The 21st Century has arrived

According to wikipedia, the 21st Century “began on January 1, 2001.” So when I hear talk of a “21st Century Education” and ask people what that means, I am always a little amused that we are still grappling with how to define it and figure out what it looks like almost 15 years into the century.

 

CTRL-Shift has been doing a lot to make that a reality in Unit 4 schools. Granted, there are a ton of efforts and teachers all over that are working on ushering forward these changes, but I am going to highlight just a couple that I have some knowledge of.

 

First, there is Unit 4’s Innovate page, which opens the first page of this book and was discussed at the October 27th board meeting. Additionally, Kerris Lee (U4 Board member), along with many others like Todd Lash, has been working with district administration and staff to further integrate these concepts into district-wide curriculum and pursue funding via grants for crucial staff Professional Developement (PD), inviting partnerships with the University of Illinois MTSE and even code.org. Last Wednesday, WCIA interviewed Trevor Nadrozny and Wendy Maa of Kenwood and gave us a look inside how they are approacing “21st Century Education”:

http://www.illinoishomepage.net/story/current/d/story/u4innovate/21401/YB6a6AonCk-jBLATimYngA

 

Another example is Mrs. Slifer’s class at Carrie Busey, where I have been helping once a week. Just this past Friday, they produced a classroom video showing how students are actively using these skills to collaborate and work together on common goals.

 

The main idea is to get kids thinking about how to solve problems, no matter what the context is. These efforts encourage and immerse children in an environment where they ask each other questions, work together online (for example, using Google Docs or Google Classroom), and explore many different ways to answer questions about the world around them. They are developing critical thinking skills by being assigned a project and analyzing, conceptualizing and researching their way to a conclusion. Whether they use a tool like code.org, eToys, Scratch, google, wikipedia or something else entirely, the tool itself is not the object of the lesson, but rather just one of many possible venues to help guide the learner.

 

In light of all the controversy and talk (ad nauseam *grin*) of the Unit 4 referendum, I would absolutely love for the district administration to assign “the problem” of overcapacity schools and decades of deferred maintenance to our school children as a critical thinking project (*). What if students, parents and community members used an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking’s definition of critical thinking) to address these issues? I cannot help but wonder how many core curriculum concepts can be applied to such a case study; you pull in math, social studies, social science, history and language arts. And probably others as well.

(*) sidebar: I have traded emails with Ms. Stephanie Brown, a local AICP Project Planner with MSA Professional Services, Inc who sits on the board of the Illinois chapter of the American Planner Association (aka, ISS-APA), on the topic of conducting charrettes within the schools. The resources are there if only we can bring them together.

 

This got me to thinking, what does a “21st Century” classroom really require to accomplish these goals? Kenwood, the Unit 4 leader of the “computational thinking” crowd, is currently squished into the old Carrie Busey building on Kirby, along with the International Prep Academy. Even prior to moving to this temporary location, they had already opened the doors of the 21st Century at their pre-renovated home building at 1001 South Stratford. To me, it is fascinating that they are making all this “21st Century education” happen in a 20th century physical environment. Along that line, here is one infographic of a “21st Century Classroom”:

 

How will this change the face of classrooms? How will this change pedagogy and how we “do” education? The “Lewis and Clark” explorers of Kenwood, Carrie Busey and even Westview (as mentioned in the WCIA interview) are finding out.

 

One reader also asked how all this is being rolled into the current HS “programming” that is going on in regards to the new Central. I have asked around and so far the answer is “no”. Which absolutely boggles my mind.

 

A parting thought – only 85 more years until the 22nd Century…..

#cu4techcon

#cu4techcon

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hashtag/cu4techcon?src=hash

 

The 2nd annual CU4Tech Conference had a little bit of a rocky start as Krista Moroder attemped to facetime conference from Philly (tech problems on our end? Irony? *grin*). I think she did a great job of setting the tone for the conference, speaking to how technology is a but a tool meant to make the challenging task of teaching more efficient and more effective. Despite my own current revulsion at the mention of “efficient”, I begin to see how the whole point of a tool is to make something easier. My understanding of “Educational Technology” continues to evolve, and I begin to see that the infusion of current technology into pedagogy, curriculum and education is more about the way we do education in the first place that warrants the use of these kinds of tools. I mean, the pencil is a piece of old technology, but still a tool none the less.

 

The rest of the day was jammed packed with a lot of wise words, challenging insights, educational jargon up the wazoo (I didn’t go to Ed school), opportunities for networking, forming relationships and exploring the role of technology in one of the most empowering facilities of our society – educating learners. And a fair share of ongoing technical problems. 🙂 Mrs. Elizabeth Slifer (Carrie Busey) had an entire PBS presentation that just would not load up, so they adapted in real-time. Other presenters had slow videos or webpages to demo. Instead of pointing my finger and trying to complain, rather I use these as examples of imperfect tools and how people find dynamic, creative alternatives. We not only learn about the underlying tools and nitty-gritty details when we can (I just ask Dave Hohman), but we also learn to adapt. This is powerful. As we laughed about the technical difficulties later in the day, our lives are full of teachable moments and learning from mistakes – without which we do not grow.

 

Here are the sessions I attended, about 1/8th the total offering.

 

Google Apps in the Classroom (Erin Ludwick, Urbana High School)

classroom.google.com just came out, which Read the rest of this entry »

Amazing time at Kenwood today

kenwood_stem_topics

I have been in touch with Kenwood Assistant Principal Jessica Pitcher for quite some time about tech stuff in schools, even before her migration over to Kenwood. Since joining Kenwood, we have talked about how Kenwood is doing a full-fledged pilot of eToys with signicant help from the University of Illinois (MTSE and GSLIS). As mentioned several times on this blog, I have been helping out with a smaller-scale eToys excursion at Carrie Busey; ever since hearing about it, I have been itching to get into Kenwood to see how they are “doing” eToys.

 

 

Today I had quite an opportunity. Kenwood had a special event going on, and part of the event was to cram as much STEM stuff with eToys/Scratch as possible. I took some time off work (thanks boss!) and dove in.

(To the left is a partial schedule listing of concepts covered at Kenwood on April 16th)

 

First off, one of my favorite things about walking into any Unit 4 school is how open the doors are. Literally, almost every classroom has the door open. I was greeted at the front door and after signing in, I marched down to my first pick. It happened to be a split 4th/5th grade class, and they were working on creating an advertisement. The teacher left it up to the students what they wanted to sell; they had to come up with something and then attempt to make it flashy and likable. I talked briefly with the teacher and was introduced to a very common theme for the rest of the day; teachers are seeing themselves as facilitators. As door-openers. Not so much the safari guide, but perhaps the travel agent.

 

After that, I had the honor of meeting and speaking with the Kenwood librarian, Todd Lash. As another staff member said, Todd is the Energizer Bunny who doesn’t know when to stop. 🙂 He is full of charisma and passion for teaching kids about technology. He was in-between things, so I only had about 30 seconds of his time – more on him later.

 

I hit up a class that was using eToys to animate a seedling as it grew into a plant. The children had already Read the rest of this entry »

Chat with Kerris Lee

Board member Kerris (up until a couple Thursdays ago, the newest board member) was out of commission for a few days, but we finally connected. I had initially contacted several board members about the Bambenek appointment, but our conversation morphed and took on much bigger issues. Which is a good thing; Kerris enlightened me on many of the awesome things he is in the middle of right now.

To do things a little backwards, I’ll start with my conclusion or my take-away, which I told Kerris at the end of our talk; somebody really needs to take an audio recording when talking to board members! *grin* He shared so many great things I fear I will miss some of them in my retelling of them. Yes, I realize having an audio record can be abused and might even stymie some of the more colorful expressions one might use. Baby and bathwater. Or maybe board members need an outlet to broadcast/publish without so many restrictive guidelines. I do not know any perfect solutions – I am just very inspired when talking to Kerris, and it would be awesome if more folks could have been in on the chat.

To that end, we covered the topic of “transparency” a bit. As with many other subjects we went over, there are two facets or aspects when it comes to the board; there is the “public” face they show to all of us, the portal through which we start to form our opinions and perspectives, and then there is the more private portion, where individual board members are doing amazing things, and even as a board, they are moving in various directions and covering some ground, but the public just has no clue whatsoever. As mentioned in my Bambenek post, I think it is important to recognize the progress that the board has made while also at the same time keeping an eye on the end goal. I had to agree with that, by and large, I believe the Board as a whole does not want to hide things; rather, I get the impression that there is an underlying systemic force that works against creative ways of communicating and sharing. On the whole, the board tends to err on the side of caution, or rather, on the side of being “informationally conservative”. Kerris indicated that he has talked to Superintendent Judy Wiegand and Board President Laurie Bonnett, as well as School Attorney Tom Lockman and Board Attorney Sally Carter, about addressing these fundamental roadblocks at the policy level. As with other board members, I have asked Kerris about all that goes on in Exec Session, and he has reassured me he is asking if more can be shared in Open Session.

We also covered AYP a bit. With NCLB pushing unrealistic goals (we are not aware of a single public school that meets 100% AYP across all subgroups), school districts are being faced with not only the temptation to “teach to the test”, but now are also being hammered with Common Core transitions. This topic alone was one of the big issues during the CFT negotiations (time outside of teaching time), and something I hear about from teachers as being a challenge to deal with. Again I asked how parents and the community can help shoulder that burden or at least do something about it.

In terms of the board engaging with the community more and along the lines of the board getting their thoughts out to the public, we lightly considered blogs, tweets and even a radio show. The fact of the matter is that nothing beats one-to-one conversations. What if the board did rotating shifts (no more than two board members each) at a coffee shop or other such venue? When Chuck and I were out at Houlihans every Wednesday, we were honored to be graced by board members every once in a while, and it was a great way to connect and catch up. I am curious, would members of the public take advantage of these opportunities? I am not looking for casual sounds of “sure”, but solid commitments; even though we made opportunities available at Houlihans, not many people at all showed up.

Kerris also mentioned that the board is preparing to make several presentations to the public about the high school referendum. He expressed a little bit of frustration in that the board is constrained to only communicate facts, and so being “informationally conservative”, their message may lack the soft edges of more embellished thoughts. I challenged Kerris with the idea of doing charrettes, of bringing in opinions and perspectives from students, teachers and community members. Even at this late stage, there is no reason why the district cannot see what people want. Kerris gave me some insight into some of the ideas that are being batted around internally (some of them sound really cool, like more focus on vo-tech), and again I had to ask where the community was in that discussion. I am hoping to hear back from Kerris in a couple weeks to see how these ideas are being floated internally.

Our conversation transitioned to Educational Technology, and this is where most of my excitement comes from in regards to our discussion. Most people already know, but for those that do not, Kerris has been a huge supporter of getting kids into programming, eToys and pushing technology in the curriculum (ie, STEM). Makes me wish I was a kid again. 🙂 As recently announced on the Unit 4 Facebook page, Kenwood is taking the next step to encourage kids to think “computationally” and pursue programming. The school’s new theme (Technology and Literacy in the Community) is benefiting from huge support from the University of Illinois’s Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (MSTE) department, headed up by George Reese. As a side note, Dr. Reese is also on the Advisory Council for the Center of Education in Small Urban Communities, which has been very involved in local education and will be doing a lot more. I mentioned that it is still hard for me to see the wedding of technology in today’s curriculum, but Kerris assured me that we are only going through the birth pains right now.

 

I need to circle back and ask about the topic of increased usage and interest in technology; what will “school” look like in 20 years? Will classrooms become more “flipped”? Will more students (and families) be able to learn at home (perhaps on school provided technology)? How does that play into the whole high school tax referendum?

 

One thing that really impressed me as I was talking to Kerris is that he is out there in the community doing things. Not just talking the talk at board meetings, but he is tracking down and researching policy issues and legislation that stands in the way of progress and is talking to pivotal decision-makers in an attempt to make things better for our children and our community. He is involved with United Way, the recently started Cradle to Careers and many other service-oriented ventures in town. To put it bluntly, the guy is just friggin’ nuts! 🙂

This post is just a sample of what we talked about. As with many other board members, Kerris reiterated that he is more than happy to chat with anyone. So give him a call or drop him and email. I warn you, he is extremely busy and you might have to be patient to hammer out a good time. But the wait is worth it. 🙂

Hour of Code

my_hour_of_codeSomething quite interesting is coming to Kenwood and Carrie Busey this next week; the Hour of Code.

You can read a little more from Stephanie Stuart’s recent Unit 4 news item. Or you can jump right in at code.org (the twitter feed is quite hot at the moment).

I am a CS major, so all this talk about Computer Science is right up my alley. What is most fascinating about this approach is that the collaboration of authors (they drew on engineers at Google, Microsoft, Apple, Dropbox just to name a few small companies) have done a very amazing job at taking the dull, boring, tedious and onerous stuff I learned in high school and college and turned into a fun, intuitive subject matter that anyone can get into. Not just computer geeks. My daughter invited a friend over today just so they could both “play Blockly” (Blockly is the underlying environment).

hour_of_code_example1The “Hour of Code” that kicks off on the 9th starts you with a very well-done video featuring some people you might recognize (Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg just to name a couple), and then gives you a pointer about how to complete the first task. And of course, these guys got rights to use the “Angry Birds” theme, making an instant connection to that mindlessly addictive vice. What I love about this environment is that it is very forgiving, very smooth, very “web 2.0” and quite instructional. You start with a very simple task with a very clear goal, with only a few options to complete that task. And it just builds from there. Before you know it, you are using loops and logic branches (if .. then), and then immersed into the world of “Plants vs Zombies”. How can you not love this stuff?!? 🙂

hour_of_code_example2

The “Hour of Code” deals with just the first ‘stage’ of 20 total stages. Think of it is 20 different lessons, all building upon each other until you get to the end where you have essentially “mastered the basics.” And in my opinion, mastering the basics is a fundamental skill in our modern society. But it doesn’t stop there; the teams that bring you the cute little computer science training with the full sound effects of Angry Birds went a step further and created an “unplugged” version, an entire lesson plan on teaching these concepts with no computer at all. They use another fun, addictive activity that many youngsters will think fondly of – the Cup Game. In the “unplugged” series, a team of students, comprising of one “robot” and several “programmers”, have to instruct the “robot” how to play the game using a limited vocabulary of 4-6 “commands” or symbols. Basic things like “pick up cup”, “put cup down”, “move cup left”, “move cup right”, etc. The idea is for the programmers to come up with a stack of symbols such that the robot can follow the entire thing from start to finish. Not too different than the old punch cards programmers used to use several decades ago. 🙂

Both Kenwood and Carrie Busey have been exploring how to use a program called eToys in their curriculum. Kenwood has done a full-school immersion, while Carrie Busey is isolated to one class. eToys is built on a platform called Squeak. MIT came out with a very similar concept called Scratch, also built on the Squeak platform. Where eToys is open-ended, robust and quite comprehensive, Scratch is very focused, straight-forward and in my opinion, easier to use and teach. eToys is powerful and big, Scratch is simple. The Hour of Code utilizes something called Blockly, similar to Squeak, and looks almost exactly like Scratch. It is written entirely in javascript (unlike Squeak and eToys/Scratch), and the authors have made it available so you can download it to a simple usb stick and run it in a modern web browser.

Congratulationshour_of_code_all_trophiesI had a lot of fun with Blockly. I zipped through the first 20 lessons of the Intro stage, then marched through the remaining 19 stages. Another fascinating element is that the student is almost being tricked into learning core Computer Science concepts. Aside from control loops, logic branches, there are also functions and parameters. But these are hidden, or rather abstracted, behind fun tasks that are short, quick and easy to digest – bite-sized chunks of Programming 101. And beyond that, there is plenty room for creative exploration. One can choose to beat the suggested number of blocks and optimize their “code”, or one can just go crazy and make the subject do totally random things. I really appreciated how there are several stages devoted to artistic expression; this leaves things wide open for those that just want to try things out. There is no “penalty” for using too many blocks in these creative lessons (in the normal lessons, you are constrained by a maximum number of blocks). I had a bit of fun trying to figure out how to use the basic functions available to create the Golden Ratio, ovals and finally a sine wave.

I realize programming is not the end-all-be-all. I realize some kids have different strengths. I don’t know how all this programming stuff will fit into K-12 Education. My excitement revolves around the fact that some really smart people have come up with a totally fun way to open the doors and allow anyone to learn concepts that I labored through. For some, this might open the door to a future career without even having to go to college. For some, this may ignite a passion for computers. Who knows. All I know is that I had fun with it. 🙂

blockly_sine_wave

Unit 4 gives kudos to the BOE and Raspberry Pi's to Kenwood

Stephanie Stuart just put this out:

http://www.champaignschools.org/news-room/article/6364

Truly board members are indeed volunteers; even just being involved on the peripherary as I have been, I know they put in a ton of demanding hours. It is no trivial task, and the feeble of heart need not apply. So my thanks also to Board Members.

My attention was quite piqued when I saw that notice that Kenwood would be getting 7 Raspberry Pi units (one in honor of each board member). The Pi is down to about $25, so this isn’t some huge expense. But that is the beauty of the Pi in the first place – it is an awesome, DIY hobbyist-era miniture computer that is cheap.

For those that might not recall, Kenwood is piloting a STEM curriculum out of the University of Illinois headed up by Martin Wolske. They have debuted the implementation of eToys (again, with strong University support) as reported by the NG with an element of addressing computer learning in the community (again, as reported by the NG, hat tip to Meg Dickinson). I hope to learn more from Avigail Snir at eToys Illinois, Director George Reese, and Kenwood staff Minsoo Park and Todd Lash.

For myself, I have been helping a 4th grade classroom at Carrie Busey with their own exploration of eToys. It is amazing to see the rich variety of how kids tackle problems and challenges. True, computers are not for everyone, and it shows when some kids struggle with the interface. But what I really dig is when another student leans over and teaches their peer.

But I have to confess, perhaps my biggest reason for this post is to brag that my daughter will be doing a demo of the Raspberry Pi at her school’s Science Night tonight; she will focus on a program very much like eToys called “Scratch“. She favors the paint editor and duplicating Scratch into a family. 🙂

Around the district

Lot’s of significant things happening, of all stripes. Where to begin, where to begin…..

To start things off, it is interesting and noteworthy to observe how the district is reacting to various parental (and staff) concerns. However you feel about social media, at the very least it does deliver a certain perspective of opinion and thus information. For instance, notice the interactions reported by various individuals in these recent situations:

A Dangerous Prospect“: families and concerned Clark Park citizens discuss the obstacles and challenges about Prospect near John Street and South Side school. The latest post has some responses from Dr. Wiegand, and so far it is relatively well-received. More important (I think), the “ginormous” signs that popped up recently are sending a message (at least to some parents) that the district is listening and acting in some fashion.

Kenwood PTA: Likewise, the Kenwood PTA has raised some concerns about the status of their “balanced calendar” schedule when they are up for renovation and temporarily move to the Carrie Busey building on Kirby. My impression is that the floor has been opened for parent feedback (using tools like online and paper surveys) regarding what kind of schedule they want in the context of all the renovation being planned. So far, it seems like the Kenwood parents appreciate this gesture.

CP4T: Champaign Parents For Teachers: A new facebook page/group that desires to show teachers they are supported by parents and that the board takes them seriously. Apparently there will be some discussion tomorrow, a call for a show of support at the next board meeting (next Monday, the Town Hall meeting, 6pm, Mellon Center), and a hint that there may be an opportunity to interact with representatives of the Champaign Federation of Teachers (aka, CFT, “Teacher’s Union”) at some point in the near future. No official word from the district, yet.

Next up, I mentioned the Town Hall meeting next Monday. Did you all know the sites being considered? A map is posted on the futurefacilities website; if you zoom in, you will notice that only the Country Fair and the Clearlake sites are somewhat near the current major population density (I had not even heard of the latter – that must be recent?). I am asking that Chuck Jackson bring the two large-format GIS maps to the Town Hall meeting; I believe these maps, aside from being very tangible, give a great sense of scale and scope. The PDF on the U4 website is not very interactive, and in my opinion, the lack of detail and the ability to zoom in even more makes it harder for me to conceptualize the pros and cons of these sites.

 

I am particularly curious why parents support outlying sites. Yes, I understand the draw for “more land” for the school, which may translate into a more robust athletic offering. For me personally, I weight that against the significant costs of transportation (which we already struggle with). I also understand the argument for “more land” for future growth. I mean, we should have been thinking about the future 50 years ago, but at least we are thinking about it now. 🙂 Personally, I would rather us find a practical and valid plan that works for the next 20-30 years, one that does not include a $500+ million referendum (or two), and collaboratively plan out “future growth” with the City that may include a future high school later on.

Finally, on a totally different note, Stephanie Stuart recently gave us a couple pieces of “cool things” going on in U4 schools. One is the progress of the Industrial Technology class at Central (as showcased by a 15 second time-lapse video) and the other is a new focus at Kenwood called “Technology and Literacy for the Community.” The latter features the integration of eToys into the curriculum and the collaboration with the University of Illinois. I had a change to sit in on an eToys class last week, and I talked to Dr. Martin Wolske and Kerris Lee today about this program. On the surface, some people are really going to love the focus on computer programming and some are really going to hate it. I would suggest caution at forming a first impression, because there is so much more beneath the surface. According to Dr. Wolske, one of the implied goals is to bring community together to address and solve various problems. What I found very encouraging after talking to both men is that they have a passion to address “big issues” like poverty and illiteracy on a relatively small scale (Champaign) as a stepping stone to attacking it at a larger level (Chicago, other big cities, overseas). How? By giving kids an open platform for creativity, instilling employable skills (both the hard skills of logic and programming, and the softer skills of interpersonal relations and conflict resolution) and teaching kids not only how to read, but to talk, listen and write as well. Of course, there are pitfalls and obvious issues. For instance, we all know there is no silver bullet, no panacea that will address all the issues. When I was working with the kids on eToys, it was obvious to me that some kids really got it (I saw some VERY impressive graphic artists), and some kids really struggle with basic instructions. Parents will be the same way. I am not sure what to do with that.