Adventures in Web-meetings

10082015TryAgainHere in the Northeast, we’ve endured some whacky weather – high winds and plenty of rain. Not exactly a hurricane, but a giant inconvenience, particularly for those without power since Sunday night. The wind damage and power outages resulted in school cancellations throughout the Merrimack Valley; some school districts are now left with just 2 of the allocated 5-day calendar allowance for snow days before snow season actually starts. Buckle those seat belts, it is going to be a bumpy ride this winter.

So what does the weather have to do with web meetings?  One of the off-shoots of a no-school day is that all activities after school are cancelled. For me, and the trusty group of participants in the graduate literacy course I am leading, that meant our All-Hallows-Eve session of EDUC 7226 was postponed and would need to be made up.

So, in a semi-panic (okay, that was a full-blown panic), I offered the possibility of doing a conference call based lecture to the participants in lieu of a face-to-face class. Making up the class would be a scheduling problem in that the class sessions needed for the full course already occupy every Tuesday between mid-September and December 19. I was pretty certain no one would be enthusiastic about pushing out the end date to the first Tuesday after the holiday break, January 2.  We needed to hold the Halloween class now somehow.

Anticipating that with 2 days out of school, some people might actually want to try to hold this session even if it was held off-site, I started to wonder about having a conference call where participants could access the slides that I use to accompany our class session. It turned out that quite a few participants were willing to give this a go, even those who were without WIFI and electricity.  The problem solvers in the group found ways to overcome those challenges, some even heading over to local coffee shops where WIFI and electricity could still be had.

So, my task yesterday morning was to quickly get up-to-speed with webinars and conference calls.  Never having hosted such a thing, I Googled “webinars” and discovered  hosting an online web-meeting was indeed possible… at a cost of $89/month to $429/month. I was pretty sure the bookkeeper in this family would veto that. Next search was “free+webinar+software” and BINGO! The product I serendipitously discovered was Free Conference Calls.

When something is free, there shouldn’t be any expectation for easy use or full functionality.  Free usually means there will be some pain for the user, because… free, what do you expect?

This product, however, is the real deal.  Since I had to come up to speed with the product in about 3 hours, I keep my wishlist simple:  a) ability for access to audio only (for those listening in on cellphones) or for audio+shared screen b) easy (for me) to negotiate invites and manage participation, and c) free.  Free Conference Calls was all of that – and I was able to record myself for participants who may need this class session on instant replay. Other functions that I didn’t use (yet) included Q&A boards, break-out sessions, and using pointers and highlighters on my shared screen.

At the appointed hour for our class to start, nearly all of the 22 participants in this course were logged in either as either full meeting participants or audio only.  The audio recording resides on my Conference Call account as a weblink which will allow anyone who was unable to attend our live meeting to listen in later.  And, considering that I’m not the most technology-saavy person on this planet, the fact that all of this went off without a disaster, is totally gratifying.

Sometimes the stars do line up in our favor.  We are Technology Warriors – every single one of us!

Two Tales in Education

Author collectionTwo stories from the education world caught my attention this week, and I feel that both are worth the time to read. The first story, Why Teachers Quit by Liz Riggs, is a cautionary tale from 2013 about teachers and burn-out. The second, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues is by Natasha Singer of the New York Times. It is a warning for anyone who worries about the possible effects of corporate America’s influence in schools and school materials.

The Atlantic recently reposted Liz Riggs’ 2013 article Why Teachers Quit which was originally printed in October 2013. Even with a 4-year time gap, this is an article that is relevant and worth reading for anyone interested in retaining educators. The turn-over rate cited in the article, 40-50%, refers to the numbers of teachers leaving the education profession within the first five years of their career.  While I believe this attrition rate to be lower in 2017 thanks to strong induction and mentoring programs available to beginning educators, many beginning teachers continue to leave education for other fields.

Although many of the teachers Ms. Riggs interviewed were from charter schools, the conditions which lead to decisions to leave education are often some of the same expressions of discontent heard now from both novices and experienced teachers. The responsibilities of educators don’t end at the dismissal bell. Planning, assessing, writing reports – those workloads are often overwhelming and makes for an unhealthy and out-of-balance life.

Even when one goes into education for all the best reasons, the reality of the profession can become overwhelming. With all of the emphasis on teacher quality, there continues to be a need to ensure that the extracurricular demands on talented educators are not overpowering.

The second article, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues, was recently published in the New York Times and describes a new trend in education: recruiting teachers to promote edu-products. While understanding that obtaining “free stuff” is a way for classrooms and educators to afford enhancements and the latest in bells and whistles, I think this pathway is a very slippery slope. It makes me more than a bit skeptical about the motives of corporate American forming relationships with educators to obtain favorable product placements.

As a retired educator, I can still recall the disproportionate amounts of time spent each evening writing plans, pulling together materials, researching, contacting parents, and grading student work. I am not quite sure how Kayla Delzer, the third grade teacher chronicled in the Times article finds enough time to attend to teacher responsibilities; blog, tweet, and post on Facebook; and sleep. I wonder about the cost to her students.  Is her objectivity in evaluating appropriate materials compromised? Are her students missing out when their expert teacher is away to promote these materials?

Two tales for the week, both cautionary. Anyone out there listening?

 

Is STEM the only thing?

2016-Sep-10_FiddleBanjo2016_1362Is STEM the only thing? I’m asking for a friend.

It occurs to me that in the rush to turn out worker bees for business sectors, the focus in education is more than a little skewed in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yes, these are all important studies and part of a well-rounded balanced education. However, I am questioning that the focus on STEM has over-shadowed other content and curricula that, in my biased opinion, should be equally important.

Because I see education in terms of an avenue toward a pursuit, observing the march of the bureaucrats toward the next great crisis in education is equally frustrating and alarming. Our educational goal should be to “hook” students into becoming life-long students, to foster curiosity and questioning and the drive to know more.

And maybe that pathway toward becoming lifetime learners is through a STEM discipline, and perhaps it is not.

As a student, my personal pathway into learning was through something quite different. I was a more-than-adequate reader, not a particularly skilled writer, and a horribly incompetent math student.  What fired me up to become more disciplined about learning and more successful as a student, was a love and pursuit of music. The irony of this statement is that, as an adult, music has taken a backseat to the very disciplines that catch all the attention today – technology and mathematics.

To me, it is more important to teach students to think critically, to process logically and, yes, even scientifically. Science, math, and technology are important and great ways to get to those problem-solving and thinking skills. But other disciplines can be a means to this end – and toward the goal of fostering and enduring desire to learn – too. And for the student whose interest in learning lies in arts and humanities, exclusion of such pursuits leave them flat.

So while our education policy makers direct a refocus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I hope there might also be a similar pursuit of arts and humanities. Because, in my opinion, there is a need to balance educational pursuits across all disciplines.

School Committee Meeting, 05 October 2016

2016-sep-22_btubooks2School Committee Meeting, 05 October 2016

All present

Spotlight on Excellence

The focus on this meeting’s Spotlight was on the Summer Reading Program. A record 27,453 books were read and recorded by students across the Lowell Public Schools, representing an increase of 9,400 books over the previous year.  Congratulations to all students and their parents participating in this vital program over the summer. For a list of recognized students by school, see page 10 in the Meeting Packet.

This is one of my favorite events to observe as the excitement of the students and their families is so contagious. Special thanks to the school administrators and staff who also attended last night’s ceremony.

Permissions to Enter

Several contract approvals totalling $849,542. See detail on p 30-31 of the Meeting Packet.

Unfinished Business

2016/391: Business Office Reorganization. Net reduction of staff was 1. Cost savings about $12.2K. Proposal by Mr. Frisch to apply a majority portion of this cost savings to the Facilities Director’s salary as this person is being asked to assume the duties of one of the eliminated positions (Energy Management) and has significant added responsibilities as the High School Building Project gets underway.  Questions regarding the reporting structure, particularly why the Assistant Superintendent for Business was not a direct-report to Mr. Frisch. Suggestion to send the salary portion of this report to Personnel Subcommittee (with request from Ms. Martin for formalized job description noting the increased duties for the Facilities Director), while accepting the reorganization. 7 yeas.

2016/403 Approval of Reclassification of Position. Central Administration completed the requested revision of this person’s job description to reflect reality of the responsibilities. 7 yeas.

Motions

  • 2016/397 District-wide Technology Plan (Mr. Gignac). This is a requirement from DESE. The currently posted plan (2015-2018 update found on the LPSD website’s technology page is based on survey and analysis of district needs and the state of each building’s technology inventory.  With the state requirement for electronic test administration (starting Spring 2017), ensuring that technology needs are reflected in the plan are important as well as the analysis that will drive technology updates/upgrades at the High School during the High School Building Project.  For more information about state-required technology reporting and requirements, see DESE’s Office of Digital Learning website.

The next 3 motions were postponed from the previous meeting. During the discussion of the Superintendent’s Evaluation, the Mayor’s microphone cut out.

  • 2016/398 Community Service Learning Program (Mr. Gendron)
  • 2016/400 Superintendent’s Evaluation Process (Mr. Gendron)
  • 2016/399 Report to Facilities Subcommittee on plans to address the middle school population bubble. (Mr. Gendron)

Reports of the Superintendent

2016/390 2016 Student Assessment and Accountability Lowell’s testing results recently released by DESE show 7 Level 1 schools (highest category), 7 Level 2 schools, and 7 Level 3 schools. This is outstanding news, particularly since, despite expectation that switching from MCAS to PARCC last year would cause an expected drop in test scores (hence the state’s offer to hold schools & districts “harmless” from test ramifications).  Lowell seems to have defied all the odds by actually doing better on a brand new test instrument. Superintendent Khelfaoui attributes some of this to the schools’ focus on teaching to standards, not teaching to the test.

School Committee suggests that this news is celebrated in both the schools and perhaps a future school committee meeting. The Committee also requests a deeper evaluation to ensure that any achievement gaps are continuing to close. The report begins on p 51 of the Meeting Packet.

2016/393 Homeless Liaison.  Appointment of Jane Mosher-Canty to replace Fred McOsker who is serving as an Assistant Principal of the Morey School.

Three additional reports, 2016/394 Personnel Report details resignations, retirements, and hiring, 2016/395 List of Eligible Teachers, and 2016/402 Home Education were presented.

New Business

There were three items under New Business:

  • 2016/387 MCAS 2.0 Computer Base Testing. Recommendation from the Superintendent that all testing for all grade levels participating in state-wide assessment be done online (MA DESE requirement is only for Grades 4 and 8 this year, with rolling inclusion of additional grades each year).  When asked if the District was ready, Superintendent Khelfaoui replied yes.
  • 2016/389 Acceptance of $75.00 donation to BRIDGE program
  • 2016/392 Budget transfer to support Community Based Organizations at elementary and middle schools (see p 83 of Meeting Packet).

Convention and Conference Requests (3) were all approved.

Meeting Packet can be found here.

Whose Property Is It?

There’s a thought-provoking article in EdSurge this morning. Just who owns a teacher’s intellectual property? My husband, a former software engineer for several large tech companies, always had to sign over his rights to any ideas that he created as part of the hiring process. But educators do no such thing – at least until now.

2014-11-25-lincoln-024Advancing technology is going to make this an essential question for every school district to grapple with. Our lesson plans, reviewed regularly, are shared electronically not only with administrators but with colleagues. Documents and resources geared toward teaching, in fact, the teaching guides themselves, are often created by groups of teachers. It may be just a matter of time before enterprising schools, looking for new sources of revenue, want to monetize lesson plans or other teaching ideas developed by teaching staff.

An example of this is sharing classroom plans with Special Education inclusion partners who need to know what the classroom language and content goals are in order to make learning accessible to students on individual education plans. This past year, I’ve had my lesson plans copied into another teacher’s plan book without permission or attribution. When asked to stop, the person did; however, she continued to copy my “I can” or language/content goals again without permission. Was this a violation of my intellectual property?

In the age of Teachers-Pay-Teachers, intellectual property is about to become a huge factor. Pay attention.

Outside Influences

This article by Catherine Gewertz and Lianna Heitin in Education Week caught my attention: Fourth Graders Struggle With Icons, Directions on Computer-Based Tests.

Can we all let out a big DUH?

The students surveyed, an admittedly small sampling, all claimed to have access to computers at home. The students knew some very basic functions, but some others (see figure 2 in the article) like using a drop down menu were not. Oh and reading directions? Well fourth graders apparently are a mirror of what most of the rest of us do – they didn’t read them.

So why did this catch my attention? Well, several reasons. When administering computerized tests, is there some thought given to what tools are developmentally appropriate for, say, fourth graders or is everyone expected to use functionalities the same way adults do?

Secondly,not every one of my own students has ready access to computers. While improved on prior years when perhaps one of 24 students had a working computer at home, some do and some do not. So, that means, the understanding of these icons and keys on their assessments will make for lots of interesting results – not necessarily about the topic being assessed.

This makes me wonder: to what degree will students’ familiarity with technology tools affect their performance? And since student performance on tests is also associated with my evaluation, how will this skew things?

Deciphering technology

Just before the holiday break, our new technology – Mobi 360 – arrived. Hopefully the wireless projector that is part of this system will have been installed before Wednesday when we return to school.  Hopefully I will be able to make it all work the way it was intended.

We tried out the system the Thursday before going home.  The Pulse units operate like clickers and each student is assigned one to use for class.  I put our weekly vocabulary test into a Powerpoint slideshow and the kids took the test using their new technology.  Outside of two children who had pressed some combination of buttons and disassociated from the Mobi receiver, it was fun and quick AND yielded immediate data without hand correcting.

I love it when technology provides an improvement in delivering instruction or in  gathering assessment data. I love when technology provides some motivation for students.

Never a fan of single-minded programs, I’ve always thought of technology applications in education as part of a tool-kit.  After all, I use technology with a purpose, not just because it’s there.

Mobi is, of course, going to take some adjustment and preparation on my part. But so far, it looks like a powerful addition to this teacher’s toolkit.