Learning People

“Without the time machine, all choices have the possibility of being wrong.”

I recently read Scott Berkun’s book, The Year Without Pants.” It is an informativeBook Cover The Year Without Pants and entertaining book about his more-than-a-year working for, reporting on what it is like to work in a remote-only environment. He offers insights into the daily life of managing a team across the globe, and compares them to his own insights on leadership and management.

The quote from the book that serves as title of this post is taken from a chapter that focuses on decisions. When given a choice, should one wait to fix issues as they come up (responsive), or make updates/changes to improve and lessen the potential for issues (proactive)? Eloquently, Berkun argues that there is no way to truly know which choice to make. Managers have to take the available information, and pick what they believe is the best path. Unless you have a time machine of course.

This is one example of the variety of informative commentary found throughout the book. I have a particular predisposition to enjoy the book since it is about working for (the parent company is called Automattic, founded by Matt Mullenwig). I have been an avid WordPress user for a number of years. I fall in the self-hosted category of WordPress because I purchased my domain and host this WordPress blog through Dreamhost. I go so far to have attended a few WordCamps, and even had the fortune to hear Matt speak at a WordCamp in Toronto a few years back – very cool it was.

I want to highlight a couple of other “jump-outs” to me from the book. I could spend a long time on these, but will keep it reasonably short. As with any reading, the items I notice are in tune with what I work on every day.

“…companies confused supporting roles, like legal, human resources, and information technology, with product creation roles like design and development. Product creators are the true talent of any [organization], especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do.”

This quote is in reference to what the leaders at Automattic noticed about other companies that struggle to succeed. In K-12 education, the creatives are the teachers and the students. What they create and do together is most important and everything should serve that. It sounds basic on the surface, but when implemented it seems like we tend to put processes, procedures, and rules in place that get in the way.

“You see a similar downward spiral at schools that try to measure teacher performance. They create new tests for evaluating teachers that reduce time teachers have to teach real lessons, which lowers their scores, which, sad surprise, leads to more testing.”

I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. This book was published in September of 2013, around the time teacher evaluation was getting to a frenzied place across the country. Berkun’s point in this quote was regarding using metrics to measure employee performance. As soon as there is some system in place to measure performance, he notes “Everyone eventually realizes that the metric, which was good for a time, is now being gamed. Employees go so far out of their way to score well on the metric that it has negative effect on the real quality of what the company makes, something people recognize intuitively.”

The power of success at Automattic is that the only real performance indicator is when an item is released to the public on Since there is no workplace, and everyone does their work when and where they want to, the focus is totally on what gets done. This concept is the complete opposite of what goes on in K-12 public schools since by nature everyone shows up in the same place at the same time to work/learn. We are a massive mountain of organized minute-managing. The new world of remote work is on the other side of the spectrum. Online learning is beginning to change education, but when it will take hold, and parents stop putting their kids on the bus, remains to be seen.

“He wanted a data-influenced culture, not a data-driven one.”

This is a reference to Mullenwig’s style of engaging in decision making. Data is important to the process, but he only lets the data influence decisions, not drive them. There is a part of decision making that is left to intuition, or gut, when the numbers don’t tell the whole story. This is true about every child in a school. Assessments certainly shed light on what students know, but people have hunches that go far beyond any report available.

  • Self-motivated people thrive when granted independence.
  • Managers who want better performance must provide what their staff needs.

The above is obvious, but still hits home as a necessary ongoing reminder. Successful teachers are by nature self-motivated. It is the job of those who support teachers to figure out what they need (asking is an easy way), and make it happen for them.

Looking back on what I chose to highlight from the book, it is interesting very little is about the remote-worker concept that it purports to be about. Remote work is the reality now for many, and for many more in the near future. Regardless of where the work happens, there continue to be challenges to success in companies that will always be present. How one deals with the challenges remains the constant.

Obviously a big hat tip to @berkun for some thought-provoking reading!

Learning People Russo's Ramblings

My Answers

Taking the questions from the previous post, Questions for Thought, I am going to turn the tables and take a turn as if the questions were posed to me. The framework for my answers sometimes relates to how technology supports learning, since that is the focus on this site. Here we go…

1. What do I need to know about you? An analogy I like to use is marathon runner – steady dedication to the task at hand is what gets results. Careful, long-term training and practice will reap rewards in the end. Being keenly aware of your surroundings, and seizing opportunities when they arise, are the benefits of keeping skills honed. I did run one marathon, and was successful – not fast, but successful. The regimen I put in place paid off, and I enjoyed the process. I hope to run another marathon someday to prove it was not a fluke – I enjoy running in general.

2. What do you need from me more than anything else? From anyone I work with, communication is what I need most. Simply ask for what you need, and if you are unsure of how to do something technologically, just say so. Don’t be worried about what anyone thinks – say what you need and we can get it done.

3. What does success in the classroom mean to you? Students who produce original, meaningful works that they are proud of. Watching the expression on a face when a student shows off their video is an example.

4. What do you know about how people learn? I know that when it is something they WANT to learn about , almost anyone will do whatever it takes. For example, a student wanting to learn some Minecraft tips will figure it out quickly using a Google search (just ask my son). A student trying to make a robot turn to challenge his Lego Mindstorms partner will figure out which switches need to be put in place to make it happen. A student trying to figure out the changes to Coltrane’s Giant Steps needs to make it just between him/her and the music, but this video doesn’t hurt (unless the video is used totally in place of the ear!):

5. What’s the most creative thing you’ve ever done? I’ve done some tribute videos for colleagues that I am really proud of. The storytelling that goes on when you build video is really fun. You have to go on a hunch, gather whatever resources you can, and go for it. Click here for one example on this site.

6. How can technology be used for learning? At this point, in 2015, the question is really how can technology NOT be used for learning? There are, and always will be, times when technology is not directly involved in learning (reading a good old-fashioned book, for example) but it is right there to support learning (tweeting out favorite quotes from said old-fashioned book, for example).

7. What does it mean to understand something? When you can verbalize what you know and don’t know about a topic, and are comfortable attending to what you need to figure out in order to better understand it.

8. When was the last time you’ve solved a problem? Last night with some pesky screw holes that were rounded out. I needed to fix the hinge so the cabinet door would work again…

9. How do you respond to expectations? I do everything in my power to meet them. Professionally, I place great emphasis on meeting the needs of those I support, and work as well as I can to get the job done.

10. What is your proudest moment? Watching students succeed in their endeavors. For example, three students I worked with were recognized two different times in the CSPAN StudentCam Competition. They worked hard, and the results were great. StudentCam is an excellent competition as it provides a venue for students to pursue and share their voice on important issues.

11. What do you want to learn about? The Great American Songbook, hands down. I’ve only scratched the surface of what transpired in the first half of the century regarding the development of music. The GAS is an incredibly deep and rich treasure that is worthy of ongoing enjoyment and study.

12. Are you a picky reader? What are your strengths as a reader? I am not a picky reader – rather I am a willing participant in a story and am happy to let the author take me where he/she wishes. I am not sure if I can verbalize strengths – I enjoy reading, and wish I devoted more time to it.

13. What is your personal philosophy? Pick something, and go for it. Life is to short to worry if it is the right choice – if what you decide to do is not the way to go, that truth will uncover itself before too long.

14. When do you write best? When I have mental room – as in a few hours where it is just me and the keyboard. Having time to digest and create (and find links, appropriate media, etc.) takes time.

15. What’s worth understanding deeply? See #11 – The Great American Songbook. Speaking of which, here is a sample of a tune I studied for a while – The (Boy) From Ipanema. A great twist on a classic, performed by Diana Krall and Rosemary Clooney, with John Pizzarelli on guitar! Note this is an unofficial YouTube upload – it may disappear at any time…

16. What are your best habits as a thinker? Repetitive thinking – I like to revisit big ideas over time to see how they last. Good ideas stand up over time, and pass the “fresh look” impression. In other words, if an idea or product is good, it gives that “good feeling” vibe the next time it is looked at, after a bit of a break. One does not always get the luxury of taking a break to reflect on an idea, but it never hurts. In the world of de Bono’s six thinking hats I think this is red hat thinking – feelings, intuition, and hunches. But, they are delayed intuition, not immediate, so maybe it is more blue hat, or process, thinking.

17. What’s most important to you in life? Supporting others, and bringing people together.

18. What is the relationship between learning and #17? Supporting others in their pursuit of learning is fundamental. Bringing people together to learn really rocks.

19. Where does your inner drive come from? I think fundamentally from my mother. She was always working on something, doing something, or LEARNING something. She never made a big deal out of it – she just did it.

20. Who are your heroes or role models? Don Quixote comes to mind – he is selfless and single minded in making the world a better place. The acting delivered by Peter O’Toole certainly contributes to the effect of the storyline in the movie version, too. Speaking of movie characterizations, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is another great one. His delivery of O’Shaughnessy’s famous line is memorable – “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

21. Why study (insert your content area here)? Because (insert content area here) is worth knowing about! In my position as an Instructional Specialist for curricular areas outside of my personal expertise, I have gained valuable insight into those ares. For example, I have a far greater understanding of the value of and need for Family & Consumer Science instruction. Michelle Obama said it very well in the article linked here.

22. What are you good at that nobody knows? Riding rollercoasters with really big drops. I don’t think this is a skill, but I consider it a talent to enjoy being launched at 120mph and head 400 feet into the air.

23. What do teachers sometimes misunderstand about you as a learner? I am a quiet student, and my tendency to not always verbalize sometimes leads to others thinking either I’m not interested or do not have an opinion.

24. What does it mean to study? Revisit, gain clarity, understand more deeply.

25. How do you respond to complex texts or digital media? It depends – if the text is complex because it is dense with difficult content and terminology, it takes time to digest. I find it hard to keep concentration when this is the case – Edwin Gordon’s seminal book in music education, Learning Sequences in Music, comes to mind. I needed a nap after every paragraph to process it!

26. If I get out of your way this year, what will you be able to do? Be out in classrooms, supporting learning!

People Russo's Ramblings

Thank You Heim Middle

As I finish up this week at Heim Middle and get ready to begin my new position at district office, I wholeheartedly say thank you to all of the great people at Heim. It is hard to believe that I have been here nine years – wow did the time fly! Part of the reason for this is my children – those of you at Heim long enough have been part of their birth and growth. It seems like just yesterday when Adam and Anna visited as infants, and later came dressed up as a lion and tiger for Halloween when they were four and three. Now they just finished second grade and kindergarten, and it just gets faster.

I start by talking about my family because I consider myself incredibly fortunate, and proud, to say I am part of the Heim family. It is said often that Heim is a special place, and that is because it is. As you know, when you run into a Heim alum, they immediately start reminiscing about a memory here. A comment made many times that sticks out in my mind is when someone is asked to describe Heim in one word. Without hesitation the reply is “family.” Absolutely true. The members of the family change regularly, but like relatives, the Heim family has a special connection no matter where in the world they are.

We have made great progress in technology in the last nine years. When I first arrived, I remember that the number one task was to make sure there was an iMac (blueberry to be specific) in each classroom so teachers could do email. Jump to this year when teachers offer up a menu of technology choices for students to pick from for their projects. There are many reasons for the progress we have made, and the most significant one is the desire and willingness by the faculty to try new things and help each other out. We could never have done many of the things we did without many of you stepping up and sharing your expertise with your colleagues. Additionally, I attribute much of the progress in recent years to the district focus on incorporating technology. Major projects such as placing the projectors in every classroom could not happen without major district-wide direction.

Speaking of district-wide direction, that leads me to the topic of the new structure for the technology integrators next year. While it is true the middle schools will have less access to this resource than they have had in the past, the elementary and high schools will have more access, which is a good thing. I can tell you that the technology integrators team for next year is dynamite, and I know you will enjoy working with them when you have the opportunity. I hope that the new model of district technology integrators will lead to creating more such positions in the future.

As for me, I am thrilled to be taking on my new role as Instructional Specialist for Fine and Performing Arts, Business Education and Home and Careers (my son loves saying that). I know it is a surprise to some of you who did not know my background is music. Some people have said I am going back to my “roots.” Personally, I just think I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday.

In any case, this is my way of trying to express how special a place Heim will always be to me.

Thank you Heim Middle. You have made me a better person. I am forever grateful for it.


New Technology Integrator Position

As part of the reorganization of the district for next year, the building-based middle school technology facilitators are going to become district-based technology integration specialists. It will be a similar role to what was going on in one building, but in the new design, the integrators will be able to help teachers across the district. If I had not moved into my new job as an Instructional Specialist, I would have been one of these technology integrators. On the job posting are “typical work activities,” which I have listed below. In between are my comments on what I think each means.

Technology Integrator Typical Work Activities

1. Assumes leadership responsibilities in district- and building-based efforts to design and implement consistent technology integration strategies to increase the probability of improved student achievement.

  • I think the key to this is consistency across the district and within buildings. It is very hard to link technology use to improved student achievement, but consistent, targeted efforts to use technology really should help.

2. Meets with Instructional Specialists and building administrators to determine curricular focus, need, and implementation of pertinent technology integration strategies.

  • This is one of the strongest benefits of the new job structure. The ability to plan with district and building administration will be key to rolling out technology. As an Instructional Specialist, I am already planning ways in which I would like to use the Integrators, and get my colleagues to capitalize on them as well. 🙂

3. Assumes leadership responsibilities in organizing, assessing, designing and implementing appropriate training activities to assist faculty in infusing technology to support the curriculum.

  • This is the “meat” of the job. Setting up and delivering training to staff is the main and most important job. There will be less direct contact with students, but much more during-the-day and after-school training.

4. Understands and supports technology components of the emerging NYS Reform Agenda.

  • The New York State Teaching Standards, approved in January of this year by the Board of Regents, clearly spells how how technology is an integral part of instruction. I highlighted these performance indicators in a recent post (found here). Whether you love it or hate it, the daily professional life of teachers is going to change significantly due to the Race To The Top initiative that New York is a part of.

5. Assists in the development, implementation, and monitoring of the District Technology Plan.

  • Like all districts, we have a three year technology plan that drives the overall direction for technology. It only makes sense that the Integrators are a player in it.

6. Stays on top of current trends and research in technology integration, and assists faculty in becoming familiar with new and emerging technologies to solve problems and improve job performance.

  • This is actually one of the most fun things to do – keep up with the geeky stuff and show it off! At the same time, it is important to not get caught up in the latest thing just because it is “cool.”

7. Participates in district, BOCES, or other appropriate training to build knowledge and skills.

  • Going along with number 6, this is important in order to be able to keep up.

8. Maintains a staff relationship and meets regularly with building Technology Facilitators to discuss hardware, software, and training support for technology integration strategies.

  • Since the Technology Integrators are now totally separate from the Technology Facilitators, this is an important connection to the buildings. Each Integrator will be responsible for working with three or four buildings. I think the Technology Integrators should make it a point to be at building Technology Committee meetings each month at their buildings to maintain the lines of communication.

9. Attends District Technology Committee meetings.

  • This is an easy one, and very informative. The District Technology Committee oversees the District Technology Plan, so this is an obvious connection (see number 5).

10. Coordinates with the Instructional Specialist for Professional Development, the Assistant Superintendent for Technology Services, and the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction to assist in planning for district-wide professional development activities which support technology integration.

  • Once again, this is key to rolling out technology integration. Similar to what has gone on recently in the district, including last October’s Staff Development Day for Technology, the Technology Integrators will be very involved in district initiatives.

11. Works collaboratively to assess and report student technology literacy.

  • One of the challenges the middle school technology facilitators have faced each year is how to assess and report 8th grade technology literacy, as it is a required reporting item for New York State. On one hand, it is easy to report “skills,” but on the other hand it is difficult to measure “literacy.” This will always continue to be an interesting discussion.

12. Collaborates with the Assistive Technology Team, as needed, to support students with learning needs, to implement recommended tools/devices, and assist faculty to apply universal design principles when selecting technology integration strategies for lessons.

  • We have a model Assistive Technology Team in the district who do an amazing job. In this new role, the ability to work with them more is a very exciting proposition.


The job description is quite detailed, and as far as I can determine, right on. Technology integration revolves around keeping up with what is going on, providing training, monitoring progress, and always staying focused on improving learning for students and staff. This is an exciting position and I am very excited for the people who are going to have these positions!

Content Area Focus Digital Citizenship Learning People

Technology Integration in the New NYS Teaching Standards

New York is a winner of the Race to the Top funding initiative sponsored by the federal government. There is a whole host of passionate conversation about what RTTT means for education. I’m going to skip that part of the dialogue for now and focus on what has been going on in New York, and specifically on what has already happened at the state level and the implications for the very near future.

For the past 2 years during the state’s involvement in applying for and winning a RTTT grant, the Board of Regents has actively been implementing parts of what it calls the Regents Reform Agenda (RRA) (sorry for the multiple acronyms – it’s easier to type). The RRA is essentially the plan in place to carry out the items specified in the RTTT application.

One of the components of the RTTT application is an updated performance review process for teachers and administrators. New York had to change its application, which was rejected in the first round, to reflect a more concrete process in which to demonstrate an updated review process. In May of 2010 new law was passed by the legislature – section 103 of the laws of 2010 specifically addresses teacher and principal performance review. The new section of the education law, 3012-c, can be found here.

The law indicates that teachers and principals must be evaluated on a combination of student performance (40%) and personal performance (60%). Regarding the 60% based on personal performance, the law states, “The remaining percent of the evaluations, ratings and effectiveness scores shall be locally developed, consistent with the standards prescribed in the regulations of the commissioner, through negotiations conducted pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law.” (Section 3012-c(2)(h))

The standards prescribed in the regulations of the commissioner (as mentioned in the law) were just approved by the Board of Regents at the January 2011 meeting. They come in the form of the New York State Teaching Standards. There are seven standards, with underlying elements and performance indicators, that outline the skills necessary for teachers. These standards were designed so rubrics for performance could be developed. The work group putting together the teaching standards stopped short of developing specific rubrics, as there are other groups working on that right now. For a list of FAQs surrounding the development of the standards, click here: Teaching Standards Q&A

Here is the full document with the newly adopted NYS Teaching Standards: New York State Teaching Standards

So in the age of technology and its use in the classroom, where does New York State stand in terms of what teachers should be doing with technology? One of the questions from the Q&A document provides some light:

Q. Is there a separate standard for a teacher’s use of technology?
A. The ability of educators to use a variety of technological tools, techniques, and  skills to inform and enhance teaching, learning, and other aspects of  professional performance is crucial to their effectiveness in today’s learning environment.  Since technology is such a prevalent factor in today’s world and is included in so many aspects of teaching and student learning, a decision was made to infuse technology throughout all of the Standards rather than to isolate it in a single Standard.  Therefore, references to the use of technological resources, knowledge, and skills are found throughout the Teaching Standards ( e.g. Elements I.6;  II.6;  III.4;  III.5; etc. ).

Technology, or technologies, is referenced 11 times within the standards – below are the specific references. Take a look and see what you think. Please note that I am only showing any mention of technology. Some of the items items are elements within standards, and some are performance indicators within elements.

  • Teachers demonstrate knowledge and understanding of technological and information literacy and how they affect student learning.
  • Teachers use technological tools and a variety of communication strategies to engage each student.
  • Teachers incorporate a knowledge and understanding of technology in their lessons to enhance student learning.
  • Teachers explore and use a variety of instructional approaches, resources, and technologies to meet diverse learning needs, engage students, and promote achievement.
  • Teachers incorporate instructional approaches and technologies to provide students with opportunities to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes.
  • Teachers engage students in the development of multidisciplinary skills, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and use of technology.
  • Students utilize technologies and resources to solve real world problems.
  • Teachers organize and utilize available resources (e.g., physical space, time, people, technology) to create a safe and productive learning environment.
  • Teachers ensure that all students have equitable access to available resources and technologies.
  • Teachers use multiple measures and multiple formats, including available technology, to assess and document student performance.
  • Teachers advocate, model, and manage safe, legal, and ethical use of information and technology, including respect for intellectual property and the appropriate documentation of sources.

I like the fact that technology is not a separate standard, as it needs to be used as a tool. I like the fact that ethical use is specifically mentioned. I like the statement, “students utilize technologies and resources to solve real-world problems.” As a matter of fact, I think every statement included in the standards related to technology is excellent.

I wonder how this is going to play out. Since the annual professional performance review (APPR) is a locally-negotiated item, how will these standards come into play when the review document is created? According to the state, there are a number of pilots underway right now to test various types of rubrics to support the standards. As with any measure of professional performance, the meat and value of the review will come with the details of how the measurement is done.

The new New York State Teaching Standards represents a top-down model for improving teaching and learning, motivated by the Race to the Top initiative. We are going to spend a lot of time transforming current systems to this new model – I hope it’s worth the time and effort.

People Russo's Ramblings

Farewell, Friend

This post is a tribute to a fantastic educator and colleague, Earle Holt. Earle is retiring from Heim Middle School after a 43 year career. His last day is December 23, 2010.

Earle has touched so many lives in so many ways. Most importantly, as an art teacher he has had a great impact on thousands of students who have come through our school. One hallmark of Earle’s work is the wall block, and more recently, wall tile. Every 7th grade student for the last 43 years has created a personal reflection of themselves or something important to them, and either painted it on the wall or created it on the computer and had it mounted on the wall.

If you walk through Heim Middle, in every hallway you see something like this:

Click image to enlarge

There are over 12,500 individual pieces of art, all created by students. There are many instances where parents and their children have shared the same experience creating a wall block/wall tile while they attended Heim. On any given day you might find an adult scanning the walls to find their work of art from years ago.

I first worked with Earle when I arrived at Heim to help solve a problem – no more room to paint on the walls. We came up with a plan (actually he had the plan and I just helped get the technical kinks worked out) to have students draw their design, scan it, and finish creating it using paint software. The printed design is heat laminated to tile, then mounted on the wall (closer to the ceiling, above the painted wall blocks). The transition from painted wall blocks to scanned/printed/laminated wall tile was fascinating, and a great success.

More than this particular project, though, is working with and observing Earle when he works with students. He has such a nurturing and warm style, and he truly cares about each and every one of the students. I have worked with him in his classroom regularly over the years. Recently in light of his retirement, I’ve tried to pay a few extra visits. His classroom environment is quite remarkable.

His “corner of the world” has also been known as the place to get a cup of coffee, tea, and tasty treat whenever a break is needed. You always leave his room with a smile or a laugh. His warm, welcoming style reverberates with staff and students alike.

I put together a brief slide show below as a tribute to a great person. Earle will be missed, but he deserves all the best that retirement has to offer.

Farewell, friend. The coffee is on…

Music by Kevin MacLeod
Direct link to YouTube video

Learning People

Do You Want Me To Make That Harder For You?

This week I’d like to share with you a personal screen-play about the power of technology, creativity, and children…

  • Cast: Father and son (yes, me and mine)
  • Setting: family room on a weekend afternoon
  • Props: couch, iPad, desktop computer

Background: Remember the cool wooden maze game, Labyrinth? It is a wooden box with knobs on the side, and the goal is to guide the steel ball through the maze without falling into the holes. I have many memories of playing this game. Fast forward to 2010 – I have downloaded Labrynth 2 HD for the iPad. There are virtually limitless mazes to solve, new materials, bumpers, cannons, etc. My son is hooked on it. Following is a re-telling of what my son discovered:

Father: (on couch, playing Labyrinth 2 HD on iPad) Drat…got blown up by a cannon again…

Son: Daddy, click on the Create button on the screen.

Father: OK – let’s check it out…there is a “New” button – it looks like you can make your own levels.

Son: (squeals) Really?! Let’s do it!

Father: The directions say to go to a website, enter the code for the software, and design levels on the computer.

Son: (leaps to the computer) – I’m at the website – what is the code? (enters code) (investigates for a few moments while figuring out design interface) (squeals again) Awesome!

[2-3 minutes pass]

Son: OK dad, try out my level! (leaps back onto couch)

Father: (opens level created by son) Is this the one you just had on the screen on the desktop computer?

Son: Yes!

Father: Sweet! (finishes newly created level quickly)

Son: (leaps back to computer) Hold on – I know what I have to change! (brief pause) OK try it now! (leaps back to couch)

Father: (reloads level, son is eagerly hovering overhead, watching intently) Oooo – tricky, but I think I can do this – thanks for putting this wall here.

Son: I think I need to add some cannons and a few holes here…(leaps back to computer)

Father: Got it!

Son: Reload it and try again! (leaps back to couch)

Father: (reloads level) Grrr…hmph…grrr…almost…rats. (tries again multiple times) Whew, got it finally!

Son: Do you want me to make that harder for you?

The above scenario is one that has played out countless times in my house. There is a magic mix of design, creativity, physics, and immediate feedback that is spectacular. The physical manipulation of the game on the iPad (Labyrinth is on the iPod Touch also), combined with the ability to design levels and immediately try them out creates a hyper-motivating environment which my son (and now my daughter) loves to work in. One aspect we have not begun yet is to create and share levels with other people, but I’m sure we will get into that before too long. While the original analog version of Labyrinth is still fun, it cannot compare to where the current version has gone, thanks to technological connections.

There are many thoughts and ideas triggered for me when I think about this scenario, but on my mind right now is this: The students entering our schools are familiar with and live in these environments. There is content they have to learn that is most likely not familiar to them at all. What are we doing to help our students learn in ways that will immerse them and motivate them?

To use a concept from David Perkins book, Making Learning Whole, what are we doing to help kids “play the whole game?”


Where the People Are

Image Licensed from

I really disliked Twitter when it first came out. I looked at it and thought I had no desire to know when someone ate a sandwich or went to the bathroom (still don’t). I did not like the fact that thoughts or ideas had to be stunted to 140 characters (still don’t). It struck me as a craze that will go by the wayside when the next tool comes along (5 years into it, Twitter may have sticking power, but who knows?).

However, Twitter does have one key benefit. People. It is where smart people post ideas, thoughts and conversation starters. Skimming a Twitter feed of can generate lots of great reading and ideas. Like any successful tool or service, it relies on the community of users to make it valuable.

I am new to the Twitter game, but I get it now. I am amazed at those who can be posting on Twitter constantly (or so it appears). I have made it my goal to try to post one idea, reflection or thought per day to contribute to the stream. I have tried one or two conversations and lurked in the #edchat discussions, but have not actively jumped in (time is the big issue here). I have added Twitter into my routine, but have not given anything else up. Actually, that is not true – I do much less focused reading on one thing (like a book), and more fly-by browsing. Not sure if that is good, though.

Just like managing email is best kept to one or two short time periods per day, I think Twitter is best like this, or else it may take over.

Here is what I wish for future versions of Twitter (or whatever service becomes the “in” tool):

  • The ability to type more than 140 characters. I understand that brevity is key, but some leeway would be nice.
  • The ability to manage information without need for a 3rd party app (TweetDeck, HootSuite, etc.). If you provide a service, why not provide the ability to use it??? The #NewTwitter interface is definitely an improvement.

There are other services that do provide a broader range of communication tools, starting with “status updates” and the ability to grow into more in-depth conversations. At the national level, LearnCentral is one such community. Steve Hargadon’s efforts in bringing an incredible amount of people to the discussion table in LearnCentral is remarkable. All of LearnCentral is “free,” with the understanding it is a service sponsored by Elluminate.

At the state level, NYSCATE’s Ning community is another such service. Nings have been around for a number of years, and recently made news when the free versions were going away, causing a stir in the ed tech community (my thoughts on free tools can be found here). Regardless, NYSCATE has adopted the Ning format, and within the community are many layers of ways to communicate and collaborate. LearnCentral and NYSCATE’s Ning don’t have the power of people as much as Twitter does, but the scalability of conversation in these networks is much greater.

So, do I Tweet? Yes. And I will continue to? Yes, and perhaps a bit more. As a matter of fact, as soon as I put up this post, I’m heading over to Tweet about it. However I want more than 140 characters as an option for expression (hmmm…maybe that’s one of the reasons for this blog…).

Learning requires community, and communities are only strong if they have people in them. Twitter is one such community, but there has to be more.

P.S. Please do not ask me about Facebook!

Learning People Russo's Ramblings

Superman is Already Here

Before you read this post, please take a moment to go on a field trip to do the following:

Walk to the nearest mirror you can find, look at yourself in the eyes for about 30 seconds, then come back.

Image licensed from

Hello Superman, it’s nice to meet you. Please understand that I use Superman in the general sense, whether you are a man or a woman. Yes, you are Superman.

I am offering this post to contribute to blogger Tom Whitby’s call for education reform ideas (he calls it REBELS – Reforms from Educational Bloggers Links of Educational Suggestions). In the past few weeks, there has been much discussion in the national spotlight about what we need to “fix” education. There was the special on MSNBC, Education Nation; the film Waiting for Superman; Oprah Winfrey’s show with David Guggenheim, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee; and a panel discussion in Elluminate that have contributed to the dialog.

I listened to the panel discussion and attended the Buffalo premiere of Waiting for Superman (which included a panel discussion with local educational leaders/politicians), and have been trying to keep up with the various posts and tweets flying around related to the issue.

I will share some of my reactions to the Buffalo premiere of Waiting for Superman and the panel discussion, as it was a good opportunity to localize the national discussion.

  • The event was organized by BuffaloRefomEd, a fledgling group looking to improve the education system. Since they were able to bring together the Superintendent of the Buffalo schools, the president of the Buffalo Teachers union, the New York State assemblyman for Buffalo, among others, BuffaloReformEd appears to have its act together.
  • The audience was probably heavy on the charter school supportive side, not surprisingly as the tone of the movie is pro-charter schools.
  • Personally, I think the angle of the movie, with its fire-the-teachers, get-rid-of-tenure, unions-are-bad tone spent more time on attractive easy solutions that really are not solutions. No one wants bad teachers – but in the big picture, I think the amount of “bad” teachers is a minuscule amount, and they don’t make it in the long run. Are there problems in the system with some teachers? Sure, but that is true of any employer/employee organization.
  • Charter schools are a great choice. Are all charter schools great? No. Are some out-performing the public schools? You bet. One of the main points in the movie is that some charter schools are finally making a difference in performance scores for students on standardized tests. The real problem here is that the charter schools are measuring themselves on the very standardized tests that are the greater issue in education. I do not know if charter schools, who pride themselves on being different, should celebrate with the same measures that public schools use in order to prove their value.
  • In the panel discussion, the head of a local charter school made the statement (I’m paraphrasing):  The purpose of K-12 education is to prepare students for post-secondary education. Yikes – I’m not sure that is the purpose of K-12 schools. What happened to preparing students to become productive, contributing members of society? Not every path leads to post-secondary education.
  • At the end of the discussion (all too brief at only 30-40 minutes), the superintendent of Buffalo and the local assemblyman pledged to reconvene a panel for a longer discussion at a later time. Dialogue is always good, but…

We don’t have time to talk about what needs to be done. Superman is here – it’s you, it’s me, and it’s every person who has direct influence on helping kids succeed. It is the parent, the neighbor, the teacher, the mailman, the uncle, the teacher, the principal, the union leader, the grocery clerk, etc. I know, this sounds a lot like the “it takes a community to raise a child” shtick, but it’s true.

Every one of the students portrayed in the movie has a Superman. It is the parent/guardian, who all said they would do anything in the world to help their child. It does not matter what school they get in – those kids have a superman looking out for them.

Charter schools have by their nature lots of Supermen. Those who choose to create their own system, their own school, take on a huge challenge. By their nature, those in charter schools are demonstrating superman qualities.

Public schools are full of Supermen. Every single day, they take on the daily challenges of meeting the needs of the students in their class. The challenges are very different depending on where you live. I live and teach in an affluent suburban district. We have many challenges every day with every one of our students. The daily challenges we face are vastly different from the challenges faced by those in the urban schools. Still, every day we go in to do what we can for every single one of those we work with.

We can have all the panel discussions we want. We can make all the movies we want. We can get the best thinkers and politicians in the world together to talk for hours, days, weeks or months. It won’t matter – that’s just talk.

What will matter is the work you do with whatever kids you have a direct connection with. It might be your own kids, it might be the kids you teach, the kids you administer, or the kids on the block. What matters more is you may have to reach out and help kids you see who have a need, but no one to help them. You may have to intervene when kids you work with do not get what they need. Education reform is you, doing whatever you can, whenever you can, no matter what.

No more time to read now, Superman, you have work to do. Important work.

Learning People

A Look at Ray Kurzweil’s Education Predictions for 2009

I’m reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines now, which was written in 1999. In the book, Kurzweil makes predictions for the future in 2009, 2019, 2029 and beyond. In the predictions chapter for 2009, there is a section on education. I’d like to try a little experiment and present the section from the chapter, edited to where we really were in 2009. The excerpt is from p. 791-792. My edits of the original text are either in strike-through or bold face.

In the twentieth century, computers in schools were mostly on the trailing edge, with most effective learning from computers taking place in the home. Now in 2009, while schools are still not on the cutting edge, the profound importance of the computer as a knowledge tool is widely recognized. Computers play a central role in all facets of education except the classroom, as they do in other spheres of life.

The majority of reading is done on displays paper, although the “installed base” of paper documents displays is still formidable beginning to appear. The generation of paper documents is beginning to dwindling dwindle, however, as the books and other papers of largely twentieth-century vintage are being rapidly scanned and stored passed over in favor of digital versions. Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds continue to be delivered on paper.

Students of all ages typically do not have a computer of their own, which is a thin tablet-like device weighing under a pound with a very high resolution display suitable for reading. Students interact with their computers primarily by voice and by pointing with a device that looks like a pencil keyboard. Keyboards still exist, but most textual language is created by speaking. Keyboarding classes continue to be offered to help students input more efficiently. Learning materials are accessed through print, wired, and wireless communication.

Intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning. Virtual schools have appeared, replacing traditional schools. Recent controversial studies have shown that students can learn basic skills such as reading and math just as readily with interactive learning software as with human teachers, particularly when the ratio of students to human teachers is more than one to one. Although the studies have come under attack, most students and their parents have accepted this notion for years. There is controversy as to the effectiveness of virtual learning, but financial need is driving the growth of such offerings. The traditional mode of a human teacher instructing a group of children is still prevalent,  but schools are increasingly relying on investigating software approaches, leaving human teachers to attend primarily to issues of motivation, psychological well-being, and socialization. Many A few children learn to read on their own using their personal computers before entering grade school.

Preschool and elementary school A select small group of children identified as low-level readers routinely read at their intellectual level using print-to-speech reading software until their reading level catches up. These print-to-speech reading systems display the full image of documents and can read the print aloud while highlighting what is being read. Synthetic voices sound fully somewhat human. Although some educators expressed concern in the early ’00 years that students would rely unduly on reading software, such systems have been readily accepted by children and their parents. The expense and logistics of reading systems have prevented their adoption for all students. Studies have shown that students improve their reading skills by being exposed to synchronized visual and auditory presentations of text.

Learning at a distance (for example, lectures and seminars in which the participants are geographically scattered) is growing in use, but is by no means commonplace.

Learning is becoming a significant portion of most jobs. Training and developing new skills is emerging as an ongoing responsibility in most careers, not just an occasional supplement, as the level of skill needed for meaningful employment soars even higher.

In 2009, we were not anywhere near where Kurzweil predicted, although we are beginning to move in the directions he indicated. It feels like it takes forever to make progress that we need to make, but I do believe the change agents that will eventually spur the change are the ones indicated in his text. In two different examples, Kurzweil mentions that acceptance of a new technology is by students and parents, essentially forcing the school to change. I think that is exactly the type of force that is going to provide true change in the education system.

The only paragraph that I did not make any edits to is the last one. That particular idea is timeless and apparent to most – adaptability in the workforce is the key to making it in the 21st century.

If you would like to see the original excerpt without my edits – look up the book at Google Books – those pages (791-792) are available to view there.

Maybe by 2019, we will realize some of the 2009 predictions. 🙂