The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write,
but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Alvin Toffler

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

School Can Be Beautiful

After weeks away from my blog, I have once again found inspiration through twitters and blogs that have recently passed my way. Of particular interest were two youtube presentations, the first by Jesse Schell entitled “The Future is Beautiful.” Everything, Jesse proclaimed, has become beautiful, from shampoo bottles to our cell phones, built with color, style and grace. Everything has become beautiful; everything, that is, besides schools.

Schools are not beautiful; they are ugly. With their drab brown/gray furniture and boxy linear classrooms, there is nothing aesthetically pleasing about school. Schools are not just ugly. As the outer world asks for “more real”—better clothes, better food, better movies—schools are fake. Teachers pretend to be the experts while students pretend (sometimes) to be interested. The human experience everywhere else is becoming more social, more shared; school is isolating and confining. School is more often than not boring, and sometimes sad.

So, what are we waiting for? When are we going to start making every minute of every day that our students spend in school relevant to their lives and to their futures? Jeffrey Piontek entitles his presentation “Teaching Jetson Children in Flintstone Schools.” He cites the television as a tool that took 40 years getting into schools and not very effectively at that. So, are we still 10 years away from integrating computer technology into the mainstream? Jeffrey finally left the public school arena to start his own charter school citing too much bureaucracy and regulation. Is that what holds us back at MNW? I don’t think so.

The answer is to stop talking at our students and instead to have them DOING and CREATING collaboratively in order to learn. Don’t tell them about a business, have them start one, real or simulated. Don’t memorize formulas, apply them to real problems and simulations. Don’t memorize historical dates and characters, find parallels with what happened then and what’s happening now and why they should care. Don’t lecture science; have them be scientists working on scientific problems.

There is no longer any excuse to conduct school as we have always done school. To borrow from Superintendent Bob Miller (Okoboji) there is no business in the world that needs people who sit in straight rows, performing repetitive tasks under close supervision. If we are not creating a collaborative, project-based work space in our classrooms, then we are out of touch with the needs of 21st century students.

We need no longer pretend that lists of facts, grammar rules, logarithms, classes of insects, kings of the 3rd century B.C, or anything else unrelated to the lives and purposes of our students is going to be remembered 2 steps beyond our classroom doors. Make it relevant, make it shared, make it part of their passion or at least of their interest so that they can construct their own knowledge rather than memorize bits of ours. And possibly, just possibly, it will be beautiful, it will be happy, it will be fun, for students and teachers alike.

The Future is Beautiful

Raising Jetson Kids in Flintstone Schools

Thursday, October 21, 2010


In my last post, I discussed the need for flexibility as we adjust to rapid change. In this submission, I will utilize a post by Scott McLeod on his blog at entitled “Should We Let Educators Off the Hook?” McLeod poses the question, “Given the realities of our modern age and the demands of our children’s future, is it really okay to allow teachers to choose whether or not they incorporate digital technologies into their instruction?” McLeod’s answer is an emphatic “NO, WE CAN’T LET EDUCATORS OFF THE HOOK.” He goes on to say that educators have a paid responsibility to be relevant, to prepare students for tomorrow, for the world as it is and will be.

No Excuse Is a Good Excuse. I agree with McLeod that no excuse flies in this situation. Whether it is fear or intransigence, no reason is good enough not to engage in “the largest transformation in learning that ever has occurred in human history.” Difficult? Some are unable? McLeod responds that technology and web 2.0 tools have become easier, many times easier, than the old days of MS DOS code and an internet that was largely text.

It’s Not About Us. In the end, Scott makes a most important point. It’s not about us. It’s not about what I want to do, what I prefer not to do, how I want to conduct my classroom regardless. It’s not about me and my world; it’s about the students and their world. The covers are off the text books, the walls of our classrooms have been blown away. There is no choice but to adapt. Educators can no longer go inside and close the classroom door on the greater world. We cannot bury our students within the confining boundaries of a text book or pretend that being provincial is ok in today’s world.

What If I Don’t? So what about that person who can’t/won’t change? McLeod asserts that life-long learners must take responsibility for keeping pace with change rather than blaming others for their inactivity or denying what is taking place around them. Scott asks, “If you’re a teacher/administrator/librarian/education professor that somehow doesn’t even realize (yet) that there’s a decision to be made, should you even be working in a school or university? Don’t our children deserve someone who is in a different place than you are? It’s one thing to be a learner (with this technology stuff) . . . . It’s another to opt out or not even recognize the choice. If we look at what our kids need, shouldn’t we replace you with someone else?”

Looking With “New” Eyes. Let me offer yet another way of looking at the situation. Remember when you were a new teacher, faced with a first year of new course preparations and having little idea about what it took to be an effective teacher? Did you not respond to that challenge with extra resolve, increased energy and a great investment of time in order to be the best that you could be? I recall being faced with the task of teaching Appleworks with no home computer and little computer experience. I was at the school for hours that summer readying myself for this new teaching responsibility, and I’m sure most educators can relate a similar story.

In a sense, we are all new teachers again, uncertain where to begin and how to proceed. But begin we must, and proceed we will. Extra demands may fall upon us relative to time and energy as we bring ourselves up to speed in accordance with the technology requirements of our curriculum. We must respond to this challenge as professionals responsible for our own preparation and professional development, whether by doing those little things each day to enhance our abilities or seeking out opportunities for more intense training.

Mandates Leave No Choice. The MNW Board will soon consider the approval of a 21st Century District Philosophy. It will include the use of appropriate technologies in the classroom; incorporating the 4 C’s of 21st Century Skills, as well as utilizing technology to make global connections for our students. Additionally the Iowa Core’s Information Literacy Curriculum is specific in its benchmarks for student use of technology at every grade level. These District and State requirements make it clear that one cannot distance oneself from the infusion of technology and 21st Century Skills into our classrooms. From this perspective there is no choice in the matter, no question about “getting off the hook.” Progress will surely take place at different rates from one educator to another; however, progress must be evident in every case. Our students deserve nothing less.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Flexibility in Times of Change

Last week’s post referred readers to the blog of Scott Jantzen and his suggestion that we become increasingly creative in our attempts to interest and engage our students in what we are trying to have them learn. This week, I again turn to another educator, this time Sarah Edson from a school in Connecticut who writes about the power of flexibility in this time of rapid change.

Sarah first remarks as to the awesome power of digital communications. “With more of these lightning-fast connections at our doorstep, we find ourselves within reach of some of the most powerful learning resources that have ever existed on Earth. Simulations, animations, readings, publishing platforms, images, audio, video, discussion fora, and networks of experts and passionate learners abound. The quantity of choices intimidates many. However, the beauty of having so many choices, the beauty of digital media itself is its inherent flexibility and potential to serve all learners.”

Notice her mention that, along with the ability to serve, this myriad of options has the ability to intimidate, and I will add, frustrate the prospective user. How do we choose, how do we know, where do we turn? As Ms. Edson asks, “What more can we do to ensure that schools' technology infrastructure and resources are not disproportionately more flexible and therefore powerful than their people?” Indeed, how do we avoid having this powerful learning resource remain untapped because the people, that’s us, are unable and unwilling to utilize it?

The answer lies in the power of flexibility, the willingness to stretch, to bend, to reach beyond where tradition and precedence finds us. As athletes and dancers stretch to improve their performance, so we as educators can increase our flexibility and thus our abilities within the digital landscape. So how do I stretch? In the words of Ms. Edson, “My stretching is my ongoing professional development. I do a little each day on Twitter, Google, and Skype. Whenever I can, I seek out chances for more extensive, intensive PD. At each turn, my ideas multiply, my reach expands, and my willingness to lean into the momentum of these changing times fortifies my capacity to lead students in powerful learning and growth.”

The key word is “willingness,” knowing that the world has changed and is ever changing and that I must change with it, agreeing to try, willing to do that little bit each day, seeking opportunities for growth that will ultimately make all the difference for me and my students.

So, on the margin of a flooded river, trees bending to the torrent remain unbroken, while those that strain against it are snapped off. Haemon in Sophocles’ Antigone

(for posts by Sarah Edson go to

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Making Students Care

My last post centered on the 4 C's of 21st Century Skills--Communication, Critical thinking and problem solving, Creativity, and Collaboration. These elements, infused into our classrooms, will change our classrooms. If students are allowed to work together on meaningful, challenging work that utilizes their creative and cognitive abilities, the traditional model of sit-and-get is gone. Recently I came upon the blog of Scott Jantzen, a school administrator in Winkler, Canada. He writes as follows:

"My desire is for students to have opportunities to learn in an atmosphere centered around positive and caring relationships and engaging in meaningful learning activities that are based on the program of studies. I believe that our biggest challenge as educators of the current generation is to cause students to care about their learning and engage in the learning process. I believe that we as educators need to become increasingly creative in our efforts. I believe that ubiquitous technology can play a critical role in accomplishing this task."

Making our students "care about their learning and engage in the learning process." How do we accomplish this task? He suggests that we do this by becoming increasingly creative in our efforts with the help of ubiquitous technology. In other words, the technology integrates seamlessly into these new, creative tasks. The technology is not the goal; it is merely the tool that empowers and enables student effort. As teachers, we must be willing to be creative, to change the tasks, the environment in which our students work. Without this, our students will not be interested, they will not care and they will not engage. It is up to us as teachers to change according to the needs of our students; not for our students to conform to our static approach to teaching/learning.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

P21 Can Transform Classrooms

I have been attending the online P21 Cyber Summit for several days, continuing to October 5. P21 is short for Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This partnership consists of teachers, administrators, college educators and businesses across the nation who are working together to put 21st Century Skills into our schools. The 4 C’s of P21 are Communication, Critical thinking and problem solving, Collaboration, and Creativity. What one realizes immediately is that these 4 C’s infused into today’s traditional classroom will transform that environment to one that is project based, high level thinking, with open ended/alternative solutions allowing students room to inquire and create.

Sometimes we think that being creative applies only to art and writing. Or that project based learning is fine for social studies but certainly not for math. One of the presenters was a middle school math teacher who described his unit on area and volume. He divided his class into project teams. Their task was to devise a container for a company that wanted to market its product in a particular volume increment. The project teams were to decide which container shape and size best suited the product for packaging, shipping and display purposes. They were then to create and present the container to the class. Rubrics were used to measure both the mathematical accuracy and the 4 C’s of each individual in each group. Would it have been easier to put the formulas for area and volume on the white board, have the students memorize them and move on? What was gained in terms of engagement, real-world application and the 4 C’s by totally altering the traditional teaching method?

A humanities teacher, who team-taught with a language arts instructor, also presented. They devised a class game in which the students were assigned properties, marketable skills and varying amounts of wealth. For a week, the class operated as a democracy with each student working to accumulate as much money and property possible. For a second week, they operated under communist rules of shared wealth and redistribution of resources. Following these exercises, they shared their observations of work in relation to wealth under the two systems with surprising results.

My point in presenting these examples is that almost any lesson plan can be moved up the scale of rigor and critical thinking. Every content area can provide for collaborative, creative student experiences. Even better would be inter-disciplinary, project-based learning experiences so that our students can see that the world isn’t really divided up into language arts, biology , algebra I and II. There is no place in 21st Century education for students working the majority of the time in isolation from their peers primarily devoting time to factual recall, skill building types of activities. There must be a balance between content and cognitive. There are obviously certain facts and skills that students in a particular discipline need to know. As teachers, we have a choice in how that learning takes place in our classrooms. And we understand that the world of work wants tech savvy people who can think for themselves, work together, communicate effectively and meet problems with creative solutions. There are no multiple choice answers out there.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What I Learned in School This Week

If we were to ask each of our students to blog “what I learned in school this past week,” it would be interesting to see what we would get. I am asking myself that same question at the end of week 2, 2010. The highlight of my week came on Wednesday, in a challenge by Iowa Qwest President Max Phillips to our AEA superintendent group to: 1. Take risks and be willing to absorb failure; 2. Do more with less as a strategic direction; 3. Act as if I am the founder of my school, not just the superintendent; and 4. Work on a vision that creates new categories—challenges and changes the status quo.

I believe that we are risk takers at MNW. We are willing to try new things, to make ourselves visible and always attempt to better ourselves and our programs. But there are a number of limbs yet to climb out on. Phillips mentioned areas that have always been on my mind as well—the extended school year, competency-based instruction and advancement, and virtual learning. These, he said, are the game changers in education. And I believe that they are inevitable in the relatively short term. In Florida, right now, you can take your high school courses virtually from the state’s online school--anytime, anywhere, and you can get your diploma from the Florida Virtual High School. In Iowa we are still quarreling over the start date relative to the Iowa State Fair.

Create your own consolidation and sharing strategies, Max advised. We have already begun talks with Southeast Webster Grand and Prairie Valley Schools on how we might share courses and resources without the traditional busing of students for long distances.

So, in many ways, Max Phillips validated many of the initiatives already begun here at Manson Northwest Webster. We must not ever become so fixated on the day-to-day events of school that we forget about the bigger picture of where we are going. As Max put it, we are not trying to create Schools, we are trying to create World-class Learners.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Week One Brings Big Changes

As we end week one at MNW, so much seems to have taken place in a very short time. The much-anticipated release of laptops to our students has taken place, and now the challenge begins--to apply this technology effectively to the learning process. The laptops make possible new avenues of inquiry-based discovery, interactive digital communications and collaboration as we have never seen before. The mistake would be to merely adapt the laptop to current classroom practices, using it only to search for information on the internet, write digitally instead of on paper or send in assignments using email. These things will certainly take place, but they do not represent the kind of system change that technology is bringing to education. Technology will ultimately blow the covers off the text books and the walls down from around our traditional classrooms. Information is growing exponentially, and web 2.0 tools allow us to network and collaborate with anyone anywhere in the world. Text books and the traditional classroom unit cannot contain this explosive change in what and how we are able to learn. The changes at MNW will likely not be sudden, but they are inevitable as schools and we as educators learn to adapt to and adopt the technology in the world around us.

An article from the Messenger about our 1 to 1 program can be seen at The quotations have been confused between myself and Mrs. Horan, the last statement in particular actually being mine.