I didn’t really know what I was getting into coming to EduCon2015 in Philly. Every conference has a different vibe that is a function of variables like people, setting, location, and x-factors (Sal Khan was at iNACOL 2015 and although he is a person, he’s also an x-factor that makes my geek meter go off the chart and the conference ultra-memorable.).
Educon has a very student-teacher-school-based feel, as it’s hosted by the Science and Leadership Academy, a unique public partnership high school between the Philadelphia DOE and the Franklin Institute. This partnership set the stage for a conference based around innovation and lots of progressive thinking. And since it’s hosted in an actual school, it felt like I belonged there even thought it’s not my school. Sitting in classrooms and having discussions with other educators and stakeholders just feels natural.
EduCon doesn’t have sessions like a regular conference does. It has conversations. I initially thought this sounded gimmicky, but it was appropriate. Basically, it was less lecture and more discussion and sharing amongst educators. Exactly what I was hoping for. The conversations ranged all over from technological to philosophical to anthropological and beyond.
Below are some highlights, thoughts, ideas, and resources I picked up in the conversations along the way…
General Tidbits to Start With
I’m amazed at how much awesome technology exists and is being developed for teachers. The market is bursting. Zaption is a cool one that embeds prompts and questions into videos that you make (presumably on Educreations or something like it). I recently started using Padlet, an online bulletin/posting board, to have class challenges. Then I use them for discussion. My colleague and I also just collaborated on a Weebly that hosts all of the resources we are using for a 7th grade Ratio and Proportions Unit we are doing this week. I know some might say that students are doing no more learning with these technologies than they were 30 years ago, and that may be true. I don’t think it is, but let’s say it is. Even if it is true, these new learning tools and formats make learning so much cooler, and I think they prepare students for the world in which they live.
Digital Portfolios for Student Work
As students do more work online, there are more and more ways for students to create digital portfolios. And they definitely should. I still have analog portfolios in my classroom filled with old homeworks and projects, which is fine. I still believe there is something to a paper assignment, but what happens to that assignment at the end of the year? Will the students be diligent and save them forever? Probably not. But if they took pictures of their work, it could be saved forever. Google Classroom and Wikispaces are good places to house this work. Safety and privacy are concerns, especially in the larger scope of students having an online presence. But one huge takeaway that I thought was so cool was students using avatars as pseudonyms to protect their identity. So cool.
Beyond just storage, these digital portfolios are being used for so much more. They are becoming interactive portfolios. A big topic of discussion was whether digital portfolios should be a display for products or a documentation process and encouragement of student process and reflection. On the latter, students are annotating their work with screencasts, podcasts, and videos as part of a reflection and growth process. This use of digital portfolios feels like it’s bursting at the seams, and there are so many things teachers can do. Time to start experimenting.
Can We and Should We Assess Character (non-cognitive skills)?
Jonathan E. Martin facilitated a very productive conversation on a topic I feel strongly about. Yes, we should assess character, which means we should be teaching and developing character. A lot of research out there supports this intention with findings that show certain character values correlate to “success” in any field or aspect of life. For clarification, “success” means generally feeling like your life has meaning and purpose no matter what you choose to do with it. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in the last few years is How Children Succeed, which details these character traits very well. And what these traits are may surprise you. Definitely worth the read.
There was a lot more opposition in this group than I expected. The dissenters would say who are we to say which character traits are important? What if they clash with other cultural values? How do we actually assess it? Although he didn’t work for the company, Mr. Martin was advocating for a product called Mission Skills Assessment, which is a system that helps assess and track character, like a gradebook. But more questions and concerns came up. If we are assessing student character, do we give students a character grade? And if so, can we give an entire class or school a character grade? Can we then compare one school’s character to another? It was a strange road to travel down for everyone involved in the conversation, but I still say 100% yes. All the rest are details to be worked out.
Teaching for Mastery and Grading for Mastery
A fellow NYC teacher at NYC iSchool and Math for America Master Teacher, Sarah Prendergast led a fantastic conversation on mastery teaching and grading. Sarah teaches high school algebra and prepares students for the New York State Regents Exam. And just like my teaching in School of One, Sarah uses a mastery model to teach. This is mastery teaching from her blurb:
“Mastery-Based Learning means breaking down a class into smaller, trackable topics and then tracking student progress on each topic. It’s about seeing mastery as the most important goal, and providing students with ample opportunities to show what they know.”
Not only does she teach for mastery, but she and her school grade for mastery, something I admit I don’t do very well at all. 60-80% of students’ grade is based on mastery. 10-30% productivity. 10% contributing factors, whatever those may be and it varies from teacher to teacher. I really struggle with mastery grading because my students work on different grade levels depending on their individualized learning path. My colleagues and I struggle with what to put on a report card for the 7th grade student who is doing very well in his work but is working on 5th grade skills. And what about another 7th grade student who is working on 8th grade skills? My report cards are not really equipped for this.
What I found fascinating and amazing is that by using a mastery tracking system and giving kids ample opportunities to master skills (instead of just moving on), Sarah can predict with almost perfect accuracy all of her students’ regents exam scores. When I heard that, I thought to myself, “Isn’t it amazing how well she knows her students?” Whether the student passes or doesn’t pass any exam is never the most important thing to me, but the fact that she knows the students well enough to be able to predict it is outstanding. And she doesn’t have any super fancy software. Just a really well-thought-out spreadsheet that has evolved into her own excellent tracking tool.
On a side note, she’s also doing lots of other great stuff with Maker Education. Those of us who saw her present at MT^2, a TED style event put on by Math for America, were impressed. Check it out below.
If you are someone who is worried about the state of education or that teachers aren’t that good or yada yada yada, go to EduCon next year and see what’s happening. You’ll feel much better. I owe a huge thanks to my principal, Ailene Mitchell and AP Peter Russo for sending me, my amazing colleague Emily Reisman for being a great learning partner there and in the classroom, and the folks at iZone NYC – Alana Laudone and Cynthia Warner for making it all possible for me.