be “too traditional and teacher-directed” and increasing numbers of contemporary reformers operating again on progressive principles that the current “factory-model”used in public schools—need I point out these schools were a product of an earlier reform movement?–have to be replaced with child-driven, experience-laden, highly efficient schools connected to the real and ever-changing world.

So I begin with that earlier progressive school reform movement.

In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and Edward Thorndike and their embrace of science as the royal road to achieving “good”schools, as defined by each wing of the movement.

Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down. A “good” school was an efficient one, they said.

Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. Their version of a “good” school was one where the “whole child” was at the center of curriculum and instruction and learning through experience was primary. These progressives made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.

That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful information to inform policy decisions about district and school efficiency and effectiveness has continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” the application of scientific management to schooling, appears in the current romance with Big Data, evidence-based instruction, and the onslaught of models that use assumption-loaded algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.

Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public school policymaking for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic, student-centered schooling.

Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here) within regular public schools as well as charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here and here). The progressive impulse with its two wings lives on in 2016.

Which brings me to the private AltSchool and two public elementary ones in Milpitas (CA) that I visited recently. In subsequent posts I will take up those schools.

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What I Learned about Computers and Paper in My Classroom (Steve Cannici)

Steve Cannici introduces himself:

“Originally from northern New Jersey, I earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island as a double major in secondary education/chemistry. From there, I was offered a position at Middlebridge School in RI. Middlebridge has been built from the ground up to work with students diagnosed with learning disabilities. It was their first year in existence and they needed a science teacher. I was the first and only science teacher there for the first four years. Over the past eight years, in my role as a science teacher, I’ve helped build the school from 21 students to 75. In the summer of 2016 I completed my Master’s degree through Montana State University, a Master of Science in Science Education (MSSE).”

For readers who wish to contact Steve to ask questions, his email is: steve.cannici@gmail.com

BACKGROUND
I teach at the Middlebridge School in Rhode Island and work with a unique population. All are high school students diagnosed with some type of learning difference. Their areas of challenge are numerous and include time management skills, organization, cause and effect relationships, and almost anything you can imagine related to executive function skills.

So I decided we should run a science fair with them every year.

The same problems showed up year-after-year as I ran the project with them. Students frequently lost notes, could not keep track of all the moving parts associated with designing a science experiment, procedure were very general if they got completed. So, I designed a series of worksheets for them to work through one-at-a-time to help step them through the planning process, essentially following a version of the scientific method.

That worked pretty well for a while! Students still lost stuff and had trouble organizing, but they got the projects done and were often pretty proud of their work and themselves. But, on my side, I was collecting these mounds of paper, giving feedback, organizing them, carrying them back-and-forth between school and home, it was messy. I thought there had to be a better way, which is when I started trying to work out a solution using technology with the hopes of reducing all the paper. This is where my master’s degree project came in. I attempted to break the process down and design a system that would work for both the student and the teacher using existing technology solutions.

METHODS
First, I attempted to define what the action steps were that students and myself needed to go through before an assignment was deemed “completed”.  I was able to describe these steps for short-term (classwork or homework, essentially) and long-term assignments (like a science fair). I called it the “workflow” and it consisted of seven steps (steps contained within parentheses are action steps that students are responsible for).

distribute -> (store -> retrieve -> produce output -> submit) -> generate feedback -> return feedback

Here, the workflow is presented linearly. However, it does not need to be executed linearly, which is what allows the process to  be applicable to long term assignments as well. The long-term assignments are what I am more interested in, since my students really tend to have challenges there.

I took a longitudinal approach, so there were four phases that stretched across several months. These phases alternated between students using the technology solutions I mentioned (Google classroom to manage distribution and submitting of assignments, Google Docs to produce output, and Google Drive to store and retrieve assignments) and just using worksheets, binders, pencil, lined paper, etc. to work through assignments. The treatment was applied during phases one and three.

I created my own instruments. So, similar to Larry’s, mine have not been tested for validity or reliability. I created a survey to gather information on student attitudes towards the use of a computer for work completion in class. It also assessed student attitudes towards use of a pencil and paper. In addition, I created a form to track the methods that students were using to organize artifacts within Google Drive and within their binders during the separate phases. This form also helped me time how long it took students to retrieve their work from the storage location the artifact happened to be in.

RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS
I’ll spare people the numbers, but can provide the actual paper if any one is really interested. It turned out that students were able to retrieve artifacts more frequently and more quickly compared to when they had to use a computer, accessing Google Drive for instance. It wasn’t even close either. Artifacts from a binder were retrieved in seconds compared to minutes with Google Drive (if they were retrieved at all). Here’s the kicker, the survey results showed that most students preferred using the computer and felt they worked more efficiently with it. Go figure…

A few things to consider for sure…I, in no way, consider this a perfect study. There are some interesting tidbits that emerged if anybody wants to read the full paper.

For the start of this year, I’ve been using paper handouts. Students are working really well with them. But, I still have that dream of a system that just replaces all the paper and works really well. Mostly, it should make LESS work for the teacher and students as opposed to MORE, which is what most technology seems to be doing these days.

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Teaching 8th Grade Science: Technology Integration

The hour-long science class at Jordan Middle School* that I observed October 13, 2016 began with the daily video announcements produced by Jordan students about the weather, upcoming events, and a segment on the new bike lanes around the school including an interview with an adult crossing guard. I looked around the room and saw that most students were attentive and enjoyed seeing classmates doing announcements.

After the announcements, Erica Goldsworthy launched the lesson for the day. She has taught six years at Jordan and, as she told me, “ I have the hang of it now.”

There are 24 eighth graders sitting four to five students at joined tables facing one another. On each combined table sits a cup filled with markers, colored pencils, and rulers.

erica room.jpgerica agenda.jpg

erica poster.jpg

Wearing a gray sweater over knitted white blouse and dark slacks, Goldsworthy directs students’ attention to the slide on the interactive whiteboard (IWB):

Bell work: day 3

1.Do you think gas molecules move differently if they are cold or hot? Explain your answer.

  1. What is the phase change from solid to gas called?
  1. When does thermal apply in our phase change cartoons/story?

As I scan the class, I see most students writing answers to the questions in their notebooks. A special education teacher is also in the room for the half-dozen students with disabilities. She goes from table to table to see how these mainstreamed students are doing on the questions.

After five minutes, Goldsworthy begins review of student answers to questions, calling on students who raise their hands by name.

On the first question about hot and cold molecules moving differently, one 8th grader says hot molecules move faster and gives as his reason kinetic energy. Teacher explains difference between thermal and kinetic energies and compliments student—“great answer, Michael.”

After finishing the Bell Work questions, teacher says:

“I am going to segue into our storyboard conversation—I checked off your storyboards—you need to double-check—look at your rubrics that I passed out on your tables”

Goldsworthy and her next-door colleague have teamed up in designing a “Phase Change Project” to understand how a solid changes into a liquid and then into a gas (e.g., ice, water, vapor). Concepts of thermal and kinetic energy are central in explaining how solids go to liquids and then gases (see here for slides that elaborate on the project).

The project requires each student to:

Create a cartoon or story about a substance going through a series of phase changes (solid to liquid to gas) to show how energy affects the phase that substance is in.

They are into day 3 of the project. The teachers have each day’s work broken down into a series of activities in which students work. The class has been working on drafting their storyboards and cartoons by hand and today they will complete a draft of storyboard, decide whether to do a final copy by hand, use a computer to type their text and add cartoon panels and even go further by making a video out of cartoon they have created. These student decisions are governed, in part, by the categories in the rubric called “above and beyond.”  See below.**

Above and Beyond

Meeting Requirement – Computer generated cartoons.

Above – Paper or computer generated cartoons with YOUR OWN pictures (either computer generated or hand-drawn).

Beyond – Creating a video that includes voice and your own pictures.

*All categories must meet all requirements listed*

Goldsworthy is ready to have the class working for the rest of the period on the project. Students vary in what stage they are in completing the project; some are drafting their storyboard; others are typing in text and putting their cartoon on the computer and some are figuring out how to do a video.

Before launching into a work session, Goldsworthy says: “Be mindful how you are completing your work” She gives example of how to make project look professional by using a ruler. She gives another example by pointing to student and saying if “Leo wanted to make a stop/motion video of his cartoon, he can do it on the computer.” She finishes by saying: “If you are not sure of what meets a standard check with us. Tomorrow we have Science Friday.

“OK, get started,” Goldsworthy says.

Students go to cart to get a iPad or laptop and return to their table. Students confer with one another and look at each other’s draft of storyboard, cartoon figures in each box and after a bit of shushing from teacher, get down to work. Teacher circulates through room asking and answering questions from individual students.

I look around the room and see all students writing, showing their storyboard to table-mates, or tapping away on their device. Low-level murmuring envelops the class. I do not see anyone off-task.

I go around to various tables asking students to see their storyboards. One student showed me her storyboard cooking with coconut oil . Then she showed me the final product of cartoon panels that she was typing into her iPad. After she finished, she told me, she would compare her cartoon of cooking oil as it went from one phase to another, to the standards in the rubric in assessing her work to see what she needs to add or amend before turning it in.

Another student is working on final storyboard that he will turn in. It is a one-foot square white laminated board showing how a solid—ice—turns to water and then evaporates. He is going to go “above and beyond” by making a video. He has looked at the rubric and wants the highest grade the teacher can give.

As I look around the room, there is a noticeable quiet, a purposeful silence with a few murmurs from students showing one another what they are doing. Many students have pencils and colored markers in hand; others are tapping away on devices (at least half of the class is working in laptops or tablets. Here is a combination of low- and high tools in use for this teacher-chosen project. Students easily shift back and forth between paper, iPads, and storyboards. I see one 8th grader holding an iPad in his left hand and with the right hand draws with colored markers on his laminated story board what he sees on the device.

The teacher announces that: “You have 20 more minutes left in class.”

Both Goldsworthy and the special education teacher move from table to table inquiring of each student if he or she needs help or materials and answering questions.

Some students confer with one another, others laugh and speak softly in showing their storyboards. A few go to Goldsworthy to ask questions.

I see one student working on an iPad and ask him what his storyboard is. He shows me a series of cartoon panels of a man—solid—who goes to a sauna and turns into a liquid. He then goes to a doctor who lowers his temperature to zero degrees so that the man can return to his solid state.

At this point, Goldsworthy tells the class, “we have 3 minutes so it is time to clean up. Put away your rulers, colored pencils. We will work on this tomorrow.

Students with devices return them to the cart. Others pick up paper off the floor and put rulers back into cups on the table. In a few moments the whispering turns into open talking among students. The teacher says “if you are cleaned up please be quiet in your seats.

Buzzer sounds but the teacher doesn’t release students. They wait until she looks around to see that chairs have been returned to their places at the tables and the floors under the table are clean. Teacher lets students go to their 15-minute brunch recess and wishes them a good rest of the day.

_____________________________________________________

* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged”, meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards (see here)

** I asked Goldsworthy about the rubric and the “above and beyond” category. She told me that her students felt that if they completed the work as assigned they should get an A+ . The teacher felt that completing the work minimally was satisfactory, a C. So she developed in the rubric that meeting the standards was adequate but not “above and beyond,” work that merited the highest grades. She then laid out those specifications.

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Teaching Literature to 7th Graders: Technology Integration

Teaching 13 year-olds takes special talents and skills. Energetic, constantly moving around, jabbing, joshing, and dozens of other behaviors are natural for these boys and girls. Teaching a 45-minute lesson on John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, then, is no easy task. And that is what faces John DiCosmo this October morning when I observe this lesson. This particular class, the teacher calls “boisterous.”

DiCosmo, an experienced teacher who has taught nearly a decade and is in his second year at Terman Middle School* is in his mid-30s. He wears a brown sport coat over a checkered red and white shirt with a slate blue tie and dark slacks. He, too, is in constant motion as he works through a series of activities with his 25 students. An instructional aide is in the room who works with about a half-dozen special education students going through the different activities that DiCosmo has planned.

As students enter the large room and put their backpacks on tables, they go to bins in the back of the room and take copies of The Pearl and then go to a cart to grab a Macbook Laptop.  There is a word wall on one side and admonitions on the bulletin boards and walls.

dicosmo-furntables-in-dicosmo-room

word-wall

On the interactive white board (IWB), there is a “warm up” question that the teacher directs students’ attention toward: What would you do if you found a treasure of millions in cash free and clear. How would your life change?

The bell sounds and the period begins.

Students type in their answers and their answers appear on the IWB (no names attached to their answers). As DiCosmo scrolls through student responses—they are using the software called Padlet, he asks: “What’s the pattern here in the class’s answers? Students raise hands and some yell out. He calls on students. He jots down on the whiteboard what students see as patterns in their answers: buying lots of things; giving to charity.

Then the teacher asks: “Why are we asking this question?” Some students guess that the book will be about finding a treasure. After listening to student responses, DiCosmo says that he has produced a video trailer summarizing and highlighting points in the story. He tells me later that one of the requirements for the unit on The Pearl is for students to produce their own trailers for books they have selected. And he wanted students to see what a trailer could look like.

Teacher shows the trailer in which he has enlisted other teachers on his 7th grade team to play the parts of Kino, Juana, the doctor, etc. who live in a poor Mexican village where the men dive for pearls and sell them to buyers to support their families. Students laugh loudly when they recognize their teachers.

After the trailer is finished, teacher asks the class: “What questions do you have about the book’s early chapters (creating your own book trailer)? ” Students type in their questions and they appear on the IWB.

DiCosmo notes the rising noise as some students talk loudly to table-mates. He says “If you are goofing around, I will kick your comment off the screen.” Some students shush the others; class quiets down noticeably.

Teacher goes over student questions that show up on IWB. He then directs the class to look at the worksheet he has prepared about the characters introduced in the first chapter and asks the class to put in key quotes from the text. They will be hearing a narrator read the first chapter. He hands out post-its so students can write notes that can be later transferred to the worksheet they have in front of them.

He asks students to follow the professional narrator as he reads the text. Take notes, and raise questions, he says. DiCosmo turns on the audio and the reader begins chapter 1.

I scan the class and all students have their books open and appear to be reading along as the narrator reads text. A few take notes on their post-its. The reader mentions “songs” and DiCosmo pauses the audio and asks: “What are the songs here?” Teacher calls on students whether they have their hand up or not. To a few answers, he says, “good.” He tells students that “the song of evil” will return. The narrator resumes and reads section where the scorpion stings the infant Coyotito and Kino and Juana fear that the child will die. Students appear engaged in listening and reading along. Not a murmur in the room.

Kino and Juana take Coyotito to the village doctor who lives in a large house with a servant. After knocking on the heavy wooden door, the servant sees who is there and tells the doctor that a peasant, his wife, and an infant stung by a scorpion along with other villagers are at the door asking for help. The doctor tells the servant that since they do not have any money, to tell him that he is away. The servant does so. In anger, Kino smashes his fist into the door splitting his knuckles and bloodying himself. Chapter 1 ends.

DiCosmo stops the audio and asks students to write down one reaction they have to the end of the chapter. I look around and see students writing on post-its and tapping away on their devices.

Wall phone in classroom rings and teacher takes the call, says a few words and hangs up.

DiCosmo then asks if students have posted their reaction to end of chapter 1. Looking around the room he sees that many, but not all, are nodding their heads. He then segues to final activity of the period.

Using the game-based software Kahoot, DiCosmo gets students to enter the pin (he has listed it on a slide) to access the game. The point of this game is to review word roots including prefixes and suffixes for a quiz next week. Students open their devices to the program and click to the slide on their screen that is exactly like the one showing on the screen in front of the room. This is a timed exercise with 21 questions. Teacher reminds students that they need to log in before they can record their answer to each question.

A bouncy tune starts and students go over a root or prefix/suffix (e.g., chrono-, geo-,hydra- ) with four choices listed from which to choose. Students have played this game often and they are excited. A number are moving their bodies to and fro in time with the snappy melody. They want to be the fastest to answer and win. Eight of the 13 year-olds can’t sit still and they go to the back of the room and stand over a table eager to punch a key for the correct answer. A countdown of how many seconds are left to complete each question on a root word shows on screen. As students tap in their answers, the number of students who submitted answers shows up on IWB until nearly all students have submitted their answers.

DiCosmo clicks a key and a bar chart of the students’ responses appears on the front screen (with no names) showing how many students have picked the correct answer and how many erred. Then he displays a scoreboard showing the top five students (with first names) who are the fastest and most accurate in choosing answers. Students applaud when the scoreboard reveals who is in the lead or whether the lead has changed.

After finishing the competitive game, DiCosmo gives raffle tickets to the five winners; every Friday, the teacher raffles off prizes (e.g., candy, the chance to move your seat elsewhere in the class, etc.).

With only a few minutes left in the period, the teacher asks students to log off and return the device to a cart. He reminds students about homework due next class and tells students to post one “meaningful comment, question, or reply to Chapter 1.”

Buzzer goes off and students exit the class.

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Teaching Biology at Mountain View High School: Technology Integration

As the chime sounds for students to come to their 90-minute Biology I class, Lyuda Shemyakina stands at the door welcoming each student. A “hello,” “good morning,” an exchange of pleasantries or information about homework, quickly passes between teacher and student. It is the morning of September 28, 2016.

These 9th graders enter a large room half of which contains lab tables in the rear and half of which has student desks facing the front whiteboards and teacher’s desk. The front whiteboard is filled with weekly homework instructions for students, the day’s agenda, the lesson’s objective, and upcoming events.

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bio-clssrmimg_1915

At the beginning of this period every day are the Mountain View High School* video announcements produced and directed by students. The two anchors of the five minute program say that the day is “World Day” (the teacher says that she is wearing her T-shirt from Barcelona). Anchors describe upcoming events, meetings that day, and announcements from various students. As I scan the room, 26 students’ eyes look to the screen. In other schools, announcements come into each room via a loudspeaker and students chat, surf their laptop and tablet screens, or stare into space. Not here.

After the announcements end, Shemyakina turns to the “bell ringer,” an ice-breaker or launching activity, for the hour-and-a-half lesson. On the screen is a slide:

Look back at your model on p. 18**. What were you not sure about? What were you pretty confident about? What questions do you have?

DON’T HAVE A MODEL? DRAW IT NOW

Example: I am not sure I drew the chromosome correctly because ….

In an earlier lesson, students had been asked to draw a model showing how DNA, chromosomes, and genes are related in a cell.

Shemyakina walks around the room checking that students are looking at the models they drew or working on drawing or answering questions on the “bell ringer”slide.

Students around me are at varying stages of finishing up the exercise. Shemyakina announces end of time and moves to the agenda for the day.

*Refine Model

*Introduce/plan Lab

Moving around the room, she uses a clicker connected to her laptop, to project a series of slides asking students to review the DNA model on p. 18, determine where their model was correct and incorrect, what editing does it need, and what new information they want to add.

She then flashes on the screen a three minute animated video on “Genes, DNA, and Chromosomes.” As the video plays, I scan the room and see that about half are taking notes as they watch. I do not see any student that appears to be off-task, looking secretly at smart phone in their laps, etc.

Sensing that the video, while catchy with its animation, may have not stuck with students, she runs it again. Many students are now taking notes. Afterwards, she directs students to speak to their partner and review the models they created with one another and answer questions on slides she showed earlier.

Teacher walks up and down aisles looking at students’ work and asking questions. She asks one student: “Where is your cell?” A quick exchange ensues. After looking at students’ work and listening to back-and-forth between partners, Shemyakina explains about the 23 pairs of chromosomes human beings have and the range of genes in each numbered chromosome. She uses example of Angelina Jolie and the gene (BRCA) for breast cancer that Jolie discovered after a genetic test and then had subsequent surgery. Teacher again distinguishes between DNA, genes, and chromosomes. She asks class if there are any questions. No student responds.

Shemyakina then moves to another task that asks students to show that they understand relationship between DNA, chromosomes, and genes. Asking the students to turn around to face two students behind them and form small groups, she gives each group the task of making up an analogy that shows links between genes, DNA, and chromosomes.

Slide appears on front screen: DNA is like……. A gene is like …… a chromosome is like …. [on the slide, is a box that gives examples of possible analogies: a book, school, USB drive, knit sweater]

I look around the room and see that all of the groups are seemingly working on creating an analogy. Except the one near me. Teacher comes by and asks members of group for ideas they have to show relationship, they volunteer suggestions—Shemyakina mentions another group’s idea that a gene is like a pair of jeans—and this nearby group settles into working on task after teacher goes to another group.

Teacher signals end of analogy task and wants the class to see what various groups came up with. She asks students to take out their tablets and laptops***and puts a slide on the front screen:

Go to socrative.com

Room code: SHEMYAKINA

Name all members

Submit your analogies

A ding sounds as each group sends in their analogy. Their analogy appears on the screen. Teacher walks around classroom to see that each group sends in their answer. She asks students to read each one and then consider which best gets at the relationship between DNA, genes, and chromosomes. She asks them to vote. After a minute, she shows the top three vote-getters.

She analyzes each of the three for strengths and flaws. For example, Shemyakina elaborates one group’s analogy to a library. The chromosome is the library; the book is the DNA; the shelf is the gene. She agrees with this comparison.

At this point, the teacher segues to an explanation of DNA strands, how long they are, and that they are twisted compactly into double helices. To get at this, Shemyakina shows a brief animated video of a cell, the nucleic zone, and how DNA strands are twisted and densely tied yet can be seen under electron microscopes. She asks students at the end of the video to edit their models, adding or subtracting information that they now have. I see some students doing that; others conferring with partners.

After about five minutes, Shemyakina shifts attention to the question: “What’s bigger—a gene or chromosome?” Students listen as she explains that the average human has 23 chromosomes; the smallest chromosome has 200 genes. Each parent contributes 23 chromosomes to a baby. One student asks question about the Y chromosome and determining sex. Another student asks similar question. Teacher points out that these are fine questions and the class will take sex determination up in a later unit.

With about 35 minutes left in the 90-minute class, Shemyakina segues to the impending lab on cell size. The next half-hour is preparing students for the central lab question: Is it better for cells to be small or big? Why?

Students assigned as “material managers” pass out orange worksheets**** that will guide the lab they will prepare for now and do in the next lesson. She asks students to work with their partner in answering the first question about the size of the cells in the largest mammal—the blue whale—and the smallest mammal, the pygmy shrew. The worksheet question not only asks for an answer but also asks student to write down their reasoning behind what they answered (see below, first page of worksheet)

Name: _________________________________Period: _______Date: _______________

Cell Size Investigation:

Is it better for cells to be small or big? Why?

Introduction, part 1

The blue whale is the largest mammal in the world. The pygmy shrew is one of the smallest mammals in the world. How does the size of average cells compare between a blue whale and a pygmy shrew?

  1. The average cell of a blue whale is smaller than the average cell of a pygmy shrew.
  2. The average cell of a blue whale is larger than the average cell of a pygmy shrew.
  3. The average cell of a blue whale is about the same size as the average cell of a pygmy shrew.

I think answer ____is correct. My reasoning is ___________________________________________

_______________________________________________________________________________

_______________________________________________________________________________

Introduction, part 2

In this lab, you will investigate whether big or small cells are more efficient at taking in materials and removing waste.  All cells need materials, like sugar and oxygen, to function properly. Similarly, all cells produce waste, like heat, carbon dioxide, and lactic acid, that must be removed from the cell.

To visualize this, imagine running at full speed. When you run that fast, your cell start to produce lactate (also known as lactic acid), and after 10-20 seconds, you start to feel burning in your arms and legs. Lactate causes this burning. Lactic acid is a waste product that cells produce when they’re burning sugar and making energy very quickly. If cells couldn’t get rid of lactic acid, they would become too acidic to function! So, we come back to these questions: is it better for (muscle) cells to be big or small? Will a big or small cell get rid of lactic acid faster?  (to read more about lactic acid and sore muscles, go to tinyurl.com/Lactate123).

I think __________________ (small or large) cells can rid of lactic acid faster.  My reasoning is ______

_______________________________________________________________________________

_______________________________________________________________________________

_______________________________________________________________________________

Shemyakina circulates through classroom asking partners what their answers are about cell size in blue whale and pygmy shrew. She asks about their reasoning. She tells class that if they want to revise their answer, they should do so. After about five minutes, she directs the class to the second question on whether big and small cells are more efficient in feeding and eliminating waste. The handout has an example of a person running and building up lactic acid that causes burning in muscles. She asks partners to help one another in answering question of whether small or large muscle cells can get rid of lactic acid faster. Again the handout asks students to give their reasoning.

I look around the room and see nearly all students working with partners or shifting to small groups of four to discuss their answers and reasoning. Shemyakina goes up down aisles checking what small groups and partners are writing and discussing.

After alerting students they have a minute to finish up answer, she moves to final activity in preparing for lab that will answer the question about cell size. On each of the lab tables are small potatoes, a metric ruler, string, and thermometer (see above photo).

For next 15 minutes, Shemyakina explains how measuring the size of anything is complicated. She uses slides to show that in measuring the size of humans, you can measure top of head to toes or hand to hand with outstretched arms. She gives similar examples for weight and surface area of a person. Then she shifts to potato and says: “You must have some way of measuring the size of your big and small potatoes.”

A slide shows ways of capturing measurements through mathematical equations or written words.

She asks students to begin answering the lab question on big vs. small cells on their worksheets. A few students go to the lab tables and pick up potatoes, rulers, and string to figure out how best to measure the vegetable. Partners and small groups, as I look around the room, are engaged in the task. I do see a few of the 15 year-olds off-task for a minute or two and then re-engage with small group. Shemyakina cruises through the room asking questions of students and listening to partners as they explain what they are doing. She tells one small group that they should check pages 7 and 11 in their notebook to get help on what they are doing now.

With a few minutes left, Shemyakina asks for “eyeballs up here” and goes over what is due for their next class—turning in completed worksheet–and upcoming dates for work to be turned in.

Chime sounds to end Biology I class. I stay a few minutes longer—it is 15-minute brunch time in the schedule—to ask Shemyakina a few final questions about the lesson. I thank her for inviting me into her class.

________________________________________________________

* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16

** The page number refers to a notebook that each student has filled with worksheets and handouts the teacher has given students for daily lessons. So “p. 18” refers to the DNA lesson (including the lab exercise) that the class is currently working on.

***Two years ago, after teacher-led- pilot programs, the district required high schools to use a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) program where students brought from home their tablets and laptops. For students who did not have a home computer or what they had broke down, the school made chromebooks available.

****According to Shemyakina, five biology teachers designed this worksheet. After meeting face-to-face, they collaborated further by using Google Docs. They did this for all parts of the unit so teachers were using the same lab and could compare what students were doing in each lab.

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Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

After Adopting Computers, Why Is Schooling Yet To Be Transformed?

Today, robots build autos, assemble electronic devices, put together appliances, and make machinery. Automation has eliminated most bank tellers, white collar clerks and secretaries, salespersons, and dozens of other occupations. U.S. Agriculture has become industrialized and family farms have largely disappeared in the last two generations. Whole industries have been transformed by the advent of the computer. Moreover, from drafting plans for buildings to doing legal research to managing insurance claims, computers and software algorithms have either replaced people or reduced numbers of employees. Business leaders of large and mid-size companies seek increased productivity and lower costs in producing products and services. None of this is new. Greater efficiency, higher productivity and increased profit margins. But not in schools.

Surely, since the early 1980s when desktop computers appeared in public schools, administrators have applied business software to personnel, purchasing, transportation, food services, and assembling big data sets for managers to use in making decisions. And, yes, cuts in school employees have occurred. But these efficiencies have yet to transform classrooms.

If the inner workplace of schooling, the classroom, came late to the surge of automation, robots, and personal computers, then that helps to explain, in part, why so many teachers and principals in the past have perceived these powerful devices as an add-on to their work, something else that policymakers, parents, and administrators expected teachers to do in classrooms. The advent of higher curriculum standards, high-stakes testing, and coercive accountability since the mid-1980s pressured teachers to concentrate on content and skill standards that were tested. I said, “in part,” because this perception of an additional task (OK, burden) differs greatly from private sector employers who eagerly automated occupational tasks and transformed professional work (e.g., engineers, architects, financial analysts, online marketers).

Beyond the perception of a burden foisted onto teachers as a partial explanation, surely, minimal student access to computers in the 1980s and much of the 1990s also accounts for the snail’s pace of adoption and use. Yet many teachers and principals were early adopters and enthusiasts for applying new technologies to classroom tasks. Much evidence from teacher surveys, direct observation of lessons, bloggers, and researcher accounts clearly establishes that, as hardware and software became available in classrooms, many practitioners became regular users of new technologies in their classrooms.

What puzzles many policymakers, reformers, and vendors, however, is that while computer accessibility and use have spread, no transformation in teaching and learning has occurred leaving contemporary classrooms seemingly similar to ones a half-century ago.

I have some thoughts on why this slowness of change and the deja vu feeling of classroom familiarity over decades is puzzling.

First, districts, schools, and classrooms are not command-and-control organizations (e.g., NASA, IBM, U.S. Army) where top leaders decide policy, employees put policies into practice pronto, and crisp outcomes measure effectiveness. Schools are complex, relationship-bound networks of adults and children seeking multiple goals (e.g., literacies, socializing the young into community values, civic participation, vocational preparation, and solid moral character). They are loosely coupled organizations—the journey from school board policy to a kindergarten classroom is closer to a butterfly path than a speeding bullet. In such organizations,savvy about how the system works, subject and skill expertise and trust are essentials to the building of relationships and getting things done from the classroom to the superintendent’s office. Well-intentioned reformers seldom see these organizational differences between command-and-control companies and schools as important. They are.

Second, public schools are not profit-seeking organizations. They are community-building institutions that not only perform crucial social and political tasks for the larger society but also promise parents an individual escalator for their sons and daughters to acquire success. Organizational cultures that pervade the best schools (e.g., intellectual achievement, caring, collaboration) differ dramatically from for-profit companies. Change-driven reformers overlook these cultural differences.

Third, teaching is a helping profession. Doctors and nurses, teachers, social workers, and therapists are helping professionals whose success is tied completely to those who come for their expertise: patients, students, clients. All patients, students, and clients enter into a relationship with these professionals that influence but do not determine the outcomes either in better health, learning, and personal growth. Professionals depend upon those who they help for their success–no doctor says I succeeded but the patient died. No teacher says that I taught well but the student didn’t learn. No therapist says that I listened well, gave superb advice but the client didn’t improve. Both need one another to reach goals they both seek. And it is the relationship between the professional and patient, student, and client that matters. Not net profits at the end of the fiscal year. Policymakers and high-tech companies eager to transform practice through new technologies ignore the essential fact that these professionals are not there to become rich or famous, they are there to help others.

And this is how I am beginning to make sense out of the puzzle why new technologies, successful in overhauling many industries, have yet to transform teaching and learning.

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Filed under school reform policies, technology use