The “Teacher in Space” – Still Touching the Future

Christa McAuliffe and The Space Shuttle Challenger

I’ve seen numerous “tweets” today, on the 30th anniversary of the event, from people sharing where they were when they witnessed or heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I was teaching 7th grade in Oakland, California, and our principal called my classroom to make me aware of what had happened since we weren’t watching live. We tuned in and watched the coverage for awhile and then discussed what had happened. The fact that Christa McAuliffe, the “Teacher in Space,” was a crew member added layers and significance to the discussion.

Twenty some years later my class had the privilege of having Grace Corrigan, Christa’s mom, visit our classroom. (the link takes you to a post about that day)grace4.jpg

We only had one day to prepare for her visit so we learned a bit about Christa and the history of the Challenger, including watching video of the tragic liftoff, but then spent the rest of our limited time writing questions to ask her. We were told Grace would love to answer questions so that’s what we focused on. What to ask and what not to ask  … what is appropriate and not. It was a more powerful learning experience than I expected and the students (4th graders) did a great job. Earlier in the year we had worked hard on speaking up and not showing nervousness, as much as possible anyhow, and that really paid off. You can read about the day we had – here and here

One of our major takeaway’s however was realizing how much we learned about incorporating technology just as part of how we learn and work. When my class first went 1:1 with laptops … it was all about the laptops and what they could do … they were a shiny, bright object students couldn’t stop staring at. But now, however, because they had easy access and used them routinely, the technology had become more like a pencil … just things we use when needed without thinking about them much. And that was true of the other technologies and applications we commonly used – video-conferencing, cameras, blogs, wikis. The shiny-ness and bright-ness hadn’t totally worn off, but now more often than not, partly because of ubiquitous use, they are just powerful tools we utilize in our learning.

As part of Grace’s visit students researched the questions they were writing and wrote them out on their laptops and our printer. We shared her visit live on Skype (audio only) with collaborators in Virginia and New York. We recorded and posted her visit as a podcast and video-cast (I recently changed internet providers and will have to re-post those at some point). Students took the photos that illustrate this post and the other posts I’ve linked to. And, as we often did, we blogged about the experience as part of a process of debriefing and archiving learning we were finding valuable. GraceCorBlogPost


We did all those things not so we could use the technologies, but because using the technologies helped us learn and made it possible to share and collaborate on our learning globally.

An incredible learning experience meant for 28 students broke through the walls of the classroom that day.

A great day and way to learn and share about history and science! (and so much more) Christa’s legacy and message continue to “touch the future.”

Learning is messy!

Why should education leaders embrace digital technologies in their schools?

Why should education leaders embrace digital technologies in their schools? leadershipday2014_01-300x240

1) If you are in a state that adopted the “Common Core State Standards” (CCSS) you really don’t have a choice. There are many (yes many) English Language Arts standards alone that require students as young as kindergarten to use technology to read, produce and publish digital content and to collaborate in doing so. Just a few examples from the CCSS:

K – 12 – Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

K-12 – With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.

6th grade – (NOTE: by 6th grade the “… guidance and support from adults …” is gone. 6th graders are to master this standard on their own) Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.

5th grade –  Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem).

I’m not sure how we get our students to the mastery of these standards, and many others without ubiquitous access to and utilization of the technologies required.

2) Collaboration – This was already stated in the standards above, but those were specifically language arts standards. Communication and collaboration are already key to being educated, but also in getting a job. Learning to collaborate with the student next to you in class or in your group is great, but technology makes it easy (yes, easy) to collaborate globally. Will it be “good enough” if students just learn to collaborate in class? Will that foster solid collaboration skills with today’s (and tomorrow’s) technologies? Not that getting a job is the only reason to learn solid collaboration skills, but getting a job without having those skills is not getting easier. Mastering all the ways collaboration is leveraged personally and using technology is vital.

3) Programming and design – 3D printing (did you know they are printing whole houses, food and blood vessels already?), also –  software development, engineering, graphics, architecture, transportation, art, medicine,  and much more all rely on programming and design skills … this is what is happening now in fields with good paying jobs.

4) Inventing (often referred to as “making” these days) – This is hands on and motivating and requires the skills developed through pedagogy that includes all of the above.

5) Problem solving – (See above)

So you think children are already mastering these skills and technologies on their own by using their smart phones and other technology 24/7? Ok, let’s see how that works out with your students.

I don’t pretend that I’ve included all the reasons that leaders should consider (please add your own in the comments). But these are not easy or cheap changes that have to happen. We’re not going to provide the technology and professional development and commitment to change on the cheap. Only real leadership will get us there.

Learning is messy!

Independence Day

It’s been a tough year or so under “new” administration, and short of actually revolting, a change needed to happen and so it has. I’ve taken a new position in my school district being the Gifted and Talented specialist at 2 of our 7/8 middle schools. Both are STEM Academies and are early in their implementation of a more project/problem based, technology integrated approach. One is also piloting a 1:1 laptop program with HP Netbooks that will roll out this fall when all teachers will get laptops, followed the next fall with students acquiring them.

Someone thought my experience might be a good match for the position – and my wanting/needing a change led to a quick decision on my part. Somewhat ironically I was interviewed for the position over the phone while I was standing outside “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland while on a trip with my family.

I’ll let you conclude why I chose the title and timing of this post, but needless to say I’m very pleased with the change and look forward to being part of a new direction for our school district.

Learning is messy!

Leaving Their Mark – Redux, Redux

This is a first I think, a second repost of a post on my blog. I’m doing so because of my appearance on NBC’s Education Nation Teacher Townhall. I talked about things my students have done and an innovative pedagogy, and although this post is 2 years old it shares many examples of that innovative pedagogy.


The end of the school year is always tough. Lots still to do, lots of emotions, lots of memories. This one is tougher than most because not only are we closing in on the end of another school year, we are coming to the end of 3 years together. As I was reflecting upon this the other day it occurred to me just how large a legacy this class is leaving behind.

This has been my first experience in a 1:1 laptop classroom. It certainly isn’t all about the technology, but the technology really has leveraged what they have accomplished because it has connected them easily to so many and allowed them to share and archive those connections easily along the way.

It started in fourth grade when we began blogging and learning about being understood and being careful with language so it meant what we meant and was clear to the reader. Their blogs became a way to share their stories, but also what we did and learned and what we accomplished- and we accomplished a lot. When I broke the news to them in December of 2006 that we had a student that showed up on my attendance over a month earlier and that we had never seen her … but that there might be a way to include her in our classroom using Skype video-conferencing, they were intrigued and awed that we might do that. After our first experience we decided to share it with the world and in just a few short weeks the students had designed and produced a video that taught the world just how powerful these new tools can be.  Their video has been downloaded thousands and thousands of times. (Update – about a million times now)

Not only did we use Skype most days to include our classmate, we also began making connections with others. We were interviewed over Skype by Lee Baber’s class in Virginia about our experience and made connections with other classrooms about science and other topics.

We were very fortunate that our classroom was chosen to have a special guest. Grace Corrigan, the mother of Christa McAuliffe, the  “Teacher in Space” who died tragically when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch, visited our room, and we Skyped out her visit to classrooms in Virginia and New York and they were able to take part in the question and answer period Grace agreed to.

To finish off that year we visited a local animal park, Animal Ark, and afterwards designed a wiki page to help further anyone’s learning about the animals there and included a lesson and video about designing your own animal.

In fifth grade as we continued to blog about our experiences, my students’ exploits became known to others and so we would get contacted by schools to participate with them – usually because they didn’t know of anyone else that knew how. One such experience was Skyping in George Mayo’s middle school class from Maryland. They had made some short videos and wanted us to watch them and give them feedback. It was easier for them to have us do this than the elementary school NEXT DOOR because they were at lunch when this class met and they couldn’t work out the details. We watched  and wrote our reactions to their videos and gave them feedback when we Skyped, and they asked us questions about including our classmate.

I was contacted by Skype about making a short film about our “Inclusion” experience. They sent a film crew to our classroom to shoot a mini documentary about how we did it. Even though our classmate was now with us in the classroom, they had her stay home one day and do school from her computer. They hung lights in our room and shot video all morning as we did what we usually do. They interviewed students and then packed up and shot in the afternoon from our classmate’s house. They produced 2 versions of the video. Here and here.

We continued to blog almost every day either writing new posts or reading and commenting on others. We built relationships with a number of classes around the world and to help keep track we began adding links to them on our class wiki page. Most of my students are second language learners and when we started blogging it would take most of them a week to edit a post into publishable quality. I don’t require my students to have zero errors on a piece before it publishes, but my students’ writing skills were very poor in general. They used poor English and grammar, and punctuation was almost nonexistent in some students’ work. They left out the details that made meaning for the reader, and we won’t go into spelling. At first students would write their posts by hand on lined paper and edit them several times before word processing them. Next they would print them out in a large size, double spaced to have room for editing. Many students would have 5 or more copies of their story all marked up by me in 1:1 meetings with them before their work was “publishable.” That’s why it took a week. By the end of fourth grade about half the class would publish in 2 days. And by the middle of 5th grade some students were publishing the same day as the assignment was given, and almost all were publishing in 2 days. We killed a lot of trees the first year, and I (and they) felt bad about that, but the impact it had on their English, spelling, punctuation, style and more was worth it. And the students continue to write and write and write (but we don’t print very often anymore).

During fifth grade, I believe initially over Twitter, but then in email, a fifth grade teacher in New York, Lisa Parisi, mentioned to me how much she liked the comments my students left on her students’ blogs. I explained that we had really been working on the quality and substance of our comments, not just saying, “Nice post” or “I liked your post” but also explaining why. Our students began doing more reading and commenting on each others posts.

Lisa and I wanted our classes to do a project together and so the “Mysteries of Harris Burdick” writing project was bornThis book, written by Chris Van Allsburg, is the ultimate writing starter I’ve ever seen. After reading and discussing the book in class our students wrote collaborative stories using Google Docs so they could work at the same time on their stories even though they were thousands of miles apart. They even discussed things over Skype so they could meet their co-writers and have discussions about where their stories were going. Other teachers joined the project and paired their classes. The project won an award.

This year we participated in 2 projects that stressed being safe online. We talk about safety fairly often, pretty much anytime we use a new application – blogs, wikis, Flickr and so on and anytime it comes up in the news we tend to review the issues and what the people involved did right or wrong that caused or helped the problem that came up. We participated with a bunch of schools all over the world in the “7 Random Facts” project … sharing seven random facts about yourself without revealing any information that could identify you. By request we followed that up by participating with another class in another safety project where the students wrote vignettes about someone NOT being safe online and then wrote a moral to the story. We shared them in a Skype session with the other class. During this time students in my class shared that they had MySpace and other sites that they were really too young to have and that they had taken down inappropriate information about themselves.

The “Around the World with 80 Schools” project this year has been incredible in how it has made my students more aware of world geography as they met and talked with students on almost every continent.

Most recently we are finishing up our Reno Bike Project, project where we are helping a local non-profit organization that rehabilitates old bikes and sells them inexpensively, spread the word to get people to donate bikes to them. The Public Service Announcementand web pages they designed were just published and we are doing some other activities to help get word out.

I’ve left plenty out here to save space, but the point is these students have left a mark, a legacy that will survive their graduation to middle school and beyond. Not only have they done community service that effects their community, but they have participated globally and left the archive for others to ponder and I hope improve on. Most importantly they have vastly improved their writing, research, communication and numerous other skills along the way. They were only held back by my limitations and the limitations of the system.

I’ve learned at least as much as they have and I believe I’m a better teacher for it. I’m chomping at the bit to take what I’ve learned and share it with my new class. As of this writing I’m being moved down to 4th grade again to begin a roll up to 5th and hopefully sixth grade again. I’m really going to miss this class and I want them to know that and to know they have made more of a difference in this world than they realize. They can be proud!

Learning is messy!

Turning The Corner

I’m told I’m a pretty upbeat person. I usually note the challenge in something and take it on, or deal with it as positively as I can. One of the self imposed challenges I’ve taken on gladly the last few years has been to embrace a new 21st century pedagogy that is still in its infancy (somewhat) and make it as powerful for my “at risk” students as it can be (see examples- here, here and here). Partly because it is the 21st century and education seems stuck somewhat in the convergence of the 19th and 20th centuries, and because the more I delve into the possibilities the more powerful and engaging I have found them to be.

My students and I stepped into a shiny new school year last August with that as our recent legacy. And we weren’t alone. (see here, and here for examples ) Some of the aspects that make this new pedagogy rich are the collaborative and connective possibilities it invites, enables and leverages. But like anything that is valuable it must be done with rigor, and rigor takes time if done … um … rigorously. But that was good because that was what we were doing … we were finding that students were motivated to do things with rigor when we had them participate this way … it made rigor easier to get to because students wanted to do well, wanted published work with their name on it to be “good.” So we started out in good company with schools and students and teachers we had met and joined with along the way AND the promise of more to come.

We weren’t entirely disappointed by what happened next – we still did some good things …. but disappointed we were. We ran full bore into the “innovative,” “school reform movement.”

Now you would think WE would be a key cog in this “innovative school reform movement,” right? After-all we (and by we I mean my class and all the other classrooms and teachers and educators we have worked with the last 4 to 5 years – and some we have not been involved with directly but are out there too) … so … after-all we have been developing, participating in and truly innovating in teaching and learning and new ways to get at this education thing that mostly people tend to agree is stagnate, and behind, and is way past due changing! I’m afraid WE were wrong. Apparently “innovation” is synonymous right now with “old ways” tied to “new testing” (which seems mostly like “old testing”)… well and data and assessment …. and then more data and all the meetings and in-services that includes.

But still, no one told us to stop doing what we had been doing. AND no one told us to stop doing new things even. It’s just that BEFORE we could do those things we had to do THEIR things … with rigor. In my case that meant a schedule that included 2 hours and 45 minutes a day of literacy (during which you WERE NOT to teach science or social studies content … you could teach HOW to use a textbook (that might be on a test),  just not the content) and 2 hours a day of math. I had 45 minutes PER WEEK of science OR social studies, no art, no PE. This is what “innovation” looks like during reform evidently. To me it was more like the old days of Readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic.

My class still blogged, but not as much. Still did projects, but not as much or as deep. I’ll let your imagination figure out how we even did that with the schedule I provided above. Others were going through the same, and those that were still “free” were beyond incredulous as to what was going on … or maybe NOT going on. Imagine if we were supported in what we do and collaborated and coached each other and made what we were doing even better? Frustrating? Yes. And many people and departments that you would think would be cheering us on were at the root of our frustration. We’ve been a glum group I’m afraid.

But it seems there might be light at the end of this “reform tunnel.” Others are becoming aware and speaking up (including the President it seems in an ironic twist), and the lockstep of the media uncritically reporting what some have wanted reported has softened some. How can I tell? Because there is suddenly a desperation in the current “reformers’ ” tone, rhetoric and actions.

I’m also buoyed knowing that what many of us have been doing is a right way to go. A great way that IS innovative, that is rigorous and engaging. Other reform models seem heavy on the rigor and very light on the innovation or truly being engaging. NOTE: I was actually told this year that testing IS engaging and motivating if “done right.” If students are constantly charting their improvements and seeing where they need to go next, that is all they need to motivate them according to some. Is that good enough for your kids? (and remember the narrow curriculum piece that goes with it!) If so, go for it. But note that the students that tend to be involved the most in this kind of reform have the least voice in what their education looks like, and the “reformers” children do not experience the reforms their parents thrust on others.

I think we are turning a corner. There are more voices out their now and we all have to jump in to amplify them and make sure they (and we) are heard. A big part of that is sharing what you do in your own classroom, or if you are not a teacher, what your children do that is truly innovative, engaging and powerful for them as learners. Remember too, the Save Our Schools March, on July 28th through the 31st.

Learning is messy!

My TEDxNYED Talk – Posted

Several weeks ago I had the honor of taking the stage on the 40th floor of  7 World Trade Center in New York to participate in TEDxNYED,  “…  an all-day conference focusing on empowering innovation in education, … being held in New York City on Saturday, March 5, 2011.”

I’d like to thank the organizers that brought me there, they were an incredible group that saw to it that things ran smoothly: Karen Blumberg, Co-Curator The School at Columbia University – Basil Kolani, Co-Curator The Dwight School – Dan Agins Pawcatuck Middle School – Sean Freese Lawrence Woodmere Academy – Kiersten Jennings Chou Independent Curriculum Consultant – Tamara McKenna The Elisabeth Morrow School – Erin Mumford – Nightingale-Bamford School – Jeff Weitz Horace Mann School

As I watched the presenters the themes that were reverberating were change, student centered learning, creativity. Find them here.

I’m afraid I went over my allotted time, a minor glitch with the timer, my fault for not noticing as I started, I take solace in that I’m not the first to do so.  : )

Learning is messy!

Shuttle Launch Experience – What Are The Possibilities For Student Learning?

In my last post I shared that I have this fantastic opportunity to watch the Space Shuttle Endeavour launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida next month. One of the ways this new pedagogy changes things is in how my students can be included in my trip.

If I really manage to go (at best a 50-50 possibility because of budget freezes here) my students would learn about the Space Shuttle program, Cape Canaveral and other topics associated with the trip before I ever left. We would travel there through photos, but also via Google Earth – Where is this place? – why did they choose the eastern Florida coast to launch spacecraft from? We drop right down on the roof of our classroom and travel to locations and back when we Skype to build those geography skills and schema, so we would do that for this trip too. My students all have their own blogs, so I can post photos, videos, blog posts about what I am learning, topics for them to do research on. I will be able to post all my photos and even video on our class Flickr page (often within minutes of taking them) – the students could be asked to make a slideshow – write captions for the photos or any number or possible writing projects or research projects.

NASA is asking me to be there to use Twitter to report out what I am doing, seeing and learning. But I would blog about it and would hope to Skype back to my class to share with them, answer questions and maybe do on-the-spot interviews with some of the people I am supposed to meet there. My students are used to taking notes during Skype-conferences and when we have guests in our class, and this would be no different. I could have it set-up with my substitute that I would call the school and let them know to get on Skype and expect a call.

Students could even have pre-written questions to ask – what would they like to know if they get to interview an astronaut or scientist or anyone else that works there? If NASA would allow it I could use a video streaming application like USTREAM to broadcast out so other classrooms could take part … later they could even share blog posts and comments about what they learned with the classes we connect with all the time. All those students have access to our Flickr pages as well – so they could utilize our photos for their learning.

The point is, my students would not be waiting for me to return to find out what happened during the trip – to learn during the trip … they would participate before, during and after. I can comment on their blogs (even grade them), think of new assignments to give them while I am still in Florida, and my students are learning about a place they can only imagine about now. There are so many other possible ways to include them (and feel free to think out loud in the comments). And we do these things often, so this is not pie-in-the-sky – this is what we do as a big part of our learning. Things really have changed since we went to school haven’t they?

Learning is messy!

How did you begin your technology journey?

A reader named Diane left these questions for me on a recent post and I thought I’d answer her here too. I wonder if others should post their experiences on their own blogs … and in more depth than I did here because of time, if that would help others somehow? Just a thought. Here are her questions and my short version answer:

How did you begin your technology journey? I would love to have access to equipment for my students to use, any suggestions on where to go to begin the process?

Hi Diane – I doubt you really want me to go all the way back to my Apple II+ days, and everyone else will be happier if I don’t : ) Most of my experiences have been chronicled here amongst all these posts. But basically I’ve been at the right spot at the right time when, because sadly so few have much experience using technology in education, my very limited experience  was enough to make me the go to person. 25 years ago my class got 4 Apple II-E computers because literally in a staff meeting I raised my hand when we were asked if anyone had any experience with them and I said I used one once for a week 3 years before. It’s been like that ever since.

My classes’ 1:1 laptop experience came about because my school was getting new HP laptops and no one else wanted anything to do with our 6 or 7 year old Apple iBooks (or really even the new HP’s which to this day are used rarely by more than 1 or 2 teachers- they use them a lot though) so I explained to my principal at that time that for the price of new batteries ($3000 for 30 batteries) we could have the only 1:1 laptop class in the entire school district of 60,000 students. She had the money and we went from there. Then because we did a few things (blogs and the like) a rare time when there was some money to try out new things, our class was named the school district’s model tech class (they had to designate a classroom because a grant required that). We got an interactive whiteboard, some cameras and a few other pieces AND permission to try things out – that’s the key right there.

It’s a much longer story than that, but that’s the gist of it. Hope that helps.

Learning is messy!

The Tightwad Tech – The Interview

A few weeks ago, after many attempts trying to find a time we could all make, Mark and Shawn at The Tightwad Tech managed to coral Lisa Parisi and myself across timezones long enough to interview us about how we utilize a changed pedagogy utilizing tech (usually for free – hence the “tightwad” connection). Here is a link to the podcast. We had a great time. Give it a listen … and Thanks to Mark and Shawn for inviting us!

Learning is messy!


So a new year is upon us! I have rolled my last class of 4th graders to fifth grade as I usually do. I have 25 students – 19 returners from last year (the others moved) and 6 newbies.

We used to give the state or district writing test in 4th, 5th and 6th grade. But in a cost cutting measure, the last few years, only 5th grade takes the writing test and the whole school is judged on those scores. Our scores were pretty miserable last year, so one of the interventions we are implementing is 3 practice tests that mimic the real one right down to being scored by paid scorers.

We gave the first practice test this week. It takes three, 1 hour + periods spread over 3 days to administer.  Since this is the second week of school, we are using this first one as a baseline. I decided since we had used gobs of class time to write them,  to use them as our first blog posts and not do any editing beyond what the students did during the test. That way because we had no time to write anything else, we could jump into our blogs. It was a great review for my returners, and a chance to learn how to post for my new students.

I had the young writers put “Baseline” in the title box, and their real title in the same window with their story. That way we have a baseline example of where they were at the beginning of the year, because it was written under “testing conditions” they got zero help, and since it is the second week of school the students thought it was cool to have something to build on. Now they (and everyone else can see their growth for the year. I will probably have them edit these same stories again after some instruction so they can be aware of where they began and what they have learned. You can view the posts here.

In addition you can peruse the posts of last year’s students to get an idea where they began last year. Also my last class has 3 years of posts further down the page.

Learning is messy!