The P in #PLN is for Personal

Last night I went to my first #pln party. The majority of the people were EdCamp NJ team members as well as other local NJ and PA teachers. The idea was for a bunch of us to get together and have a good time creating closer connections. We didn’t have a book club, talk about what we are going to do for the next EdCamp, or have any educational agenda. The evening was hosted by Chrissy Romano (@theconnectedEdu). She had the evening catered and graciously provided her house and yard for our delight.

Any soiree that I attend is going to have music and Paddle Zlam. This evening was no different. I brought out the Ion Block Rocker and the Paddle Zlam travel bag and the evening was ready to be conquered. I teamed up with Fade (@ojfade) and unfortunately, we were defeated by the evil Nicholas Endlich and Adam Schoenbart. Paddle Zlam is such an engaging game that you can’t but be drawn in and want to play. Everyone had a great time playing it!!

As the evening sun disappeared into nothingness we gathered around a fire and talked. Some of the conversation was about education but most of it was about life, family, and other outside interests. It is funny how my world is changing. My #pln is truly merging into a personal learning network. I have more in common with those I come across in education than some of the people I grew up with. I don’t know whether it is the fact that we all have a similar occupation or that I want to be around people who care about others.

I continue to be amazed at how the people I have connected with in the digital realm have become the people I interact with the most in the physical realm. When I look back on the last five years I notice that my life has been shifting more towards education and those people associated with education. I do worry that I am putting all my eggs in one basket. I also realize that my passion lies in education and that shutting myself off from my passion is about as easy as having Betsy Devos explaining IDEA to a group of Senators.

I enjoyed talking to everyone but my conversations with Marcos (@mrnavas), Fade (@ojfade), Shevan (@mrpersad_ba), Dani (@kennisdani), and Adam (@mrshoenbart) were highly enjoyable. The conversations ran the gamut from cigars to birth, to interconnectedness to beverages, doctorates to disciplinarians and everything between. You know you are having a lovely evening when you can’t eat anything else and your brain and body have been stimulated. I had a wonderful evening and wonder where my #pln will take me next!

Hour At a Time

This blog is being written from the perspective of a parent and not at all meant to be interpreted under the guise of the Physical Education teacher.

If you know me at all you know that I work numerous jobs to make ends meet. I have three children who eat lots of fruits and vegetables and that costs real money! One of my many jobs is being a birthday party activity leader. This entails creating games and activities for large groups of children. I have a ton of equipment to use and a beautiful gym to run the games in. The parents of the party usually pick the games and activities for their children. I get an email telling me the time, date, age, amount of children, and games that the family chose to play. I have learned more about children during these parties than I have teaching in 10 years. Let me explain a little more.

The area that the gym is located is truly a diverse mix of people.  I never know what race or origin of people will come through the door. What’s amazing about children is no matter what their ethnicity or culture they all want to play. I am not saying that I am color blind or that culture is insignificant. What I am saying is that ALL children love playing games. This is a universal truth I believe in without a doubt in my mind. It is one of the reasons that I believe recess and Physical Education are so important to a child. Playing games is a great leveler. Race, gender, and SES tend to take a back seat to skill and joy. I don’t believe just playing games will make the world kumbayah but it is one of the best ways of truly integrating people who don’t look and act like each other.

I arrive at the complex 15 minutes before the party and get all the equipment ready for the activities that the family chose. At the start of the party, I have some sort of easy 3-5 minute activity that has no rules so that when more kids trickle in they can get active every time. I make sure to find the birthday child and ask them what games they want to play when their parents are around them. This gives me a true evaluation of what they want to do. Some kids tell me exactly what was in the email while others change their minds. I believe strongly that a child should choose the games they want to play at their own birthday party!!

The other day a group of 3-4-year-olds came rolling in the gym. They did not speak English as their first language. The activity written down was capture the flag. There was no way that 3-4-year-olds can play the game let alone if they couldn’t understand my directions! I set up a quick scooter activity and the kids were ignoring me and just riding them around. This is where my understanding of children and fun kicked in. I brought out jump ropes and starting pulling the kids around the gym. They were having a blast. They didn’t want rigid activities. They just wanted to play. Good old-fashioned free play. I brought out hula hoops and we threw them around and made pathways to jump and hop through. The parents came off the bleachers and helped pull the kids and interact with them. The children had a blast!!

As adults, we manage almost every aspect of our child’s life. We tell them when to wake up and when to sleep. When to brush their teeth and what they can eat. Some of this is necessary while some are helicoptering. I am not exactly sure where the line is for me personally. What I do know is that play is an activity that doesn’t always need to be rigidly set up. Sometimes putting out balls and hoops is the greatest thing we can do for our kids. Their imaginations take over and they create activities that you would never have thought of.

Our kids play time and free time is over planned and regimented. They go to sports, gymnastics, art classes, or tech clubs. Everywhere they go an adult has a plan for them. Sometimes we need to just let go. If you want to learn more about free play check out Dr. Peter Gray’s website.

Another part of doing these hour long activities with children that I have never met before is that I have to create a bond or a connection with them super quickly. This is a skill that is not as difficult than you may imagine. How do you get kids to like and trust you in five minutes? The key is simple. Smile. Have fun. Tell a joke. Make fun of yourself. People want to be around happy positive people. Kids are no different. As soon as the birthday child walks through the door I shake their hand and tell them to call me Justin. This alleviates most of the power differential in our ages. I then do something comedic like shaking their hand for 30 seconds too long all the while telling them to stop so we can starts.

If you want to truly learn about children go to a party where there is little to no structure. Watch children interact with each other in an authentic and natural way. It will shed a whole new light on how and what they can do. I have learned more about children an hour at a time than I have in my ten years of teaching school.

Meander

This blog is going to be a rambling mess and I don’t care. I recently was with a group of educators and was talking about how I passed a car on fire on the way there. One lady responded to me that she saw a car the fireman had just let burn. “It was like a car you would see in Africa” was that comment she said. She immediately retracted it and said well not in Africa but you know it was all burnt up. I said nothing to her. This failure on my part is embarrassing. My fear of rocking the boat or looking like a troublemaker in front of new people held me back. I failed. It reminds of a @sporticus blog where he writes about how he watched another coach berate a child and didn’t step in. Right now I am all talk and very little action.

Second meandering thought. I recently pulled up this doc by accident from Edcamp Voxer (now Edcamp Voice). The doc has some people’s blogs on it from the online Edcamp. @DavidBillikopf was the first entry on it. I remember him as being very friendly and interesting because he worked in the prison system and that is so foreign to me. I click on his blog and was immediately saddened and reminded how short life is. This reminds me to cut out all the crap and really focus on the here and now.

Third meandering thought. I love school. I love kids. I am so thankful that I am an untested area where I can honestly do what I feel is best for kids. I am saddened that other ts don’t have this same leeway.

Fourth meandering thought. There are fantastic leaders out in the world. I met the superintendent of a school district and in a ten-minute conversation, I was blown away with what she was doing. She told a story that I immediately saw was getting the right people on the bus. This is the second super I have met in the last couple of weeks that has renewed hope for me that school is much more than just test scores and coercion.

Last thought. Crepes are delicious. They are even better when eaten with friends.

My Love of Public Education

I love public schools. I believe one of the fundamental goals of society should be to have an educated population. I also believe that having trained teachers is the best way for students learn. There are other ways to teach children that may or may not work however for most Americans the only option they have to educate their children is by sending them to public school.

With that being said public education is a system and every system has problems, public education is no exception. Our system has failed students of color students, students in the LGBTQIA community, as well as students from low socioeconomic status. Bullying has been an accepted practice that has led to numerous students taking their own lives as well as losing their sense of self-worth. This is not acceptable! The school-to-prison pipeline is real and proven. Students drop out at an unacceptable rate and we focus more on test scores than the students we should be serving.

I do not look at public education with rose colored glasses. There are teachers who are on power trips who care more about students complying than how the students feel in their class. There are administrators more worried about policies than the success of their students in life. Some of our students are leaving public education unprepared for the world outside of school and even then some will graduate college with a degree and no hope of a job.

In today’s world homeschooling, unschooling or private schools are unattainable for most parents. Students are forced to go to school and take classes they may not be interested in. This puts students in a very precarious situation where they have no other option but to attend a school that is coercing them to do things they’re not interested in.

Politicians and corporations have taken over school systems. We now hold children accountable for a test that they may or may not have any control over. The corporations are making billions of dollars while our students suffer. The worst part is those politicians were elected by the same people who went through public school.

If you do not agree with what I’ve written above there is no reason to continue reading this thank you for your time. If we agree with the above statements about how school is failing some of our students, you may be asking me why do I have such an undying love for public education when it has harmed so many students. My answer to you is that a free education for all children is still one of the most beautiful ideas that we have dreamt of.  In my opinion, there is no better alternative out there that can serve the masses.

I am using my sphere of influence to make the days brighter for my students. Through student voice and my guidance, my students find a Goldilocks zone (thanks for that line Jorge) where the joy of learning and movement are created and fostered. Other teachers have my same philosophy and are doing the same things all across the country. We can push back this pendulum of harm and create a system where students look forward to being participants and creators instead of being suspended or told they are dumb because they aren’t reading at a certain level yet.

I’m lucky to be in the state where we have a harassment intimidation and bullying policy that does not allow students to be put in positions where suicide is their only option. I work in a school that value students as people and not just test scores. I am not naive to think that this is the way it is done across America. I also understand that I work in a fairly affluent School District. The privilege this affords me and my school is immense.

My use of social media shows The Good The Bad and The Ugly of Education. I do not think that constantly bashing or pointing out only the negative about public schools is going to change anything. I choose to use my sphere of influence and show how we can make changes within the system. The key to making those changes is to get in leadership roles or work for leaders who have the same philosophy as myself. I have met numerous of them both in person and online and I hope that one day I will be in a position where I can make these changes within the system. There is nothing wrong with pointing out where the system is breaking down and harming our students, however, all we do is point that out and don’t ever find waste change this and all we are doing is yelling in the wind.

Education needs reform. Students do not have access to a fair and equal education. School is still run from the top down instead of the bottom up. Children have little to no say in how their education is run when they are the ones being impacted the most. My goal is to be the change within the system instead of just shouting about how bad it is.

Get Schooled on Unschooling

Today I was meandering around Twitter and came across the same conversation I see all the time. School is horrible. School makes kids hate life. School is the devil. Some of these people rail against school yet still profit from it. I personally subscribe to the school of thought that he who takes the king’s gold sings the king’s song. Those who rail against the system and aren’t doing anything to change the system seem hypocritical to me. If you hate school so much why aren’t you opening your own school? There are plenty of charter or private schools that don’t have the philosophy of public schools. Ok back to school is horrible.

These people who believe that school is horrible do have a solution though. That is a positive. The only thing worse than people complaining all the time is people complaining all the time without solutions. Their solution is unschooling.

Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. (link)

 

Unschooling is a cool philosophy. The best part of unschooling is that families have full control over what or if their kids learn. The idea that natural curiosity can lead to learning is solid. This natural evolution doesn’t worry about test scores, scope or sequences, or learning objective. As an adult, I choose what and when I want to learn. I am constantly reading, taking MOOCs, or listening to webinars. I learn because I want to not because someone is going to test me in the future.

Data comparing unschooler’s math and reading scores to each other shows that students score slightly lower on math and slightly higher on verbal/language. (link) This makes sense to me. Everything involves reading. No matter what you want to learn you will have to read about it. You only do math at a higher level if you like math. 

The million dollar question is how do unschooled children compare to public school students?

“A variety of studies of homeschooled students’ academic performance have conclusively shown that homeschooled students can succeed academically. However, there have been no studies of homeschooled students’ academic performance that have used representative samples rather than recruiting volunteer participants. Further, study participants are inevitably from wealthier, better educated, more intact families, meaning that they likely would have scored well above average regardless of the educational option their parents chose for them. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that the homeschool population is significantly more diverse than the samples commonly used in studies of homeschool achievement, meaning that these studies likely miss whole swaths of homeschoolers. What these studies show is that homeschooled children in wealthier, better educated families with driven and motivated parents (the sort that would volunteer for studies of their children’s academic performance) tend to score well above the public score average, as should be expected.” (link)

What I understand from the above is that wealthy homeschoolers score well on tests. There is not a lot of data about students from lower income households taking standardized tests. That doesn’t show me that unschooling is the solution to our educational woes. It also makes sense that those who volunteer for studies on unschooling are going to be the subjects that have a positive association with it and have flourished under it. 

Here is my issue with the unschooler agenda. Not everyone can or wants to unschool their child. There is no data showing that unschooling would work for parents who do not have a higher education. Leaving kids alone to learn does not actually occur. Unschooling needs adults who can help their child pursue their interests. Everyone seems to act like we just let kids loose and they will learn. Children will always need adults to help them achieve their goals. The utopia of let them be and they will fly is garbage.

Unlike some of the people on Twitter who talk a good game, I have had the pleasure of being around kids who aren’t forced to do anything for long periods of time. I run a summer camp where our only goals are safety and fun. There are no standards and no pressure to do anything other than finding a way to create joy and delight for children for nine plus hours a day. We actively ask our campers what they want to do. (they are our clients) We do everything within our power to take what they want to do and create an opportunity for them to do it. We tailor their camp experience to them. If they want to play soccer we will play a boatload of soccer. If they want to play chess we do that as well. The only limitations we have are time and money.

This has given me a unique view and philosophy on kids. They want to be shown new and fun things. Most kids don’t want to sit around and do nothing. They love to be engaged and active. Kids want to be around other kids they like. Kids like adults who are fun and want to be around them as well. Here is the crazy part. Sometimes kids are happy after they are coaxed into doing something they were uncomfortable with. Yes, you read that right. Kids don’t always know best. That is what some people gloss over. Kids don’t know everything.

Here are some final thoughts on unschooling:

Public schools can learn a boatload from unschoolers.

Allowing children to pursue their passions is what public schools should be doing.

The results of standardized testing are killing our educational system.

Non-standardized testing areas should embrace their freedom and use that freedom to keep their subject fun and student-centered.

Students can benefit from adults exposing to them what they don’t know.

Kids don’t know everything and acting like they do robs them of opportunities to learn.

Not every house is meant to nor should unschool their children. 

Public schooling is still needed.

#TCT17

Today was the third annual Tomorrow’s Classroom Today education conference created and run by Dr. Scott Rocco, Brad Currie, and Billy Krakower. This is also my third time attending and presenting at this conference. It is a conference that is easy to get to, well run, and they honor their presenters by waiving the registration fee. That last part is something that ISTE needs to start looking at emulating. Why should we do all the hard work of preparing presentations while ISTE reaps their millions by charging their presenters full price, no wait the same early bird price as someone who is only attending? Ok rant over. Back to the conference.

 

I rolled in just as the beginning of the conference formalities were started. I opened my laptop to get ready and it started blaring Disney tunes from the night before. (kids bedtime and all) I quickly held the power button down and shut it off. What I did not realize was that I only temporarily shut it down and didn’t do a full reboot. When I turned it back on it started playing the music again. Nothing like interrupting a silent room with blaring music. Luckily, Brad Currie, the expert leader was able to roll with it and make a light-hearted moment out of it.

Due to this snafu I walked out to get my computer working and missed out on the keynote Angela Watson. I was able to connect with some great people in the lobby. It was great to attend a conference and have no responsibility!

Session 1:

Title: Now That’s a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning Presenter(s): Erik Francis

Description: What is a good question – or rather, how does a good question prompt students to think deeply and express and share the depth and extent of their learning?  How can questioning engage students to develop and demonstrate their learning through research, examination, investigation, and design?  Learn how to develop good questions that will challenge students to demonstrate higher order thinking and communicate depth of knowledge in-depth, insightfully, and in their own unique way.

Erik’s session was overall solid. His understanding and explanation of the depth of knowledge is second to none. I loved how he made us think about questioning. His presentation is linked here. Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings are necessary for teaching content. His visual on the Depth of Knowledge is awesome. Definitely, check his resources out.

His session did have a couple of points that I disagreed with. He was so worried about Project Based Learning and trying to convince us that his teaching of projects was PBL when it didn’t seem like it was based on the definition given by the Buck Institute. The conversation derailed what was an excellent idea. Erik uses projects in his class. He uses many of the things that PBL uses. It doesn’t matter whether it is PBL or not. The point is his teaching seems to work for his students. He did not show us any data though so we have to take his word for it. I would imagine it is in his book which you can find by going to his site

We also had a discussion about why he doesn’t force students to work in groups. My point is if we are going to teach the whole child we have to address interpersonal wellness. Allowing students to isolate themselves does not improve this wellness.

Overall his session was engaging although lacked movement. This is common amongst presenters who don’t understand or value movement. I would say if he is presenting check it out. It will make you think about thinking!

The second session I attended was:

Title: Innovative Approaches to Literacy Presenter(s): Chrissy Romano-Arrabito and Donna Petrin-Wall

Description: Participants will dive in and explore methods to create a student-centered, technology enhanced ELA classroom. Participants will take away an understanding of how to use Google Classroom, Docs, and Slides to provide feedback during the learning process, apps and extensions to support struggling learners, dynamic tools to increase student engagement, collaboration, and create authentic learning experiences, and various formative assessment tools that can be used to continually inform instruction.

This session was awesome. I expected nothing less from Chrissy and Donna. Chrissy is on the circuit like they say in the biz! They gave a ton of resources for how to use a more student-centered approach to an ELA classroom. Her ideas were fresh and interesting. Seesaw was given a huge shout out and deservedly so. It is a game changer! My one take away Story Jumper is an engaging tool that teachers need to check out.

As an aside, it was brought up that Bitmoji only has straight and curly hair to choose from there were no options for braids. This is a problem when Chrissy and Donna teach students who can’t make a Bitmoji that looks like them. This is unacceptable. Please tweet @Bitmoji and let them know this.

My suggestions to both Chrissy and Donna is figuring out how to incorporate movement into your presentation. A simple stand and turn and talk would do wonders. I did love how you opened the floor up at the end of the session to the participants. I love when the room gets a chance to shine as well.

My session was my third and final session. If you want the slides on how different ways to incorporate movement click here.

After the third session, we ate lunch and then heard 5 ignites. Ignites are 5 minutes long and usually 20 slides that are 15 seconds each. One idea I thought was brilliant was the raffles were at the end of the day. In order to get a raffle ticket you had to visit every vendor. That is a great way to increase vendor traffic! After the raffles we headed home. 

As always I will state my glows and groans (stolen from Jorge Rodriguez)

Glow: Dr. Josue Falaise’s ignite was amazing. He was passionate and switched the time of his slides but still stayed under 5 minutes. He highlighted the contributions of two People of Color Patricia Bath (cataract surgery inventor) and Lonnie Johnson (inventor of the super soaker). His passion for education was obvious and he is a delight to laugh and hang with.

Groan: There were a lot of sessions and only three time slots. I would have fewer sessions per slot and more sessions overall.

Glow: They accepted me to present!

Groan: There were still not a ton of People of Color that were present. I think Julianne Moore brought most of the Women of Color there!! EdCamp Brooklyn representing!! There has to be a way that we can get a more representative crowd of who teaches our students represented. I don’t know the answer but we have to be more inclusive. That may mean going out and recruiting people.

Glow: The internet was reliable and the facilities to present were solid.

Glow: The people were friendly. Participate has some great reps. I connected with old and new PLN members. EdCamp NJ was well represented with over 10 people from our planning committee there.

Overall this was a great conference that I would recommend anyone go to!! If you are free to present and want to hang with me next year you can sign up here. Proposals are due by June 30. See you then! 

 

Between the World and Me

I just finished the Between The World and Me authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book is written to his son about what it means to be black in America. He takes his us on a journey from his childhood and ends when his son is 15. His story has a brutal honesty that clearly has been attained through a boatload of reflection and reading. He does not pull any punches nor sugarcoat the facts. His portrayal of himself is not in any way shape or form lionizing or heroic. His straightforward explanation of life as a black man leaves no room for argument nor interpretation. This book is his story told through his lens mixed in with a boatload of American and African history.

He begins with his journey of what it was like living and attending school in Baltimore during the 1980’s. This time in his life really shapes how he not only views the world but how it affected his every action and reaction long after he became an adult. Mr. Coates tells his son how he avoided certain streets based on his knowledge of who was there and what could happen if he ventured there. The story that stood out to me was when a young adolescent pulled a gun on him.

“I remember being 11 years old, standing out in the parking lot in front of the 7-Eleven, watching a crew of older boys standing near the street. I stood there, marveling at the older boys’ beautiful sense of fashion. They all wore ski jackets, the kind that mothers put on layaway in September, then piled up overtime hours so as to have the thing wrapped and ready for Christmas. A light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes was scowling at another boy, who was standing close to me. It was just before three in the afternoon. I was in sixth grade. School had just let out, and it was not yet the fighting weather of early spring. What was the exact problem here? Who could know?

The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream. There the boy stood, with the gun brandished, which he slowly untucked, tucked, then untucked once more, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body. That was 1986.” (link)

That idea that he had no control over his body was a theme that popped up over and over again. It was obviously a message he wanted his son and the reader to understand. Black people in America have had their bodies taken away from them since the inception of American settlements. This occurred through slavery, rape, beatings, lynchings, jail, or police brutality. If the reader didn’t understand why People of Color were upset not only with America but the whitewashed history of America he laid it out rather plainly.

Another large part of the book was his time spent at Howard University. It seemed to me that his time there he was able to let down his guard and live life with the light-heartedness that I thought everyone had. (yes I realize that is privilege) He speaks of Howard University and the feeling of being part of The Mecca.

“The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.  The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.”(link)

Mr. Coates often refers back to his time and family ties to Howard University with such fondness and love that it makes the reader want to experience this oasis.

While at Howard University, a place where he met his wife, he speaks about a man named Prince Jones. Prince was only an acquaintance yet the reader was made to feel that he was a great man who people loved. A man of god and goodness. Prince Jones is later revealed to have been murdered by a police officer. His death shook Mr. Coates to the core.

“Prince Jones had made it through, and still they had taken him. And even though I already knew that I would never believe any account that justified this taking, I sat down to read the story. There were very few details. He had been shot by a PG County officer, not in PG County, not even in D.C., but somewhere in Northern Virginia. Prince had been driving to see his fiancée. He was killed yards from her home. The only witness to the killing of Prince Jones was the killer himself. The officer claimed that Prince had tried to run him over with his jeep, and I knew the prosecutors would believe him.” (link)

Prince’s death showed him that there was nothing he could do to shield his son from losing control of his body. As a father, I can only imagine the pain and helplessness he had and continues to feel. As a humanist, I am appalled that people feel that way. That feeling is why I continue to read about what I do not know. I can’t ever truly understand what it feels like to be an “other” in America with no escape, however reading this book gave me the slightest glimpse and understanding that I was unable to grasp before.

My final thoughts on the book is that it was written in such a style that only awareness could be gleaned from it. He does not glorify the streets nor condemn it. His views on school and life are honest and unapologetic. His message to his son is clear and consistent. He, “…fears that whatever positive values he gives his son, however hard he encourages him to work in school and do the right thing, out on the streets his body, the color of his skin, will make him vulnerable to state-sanctioned attack.” (link) Between the World and Me is a book that will stick with me forever. You should read it too.