Playgrounds and Social Media


Posted under Creative Commons License. Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

I’ve been thinking about the similarities between playgrounds and social media lately. As the school year is launching, I am thinking of ways that we can continue to enlighten our communities about the need to help students navigate the world of social media in a safe environment, part of helping them along the road to becoming good digital citizens.  For some reason, my thinking keeps coming back to playgrounds.


Children love the freedom of playgrounds. They can explore, challenge themselves, and make new friends. From an early age, parents take their children to playgrounds to run and play, teaching them how the various equipment works, and give them safety tips, always keeping a watchful eye to make sure they don’t get too rambunctious lest they forget about the safe way to climb, swing, and spin. We encourage them to make friends, and play nicely. Yes, there are inherent risks, but parents, and indeed school staff and volunteers on school playgrounds are there to remind the children if they are straying too far into an “unsafe” zone or using inappropriate behavior.  As children get older, we relax a little bit, trusting that children have learned the rules of the playground, and will self-monitor.  On very large playgrounds, where large numbers of children play, such as a school playground, we recognize that it is impossible to monitor every child at every moment.  Children interact with each other and explore all that the playground has to offer. They test themselves both physically and socially. This is a learning process.


Posted Under Creative Commons. Photo by Tasslehoff Burfoot.


Posted under Creative Commons. Photo by Esther Gibbons.


We recognize risk exists here, yet we do not close down the playgrounds, or block children from accessing them. Adults are very much involved in the process of teaching children to play safely, and we monitor them along the way.  We recognize this as a part of growing up, and indeed we do, little by little, turn over responsibility for safe and appropriate behavior in such  a setting to the children. If  a child oversteps the boundaries that are set for safety, if bullying takes place, or any other inappropriate social behavior, there are consequences. But the goal is to ultimately teach them how to be safe and appropriate so they can self-monitor and enjoy all that the playground has to offer in the future. If a child misbehaves on the playground, we do not take away access to the playground for the whole community or school. That doesn’t make sense. We deal with the individual child who acted inappropriately.


Posted under Creative Commons. Photo by Jon Winters.



Social media is a kind of playground – but one that is much less familiar to most adults. As my colleague Linda Conway has observed, kids started participating in social media far before adults went there, and they made their own rules.   No one taught them appropriate and safe behavior along the way, and no one monitored them in this environment.  I use the past tense here, because I think that we are beginning to see a shift in this now, but we still have a lot of catching up to do. Social media has so much to offer our students in terms of making global connections and learning from people that they never would have had the opportunity to interact with prior to this technology. But our children are largely still unaware of what appropriate behavior looks like in this environment, especially if they use the model of the children who played without rules before them. Just like on a playground, we need to show them how to be safe and appropriate – and much of this might be by modeling it ourselves. We have a responsibility to do this for them, so we need to be there with them, and show them how to use social media to effectively communicate and learn. We need to use it in our schools, as well as at home. School districts should explore how they can provide the necessary guidance and training for students in the appropriate use of social media within a safe environment. Like it or not, social media is here to stay, and kids want to be a part of it. They will find a way. So let’s explore it together, in a safe environment, and set some boundaries.  Let’s use  it to help them learn. 

Posted under Creative Commons. Photo by Jeremy Blanchard.


The First Day

Tomorrow a new school year begins. Students and teachers alike are full of anticipation, excitement, and hope.  The schools have been thoroughly cleaned, supplies have been re-stocked, textbooks are ready to be distributed, and computers powered up and made ready. The library media center is neatly organized and ready for students in search of good stories and information. Teachers and staff have been busy planning for The First Day. Bulletin Boards have been put up, class lists are printed out, and lesson plans drafted. The business of learning is about to begin in full force.

At some point during the day, all of us – students, teachers, parents, and administrators should step back and take a good look around.  How can you capture the spirit and hope of this very special day?

 I wonder what it is, in particular, that makes this day so special?  Is it the new supplies? The excitement of finding out who is in your class?  Is it the anticipation of learning new things? The First Day is your chance to set the stage for the coming year.  What kind of place will your classroom be? 

I wish all of you a beautiful First Day – full of wonder!

Envisioning An Innovative Learning Specialist

In our district, we are fortunate to have both certified technology teachers and teacher-librarians in many of our schools. Our department is currently brainstorming ways to maximize these positions to better assure that all students obtain 21st century skills. My task was to write a vision of what the certified technology teacher position might evolve in to – beyond teaching isolated technology skills on a fixed schedule. This could be applied in all school levels. What do you think? What would you add or change?

The Innovative Learning Specialist or Coach is responsible for helping teachers to seamlessly integrate technology and other strategies into their daily teaching practice in order to boost students’ 21st century skills. The goal is to transfer responsibility for technology tool instruction to the classroom teacher (and in many cases, to the students)  so that the ILS time can be spent collaborating to plan, co-teach, and co-assess students’ 21st century skills through standards-based inquiry-driven units of learning.

Through systemic collaboration with all classroom teachers, using a backwards design model, the ILS brainstorms and plans with teachers how to build learning experiences that are standards driven, yet also give students opportunities to regularly use technology, when appropriate, and practice 21st century skills. The ILS works in concert with the certified teacher-librarian and often they collaborate as a team with teachers. Together, they may collaborate with teachers to co-plan units that are driven by overarching essential questions and enduring understandings that cross multiple content areas, including “specials” such as art, music, PE and world languages. The units are inquiry-driven, project-based and are relevant to students. The ILS, with the teacher-librarian, track student progress on mastering 21st century skills through formative assessments, which are given equal weight to content standards.

The ILS has a flexible schedule, allowing him/her to plan and co-teach longer units as needed, when needed. With administrator support, the ILS will assure that every student has an opportunity to participate in these rich standards-based units. The expectation will be that every teacher will collaborate with the ILS on a regular basis throughout the school year. The teaching and learning occurs in the classroom or library “learning commons.” Wireless laptops, netbooks, iPads,tablets, iPod Touches, and/or other personal digital devices are used by students.

A large part of the ILS responsibility will be to deliver professional development to staff in a differentiated manner to assure every teacher has the technology skills needed to successfully facilitate learning through technology when the ILS is not available. The ILS will stay current with the latest technologies – hardware, software, and web tools- through participation in a professional learning network, and will routinely share new technologies and strategies with the staff through modeling and direct instruction. As the teacher’s skills with technology grow, the ILS will be able to shift more and more to the role of a collaborative coach and instructional design partner. The ILS, with the teacher-librarian, will co-chair the school’s 21st Century Learning Committee. (formerly known as the technology committee and Educational Technology-Information Literacy – ET-IL committee) Together, they will assure that all technology purchases support the school’s learning goals, and the committee is guided by student learning needs rather than focused on the tools.

Technology for a “21st Century Classroom”

 I was recently asked by the chair of the education department at a local university to create a list of technology tools that should be included in a “21st Century Classroom.” Our IT-Ed Services team brainstormed and came up with the following list. What would you add? -Nancy


Technology for a 21st Century Classroom

The room itself should be a flexible learning space, with the ability to re-configure furniture and equipment based on student need. Further, the entire school should be a flexible learning space, with the ability to re-purpose any room, combine classes, or create small collaborative work space for students.

Classroom Environment Needs:

  • Wireless connection
  • Sufficient bandwidth
  • Sufficient electrical outlets
  • Sufficient storage for multimedia projects (may be handled at the district level)

Basic Classroom Technology

  • Projector
  • Document Camera
  • Classroom response system (“Clickers”)  – unless all students have their own digital device (see below)
  • Classroom management System – such as Moodle – moving toward “Flipped Classroom”, blended learning and personalized learning
  • Electronic Portfolio software/storage system – helping students prepare for changes to college application processes and building a “positive digital footprint”
  • Access to digital resources (through the library)
    • Ebooks/etextbooks
    • Databases
      • Organized databases of primary sources
      • Journal/newspaper and scholarly works
      • Educational Digital Videos/Simulations to include 3D Technology
      • Access to Web 2.0 Tools for collaboration and communication
        • Skype
        • Wikis
        • Google Docs/Apps
        • Blogs

Teacher Technology Needs

  • Laptop – preferably a tablet

Student technology Needs:

  • Personal Digital Device – this could be a netbook, iPad, iPodtouch, tablet, or their own cell phone. This eliminates the need for some kind of classroom response system
  • Digital cameras and digital video cameras for student use in projects
  • Headsets/microphones for podcasting, Skyping

“21st Century Skills,” Powerful Learning & Educational Reform

I am a “21st century learning and innovation specialist. “ I am asked over and over again about my job title – and I understand that a lot of people are tired of the worn out phrase “21st century learning” or “21st century skills.”  I, too, think that a decade into this thing, we would really be better off defining 21st century learning and perhaps replacing this term with what we really mean.  So what would you call it?  That’s where I get stuck.  It is just so hard to put a label on it.  To me “21st century learning” is huge – and represents something much, much bigger than what might enter most people’s consciousness when they hear the term. To me, it embodies the educational reform that we all seek.  

Here is how I like to explain it when I have a little time at a workshop or presentation for parents or community members – even teachers, I ask them to think about one of their most powerful learning experiences. Typically, in a workshop, I’ll give individuals time to reflect, and then ask them to form small groups and share their powerful learning experiences with each other.  Following this, their task is to create a list of the common elements of their experiences.  Then we share the results with the whole group. Guess what? The list is always the same.  What’s on it?  

  • Hands-on, active learning
  • Real-world problem solving/connections to community
  • Collaborative
  • Challenging
  • Built-in time for reflection
  • Feel safe to “fail”
  • Ability to build a relationship with the teacher

The next thing I like to do is point out that there is a fortunate connection between what produces powerful learning – enduring understandings, if you will, and 21st century learning .  All of the things listed above detail environmental aspects of learning. They aren’t what the teacher teaches, per say, but how he/she designs the learning activities to allow room for these things to occur. 

21st Century Learning is much the same.  Here are some typical 21st century skills identified by any number of educational think tanks:

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking/Reasoning
  • Innovation
  • Self Direction

Do you see where I’m going with this? 


I think that it is pretty amazing that the things that we consider powerful about our own learning, that we might even call motivational factors of learning, are so similar to the skills that we need to address according to the various 21st century learning think tank and workforce studies.  Could this mean…we know what to do? We know how to motivate kids? We know how to ensure that they acquire both skills and understandings?  So what is standing in our way? Oh. Yeah. Educational reform. Standardized testing.  Lack of time. (see standardized testing).

I just learned about a new film being developed by Laurie Gabriel called Hear our Teachers.  I am very excited about this new film and the hope of finding some balance between what teachers know about how students learn and the sentiments being expressed by the Waiting for Superman and Education Nation crowds.

I think as we move forward, we need to keep the focus on students and how they learn.  Let’s set the political agendas aside and stop pointing fingers  for awhile and find some common ground in our discussions about educational reform. I think that powerful learning – “21st century learning” – is our common ground. Can this be our starting point for productive conversations about how to improve student learning?

Moving from Student to Learner: An Educon Reflection

I went to Educon this year on a quest, prompted by very candid remarks and stories shared by a student panel which was featured at the final meeting of our district’s 21st Century Learning Cadre. I wanted to find examples of teachers and schools successfully addressing the key areas these students consistently shared as highly important elements of the school experience for them.  No surprise, the  elements that stood out in their responses were relationships and  real world connections.

 Again, no surprise, I found the answers at SLA itself, in talking with students and attending sessions like Interdisciplinarity, facilitated by SLA teachers Zac Chase, Rosalind Echols and Diana Laufenberg, as well as the impromptu session on Friday hosted by several students who shared information on their Capstone projects, which are hands-on, real-world projects all SLA students do in their senior year. And  from our student tour guide who spoke with such poise and exhibited such pride in her school and accomplishments there.

The real magic at SLA is that this is a place where shift has happened.  Teachers don’t own the learning. Students do.  They look forward to it. They embrace the challenge. It is hard to believe these are high school students. They exhibit incredible maturity, intelligence and understanding. It is obvious there is some sort of driving force at work – and it really doesn’t seem to be grades. These students have a passion for learning. How did they get here? What is it that ignites such passion for learning in these students? How can I bring some of these ideas and practices back to my district and achieve this kind of transformation – the real reform that we are all seeking?

First of all, it is important to note that the SLA students were highly motivated to begin with. They had to apply and go through a very competitive selection process to be able to attend SLA.  That makes this quite different from a traditional public school that contains a real mix of both willing and unwilling students.  But I don’t think we can dismiss the possibility of adopting some of the core beliefs and practices of SLA to begin a transformation in our own schools. If it is working for this group of students, I can’t help but think  that employing some of these same  beliefs and practices in schools where students are less-than-motivated will have an even more profound effect. Here’s why.

The very same beliefs and practices that were wished for by the student panel last week in my school district are actually put into practice at SLA. Not some of the time. All of the time.  Here is what I observed and learned about at SLA that I believe are the answers – the pathway to achieve schools that transform students into self-motivated learners.

Relationships – this seems like such a simple thing, but really, it is not. And certainly not something we should trivialize.  As Chris Lehmann said in his blog awhile back, you have to plan for it.

 At SLA, we say that the way we treat each other is based on the ethic of care — the idea that caring relationships are at the heart of creating healthy learning environments. That idea has to live somewhere or eventually it will get squeezed out or only live within the people who came in already believing it. This is why we have Advisory — a four year relationship between a group of twenty students and a teacher that ensures that every teacher has a group of kids for whom they are responsible and every students has an adult in the building who will always be their advocate. We had to plan for caring, we couldn’t just assume it, and we certainly couldn’t just say it. (Lehmann, Nov. 13 2008. Practical Theory: “Where Does it Live?”[action]=search&serendipity[searchTerm]=relationships_)

 In almost every conversation I had with students at Educon, evidence of this level of caring and relationships was shared.  One student’s story in particular stands out to me.  She said that when she first came to SLA in the 9th grade, she was extremely stressed out, worried about her grades, and subsequently, not getting very good grades.  She met frequently with Chris, who encouraged her to stop worrying so much, find what she enjoys and is passionate about and go from there.  He encouraged her to follow her own dreams. She said when she finally listened to him and did just that, she was amazed! She began to really enjoy all of her classes, and all of her grades improved.  

 Related to relationships, the culture at SLA also is about a high level of trust.  One student, when sharing information on her senior Capstone project, commented that sometimes students get very involved in these projects, allowing other class work to “pile up.”  When asked to elaborate on this, she shrugged it off. She said we know what we need to do, and we’ll get it done. It’s not a big deal.  My take on this – no one is going to nag them. They accept full responsibility for their work and will take care of it.  What a concept.

 Real-World Connections and Active Learning were also on the “wish list” from my student panel regarding how they would like to change their school experience. Based on my observations, it seems that everything that happens at SLA is purposefully connected to the “real world” and learning is always hands on and project based.  To start with, every student has an Individualized Learning Plan, and Juniors & Seniors are paired with a mentor from  business or the community.  They work on real projects side by side with professionals, or they pursue more in depth classes at the university level. Student capstone projects are the culminating project from this experience.  Some that we learned about ranged from a student writing a screenplay to a student conducting research on student attitudes toward sexual abstinence, to robotics experimentation. Early dismissal on Wednesday has a purpose for students. It is when they can apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world through internships and real world projects.  And in the classroom,  active learning abounds.  The curriculum is powered by inquiry. Textbooks are just one resource.  The world is their textbook. I learned about an amazing interdisciplinary project that Diana Laufenberg and Zac Chase do with their history and English classes.  The students selected a particular building in Philadelphia that contains a person’s name and they conduct research to determine the history of the building, and the connection to community. This is just one example of the backwards-designed UbD units which all teachers create.  Questions guide the learning, and students do the investigating to seek out answers and explanations.   

How can we get there? Ideally, our schools and districts should adopt the same philosophy and mission that SLA has: that “students should learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiryresearchcollaborationpresentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.”  Of course, individual teachers can advocate for this in their schools, but the reality is, they may not have the kind of influence to bring about this change school and district wide.  But they can do this in their own classrooms, and model it.  Here is a list of things I believe every teacher can and should do. This is a good starting point to start bringing some of the magic of SLA into your own classroom. These are the things I observed SLA teachers, and of course their principal, Chris Lehmann doing:

  • Model being a learner
  • Create a culture of trust
  • Create sense of team with the staff
  • Expectations for relationships with students
  • Laugh ! Play!
  • Respect – students and each other
  • Teach students – not subjects.  Be passionate about them and how well they understand.
  • Think out loud all the time
  • Build pride based on academics
  • Connect every learning experience to the real world
  • Bring the real world into the classroom
  • Let students ask questions.  Model how to find answers.
  • Allow room for choice, but be ready with support if it is needed
  • Put students in charge of their own learning. Just say it. And mean it.
  • Talk to students about concerns over their understanding. Not their grade.

 My heartfelt thanks to Chris and the staff, students, and parents at SLA for this incredible, inspirational glimpse at what education can and should be.

What Students Want: An Educon Preflection

I had an amazing experience Thursday which has really helped me to focus my thoughts about what I want to get out of Educon this year. I have been on a year-long adventure with a great group of teachers in my district. We started a 21st Century Learning cadre with the primary mission of finding ways to make learning more engaging and relevant for students, while making sure students had opportunities to develop 21st century skills. We explored this through topics such as motivation, creating a culture of inqury daily in the classroom, embracing the concept of democratic classrooms (inspired by an Educon session I attended last year), infusing game-based learning into the curriculum, and creating an environment where creativity, invention and innovation can flourish.

I realized as I was preparing for the final workshop with these teachers that one thing was missing. That was the student voice. So I arranged for a student panel to attend the first hour of our workshop, which had been billed as a time to reflect on our learning and plan next steps as the year of learning came to a close. The students were outstanding. We got the conversation going with a few simple questions:

What is it that makes a classroom come alive for you as students?

If there is one thing you wished your teachers understood about you and how you learn, what would that be?

If you could change your school experience to make it more relevant and engaginng, what changes would you make?

Do you feel the education you have recieved so far is preparing you to be competitive in a global world?

The questions helped get the conversation started, but the conversation traveled where it needed to go. The students were very honest and quite frank about how they feel. Here are some of the big ideas they shared, along with my translation and how this has created a “look-for” for me at Educon.

1. Class size matters. Large classes make it impossible to form a relationship with the teacher. Also, there seems to be a lack of focus when students are in large groups.

Message: Relationships with teachers are extremely important to our kids.

Educon Look-For: Class size is something teachers have very little control over. I will be looking for ideas how others can create an environment within the classroom that allows students to “feel” as if they are in a smaller class. I will be looking for teachers who have great relationships with kids and find out how they accomplish this.

2. Students crave real world connections. They are sick and tired of homework that is busywork, teachers who lecture, and hyper-focused on what they need to do for the grade. They could not concieve of a school experience that would focus on a passion to learn rather than just doing what they need to do to get the good grade so they can move up the system and on to the next hoop in their life – college.

Message: Following a passion for learning is a foreign concept even for the cream-of-the-crop students like those on our panel.

Educon Look-For: I will be looking for teachers who are successful at igniting a passion for learning in their students.

3. All students are motivated in different ways. In our group of 9 students, we heard about praise, competiton, choice, and grades as motivators, and several others. No two students were motivated in the same way.

Message: We have got to know our students! Relationships are key to understanding what motivates each child, and motivation is the first step to igniting a passion to learn.

Educon Look-For: See 1 & 2 above!

4. Students learn in different ways. Some like technology, and clearly, some do not. Some want and need more structure to their school day, and some prefer more freedom to follow a learning path that meets their area of interest. Clearly, one size does not fit all.

Message: We must provide choice. Choice in the learning process, and choice in the end product. But keep nudgiing along the way – giving students the opportunity to learn new things and get past fear and prejudices that might exist

Educon Look-For: I hope to find examples of teachers who are successfullly striking a balance between choice and scaffolding for success.

Personalized learning is where we need to go to meet the needs of all students. We have the technology. We just need to really think outside the box, or as they said at the Model School Conference, build a new box. The students on our panel had a hard time envisioning school beyond the traditional classrooms, though they hinted at hoping for something better. More meaningful. More relevant. I hope the amazing educators at Educon will be sharing lots of ideas and strategies that I can bring back to share with our teachers.