The Death of a School is Like a Death in the Family

As I begin my second year at my current school, I’m thinking a lot about my former school, a school that no longer exists. After 45 years of educating children in the community, the school closed at the end of last year. I taught there for four years and my son attended for five years. I left last year and we were moving my son to my new school this year, so the school’s closing did not have a direct impact on my family. But hearing of the school’s closure, it felt like someone close to me had just died. It felt like family.

Looking back, the school was really an extension of my family. It was a part of our everyday lives. It was my job. It was an educational home for my son. We went to wonderful musical and theatrical productions, Halloween festivals, field days, sock hops, dances. I even helped coach the soccer team. Most of the faculty and staff became my closest friends. The students I taught were like my own sons and daughters. I enjoyed watching them grow up and be successful.

When I left last year, the school was downsizing. Enrollment was down and the school was cutting teachers and staff. Wonderful people who didn’t deserve to lose their jobs. I was angry and bitter. Even though the logical side of me understood the economic reality of declining enrollment, the emotional side couldn’t understand why I suddenly had to now do the job of three people. But I was one of the lucky ones. Another position came open at a different school and I escaped what I considered a sinking ship.

Even though the school wasn’t the right place for me, it was the perfect place for my son. When he started at age three, he was a shy, introverted little guy who struggled with writing. But with time and some amazing teachers, he transformed into an outgoing leader who is now writing his own books. This is the power of a great school.

My son’s story is only one of hundreds just like it over the last four decades. Sadly, it’s also one of the last ones. But while many of us are sad, we also feel anger. And human nature makes us direct that anger somewhere. We blame the administration, the board of trustees, the teachers who left, the economy, the new charter schools. Egotistically, I’ve even blamed myself at times. “What if [insert name here] had stayed? What if that family had not left? What if they had paid us more money?” All useless thoughts and questions. The truth is never as simple as one factor.

What we can do is continue to remember and share the stories of our times together and cherish the wonderful kids whose lives we have touched. We can continue to keep our relationships with each other alive even though we are all in different places. We should dwell on the good times and the difference we made. Just like a beloved family member who has passed on, we should keep the school alive in our hearts: where it belongs.


Logo and Scratch: Coding Through the Generations

Logo, the educational programming language created in 1967 to teach kids how to program, was years ahead of its time. Using a “turtle”, the language had kids giving instructions to make it turn in multiple directions and create fascinating line drawings. Seymour Papert, one of the creators, explains how the language works in a wonderful, if very dated, demonstration. I remember hearing about Logo when I was in middle and high school in the 1980’s. It was almost like a mysterious power that would transform the world. Sadly, I didn’t hear that much about it later as I went on to college and majored in Computer Science. Languages like COBOL, Pascal, and C dominated much of my coursework.

Many years later after I moved from software development to teaching, I went to great conference in Savannah called Geekend. In the lobby of the conference hotel, I saw college students demonstrating a very colorful, drag-and-drop programming language called Scratch. Scratch, a descendant of Logo, was created at MIT Media lab to teach kids how to program. At many educational conferences after that point, I saw Scratch everywhere. I quickly brought the language to my classroom and have been amazed what the students have created.

With the technology tools today, students have a much more powerful tool in Scratch than we did with Logo. I am encouraged how quickly Scratch has grown in popularity. I’ve often said to my students,”I wish we had Scratch when I was your age!”  I believe tools like Scratch are very important because they spark the imagination of our kids and inspire them to create instead of just consume information. And with the computer-on-a-chip Raspberry Pi, kids are building their own computers and figuring out how they work inside. These are key skills needed in this generation and I love being a part of it.

When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Exciting and humbling: that’s how I describe my role as a middle school technology teacher. Exciting because I get to use all the cool new toys: video editing software, game design software, new PCs, robots, tablets, etc. Humbling because many of my students learn the technologies faster than I do. This year is especially humbling because it’s my first year at a new school and I’m still finding my niche. Teaching subjects like video editing, robotics, and game programming are wonderfully exciting. But it’s also humbling because the tools my students are using are ones I’m still learning myself. Not a day goes by when I can’t answer a question a student has about one of the tools and I have to turn to other students to help me. It makes me wonder what they think of me as their teacher.

I know I’m being too hard on myself and I should be patient. I’ve learned much about how I learn from taking guitar lessons for the last two years. When my guitar teacher gives me a new piece learn, he has me sight read it on the spot. Usually I play it terribly. I’ve had to a realize I am not someone who learns things right on the spot. I have to go back and work on it by myself at my own pace before it starts to make sense. And as I get older, I’m facing the fact that I learn slower than I did when I was younger. This would explain why my kids pick things up much faster than I do.

Now I know how other teachers feel when they try to implement technology into their lessons. It’s different. It’s scary. It’s new. Even though technology is my specialty, even I have trouble learning it quickly enough. And that’s exciting…..and humbling….


Connecting and Communicating

As the old sayings go, “Teaching is an isolating profession.”  and “Every classroom is its own world.”  I never really understood those phrases before I started teaching.  How could teaching be isolating when you are around students all day?  Its own world?  There are classrooms of kids right next door!

But when I finally had a classroom of my own, I quickly understood.  Even though I had students all day long, I really didn’t know many of the other students.  Even though I was next to the library, I felt miles away from the other middle school teachers.  My students and I developed daily procedures and habits we followed the entire year.  The only time I would see other teachers is for 15 minutes a day in a noisy cafeteria.  Indeed, I felt isolated and in my own world.  And being an extrovert, it was driving me crazy.  I was so busy with the day-to-day activities of planning, teaching, and grading I felt like I was in a rut.

My role is very different this year.  While I don’t see students all day long, I see multiple groups in the technology lab and in their laptop-equipped classrooms.  Instead of seeing only 6th through 8th grade students, I see Kindergartners through 8th graders.  While I don’t have to grade or have meetings with parents, I still have to plan my lessons.  And for a while, it was comfortable and fine.  But something was missing.  I felt we were doing the same things over and over again:  find out the content from the teacher and make Powerpoint presentations on the content.   We weren’t moving forward or pushing the boundaries.  Yes, making flaming transitions on your slides is interesting, but after help dozens of students do the exact same function, it gets a bit old.  We needed to spice things up.

It was about that time my principal sent me a link to a project aimed specifically at middle school students about digital citizenship.  It was called Digiteen, a project under the Flat Classroom Project.  I read the material and decided to give it a try.  At the same time, I started reading the Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds book.  Both of these activities, along with being more active on Twitter, are beginning to change my entire view on education and technology.

My background is in technology:  I hold a B.S. in Computer Science and I was a professional software developer for 12 years before I started teaching.  So my view of educational technology naturally begins with the technology itself.  But the more I teach, the more I realize that’s the wrong approach.  You can’t start with the technology and make it fit the student.  You start with the student and mold the technology to fit the student’s needs.  It’s taken me a long time to get used to this concept.

But beyond my own thinking, I’m thinking of the impact Digiteen is having on my students. Many of them have never connected or communicated with people outside of their own city.  For the last few weeks, they have been posting to students from all over the world on Edmodo and our class wiki.  And today we even used Skype to communicate with some of them.  These are important moments for them.  Moments I hope they remember and build on.

I’ve broadened my connection and communication to my elementary students, creating blogs for each of their classrooms.  My goal is to connect all the blogs and have them comment on student’s posted from different classes on different grade levels.  Then we can go global and really connect with the world.  I’ve also discovered the multitude of global projects my students can participate in no matter how old they are.  Exciting times indeed.  This is only the beginning.

Quest for the 21st Century Classroom

Last year I was given the task of finding a 21st century classroom. Being the geek-turned-teacher I am, I imagined smart boards on every wall and touch screen devices for every student.
So we visited a few schools and spoke to their teachers and students. Some had iPads for every student. Some had technology over five years old. But we still didn’t see what we thought was a 21st century classroom. So I kept researching. I looked at the ISTE NETS standards but they looked broad, vague, and written in 2007! That’s a lifetime ago in the technology world. I expected to see things like tablets, tweets, and Skype in these standards. But they weren’t. I kept digging. And the more I dug, the more the letter C kept coming up: connection, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, citizenship, creativity, choice, celebration. Technology was barely mentioned. Finally, my techie brain realized that a 21st century is about students first and technology second. Those skills were what made a 21st century class with technology used to support them. Connecting through blogs, communicating through Skype, collaborating through wikis, and so on. A 21st century classroom looks behind its four walls and connects to classrooms down the hall, across campus, across town, country and throughout the world. These are not things you always see when you walk into a classroom. They don’t always take the latest technology to succeed. But what they do take is a brave teacher and willing students who are ready to explore the great unknown and learn as they go. And isn’t that what teaching is all about?

Educational Technology Is Not About Technology

I’m a technology guy first and a teacher second.  At least I used to be.  I have a B.S. in Computer Science and 12 years as software developer so technology has been my life for many years.  But the last 8 years of teaching and parenting has changed my philosophy about technology.  Building desktop computers, upgrading software, writing code, playing video games, and complaining about users dominated much of my earlier career.  I was so immersed in the technical side of the field that I didn’t realize my job would not exist without users.

Now that I’m a teacher and converted Apple fan, I live on every iRumor that appears on my radar.  My house is dominated by Apple products: phones, tablets, laptops, etc.  I crave every new product they create.  But as a technology educator, I have think differently. While it would wonderful to provide iPads for every student in our school, you can’t just drop them off in a kindergarten class, say “good luck”, and expect them to automatically learn calculus.  The technology is simply a tool.  My technology director is fond of calling it the modern day pencil.  Technology in education is transformational and amazing but it’s still just a tool.  An iPhone in the hands of blind student is useless unless it’s used to enhance the learning of that student.  Otherwise, it’s a overpriced paperweight.  We should never start with the technology in mind and then think about how the students should use it.  It should be the other way around.  Start with the student and mold the technology to help the student.

In other words, educational technology is not about technology.  It’s about the student.  And it always will be.  Let’s never forget that.


Technology Beyond the Computer Lab

Remember the days when you went to the computer lab to do your class projects?  Computer labs:  imposing places with strict rules and sarcastic, awkward geeks who were supposed to help you instead of making you feel like a total idiot for asking how to print.  I remember very clearly because I used to be one of those geeks who helped people.  I tried not to be sarcastic when people asked questions, but I couldn’t help the awkward part.  And twenty years later, I’m still helping people in a computer lab where I work.  And these people are teachers and I’m also teaching their students.  Students who are having their first experience in a computer lab.  A computer lab I want to be different than the kind I used to work in.  A lab where students are comfortable asking any question.  Where they can experiment and explore without fear of being punished.  Where they can create, communicate, and collaborate with their classmates, other classes, and even other students beyond the school walls.  A flat classroom with no walls.

It seemed to go fairly well this year with teachers bring their classes to the lab for instruction that was related to what they were learning in their own classrooms.  But something seemed to be missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  It was right about the time a began teaching a new class to middle school students called Digiteen, which is a project under the Flat Classroom Project that teaches students about digital citizenship and safe online choices.  In the process of starting the class, I met the organizers online and set up the tools my students would be using to research and collaborate with other students from different countries.  I also began reading the Flatting Classrooms, Engaging Minds book that was related to the project.  I began realizing how dated my technology instruction had been.  I started connecting with other educators and reading what they had been doing in their classrooms and I was blown away.  First graders videoconferencing?  Fourth graders doing their entire writing portfolio online with wikis and sharing them with multiple countries?  I was astounded.

The first day of my class, I was bubbling with excitement when I shared with my students what we would be doing.  I was sure they would be thrilled as well.  But they looked at me with blank stares and asked, “So…we’re gonna Skype every class then?”  When I talked about doing research on digital citizenship topics and collaborating on a wiki with international students, they simply looked at me without comprehension.  We’ve had several classes since and I think they are slowly understanding.  It’s a difficult process because it’s so new, but I’m hoping they really get something out of it.

But then I started to look at the elementary students who come to my computer lab.   Shouldn’t they also be a part of this global project too?  So I decided to make a change in how I taught.  Instead of having the classes always come to the computer lab for instruction, I decided to go to their classrooms, which already had laptops, and teach them in their environment.  I set both 5th grade classes up with blogs and they are now communicating with another class in a different state.  We plan to Skype with them tomorrow.  We are all very excited.  Stay tuned…..

Video Game Design: Teaching Reflections Part 1

As a lifelong gamer (both tabletop and video), I view games as more than just diversions or time-wasters.  I view them as learning tools.  Tools than can teach skills like communication, collaboration, logic, patience, problem solving, critical thinking, reading, math, and many more.  But many games have a bad reputation as being violent, repetitive, or simply glorified babysitters.  Part of the reason is the word itself.  According to game designer Jane McGonigal, the word “game” is used negatively in our everyday language: “Don’t play games with me!”, “He is gaming the system.”,”What do you think this is: a game?”  Popular culture and the media have only worsened the stereotype.  News stories abound blaming video games when gunmen shoot innocents.  But those who play games know the value of what they are playing, even if they can’t explain it others.

With these thoughts in mind, I designed and taught a video game design course to middle school students this school year.  I want to share my experience.

At first, I thought I was in heaven:  I got to teach one of my passions to a new generation.  Of course, I had a class of all boys, 15 of them.  I had visions of creating Xbox Kinect games and iPhone apps.  It was going to be fantastic.

But what I didn’t realize at the time was something that became painfully obvious as the weeks went on:  playing games is more fun that creating them.  And since this was an elective with only a pass/fail grade, most of the boys wanted to play instead of work.  So began a recurring battle:  how to inspire my students to create the games they want to play.

Geek-turned-Teacher: Once a Geek, Always a Geek

My wife is f0nd of the saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it.”  This year, I got exactly what I wanted.  After struggling last school year with grading, lesson planning, and getting used to being a classroom teacher, I finally earned a position I’ve been working towards for almost seven years:  full-time technology teacher.  I remember when I first left the technology industry, expecting to easily find a technology teaching position in the public school system.  That was my first taste of the highly political world of public education.  Now I’m in private education and things work differently.  The red tape of budgets, committees, government funding, etc. is gone.  I’ve been given the responsibility of shaping the technological future of our school.  I better not screw it up.

Geek-turned-Teacher: The New School

2010 was a watershed year for me. It was a year I left a school and a teaching  job I knew was wrong for me. A year, after six long years, when I finally got what I really wanted. Honestly, I knew a high poverty, mostly African-American school was not a long term gig for me: a white, middle class former software developer. In fact, I stayed longer than the three years required, even though I probably mentally checked out two years before. But I stayed partly because I had a fairly easy job and partly because of sheer pride.
So when the opportunity to work at small, mostly white private school closer to my house practically fell in my lap, I jumped at the chance.

Now that I have been at my new school for a half a year, I wanted to look back at how things have changed.
The first culture shock I had was actually at my job interview.  I’ve been on many interviews in my life and I thought I was ready for anything.  Thinking back many years ago, I remember a particularly rough group interview where the interviewers asked me the question, “Mr. Meyers, is there a programming language you do NOT like?”  My response: “Well, I really don’t like COBOL.”  Long pause.  “Mr. Meyers, do you realize that most of the programming we do here is in COBOL?”  Oops.  Anyway, I went into this interview ready with my standard answers.  Turns out, I didn’t need them.  It didn’t feel like an interview at all.  It felt like a conversation with old friends as we discussed educational philosophies.  They had read my blog and wanted my opinions on education and technology.  I wasn’t used to this treatment.  I was used to being browbeaten, ignored, and treated like a child.  This was refreshing.  They had me at “we don’t have discipline problems” and “you don’t have to write IEPs.”  My final interview with the head of school was even more shocking.  For one thing, she hugged me.  Never in my life have I ever been hugged by my boss, much less someone who had not even hired me yet.  This simple act was the beginning of a feeling of family I had never felt in any organization in my entire working life.  I had been so used to distrust and distance that I was completely overwhelmed.  She even called me a role model because of my choice to become a teacher in spite of my speech impediment.  Was this too good to be true?  When I got the job offer and it was less than my current salary, I didn’t blink.  There are some things money just can’t buy.