Save Us, Mr. Barba!

I’m watching with interest as another educational ham and egger enters the conversation on the dysfunction in Albany Public Schools.  James Barba, longtime head of Albany-overlord Albany Medical Center, has discovered that Albany schools are struggling, and has delivered a pithy call to action for all of us residents and stakeholders (who must have been in the dark until he rode in on his white horse) to alert us to this “moral issue”.

Barba says he has been thinking a lot about public education.  Churchill has been thinking about it too, for at least as long as it took him to write the column.  No doubt that this thinking is enough to make them authoritative voices in this debate.  I am a public school librarian, and I spend much of my free time thinking about ways to improve the educational lives of the 363 kids I see on a weekly basis.  The teachers I work with think of little else but how to engage the 20-25 kids that they teach every day.  The teachers at the “failing schools” that I chose for my son also spend a lot of their time thinking about ways to teach their kids in a climate where the idle musings and empty quick fixes of tech entrepreneurs, politicians, newspaper columnists, and hospital presidents are valued over the thoughts of those who earned the post graduate degree and certification that is  required to teach.   These teachers spend their days rushing to copy, laminate, and plan lessons so that they can maximize their time with the actual kids that we are discussing here.

When teachers are not thinking about teaching or lamenting the deprofessionalization of the field, they stew about the impending privatization of public education, a public institution that is under attack from Cuomo’s hedge fund cronies who see it as an “industry” that is “ripe for disruption“.  The tool for disruption is charter schools, which were sold to the public as labs for innovation, but exclude children with disabilities, exclude unions, have a revolving door staff, and are not transparent about finances or teaching methods.  They worry about the kids who go to schools that focus on little more than test prep.  They worry about the upheaval that the seemingly constant closures of these schools cause when they so frequently fail to deliver on the promises made in their charters.

But these valid concerns are dismissed as “hurt feelings and bruised egos” by Churchill.  The concerns of the professionals who do this work are dismissed as petty, while the opinion of educational “expert” Barba that recently shuttered Brighter Choice Middle Schools were “damned good schools” is accepted as fact.  It is evident that this field, comprised mostly of women, is being attacked and  deprofessionalized from all angles.  Valid concerns about rapid and destructive changes to the field of education are dismissed as self-serving and selfish, even as the majority of the concerns are centered around student issues, not those of pay or benefits.

I sincerely hope the demand for competent workers is sufficient motivation for Mr. Barba to do what is in his power to improve the lives of Albany students, which will lead to better educational outcomes.  If he would like some suggestions for action items that are actually under his purview, this would be a great place to start.

Tug of War


The word competition is thrown around a lot in education today.  Schools need to improve  so that students can compete!  This narrative starts at the highest level, with the Obama administration’s flawed Race to the Top program (preceded by NCLB), and it is heard often in the circles of financiers, politicians, and tech and social media entrepreneurs, all who have big ideas about how to “fix” our “failing” public schools.

The people who have actually spent time in public school classrooms (spoiler: not Andrew Cuomo): teachers, administrators, parent and grandparent volunteers, and kids, know that education is the opposite of a race.  In school, teachers break the learning into impossibly small pieces and spend a half-hour on each of them.  Sometimes the little piece is absorbed, and sometimes it needs to be taught again, in a different way, to be sure all of the 24 or so little people really understand before the next brick is laid.  Sometimes it is frustrating to spend three lessons in a row teaching 1st-graders the difference between labels and captions in three different ways, watching as June creeps up, but students must understand the difference before they start to use labels and captions in their work, so the teacher presses on until it clicks.  And another small brick slips into place.

No teacher would ever send her students into a cage match in which half of the class races to the top, and the slow half are sent home and branded failures.  It would be bullying at its most unthinkably cruel, and teachers know that their students are individuals with different learning styles, life situations, and dispositions that affect their pace of learning.  Teachers really want for no child to be left behind.  And as everyone who has ever met a child knows, this means that sometimes you need to wait patiently for a short while for a child to catch up.

So why is competition the central theme of education reform, if it is unrealistic and cruel?  Well, what about China, for starters?  They are stomping us in international PISA scores!  We don’t want to fall behind China, right?  China?!?!?!  Well, as it turns out, only the most elite 1.7% of Chinese students even take the PISA.  China as a whole only offers 9 years of free compulsory education, so many Chinese teenagers are no longer even attending school at age 15.

So American students are not in China’s dust when it comes to PISA.  In fact, it turns out that low PISA scores (like all test scores) correlate very closely with high rates of poverty.  The fact that half of American students live in poverty certainly accounts for drooping test scores, graduation rates, and attendance rates.

But competition is still the way, right?  After all, it’s not just China that we are competing against.  Students will be competing here at home for college admissions, internships, jobs, and the other trappings of middle-class life.  Don’t we want them to be prepared to meet these challenges, regardless of where they were born?  Don’t hard-working teachers want their student to be able to be able to compete for these things?

This assumption fails to acknowledge the basic facts at the core of competition: there are winners and losers.

Let’s just say that teachers are magical knowledge fairies who can vanquish the social effects of poverty, funding inequity, time-wasting paperwork, and constantly changing Programs That Will Solve Everything.  No child is left behind.  All students graduate college and career ready.  There is rigor.  They are true 21st-century learners.  Will there be a spot in a top-notch college for all of them?  A top internship?  Will there be a rewarding middle-class job?   If every single student has an IT job that starts off at 50k per year, who will watch their kids and cook at the Asian-Fusion restaurants that they will surely demand?

If we succeed at the stated goal of making every single child a cookie-cutter STEM wizard, will there be enough jobs to go around?

The reality is that we will always need people to cook, clean, take care of kids, care for elderly and disabled people, and do what is sometimes referred to as “pink-collar” work.  It is important and undervalued work that will never go away.  It is also the key to “fixing” education.  Schools are not failing, society is failing.

We need to bring caring to capitalism.  Corporations are actually not people, so they don’t have conscience.  That is fine.  It is our responsibility to regulate the beasts we create.  This means no longer subsidizing big agra, not for the benefit of farmers, but for the benefit of the companies that need that cheap slurry to create the foods that are making us sick.  If the companies were held responsible for the ruinous effects to human health, they would finally figure out how to brand vegetables.  It also means no longer allowing industries that exist for the health and safety of the public to be profit machines: education, health care, and prisons.  It means no longer paying for medical research with public money, only to have the discoveries handed over to big pharma.  Once we have disrupted these systems that are funneling resources away from the bulk of the population, we will have enough to adequately reward all work.  Money will work for the people, not the other way around.

The vast majority of children will come to school clean, fed, and ready to learn, because their parents will be able to take care of these needs.  In closing, I leave you with this:bernie3



Thing 10: Reflection


Cool Tools For School, track one, I’m done!  I really enjoyed this experience.  I got my MLIS online and really enjoy the thoughtful, self-paced nature of online learning.  I liked this course because it gave me the motivation to sit down and learn how to use new tools, or old tools in new ways.  I tool a very similar class in grad school, but was stymied at the time because I didn’t know where I would end up when I found a job.  This time around, I got the chance to put many of the tools into the toolbox right away.

This semester I used:

Kidblogs in my summer reading site

Pinterest to showcase pictures

Storybird to create poems

Screencastify to show teachers tricks

Padlet to collect student work

Kidrex to safely search

——-either for the first time or in a new way as a result of taking this course.  I explored several other tools that are now on my radar, maybe to be used in the future.

This class affirmed my philosophy of EdTech implementation: only use it if it serves a purpose.  Technology can help us in many ways—– saving time, creating new things, sharing with others—— but it is a waste of time (and potentially confusing to students) to just use it to say, “see, we use technology!”.  It is my responsibility to know these tools well first, so that I can identify opportunities to enhance the great work that the teachers are already doing.  To that end, I don’t feel like exploring tools that I don’t like or use  (I’m looking at you, RSS and Twitter) is a waste of time.  There may be an instance that they are the just-right tool!

I am looking forward to taking the next track next year!!

Thing 9: Searching

For this thing, I chose searching all the way.  One of my biggest challenges this year has been finding ways for 3rd and 4th graders to search independently without finding any X-rated (or R-rated!) results while finding articles with an accessible reading level.  I do plan on using databases more next year, but kids are going to be using the internet.  They need to know how to use it safely and efficiently.

I went to Sweet Search first, with an excited spring in my virtual step because it was new to me.  It was down.  😦  I will check it out in a few days, but for now, on to the next!

Screenshot 2015-06-07 08.49.54

Kidrex: I love the initial interface of Kidrex, it is very cute and appealing to kids.  The results page looks like the “oops” page you get when you mistype a URL.  There are no search options, not even image.  These are minor limitations, though, and I got really good results for some searches that kids had trouble with this year: Iroquois celebrations, blizzards, beavers, and J.K. Rowling.  I spent some time looking through the results and found some new websites that were kid-appropriate, and new to me! I will be adding this page as an icon to our iPads.

Screenshot 2015-06-07 09.05.47

Instagrok:  I am a big nerd who used to really grok Stranger in a Strange Land, so I was intrigued by this search tool.  I have briefly looked at it before, but never used it with kids.  Instagrok searches the web and divides results into sub-topics for the searcher.  Starting in 2nd grade, we teach students to do research using sub-topics, but this is very difficult for some students.  This would be a good tool to scaffold those who aren’t able to divide their research but need to move on in our non-mastery based school system.  The actual results are somewhat superficial.  I did a search on blizzards, and the top result for all sup-topics was the same sentence.  There is a difficulty setting, but the results didn’t change when I shifted the setting.  This is a cool tool in theory and at first glance, but in practice the robots just don’t grok.  I am glad to know about this one, but i don’t see it getting daily use in the library.

Thing 8: Collaborating With Padlet

Google apps are pretty much a part of my DNA at this point, so there were not a lot of options for NEW things for me with this week’s topic.  Most of the ones I haven’t tried seem to be less good versions of their Google counterpart, so I kept scrolling down.  I settled on Padlet.  I signed up for Padlet way back in the day when it was still Wallwisher.  I have been interested in exploring it more because it seems so simple to use.  I decided to explore this one tool in two different ways: as a board for me to assemble resources, and as a board for students to collaboratively post.

For the first, I had the perfect project coming up.  A fourth grade class is finishing the year with a free-form project on owls.  They have been reading fiction about owls, learning general information about owls, and they are doing a short project of their choosing on owls.  They are allowed to choose any topic they want: how owls spin their heads, study on a specific owl, owl conservation, the sky is the limit!  Sorry, couldn’t help myself.  Then, they will make a product of their choosing: poster, skit, written piece, cartoon, etc.  I needed a place to put resources that could be nimble; I could add and remove articles and videos based on where research went and what students needed.  I designed the Padlet with general information on the top, and links below divided by topic.  Once it became clear that most students would be creating a video, I added some links to tips for iPad video recording.  Here is the Padlet:

Screenshot 2015-06-06 13.30.05

For the second thing, I wanted to find out if Padlet was simple enough even for my kindergarteners.  We made a fun collaborative Padlet for the end of the year.  The students took pictures of each other and posted them to the Padlet (which I had saved to the home screen of each iPad).  Then, the teacher and I went around and helped each student write one thing that he learned in kindergarten.  Here it is:

Screenshot 2015-06-06 13.33.43

I love love love Padlet!  It is so easy to use and it looks very polished.  This is a tool I see myself using on a daily basis.

Thing 7: Screencasting

One of my projects this summer is to make two sets of screencasts: one for students, and one for teachers.  I decided to use this opportunity to make my first one: a video showing teachers how to access and use our online calendar to sign out the ipad cart.

My district is in the process of adopting Google Apps for Education.  I am interested in using google calendars as much as possible but there have been some glitches as our domain names have changed back and forth and out IT department is working on bringing our accounts up to date. I think having a short video showing people how to use the calendar may be helpful.

I decided to use screencastify, an extension that I got a while ago but have never used.  It was very simple to use.  There is actually no learning curve.  I chose to record only one tab, to avoid the distracting stuff on the top of the screen.  This worked well, but it is important to remember to switch the recording to a new tab if you switch your own view to a new tab.  Other than that, it was very simple and took 5 minutes to complete.  I like the option of recording without sound, since I do not want any of these screencasts to have sound.  Students will be accessing them on the iPads, and we don’t have headphones.  Teachers may be accessing them while their students are working quietly.

Here is my screencast!

Thing 6: Curation Tools (Learning Playlists)

While I love the idea of content curation to teach information evaluation skills, I think my PK-4 kids are not quite there yet.  So, I decided to try a learning playlist.  I have been interested in the learning playlist as a way to organize resources for a while.  I can see using these playlists as a way to reinforce what we are teaching in mini-lessons, review for students who have gaps, or get students who missed the lessons caught up (from home?).

I decided to do a short playlist with images and videos about the elements of poetry.  There are lots of fun videos and images out there for young poets, and most students genuinely enjoy writing poetry.  I am interested in adding “writing for enjoyment” to my mission, complementary to “reading for enjoyment”, and I think that poetry is a good place to start!

From the three tools linked to the cool tools post, I close Blendspace because it was the most visually appealing.  The program was very easy to use, with search features embedded and drag and drop.  I’m interested to see how the playlists will look on the iPads.  The most challenging part was finding resources (especially video) that are appropriate for the grade level that I teach.  Still, I think that I will start building up a catalogue of these lesson playlists to accompany our writing units.

Elements of Poetry:

Thing 5: Digital Storytelling (Storybird)

I have been meaning for years to figure out what Storybird is all about, so now is the time!  I started by signing up and found that I can sign up for an educator account to manage a classroom of up to 30 kids.  I started with 24, so that we can have each ipad signed into a corresponding account.  This means that 15 kids will be sharing each account.

Storybird is a digital book creator that supplies the creator with sets of pictures that they can use to illustrate their stories. Gabe and I picked some art and made a quick little “try-it” story:

Screenshot 2015-05-17 09.13.31

I thought this was lots of fun.  To create a story, students select a set of related pictures and build the story around the images.  I love the idea of using pictures to inspire a story.  Kids are such visual thinkers, and I think these sets of charming pictures will get their gears moving.  I also love that it is a sandbox project, but they have something to build on instead of starting from scratch.  I think it would be really fun for a Kinder or first-grade class, working in small groups with an adult helping each group.  I think my older classes could do this independently with a tutorial.

Logistically, it is pretty simple to use.  The website says that you can use it on any device, and I’m interested to explore it more on an iPad, since that’s what my students will be using.  The creation process is pretty straightforward: drag and drop the pictures, tap and type the text.  There are very few options (fonts, colors) which is a plus with my age group.  I didn’t see sharing options, other than linking.  After a little investigation it seems that there is the option of embedding, after the story is moderated (which takes a week or so).  Student work can be embedded by the teacher on the review page.

I like this a lot.  I have a group of 4th-graders every 6 days for unstructured library time and I am going to try to do this with them the next time we meet!

Update:  Here are the magnetic poetry-style poems they made!

Thing 4: RSS

Lavery Maiss Auras.jpg
Lavery Maiss Auras” by John Lavery

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I have enough on my to-read pile to last at least a decade, and I read enough to keep current by following some cool library cats on Facebook and Twitter.  I do not need to add another online space to my personal daily routine, so I decided to create an RSS for my library page.  I want to have a corner where I can keep the kids up on all things literary: author blogs, events at the public library, and book recommendations.  So, I need to create an RSS that can be embedded in the beautiful library website that will be my greatest triumph this summer.

The first thing I discovered is that it doesn’t matter which reader I choose because I will be using a separate tool to embed.  So, which RSS reader is the most attractive and user-friendly? Digg was the winner, with a streamlined interface and simple management process.  Time to load it up with links!  I went searching to find out which popular authors maintain blogs.  Next, time to add the public library and a few scholastic sites.  Last, some book review blogs and youtube channels from children’s book publishers.  I have 12 sites to start with an there is plenty of good content in my feed.  I think this will be an effective tool to share literary news with my students!

Screenshot 2015-05-17 08.20.15

I want my library page to be dynamic and interactive, and RSS will be a great tool for the former, with a minimum amount of time investment to keep the content fresh.


Thing 3: Online Communities and PLNs

I am pretty immersed in social media.  I use Facebook (too much) as a way to keep in touch with friends, but I also follow many education and library related pages.  I have a Facebook page for my school library.  I have a twitter account, but I am less involved.  I use it with hashtags occasionally to get involved with a conversation or to participate in conferences.  I am not a fan of the lack of depth that is a symptom of the strict limit on characters; often tweets get taken out of context, sometimes disastrously so.  I do like how hashtags allow for truly democratic conversations, and how can follow illustrious strangers and receive the latest on their meals, outings, and creations.  I follow a lot of hot-shot librarians and educators, so I chose to try

Screenshot 2015-05-16 10.32.32

As soon as I created my “paper” I realized that my problem was with my twitter feed.  Since I spend much more time on Facebook, I have spent more time managing my feed: seeking out interesting pages and people, hiding or unfollowing the things that I find boring or disturbing, and learning about how the feed actually works.  In order for twitter to work for me, I have to put in that same time organizing my feed.  I googled “librarians to follow” and added some new people to me feed.  I joined hootsuite so that I can add hashtags to my feed as well.  OK, so now my feed is improved.  My last action item is to put in 20 minutes a day to actually click on twitter, scroll until I find a good article, click on it, and read it.

Hashtags I am following:  #gafesummit, #tlchat, #edchat

Much maligned, but the humble hashtag can do much more than tic-tac-toe!