Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

November 10, 2014
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview With People Behind The Most Popular English Language Learning & Teaching Sites In The World


A year ago I posted an interview with Ann Foreman, who coordinates the Teaching English-British Council Facebook page, the most popular site in the world for English language teachers (see Interview With Ann Foreman, Coordinator Of The Most Popular Site On The Web For English Language Teachers).

Since that time, the popularity of that site, along with British Council sites for English Language Learners, has exploded.

I thought it was time to visit again with Ann, along with her colleagues Paul Braddock and Neil McLaren.

LF: I can’t remember exactly how many “likes” the TeachingEnglish – British Council Facebook page had when we spoke about a year ago , but I know that you’ve had extraordinary growth since that time and are approaching 3 million “likes.”  Have you been doing anything differently over the past twelve months, or is that dramatically increased popularity just coming naturally?  The only things that I’ve noticed is that you might be sharing more online videos for professional development and I know that you’ve created more of a regular Teaching English blogging community (that I’m happy to be a part of).

Ann Foreman:

Yes, ‘likes’ for the TeachingEnglish Facebook page have skyrocketed. From 200,000 in September last year to nearly 3 million at the moment – a growth of 1500% – quite a phenomenon!

What have we been doing differently? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that one as you always have to keep on your toes and be doing something different on social media. People get quickly tired of one approach and soon move towards something new. So we are constantly on the look out for fresh materials and ways to talk about them. What’s more, Facebook is continuously changing its algorithms: the way they calculate which posts show in people’s newsfeeds. Recently they’ve been favouring paid posts much more than ever.  And as we rely on the organic growth of our pages and don’t pay to promote our posts, that means that we face increasingly stiff competition to get our posts seen – even by the people who have indicated that they like what we do.

One of the main reasons for our constant growth is, I think, because so many teachers like to feel useful and help out their colleagues.  When they see something that looks like a good or innovative way of approaching a teaching problem or some content that they think will go down well with students, their first instinct is to share it with their friends. That’s basically how the word has got around and resulted in so many people liking the TeachingEnglish page. So, for example, a recent post with suggestions about how to prepare students for the IELTS writing exam received 3,745 ‘likes’ and was shared on more than 2,000 times!

I also think it’s important that we’re not publishing just about our own British Council content. While we have excellent materials on our British Council websites and we’re proud to post about them, we also welcome posts on the page from teachers from all over the world who have nothing to do with the British Council. There are now some really excellent blogs written by teachers of English and their contributions enable the TeachingEnglish page to reflect the ideas and experiences of teachers working in a wide range of different educational contexts and to keep pace with emerging tendencies in teaching. This is something that we simply wouldn’t be able to do if we relied uniquely on our own devices and resources. We like to think that TeachingEnglish has a symbiotic relation with the best current ELT bloggers worldwide. We feature their posts prominently on the Facebook page while the Featured blog of the month and our Community of bloggers sections of our website have proved to be increasingly popular with users.


LF: In our previous conversation, you mentioned that you wanted to expand professional development opportunities for English teachers at the Facebook site.  How is that going, and what other future plans do you have?

Paul Braddock from the TeachingEnglish website:

Our plan is to provide a professional development opportunity in a game-based format and we’re looking at how we can use a combination of the TeachingEnglish website and social media to achieve this.

The first step to making this happen is an extensive tagging process on the website: all our content is being matched to 12 key teaching ‘competencies’ (Managing the lesson, Planning lessons and courses, Understanding the learner, etc.). On the site, teachers will be able to choose a particular competency they are interested in, or have identified as an area for development. They will click through to a page containing all the articles, blog posts, videos, seminars, publications and training modules or courses that relate to their area of interest. With this in place we aim to be able to provide a supportive and engaging scaffold for professional development.

LF: The LearnEnglish – British Council Facebook page, for English learners, is pretty popular, too.  What is your strategy for how you use that site and have English learners benefit from it, and what are future plans?

Neil McLaren from the British Council LearnEnglish  and LearnEnglish Teens Facebook pages:

Yes things are going well, with 1.7 million ‘likes’ at the moment, one and a half million of which have been added in the last year alone. Not only that, but LearnEnglish Teens,  our ‘youngest’ page, has gone from fewer than 50,000 to 650,000 in the same period – a growth of 1300%.

The strategy we follow is to provide learners with a daily dose of free resources and engaging activities at different levels so that they can follow their own path in exploring topics and work on developing their skills. It’s very much a two-way process, and the strong community feel which has developed on the page really helps in this.

Our single most popular feature is our Language Clinic which we run 2-3 times per week and we get a lot of inspiration from that. It has a huge reach and we can get anything up to 200 questions in a single 90-minute session. Topics range far and wide from simple grammar questions up to subtle nuances between word choices from journalists and academics.

This feeds directly into what we then share on our Facebook page timeline. Common themes, topics and areas of difficulty emerge, and we then bring together resources from across our online offer – the LearnEnglish, LearnEnglish Teens, ESOL Nexus and TeachingEnglish websites. We also include third party learning resources and authentic content not specifically aimed at language learners. We know very well from the questions that we get asked that lots of learners have trouble navigating the vast sea of online resources available, and in discerning which resources are authoritative and reliable, so we see providing them with guidance as part of our role. By engaging in discussion we can clearly identify their specific needs and so point them in the direction of the best available resources.

We’ve experimented with user-generated content too, such as collaborative story-telling, collaborative music playlists, an online writing clinic and more, and we’re always looking for new ways to promote engagement. It’s been great watching the page grow organically and extend its reach. For example, in the last year Vietnam has shot up from nowhere to become our fourth biggest group of followers, and Myanmar has gone from almost zero to 70,000 followers in the same period. This truly global spread, with regular contributors from Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa, leads to some great discussions, and the development of online friendships across cultures which I find particularly rewarding.

LF: The British Council seems to be on the cutting-edge of technology and English language development.  Can you share briefly about your other tech projects — MOOC’s, mobile apps, laptop initiatives in developing countries, and others?

Ann Foreman:

Indeed! The recent Exploring English: Language and Culture MOOC, which the British Council partnered with FutureLearn, proved fantastically popular and was referred to as ‘the biggest English language learning class in the world’. 122,583 learners joined it and more than 60% of them participated, with 54,928 of them being classed as active learners. In fact, 50% of learners made comments, leading to a total of more than 357,000 posts on the page.

We are following up the success of this MOOC with one for teachers: Understanding Language: Learning and Teaching which has been developed jointly by the British Council and the University of Southampton. We are very excited about the prospect and looking forward to the start of the course on November 17.

We will also be running another Exploring English: Language and Culture MOOC for learners in February 2015, and, in addition, have in the pipeline another MOOC to help students who are preparing for the IELTS exam.

As you mentioned, the British Council has also been involved in an exciting educational project in Uruguay – the Ceibal project – which aims to provide a laptop to every teacher and every child and so start bridging the digital gap that exists worldwide.

British Council Uruguay has taken responsibility for providing remote lessons to Primary school children with the aim of improving their level of English. The Ceibal English project began in July 2012 by providing some 50 remote lessons each week in 20 urban schools outside Montevideo, using teachers based in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. By the beginning of the 2014 school year, the number of remote lessons had reached over 2,000 each week. Our target is to provide over 4,000 remote lessons each week by early 2015, thus reaching around 90% of schools in the country. If you’d like to, you can read more about the project here British Council – Uruguay Report of the Ceibal English project.

There has been huge growth in smartphone adoption and smartphone usage over the last two years and the British Council’s LearnEnglish apps have seen a huge increase in downloads. Since 2011, we have had 9.5 million downloads and we now have a wide range of apps that cover language skills practice, listening practice, educational games and resources for children.

Our most popular app is LearnEnglish Grammar (UK Edition) which has reached number one in the educational app store charts in 24 countries and top ten in 82 countries. The app has been really well received by users with hundreds of 5 star reviews in the app stores and educational app review sites such as AppoLearning giving the app top marks for the wide range of activity types that create an engaging experience. Other really popular apps include our listening practice apps – such as LearnEnglish GREAT Videos and LearnEnglish Audio & Video.

In some countries we also provide English language learning material through SMS (text) and pre-recorded interactive lessons over the phone using technology such as Interactive Voice Response. In these countries you often find that mobile is the main source of information for people wanting to learning a language.

LF: Thanks, Ann, Paul and Neil!

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October 27, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview With Ann Foreman, Coordinator Of The Most Popular Site On The Web For English Language Teachers


Note: The original headline of this post described Ann’s site as “the most popular site on the web for English Language Learners.” I’ve since changed it to “English Language Teachers.” Here’s Ann’s note: 

Just one point: the TeachingEnglish Facebook page is aimed at teachers of English. We have a specially dedicated LearnEnglish page for learners.

Last month, I posted The Best Three Sites On The Web For ESL/EFL/ELL/ELT Teachers.

I’ve since interviewed the people behind each of those sites, and will be publishing them over the next few weeks. Two weeks ago, I published my interview with David Deubelbeiss, the founder of EFL Classroom 2.0. Last week, I posted responses from Michelle Henry from Ressources Pour Le College En Anglais.

And, , here’s my interview with Ann Foreman from The British Council’s “Teaching English” site, and the person who coordinates the most popular site on the web for English Language Learners, Teaching English- British Council:

LF: First off, can you a little bit about yourself and how, when, and why you got involved in teaching English?

Ann Foreman:

I’m very much from that old happy, hippy generation. Although I’ve always had ambitions, they’ve rarely been clearly focussed on career but much more on doing what I wanted to do and felt right. So at times I’ve been a community worker, photographer, film-maker or software developer and at others, a teacher. What these diverse pursuits have in common, I suppose, is that they’ve all given me a continuous incentive to learn and adapt – which is what I enjoy doing in life.

I began teaching English to Chilean Refugees, who had fled from the coup against Allende, which means that anybody who knows their history should be able to calculate my age pretty easily! I think that was a great way to start because there was no room for doubts in my mind as to what I had to do or what my role was. My mission was clear – to help my Chilean friends learn enough English to enable them to confront the harsh realities of their day-to-day lives. They needed it to be able to find a job and somewhere to live, communicate with teachers, social workers and doctors, and also to keep up with their children who, immersed as they were in the language at school, were quickly outstripping them in their knowledge of English. I’d say that this was a real moment of praxis for me, and this concept – the fusion and interplay of theory with practice – is one I’ve always liked and tried to apply to my life. So, at the same time as I caught up with the pedagogy: the theories of learning and teaching English, I was caught in the process of testing it out – looking to see what proved effective and quickly discarding what was not.

LF: You publish the Teaching English Facebook page for the British Council, which is likely the most popular site — by far — in social media for English teachers and learners.  What have you done/do you do to make it so popular?

Ann Foreman:

I work closely with Paul Braddock, who manages the TeachingEnglish website, and both of us were clear from the onset that our aim in creating the TeachingEnglish Facebook page was to build up a support community for English language teachers. We hoped that the page would become a kind of daily digest for the ELT community: a place where teachers could keep up-to-date with innovations in education, plus exchange ideas about their day-to-day experiences in the classroom. So alongside encouraging daily discussions on the page and posting about great content we have on our TeachingEnglish and LearnEnglish suite of websites, we extended an open welcome to ELT bloggers. We featured their blogs, invited them to post updates about them on the page and followed that up by launching a monthly TeachingEnglish blog award. It’s been a gradual, organic process, but I’d say that the reason for our current success is that the page is widely regarded as belonging to the people who contribute to it and find it useful, rather than being a flagship for the British Council.

I assume, but don’t know for sure, that you also coordinate the Teaching English Twitter account which I’m assuming is the most popular Twitter feed for English teachers and learners.  As I asked in my previous question about Facebook, what have you done to have made it so popular?  And how do you determine what you where?

Ann Foreman:

Yes, TeachingEnglish Twitter is very popular. However, I think that I should really put more effort into making it better. We’ve not systematically tried out the idea of community building there. To be honest, I’m a bit scared of what could happen if we managed to achieve the same level of discussion that we get on our Facebook page. At the moment we simply don’t have the resources to manage it! So for the time being our tweets are short, snappy and largely informative, although in the future I’d like to engage more with teachers who see Twitter as a support network for their personal and professional development.

LF: What are your future plans to expand your online work, and what are you future plans in general?

Ann Foreman:

I’m excited about the idea of doing more to help teachers with their continuing professional development. The TeachingEnglish team is currently looking at ways we can break CPD down into manageable bite-sized chunks for teachers. We’d like to offer teachers specific learning pathways that meet their personal needs but to include game elements and fun challenges in the mix. Our aim is to build on the support that teachers already get from social networks, but to try and channel it in a more focused way.

LF: What are your thoughts about the future of English teaching — trends, predictions?

Ann Foreman:

What interests me most about current trends is that they’re slurring the traditional boundaries where learning takes place. New technology and the internet are now so much part of our lives that there is no longer a good reason – if there ever was one – to confine the learning process to geographically or conceptually fixed sites such as schools or universities. I think that we as teachers really need to get our heads around this one and work out how we can help our students take full advantage of the situation. It means thinking as much about how we teach as what we teach.

I’d like to see us break through the passivity that the current educational system tends to foster amongst all of us: to find ways that we can encourage students to become critical thinkers, the kind of people who don’t take what’s offered at face value but have a clear strategy for learning about the things they consider to be important. I think that we can enrich the learning process enormously if we see it as a seamless process where teachers and students alike explore the connections we find both inside and outside of the classroom. I’d like to see us drawing on our students’ life experiences and stimulating their curiosity to pose questions that they’re really interested in and to get them seeking the answers from whichever information source that best suits the situation.

The world is our oyster and we need to explore all possible means for finding out what we want to know whether it be though the spoken word via friends, family or local community; printed materials via comics, magazines and books; or the virtual world via the internet and social networks.

LF: Thanks, Ann!

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October 19, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview With Michelle Henry Of Ressources Pour Le College En Anglais


Last month, I posted The Best Three Sites On The Web For ESL/EFL/ELL/ELT Teachers.

I’ve since interviewed the people behind each of those sites, and will be publishing them over the next few weeks. Last week I published my interview with David Deubelbeiss, the founder of EFL Classroom 2.0

Today, we’ll hear from Michelle Henry from Ressources Pour Le College En Anglais:

LF: Can you share a little about yourself — where you teach and how and why you initially became interested in English language education?

Michelle Henry:

I taught in high schools and had classes with adults. Now I have been retired since 2007.

From the start I had very good results at school, I considered language as a game. I got correspondents and could go to England every year.

At first I wanted to be a doctor, like my father, but he refused, saying that it was too difficult for a woman. I have always wanted to help people. So I turned to what I had always liked: English, and decided to become a teacher to try and convince my students it was a rich, interesting and useful language.

LF: When and why did you begin sharing online resources for English Language Learners and teachers?

Michelle Henry:

Fourteen years ago, teachers began to receive help with computers and work with WORD. We discovered the internet and how to link it with WORD. I started a list of useful links for me and my students and began to write webquests.

Then I was noticed by an inspector who liked what I was doing. He appreciated my first webquest about The White House. He asked me to work for the Regional Education Authority of Nancy-Metz, find links for high school teachers and create webquests (in addition to teaching). So I created a site and wanted it to be welcoming with pictures, varied and helpful for learners and teachers. I also created a site for primary teachers with a colleague.

Since my retirement, I have kept my site for which I received the European Language Label in 2010. It was thus recognized as an effective and reliable tool for teachers and students.

LF: How do you find all the great resources you share on your site?

Michelle Henry:

I am a member of several lists of teachers on the internet, so I can see what they are interested in and I look for corresponding links and create worksheets.

I have also subscribed to sites I appreciate for their seriousness, their ideas and efficacy.

Some teachers send me their creations: worksheets, interactive activities and games, webquests, etc.

I am interested in lots of domains and want to keep up-to-date with the news, so I spend a lot of time every day looking for interesting and motivating links. I try to put myself in the students’ shoes and wonder what they will like, what will touch them and encourage them to deepen and talk about a subject.

I wish the sites will lead to thoughts, communications and debates. I hope that the teachers will feel like creating a lesson, using videos and podcasts and talking about a subject with their students.

LF: What are your future plans — for yourself and for your site?

Michelle Henry:

This work is a passion and I can’t stop looking for new ideas. As long as I can help, I will continue.

I have created a second site: the presentation will be clearer and the pages will be smaller for the browsing to be more pleasant.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to say?

Michelle Henry:

I receive lots of encouraging mails from around the world and I appreciate the teachers’ comments. They tell me I save them a lot of time.

I also thank you for choosing my site among The Best Three Sites On the Web for ESL/EFL/ELL/ELT Teachers. It is great to have such enthusiastic support.

LF: Thanks, Michelle!

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October 15, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview With David Deubelbeiss From EFL Classroom 2.0


Last month, I posted The Best Three Sites On The Web For ESL/EFL/ELL/ELT Teachers.

I’ve since interviewed the people behind each of those sites, and will be publishing them over the next few weeks. I’m beginning with David Deubelbeiss, the founder of EFL Classroom 2.0:

LF:  I interviewed you about three years ago. Would you mind quickly reviewing some of the things you mentioned then, particularly about how and why you got involved in English teaching and why you began EFL Classroom 2.0?

David Deubelbeiss:

I began as I think many teachers out there,  with unsure and timid steps but a strong will to make a difference and help students. I’d been a steelworker and had an accident and that sobered me up and gave me time see teaching was a career option that most fit my own beliefs about my purpose in this big, wide world (yes, I’m an idealistic Virgo).

Since then taught in many places, many types of students.  Became very interested in why one student succeeds and why one doesn’t and especially special education as it relates and transfers over to ELT.  I have a strong belief that second language students need to be assisted in the same way(s) our special needs students are. This led me into the world of assistive technologies and technology in general.

As I began first doing workshops about using karaoke to help struggling readers, I began sharing online. Eventually, started doing teacher training full time and began EFL Classroom 2.0 as my “junk yard” –  a home for my mind that others were invited to enter and come and go as they pleased.

LF: Since that interview, what would you say have been the major changes/additions to EFL Classroom 2.0?

David Deubelbeiss:

We used to be a place with a lot of discussion, hundreds of comments a day. Since twitter/facebook and other micro blogging platforms exploded on the scene around 2009-2010 – we are now more a resource area/place.  Our “conversations” have transferred from EFL Classroom 2.0 to our LinkedIn group – ELT Professionals.

Additionally, we’ve become less focused on individual resources and more on general curation. There is so much “out there” and I think I’m in a great position through the community and my wide reading/contacts to help teachers find the gold and save their precious time.  We’ve also in this spirit expanded into teacher training – helping teachers with webinars and professional development materials (even a free  basic TESOL course).

LF: What are your future plans for the site?

David Deubelbeiss:

You know, to be very honest, I’m not sure….. I’m making it up as I go along – truly.  And that’s how it has to be if we are all honest about the world that is “online” and even our classrooms.  In my own lectures to my student teachers I always push this notion of “the transactional” as underpinning our professional practice. The ground is constantly shifting under us and that is a necessary part of being a teacher. If you don’t like that, you probably won’t  enjoy teaching!

I intend on continuing to keep EFL Classroom 2.0 new and up to date – there hasn’t been a moment where it just sat there and got rusty. I’ve also started a digital resources platform that I’ll be opening up to other teachers.  I hope teachers with strong materials development skills will sell and share their materials there.

I’ve concluded after many years of just giving so much away as “free” that if we teachers value our materials, others will too. Don’t undersell your hard work.  A big change in my own beliefs. Further, there are too many low quality, worksheet stuff / things flying around out there and masquerading as “learning materials”.  Teachers need quality materials AND flexible ideas on how to use those materials.

LF: You also work with English Central, which I constantly tell people is, in my opinion, the best site on the Web for English Language Learners.  Can you describe it, how it came about, what it offers, its future, and talk about your role in it?

David Deubelbeiss:

Thank you Larry for your support and appraisal, means a lot.

I got involved with EnglishCentral just after it started up in Beta late 2009 as a Google venture.  I saw the potential of the idea of using revolutionary speech recognition for language learners combined with motivating, authentic video. I was already involved in this area through my own interest in technology and special education. I helped both with the main product design – video curriculum and also building the LMS where teachers can “teach” with EnglishCentral and have an instant online language study area (class page) for their students. It’s exciting, video truly is the new textbook!

I’ll also mention that despite having a team and staff behind me – I’m still very hands on. For example, I created from beginning to end our promo video for teachers – Dave Uses EnglishCentral.

The idea is still the same as it was at the start –  to provide a place where students can get the quality practice time with “real” English (getting comprehensible input and world leading speech assessment).  I’ve helped develop the product and its been a learning process!  But I love being involved in something where I’m growing and the strong combination of my technology/coding skills combined with my experience in the classrom has been a big asset to the company. There are too many technology companies out there that don’t have people who are educators as a big part of the company. EnglishCentral does and has its pulse on the needs of students and teachers alike.

The future of EnglishCentral lies in perfecting our tools to allow teachers more flexibility in designing video based curriculum for their students. Video combined with the technology of EnglishCentral is something extraordinary. It will even be more powerful when we allow teachers even better ways to differentiate the video curriculum for their learners and get even more useful data on student achievement.  A blended approach – classroom teaching complimented with EnglishCentral online learning is a proven forumula for language improvement.

We are also very excited about our launch of mobile products – access through these devices (with great microphones!) will greatly help educators in their classrooms as we all move more into a BYOD world.

It’s been a lot of hard work and many 20 hour days but well worth it!

LF:  What is giving you the most energy these days, and what are your future personal plans?

David Deubelbeiss:

Most of my energy beyond helping teachers on EFL Classroom 2.0 is in the area of teacher training.  This year I’m not teaching at the university and hope to book more speaking engagements and workshops (so if you are reading this and are looking for a quality teacher trainer – please get in touch!).  I’m going to try and slow down and be more purposeful in my actions. Help others on the ground.  I’m making a break and moving to a small, far away, enchanted city, under a volcano.  Of course, will still be tirelessly working to make EnglishCentral into an even better tool than it already is.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

David Deubelbeiss:

I’ve been making notes about a book I’d like to write – The Future of School.  I think I have something to add to this  “debate”. Hope to spend time writing this while away from the hustle and bustle this year ….

LF: Thanks, David!

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August 24, 2012
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview With John Norton From The “New” Middleweb

John (Croft) Norton is the founder and co-editor of John also co-founded the national Teacher Leaders Network and works as an education writer, editor and virtual community developer. See his LinkedIn page for more background.

There are very few people who rival John’s connections in the education world, his editing ability, and his willingness to help.  Middleweb was my first introduction to the education tech world nine years ago…..

What’s the MiddleWeb backstory?

Thanks for giving me this opportunity, Larry. I love to talk about MiddleWeb. first appeared on the Web in 1996. The project was supported by the NYC-based E.M. Clark Foundation, which was investing heavily in middle grades reform efforts during the 1990s. MiddleWeb served both as a place to publish stories about reform efforts in districts where Clark was active and as a website where middle level educators could find resources to improve classroom and school practice. Over about six years of Clark support, MiddleWeb evolved to become more of an “all things middle grades” site, with thousands of pages of content. Like you, I’m a bit compulsive!

We also began a listserv discussion community during the 1998-99 school year, which grew to over 600 very lively and loyal educator-members. We had amazing conversations, some of the best of which were captured and published as website content. For 3-4 years in the early 2000s, we actually had F2F gatherings at locations in the US and Canada. The Clark funding ended in 2002.

What happened after that?

I kept the email chat community going and worked on the site whenever I could find the time. In 2006, the listserv group moved to the National Middle School Association (now the Association for Middle Level Education) as “MiddleTalk,” where it continues today. As the years passed, I was less and less able to keep the large website current (you know about that) but I did continue to publish a biweekly Gr 4-8 newsletter that grew to a circulation of more than 15,000.

I might say that the content of the newsletter was heavily influenced by my Clark experiences. For about 8 years I led small teams made up of journalists and educators on district visits where we observed in thousands of 4-8 classrooms and interviewed in-depth hundreds of teachers, principals and central office people. We wrote about what we learned in a district-specific newspaper of our own creation, circulated in the community and published on our website. (One of the districts was Long Beach Unified in California, which is widely recognized today as a high performing, high poverty, high minority system.) I think we learned a lot about what matters in the middle grades.

Back to the 21st century: The decade I spent trying to keep the big idea of  MiddleWeb alive while also earning a living was made possible thanks to the sponsorship of Stenhouse Publishers — a company with a strong focus on literacy and some notable middle grades teacher/authors (like Rick Wormeli, who’s been a steadfast MiddleWeb supporter since the beginning). Stenhouse bought an ad in every newsletter, which defrayed the overhead. Anyone who has loved MiddleWeb over those years has Stenhouse and marketing director Chuck Lerch to thank.

What’s going on with MiddleWeb today?

We’ve literally been reborn! Two years ago I was able to recruit Susan B. Curtis, who’s been both a middle grades teacher and a reference librarian, to partner with me. With her help we moved the newsletter to a modern mailing platform that supported graphics. We generally upgraded the looks and the content. Stenhouse agreed to expand their advertising support so we could go weekly.

Then a very good thing happened — the SmartBrief company, which publishes over 200 industry and professional newsletters in partnership with associations and special-interest groups like ourselves, invited us to partner on a new newsletter for grades 4-8: MiddleWeb SmartBrief. Stenhouse sent them to us and agreed to be the first advertiser. (What a great company – they really are committed to the work of teachers.)

We receive a small share of any advertising revenue as part of the arrangement, and that gave us the impetus to create a new MiddleWeb and devote more time to site development. We were really lucky to coax Jose Vilson, a notorious teacher/blogger/geek into helping us “mod” a new site. He picked the cool WordPress template we’re using and helped us customize it.

We launched the new WordPress-based site in mid-June, just a week before MiddleWeb SmartBrief began to appear on Tuesdays and Fridays. The response to both has been excellent. Many of our MiddleWeb community friends from the 2000s showed up to promote the new site, to urge colleagues to subscribe to the MW-SB and to contribute content and good advice.

3. What’s new about the new MiddleWeb?

Our slogan is All about the middle grades. We’re trying to keep a sharp focus on teaching & learning in grades 4-8. Of course there are many matters that concern all K12 educators and we do touch on some of those, especially in our Quick Links feature, where we feature (in short form) some of the most interesting things we come across each day.

On the new site we’ve decided to emphasize original content. We have four main threads:

Resource Roundups: We’ve always specialized in finding and sharing resources you can use. Now we’re featuring “resource roundups” — our tag for short, link-laden essays built around a theme. Here are two recent ones: New Teacher 911 and Back to School. My partner Susan puts together most of these, calling on her teaching background and library science skills. She does a great job.

Guest Articles: These are first-person posts, typically featuring the voices of teachers and school leaders, including folks on the front lines, who have stories to tell and good practice to share. We love to get queries from writers. We can’t pay right now (no revenue coming in yet) but we can offer fame. Anyone who’d like to write for us can check out our user-friendly editorial guidelines. Couple of samples: Nancy Flanagan’s The Teaching Essentials; and Marsha Ratzel’s No-Bunk Letter to Parents at the start of school. You may have detected that we’re putting a lot of emphasis right now on advice for new teachers and prep for a new school year.

We’re also launching several blogs between now and the end of the year. One is underway: STEM Imagineering with Anne Jolly, a middle grades science teacher and Alabama TOY who now writes STEM curriculum for an NSF-sponsored project (and helps school teams become action researchers). Our next serial blog will focus on special education and co-teaching and will be co-written by two excellent SpEd teachers and NBCTs – Elizabeth Stein (Long Island) and Laurie Wasserman (Boston). We’re still looking for a literacy-oriented blogger. If any of your readers has an interesting proposal, they can write us.

Book Reviews: We’ve made arrangements with education publishers to share review copies with us, and our call for reviewers was well-timed for summer break (okay, luckily timed). We have over 100 books out for review at the moment, and quite a few reviews in the queue for posting. You can see what we have so far at this page. Anyone who likes book reviewing can find out more about how to get involved here.

Interviews: We’re also talking with interesting people who have expertise around middle grades education — or just do great things for middle grades kids and schools. Visitors can peruse our Five Q Interviews for ideas, insights, and good chat. Here’s an interview with teacher/writer Cossondra George who we described as the Goddess of Good Advice for newbies. And another with Tempered Radical Bill Ferriter about writing professional books. (And thanks for letting us interview you, as well!)

We want MiddleWeb to have a community feel and one way to accomplish that is to invite readers and visitors to become participants in content creation. Here are some ideas we’ve posted about getting involved. Writing for us is just one way – but an important way! You know that I’m an editor-for-hire in one of my personas, and we offer that editorial support gratis, for what it’s worth.

4. How is the MiddleWeb SmartBrief different from your long-time biweekly newsletter “MiddleWeb’s Of Particular Interest”?

Well, as many people know, SmartBrief is an information-sharing company with lots of newsletters, including some popular education editions: ASCD SmartBrief, Accomplished Teacher, SmartBrief on Ed Tech and quite a few more. But they had nothing specifically aimed at the middle, and that’s where we came into the picture.

Our MiddleWeb SmartBrief really has two components. First there’s the content gathered by the SmartBrief editorial team, who focus on news and resource articles from the social media stream that (1) have a middle grades focus, and (2) carry a byline and are less than two weeks old. The SB editors are professional information gatherers and it’s great to have them scouring the Web for useful stuff. We worked with them to come up with the section themes for each issue: Teaching in the Middle, Tweens & Young Teens, Classroom Innovation, Technology & Connected Learning, and Middle Grades Leadership.

Then Susan and I also provide several content items in each issue — in a section labeled MiddleWeb Recommends. Most often we write about new content we’ve posted on the MiddleWeb site, but we may mention other items of interest.

Here’s the best part about the SmartBrief partnership. The SB editors work very closely with us to make sure we think what they are providing is in sync with the needs and interests of the grade 4-8 audience. We may be asked at the last minute whether some new “find” is a good fit. If not, they find something else. We also send along things we’ve spotted that we feel would be good to include, and they’re very responsive to our suggestions.

My background is in journalism and I’ve been really impressed with the quality job these folks do and the level of collaboration we’ve achieved. If a subscriber writes in and says “I’d like to see more about innovative teaching,” we all pay attention to that and try to be responsive. Our MW-SB subscriber list is growing rapidly, so I’m pretty sure we’re on the right track. It’s free and folks can subscribe here.

5. What other projects are you involved in?

I turned 64 this summer, and you’d think MiddleWeb would be enough! But I’m actually working as a consultant for two great organizations — the Alabama Best Practices Center (three states away from my NC mountain home) — and Powerful Learning Practice LLC, where I wear several hats, including editor for the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog. We’ve published nearly 200 essays there in the last 18 months, written by educators who are making the “shift” to more digitally infused, inquiry/PBL learning. Both ABPC and PLP support significant online communities of educators and have been recognized by USDOE for their leadership in that arena. As a founder of two highly engaged online communities myself, I love staying involved in what I think is the most exciting dimension of professional learning these days.

Thanks for the interview, Larry. You really are the Web Impresario of Education.




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November 18, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month — Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

(As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.)

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is the author (with Lani Ritter Hall) of the just-published Solution Tree book The Connected Educator, which offers a new model for 21st century professional development: “connected learning communities.” Sheryl and came to know of each other through the Teacher Leaders Network and our mutual colleague John Norton, an education writer and editor who co-founded TLN and has given both of us helpful editorial feedback over the years. In this interview, she shares some of her own education backstory and her vision of teaching and learning in the Internet Age.

1. Tell us something about your background as a teacher and educator.

I wasn’t one of those kids who always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. In fact, probably the opposite was true. I came from challenging personal circumstances — the sort where schools more often add to the problem than help solve it. I decided to become a teacher, oddly enough, because I was interested in homeschooling my kids and I didn’t want people saying that I wasn’t qualified.

Once I started taking education classes I fell deeply in love with learning, teaching, and the possibility of making the world a better place one kid and classroom at a time. I know that sounds kind of “noble” but I absolutely mean it. I fell in love.

My first teaching job, in the late 1980s, was as a preschool teacher at an independent school in Valdosta, Georgia. I actually bartered my teaching services in exchange for one of my children attending for free. As I walked the halls of Valwood School, I often eyed a row of Apple 2e’s that sat under dust covers, thinking “what a waste of equipment.” At the time I wasn’t much of a technology expert but I’m a quick study! I asked if I could create a technology program at the school and soon found myself their computer resource person, working with both teachers and students on developing digital literacy. When the Internet became more public and pervasive a few years later, I had no doubt that a deep understanding of digital tools and connectivity were going to be essential for any educator who was interested in helping all students reach their full potential as self-directed learners.

Over the next 20 years, in Georgia and later in Virginia Beach VA, I served as a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor and digital learning consultant. I’m now completing my doctorate in Educational Planning, Policy and Leadership at the College of William and Mary.

2. Tell us about your current work.

Sometimes I laugh and say I’ve held so many different positions in education because I can’t keep a job, but the truth is, I’m just keenly interested in learning, no matter where it takes place. The best evidence of that are the two education focused businesses I’ve started.

I’m the owner and founder of 21st Century Collaborative, LLC, a digital learning consulting group, and I travel in the U.S. and abroad to deliver keynotes, lead workshops and support nonprofits in their work to promote 21st century learning. Also, about five years ago, Will Richardson and I co-founded a professional development company called Powerful Learning Practice (PLP). Drawing on a host of brilliant education minds from around the world, we’ve helped schools and districts In the United States, Canada, Norway and Australia re-envision their learning cultures through the use of communities and networks. They meet online and face to face, do lesson plan study and action research — we make virtual classroom visits and help deconstruct ideas in webinars and Ning communities. The 7000 educators we’ve worked with have really changed who I am as a learner and educator. And they’ve given us a lot of insight into teachers’ learning needs today.

I also serve on the Online Communities of Practice technical working group for the US Department of Education and consult for organizations like Success at the Core (supported by philanthropist Paul G. Allen and the Stuart Foundation), and the NMC Horizon Project K-12 advisory board (an international body forecasting edtech trends).

3. And you have a new book just coming out . . .

Yes, in fact I’ve co-authored two books that are getting into distribution channels this month. The first is a collection of essays edited by Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann, What School Leaders Need to Know about Digital Technology and Social Media, that features some of the most visible thinkers around social media in education today. The second book, The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in the Digital Age, shares the theory of professional learning we’ve developed through our work with PLP communities. I say “theory,” but it includes plenty of practical advice for folks who are ready to become 21st century educators. We address four big themes:

  • Being a Learner first, educator second
  • Connected Learning Communities (which we describe as the next generation of professional learning communities)
  • Do It Yourself professional development, and
  • Becoming a connected learner

We argue that the time has come to reject incremental change and to radically alter the outdated learning paradigm that most students still experience it today, so they will be fully prepared for life in the 21st century.  More specifically, The Connected Educator is about the need for teachers in the Digital Age to exploit the transformative potential of emerging technologies on behalf of their students and their own professional growth.

4. Say more about the new model of professional development you’re advocating.

In the professional development model we’ve developed and use in our PLP communities, teachers and school leaders work together in local and global networks, connecting, collaborating and harvesting knowledge they apply in their schools and classrooms.

Through the three “prongs” of Connected Learning Communities, educators have the information, resources, and substantive community interactions they need to develop shared visions, common goals, and beliefs around principled change.

These three components of connected learning include the Personal Learning Network or PLN, which many teachers are now developing through Twitter, blogging, and other forms of social media. PLNs are primarily about gathering and sharing good information and ideas — they’re important but they don’t often “go deep.” The second component is the more familiar locally based professional learning community or team that now exists in many schools and districts .

The third and most “connected” component is achieved through participation in global communities of practice, which could not really exist before the advent of the Internet and high-speed connectivity. These are anytime, anywhere communities composed of educators who are committed for a variety of reasons to work together in deep ways on important matters having to do with the art and science of learning. They brainstorm and talk about creative ways to meet the needs of the 21st century learner with fellow professionals, whose ideas and geography may be very different than their own. Together in diverse spaces, they co-construct strategies that can motivate schools and fellow educators to transform learning environments, thus assuring their own sustainability by becoming highly relevant in students’ lives. They are, to adapt a late 20th century expression, places where educators can think globally, to better act locally.

5. I saw your interview at Education Week about passion-based learning. Tell us more about that.

Our book also advocates for inquiry-driven, passion-based instructional strategies that unleash the artistry of teaching and learning in educators. It’s the kind of teaching that requires educators to think deeply about learning design so that we are constantly leading and encouraging students to become self directed learners.

Let me say this first — I love what technology can do to help educators teach more effectively. But best practice for today’s learner starts with the learning, not the tools with which to learn (e.g. technology and the Internet.) We need to be asking ourselves what we want the students to know and be able to do and then work backwards determining how we recognize when they do indeed know and are able to do. What will students do or create that will prove they have mastered the objectives? And how will we check for understanding along the way?

Once we’ve determined the learning that needs to take place — then we can decide which tool(s) will work best. And this is where technology and the Internet pay off. Students can have real choice in the way they show mastery, which allows them to work through their strengths and not their weaknesses (which has been the case for many students in the late 20th century school model). Using technology allows them to create artifacts while connecting and collaborating with others; it allows students to become producers of knowledge and not consumers only.

Inquiry-driven approaches — project, problem and passion based learning models (PBL) — work best to create self-directed learning environments. And they can align nicely with the Common Core movement that has emerged in the United States. PBL can be a standards-driven approach that guides students in the creation of artifacts and also assures ownership of the content. The big difference in using project and inquiry learning strategies? They shift more control to the student. This can be unnerving for the educator who is used to command and control as a means to classroom management.

The amount of control shifted from teacher to student may vary by age level, and teachers may need to release control gradually as they help students (who often have little experience as active learners) gain the skills and understanding to become self-directing. But it’s through student-directed learning that technology and the Web become powerful tools for helping students find answers, solve problems, and design products as they construct and co-construct knowledge around the core curriculum.

Passion is an important piece of the inquiry-driven approach to learning. Knowing your students’ strengths and weaknesses — their interests and passions — will help you organize your curriculum in ways that motivate even your most challenged learners to achieve more. Want engaged learners who are able to elaborate and recall key objectives and concepts? Then design your lessons around their passions.

6. Where do you imagine your work going over the next 3-5 years? What excites you most about the future of professional learning?

Personally, I see myself becoming even more involved with the shifting of professional learning into connected spaces. The Connected Educator lays out the foundation for shifting PLCs into the next generation of connected learning communities (CLCs). Now there’s lots of work ahead helping schools implement that shift in their local context.

I also see myself writing more. I have a book in my head screaming to be written about passion-based learning and how it can result in deep student thinking and strong cognitive development. This concept can be a hard sell and I need to explicate the why and how in greater depth. I also have a desire to help create and promote more gender diversity in the educational technology space. I’d love to help interested women build their capacity around speaking and writing and then give them opportunities to share what they know with the world.

At Powerful Learning Practice, where I serve as the CEO, we’re in the process of developing a publishing arm to support the work we do. We’ve found that many of the educators who’ve participated in PLP communities have wise and compelling stories to tell about effective teaching and professional growth. We’re publishing some of those stories in our group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution, and also launching Powerful Learning Press to spread the voices of our PLPeeps via print and e-books.

What excites me most about the future of professional learning is the potential to break teachers out of their isolation and strengthen the human network. As we move forward, the collective brain will develop more and more rich collective intelligence. Part of the new challenge will be in determining how to access that intelligence and leverage it to make the world a better place.

Thanks, Sheryl!

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October 29, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month — Larry Cuban

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, Larry Cuban, the well-known author, researcher, and former teacher, superintendent and professor, has agreed to answer a few question. Larry also writes a must-read blog at Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.

Can you share what led you to pursue a career in education, give a brief summary of the positions you’ve held, and tell us what has kept you in it after so many years?

I am the youngest of three sons of immigrant parents and the only one to attend college in my family. I needed to support myself in college and afterwards. Becoming a teacher of history combined to the performing part of teaching appealed to me so I began teaching in 1955. Since then, I taught high school history and social studies in big city schools for 14 years, directed a teacher education program that prepared returning Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools, and served seven years as a district superintendent. In all I spent 26 years working in urban public schools before going to Stanford University in 1981.

For two decades at Stanford, I taught courses in the methods of teaching social studies, the history of school reform, curriculum, and instruction, and leadership. I was faculty sponsor of the Stanford/Schools Collaborative and Stanford’s Teacher Education Program. While a professor I taught three times in local high schools semester-long courses in U.S. History and Economics. My major research interests focused on the history of curriculum and instruction, educational leadership, school reform and the uses of technology in classrooms.

In 2001, I became Professor Emeritus of Education. After leaving the faculty, I have taught one seminar a year at Stanford, written articles and books, and since 2009, became a blogger.

If you were going to offer teachers three key pieces of advice that you think might help them to stay in the profession longer and be more effective educators, what would they be?

1. Re-pot yourself every few years.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. When teaching you spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that you have accumulated over the years on students. Because of that draining of your capital, for yourself and your future students you need to re-invest in yourself by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little growth, even death.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.

Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, parishioners, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth prepare the soil for learning. Such work, over time, drains one’s energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

2. Take intellectual risks.

Because teaching is repetitive work—as is doctoring, lawyering, and engineering—a certain monotony creeps in over years. Sure, the students each year differ and they add the spice of unpredictability to what occurs in classrooms but inevitably daily routines become familiar and taken for granted. Altering predictable classroom routines, introducing new subject matter, experimenting with different time schedules for activities, trying out new technologies to enhance student learning—all are instances of taking risks. Yes, failure may occur but teaching well means accepting that from time to time falling on one’s face is not a tragedy but—you guessed it—an opportunity to learn how to do the task better next time around. Losing the will to take intellectual risks is a telltale sign that teaching fatigue has set in and the routines of teaching have triumphed.

2. Speak out.

There are so many reasons why teachers do not speak out about teaching, student learning, school procedures and district policies. From fear of retaliation to sheer exhaustion at the end of the day to working at another job or taking graduate courses to caring for family and friends to inexperience in writing or speaking publicly—all are reasons teachers give for letting others speak for them. What many teachers forget or underestimate is the credibility that they have with parents, voters, and students when they do speak out about teaching, learning, school policies, and leadership. I read many teacher blogs and applaud them for taking this avenue to express themselves. More teachers need to speak out on the issues and the daily life that they experience. Being union members is, of course, important but no teacher can depend upon a union or association to do all of their speaking for them.

So voicing publicly one’s thoughts about teaching, learning, school routines, policy struggles, and, yes, even school politics is a way of re-potting one’s self and taking intellectual risks.

And, speaking of three pieces of advice, what would suggest to many people in the school reform movement, such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee?

*Before recommending any reform policy or making a grant aimed at altering teacher behavior in classrooms, include an historical impact statement (no longer than two single-spaced pages) of earlier similar reforms (what happened to the reforms? Why did they succeed? Fail? What conditions were in place? Missing?)

*Recommend only those policies (and grants) aimed at changing teachers and classroom practices that you, as reformers, would want for the teachers of your children and grand-children.

*Dial back hyped policy talk about what a new policy will achieve for teachers, students, and the larger society (e.g., online instruction for K-12, Core Curriculum Standards, charter schools). Over-promising results while under-estimating the tough difficulties principals and teachers face in implementing new policies is the pattern that reformers have followed for over a century. Speaking honestly, directly, and publicly about what a new policy aimed at teachers can and cannot do would not only be refreshing but give credibility to proposed policies and grants.

*Publicly advertise the theory of change (or action) that is embedded in any recommended policy that is being pushed and funded.

What are the most hopeful things you are seeing in schools today?

*New and veteran teachers with tempered idealism working hard each day teaching.

*Small but increasing numbers of teachers who blog and speak out.

*Amid the policy churn over evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores and merit pay schemes to pay teachers and cascading criticism of teacher unions, public opinion polls show growing respect for teaching and teachers. To be sure respect for teachers in the U.S. remains below that in other nations such as China, Finland, and Canada. Nonetheless, the over-heated policy talk over the past five years about lousy teachers and firing bad ones has not altered the respect that parents and voters have for teachers—if these opinion polls are to be believed.

*The existence of good schools (as measured by parent/student/teacher satisfaction and multiple student outcomes) in big cities, suburbs, and rural districts that continue year after year seeking intellectual, physical, psychological, and emotional growth in children and youth.

What projects are you working on these days?

* Writing my next book. The working title is: “Inside the Black Box: Change without Reform in Classroom Practice.”

*Staying alive and healthy for my family and friends.

Thanks, Larry!

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October 1, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo
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Interview Of The Month — Stan Karp From Rethinking Schools

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

This interview, though, is an extra edition that I wanted to publish in coordination with Rethinking Schools’ (one of my favorite periodicals) twenty-fifth anniversary! Stan Karp from Rethinking Schools agreed to answer a few questions:

Can you say a bit about your connection to education, what you do with Rethinking Schools, and what got you interested in both?

After finishing college in the early 70s, I joined the Urban Education Corps, a federal program designed to prepare people for careers as urban teachers. It attracted young people motivated by the civil rights and social movements of the 60s to careers as educators in poor communities. I spent a memorable half-year teaching 5th grade before I got a job teaching English in a Paterson, NJ high school, where I taught for 30 years.

For my first ten years I taught five sections of high school English (plus a homeroom and a cafeteria supervision) in a struggling urban high school of 2500 students. Then, in the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to take over the school’s journalism program. This meant teaching elective classes with considerably more freedom to create my own curriculum and escaping the increasingly standardized, test-driven core courses. I much preferred teaching writing, research and communication skills to teaching the literary canon. Helping students prepare publications had the feel of a real activity, and I enjoyed the student engagement involved in building a journalism program that was a modest exercise in student democracy and critical media literacy.

In my last decade of teaching, I did the small school dance. A reform-minded principal asked me to become a lead teacher in a reform project that reflected the national trend towards “personalizing” large comprehensive high schools. I became the lead teacher of the “Communications Academy,” one of several small learning communities designed to restructure the larger school.  Leading the Communications Academy had many positives, including having several former students return to join my team of teachers. But there were also many thorny issues that reflected the underlying tensions of small school reform.

Paterson was also one of the first districts in the country taken over by the state for “educational mismanagement” and one of districts at the heart of the Abbott case, a landmark state battle for funding equity. So there were plenty of policy issues connecting directly to my classroom and I found writing about them a useful way to examine their impact and connect with other activists. That’s how I found Rethinking Schools.

For people who aren’t familiar with Rethinking Schools, can you describe it and explain how you see its role in education?

Rethinking Schools is a publication founded by Milwaukee educators in 1986. It began as a local effort to address issues like the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, textbook-dominated curricula and the wave of top-down, bureaucratic reform set in motion by the “Nation at Risk” report in the early 80s.

For 25 years, Rethinking Schools has been a voice for activist educators, nourishing the growth of a grassroots movement for social and educational justice. It’s also been part of local and national efforts to build activist networks for progressive school reform and social change.

Today, Rethinking Schools is a respected quarterly magazine, to my knowledge the only national education publication produced by a board of current and former classroom teachers. It’s also a publisher of a growing catalog of books on critical teaching, social justice curricula and education policy.  This year we’re marking our 25th anniversary, a very long time for a progressive, grassroots project to survive without sustained foundation or institutional support.

As a Rethinking Schools editor and writer, I’ve tried to provide a classroom teacher’s perspective on policy issues, such as school funding, school governance, district reform, small school initiatives, federal education policy and No Child Left Behind. I’ve also written about the larger political forces at work shaping education policy agendas. Over the past year, I’ve coordinated the site, which we initiated to talk back to the teacher-bashing propaganda film.

What do you see as the three major challenges facing public education today and how you think they should be dealt with?

1. The inequality that surrounds our schools every day. This includes the inequalities of race, class, and opportunity that follow students to school and the resource inequities they find when they get there. The solutions are systematic efforts to reduce poverty and better school funding systems that provide high quality education for all kids instead of just some kids.

2. The testing plague. We need to end the test and punish approach to reform, and put teachers and students back at the center of teaching and learning.

3. Strengthening the democratic and public character of schools from top to bottom. What’s ultimately at stake in the current polarized debate over education reform is whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed—however imperfectly—by all of us as citizens. Or whether they’ll be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society.

What are three books you’d recommend that new and veteran teachers read?

First, a couple of Rethinking Schools publications: The New Teacher Book and Rethinking Our Classrooms Vols. 1 & 2 are great resources for teaching for social justice.

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a good overview of the current reform road to disaster and Linda Darling Hammond’s The Flat World and Education includes an excellent chapter on the fight for funding equity here in NJ.

I know that’s more than three, but it’s important for teachers not to always follow directions.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

A plea to your readers to consider supporting Rethinking Schools. There are hard times for both print publications and progressive education voices. Subs and individual donations have kept us going for 25 years, but we’ll need more of both to survive. Thanks.

Thanks, Stan!

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September 28, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview With Superintendent Pam Moran On Instructional Coaching

Two days ago, The New Yorker Magazine published a lengthy and important article on “coaching” and featured the instructional coaching program at the Albemarle County School District in Virgina. Since that time, I’ve written two related posts (Now, This Is What I Call Professional Development! and “Coaching: The New Leadership Skill”, and am now lucky enough to be able to post an interview with Pam Moran, the Superintendent of that district. Dr. Moran also writes a blog and can be followed on Twitter.

Can you give a brief description of the coaching program?

We know that best practices in our teaching profession are continuously evolving, especially as the needs of contemporary learners shift. Our Instructional Coaches help teachers process and reflect upon change as teachers work to create irresistible learning opportunities for all students. Coaches advocate for, facilitate, and support the work of the teacher, but it’s not their job to supervise. They neither perform, nor contribute to, teacher evaluations, which is the job of the principal. An Instructional Coach embeds development support for teachers to enhance their content knowledge and instructional strategies. This process occurs as close as possible to their learning spaces. A coach sees him/herself as an equal partner with teachers, spending the majority of the time working in classrooms (e.g. modeling, observing, co-teaching, and meeting to take reflective pauses with a teacher or professional learning community team).

Overall, Instructional Coaches facilitate time for teachers to consider the learning needs of all students, assist with extending competencies including use of new learning tools, and use formative questions that challenge teachers to assess their own progress against evolving professional goals. Instructional Coaches have different areas of content expertise but are learning “generalists” who work through a reflective processing feedback loop to support any teacher regardless of content taught or level of assignment. Coaches work in teams to support schools within a feeder pattern.

Each team is staffed with a lead coach who serves as a liaison with building principals and the coaching teams to sustain fidelity to the model. The coaching positions are school-based in operations but centrally managed so their purpose does not get lost in what is still a predominately site-based management school division. They all meet together routinely to continue their own process of development as reflective practitioners in their own right. We’ve had several coaches who have shifted back into classrooms which is also an intentional element of the model. Our coaches who go back speak to the differences in who they’ve become as teachers after coaching – educators who are far more intent upon “kid-watching” and meta-cognition about every move they make in response to what they understand about the act of teaching as an influence upon learning. We see the impact of the coaching model as rippling across schools as more teachers become confident in its use, are open to connecting with coaches, and willing to take the risk of making themselves vulnerable to working with a coaching partner.

Did you initiate the instructional coaching effort, or was it going on when you became Superintendent? In the face of overall budget cuts, why and how does your District continue to support it?

Yes- this model began through conversations during my superintendency. We – a team effort of central and building administrators and teachers- initiated our coaching model four years ago to address critical considerations regarding the nature of professional development that matters. We’d had a central coordinator and a building-based specialist model in place. Through these two models, we attempted to support traditional professional development, curricular supervision, and math and literacy focus in buildings. In truth, we had a fragmented program in which staff operated in isolation of each other and often were working off assignment on tasks that had little to do with a mission of supporting teachers to develop increasingly sophisticated teaching competencies.

Our Teacher Performance Appraisal system had been created by a diverse team as a development model, rather than one of compliance. We had adopted a Professional Learning Community(PLC) model to extend the capacity of teams through conversations in which teachers’ knowledge and understanding of individual learners was central to their work. Our curricula had been written as a concept-centered, standards-based document informed by our Framework for Quality Learning, a road map to describe learning as higher order, active, collaborative, and challenging. Despite our efforts to transform our work with curricula, assessment, and instruction into a more contemporary- non-factory school- process, we were missing “something” to pull the elements of the system together into a web. We began to think of the coaching model as a missing piece.

The downturn in the economy actually acted as an accelerator to shift to the Instructional Coaching model as we eliminated central administrative positions and some building level non-classroom positions. Those that were left were redirected into the coaching model. We see the coaching model as integral to other areas of professional development which has resulted in a mental model that development occurs best when job-embedded rather than sitting in a workshop. Together, traditional and job-embedded development help teachers determine directions for goals, do action research with coaches, and work in a formative feedback loop that allows them to see progress. This process is quite consistent with the best of motivation research. We see through anecdotal and quantitative evidence that teachers who participate in coaching become even more motivated to develop and extend competencies.

Our school has an instructional coach working with teachers. It seems to me that one of the reasons why it’s so successful is because it’s done outside the formal evaluation process and is completely voluntary on the part of teachers. It sounds like you have similar guidelines. Do you think that’s important and, if so, why?

It’s critical that teachers trust in the coaching model as one in which they can be completely open and honest with coaches about what they perceive as working- or not – in their learning spaces. Coaches provide an ear to hear a teacher’s questions, to respond with their own reflections, and to guide teachers in their journey to move through stages of developing, integrating, and innovating practice. We don’t want to confuse the role of coach with that of the principal who ultimately must engage with a teacher in the summative stage of performance appraisal.

Coaching merges formative assessment, teacher-determined areas of focus as a professional learner, and strategies that build confidence in the process of examining the act of teaching with a critical eye for improving. Keeping the coaches in the role of partner, co-learner, and reflective practitioner allows both novice and experienced teachers to pursue success while acknowledging failure. This private processing allows for a trusting, critical “friend” relationship to emerge between teacher and coach.

Why do you think The New Yorker decided to feature your District’s program?

I think that the writer heard about our model through a connection with a coach and it was a topic he was pursuing. There are many models for coaching and many great examples of school districts that use coaching as a tool. We’ve learned from others who have similar models and if sharing our work helps others make sense of how to improve the act of teaching then it’s well worth taking the time to share our work with others.

What are the biggest challenges to maintaining a successful coaching program?

The first challenge we experienced in creating the program was related to building trust in the people we selected as the initial team of coaches. Even though they were all excellent teachers in their own right, they didn’t have “face” credibility in all the schools where they were assigned to work. We had to provide enough time for them to become known as competent, trustworthy peers so that the coaching “flywheel” could begin to turn. Now that it’s turning, the biggest challenge is finding the time for coaches to work with all the teachers who want to build relationships with them. Coaching is not a one-shot event but a long-term, sophisticated relationship through which the teacher and coach become respectful co-learners and teachers.

When coaches are being pulled by novice teachers who are of the highest priority and trying to balance that time commitment with expert teachers who want a different kind of in-depth interaction, it challenges the coaches to sustain quality of work with a finite amount of time. We also expect the coaches to be integrators- they work to support teachers to use new learning technologies as tools that support project- and problem-based learning. As new tools are brought on line, the coaches have to be ready to adapt those into their work with teachers. We want our coaches to be in learning mode themselves which means we have to provide time for them to connect with each other, to study, and to reach outside the division to find other resources that increase what’s available for teachers in their ever-expanding tool belts. Then, we fight to sustain the financial commitment to coaching.

While these positions are required by the state as non-teaching positions, we are asked why we maintain these positions as we’ve had to cut other positions. It’s not just that they are required in one format or another. What’s more important is the answer to a question of why we should care about coaching. Why care? These educators clear paths for teachers to more easily find their way through all the distractors of today’s education world and maintain a focus on why we teach. In this division it’s not about measuring our success by high stakes test scores but rather because we want to create spaces of irresistible learning so that young people can find their learning passion because our teachers have found theirs.

Thanks, Dr. Moran!

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September 18, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month — Kevin D. Washburn

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, I’m publishing October’s “Interview Of The Month” a few days early. Kevin D. Washburn is a researcher, author, and teacher particularly focusing on neuroscience and learning. He is the Director of Clerestory Learning (you can subscribe to their free newsletter here). He’s also a blogger and author.

Can you tell us what Clerestory Learning is and how you got involved in education?

I discovered my love for teaching while in high school. We had the option of serving as aides in elementary classrooms during our free periods. I spent most of these times in a kindergarten classroom, and I knew almost immediately that I loved it. My first day there, a student squeezed his plugged glue bottle so hard that it burst and sent a flood of stickiness all over the table. Where else would you get to get to experience such fun?!?

That enjoyment was honed into a mission while I was in college. I had inspiring professors who pushed us to think, to innovate, and to find a way to share our learning with others. We were also told repeatedly that being a professional meant constantly learning and growing. That message found root in my mind because the professors did not just say it; they lived it. I remember we students tried arguing this with a professor. Our objection was, “What if we end up working in a school system that has no money to send us to conferences or graduate school?” Her reply was classic: “Can you read?” She helped us realize that WE were responsible for our own professional development.

After graduation I searched for a kindergarten position. I got all the way to board interviews at two schools, but the outcome was the same in both. The board members did not feel a man could be “motherly enough” to teach kindergarten. I was disappointed until I started teaching fourth grade. My nine- and ten-year-old students were a constant source of joy. Do people who do not teach get to laugh so much during their workdays? I doubt it.

Forgive me for sharing a story from those early days. The television show America’s Funniest Videos launched about the same time I began teaching. I was reading aloud to my class one day, and the section of the story was especially tense. As I wondered down the aisle, my voice rising and falling with the drama, I worked my way back to a stool I kept at the front of the classroom. I backed onto the stool, wove my legs into its legs, and then plummeted to the floor. I landed, face down, literally nose-in-book. My students were stunned into silence. I stood up, brushed off, looked up, and we simultaneously burst into laughter. A student in the back raised his hand and said, “Do it again, Mr. W., so I can get it on video!” We didn’t, but I frequently replay the event mentally, and it always makes me chuckle.

From there, I taught everything from third grade to graduate school, and I have loved every level. I also served as an administrator just long enough to realize it was not my forte, and then moved into curriculum and instruction-related areas. I’ve had the opportunity to lead development of an instructional reading program and guide schools in its implementation.

Which brings me to Clerestory Learning, an organization my wife and I founded about five years ago. Clerestory Learning is a business dedicated to creating practical classroom applications of neurocognitive research by developing programs and professional development for teachers, our schools’ most valuable asset. We strive for excellence in professional development and training programs by creating effective instructional solutions based on sound applications of multidisciplinary research. In short, we divide our time between researching and developing programs and tools for teachers and schools, leading professional development events, and writing. I love every aspect of this!

Right now, we have three popular programs. “Teaching the Learning Brain” is a one-day event that explores a variety of neurocognitive research findings that have implications for teaching. Then we have two multi-day programs. “The Architecture of Learning” focuses on instructional design tools that help teachers apply findings from neurocognitive research to their teaching. My current favorite is “Writer’s Stylus,” a K-12 instructional writing program that includes a professional development component. I love teaching this because teachers grow both personally and professionally during our time together. It’s one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had. Observing teachers use the methods with students literally moves me to tears. Their work helps students find their voices and craft their messages in ways that deserve attention. It’s moving and inspiring to witness.

What do you think are the three most important concepts that educators can learn from neuroscience?

Understanding LEARNING improves your teaching.
Everything you do as a teacher matters. From your intentional instruction to the very words you use, it all fosters (or hinders) learning.
To learn, the brain must THINK! We must plan time for student thinking and engage students in activities that foster the thinking that constructs new learning.

Please share a little about your book — what is it about and why did you decide to write it?

The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain presents the fundamental processes of learning and offers planning tools to help teachers develop teaching that engages students in those processes. In other words, it takes findings from neurocognitive research, explains how they relate to learning, and suggests ways teachers can apply the findings to teaching. It also explores related areas that are of intense interest to me, such as critical and creative thinking. If there is a bottom-line message to the book, it’s what I offered as one of the three important concepts from neuroscience: To learn, the brain must THINK! The book offers a few ways that thinking can be intentionally included in teaching.

I decided to write the book because there was wide-spread interest in the approach, and many teachers who were interested did not have the opportunity to attend a professional development event dedicated to it. Thankfully, the book has been well-received, even though when I read it I see things I want to revise (again!). I have a second book in the thinking stages right now. After that, I may return to the current book and work on a revised edition. I definitely want to include more examples of technology use, and I have some exciting ideas about applying the model to more self-directed learning emphases.

Thanks to Jason Bedell, who is both genius and blazingly fast learner, the book is available in traditional paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats.

What neuroscience research that is presently going on do you think has the greatest potential for application in the classroom?

Brace yourself. I think the wide-ranging field of wisdom research has significant implications for schools and teachers. I know, I know. Many people think wisdom is beyond the realm of scientific study, but researchers are pursuing this line of inquiry and discovering much that I think we as educators should be exploring.

Wisdom includes supporting capacities, such as self-regulation, that already are influencing classroom practice (or should be!). Many teachers are familiar with Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth’s research on self-regulation. But researchers are also exploring capacities such as compassion, emotional-regulation (resilience), humility, and altruism. We’re not at a place where these have been studied enough to offer many ideas for education. However, I see this field as potentially altering our ideas of what school should be.

Right now, I am tinkering with a model of four-fold emphasis: self-directed learning, self-directed reasoning, self-directed evaluating, and wisdom. There is far more to this than I can share here, but this emphasis would include elements that many teachers currently would like to emphasize, such as creative thinking. I agree with Robert Sternberg: much of what we do now in schools, including the assessment tools we value, is “orthogonal to wisdom.” I’d sure like to be part of an educational system that sought to produce wise individuals!

Ultimately, this research has to be examined and distilled to the point where we as teachers know what and how we need to change. We’re not there yet. But this are of research is loaded with potential!

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Yes. We must remember that the brain is an embodied brain. Our schools need to be attentive to the health of our students. Things like true physical fitness and free play support student learning. Students need to be building healthy fitness habits, and this augments the building and maintaining of a brain that is primed for new learning. I know that we cannot (and should not) control every aspect of a student’s life, but we can structure our programs so that influences on learning, such as physical fitness, receive adequate attention. Everyone seems to want more time for teaching. This is the wrong perspective. We need to ask ourselves, “What does a student need to optimize learning?” Part of the answer is physical fitness and free play. We want more time to each; students need more time to maintain healthy brains for learning.

Thanks for this opportunity. Your questions have motivated me to dive back into my work with renewed vigor!

Thanks, Kevin!

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September 10, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month — Judie Haynes

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, my guest is Judie Haynes, long time ESL teacher, author, and blogger.

What led you to teaching English Language Learners, and can you share some of your career highlights?

I came to ESL by way of foreign languages. I lived in France for three years and knew well the difficulties of
learning a new language and culture. I completed my Master’s in language education and eventually gravitated to ESL. I taught elementary ESL
for 28 years. I became interested in helping teachers of ELLs when I saw the difficulty that my students had in their mainstream classroom.
It gave me such a sense of satisfaction to help English language learners. I love learning about other cultures and languages.

What would be the three most important tips you’d suggest that teachers of ELL’s keep in mind?

I think teachers of ELLs need to be cognizant of more than second language acquisition. They need to ascertain their ELLs’ level of language acquisition and their culture and prior schooling. Teaching English learners is so much more than the actual lessons that we teach in the classroom. Teachers of ELLs need to advocate for their students. This is their most important role. Our students can not succeed if they are not part of an effective school environment. My last point is that teachers of ELLs need to know how to engage parents and make them a part of the school culture.

Can you tell us about your latest book, and if you’ve got another one coming up?

I co-authored my most recent book with Debbie Zacarian. “Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas” was published in 2010 by the Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers. It is a book for classroom and content area teachers of ELLs. Debbie and I have a new book coming out late next year with Corwin Press that deals with teaching entry and beginning level English learners.

How do you learn and share teaching ideas online?

I am active on Twitter and am especially proud of being co-founder (with Linda Hahner) of #ELLCHAT, an educational discussion about English Language Learners. Twitter provides the most amazing professional development! I have not only met wonderful ESL and classroom teachers of ELLs through Twitter but I also have widened the scope of my interests to include early childhood education and world languages. I am also co-founder (with son Charles) of which I am proud to say has been around for 12 years.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

I left the classroom in 2008 and now have my own consulting business, everythingESL. I travel around the U.S. providing professional development to classroom and subject area teachers of English language learners.

I am currently President of NJTESOL-NJBE, a group of ESL and bilingual teachers and administrators in New Jersey. I have served on the board of NJTESOL-NJBE for nearly 20 years.

Thanks, Judie!

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July 20, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month — Bill Ferriter

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, I’m publishing August’s “Interview Of The Month” a few days early. Bill Ferriter, teacher, blogger, author, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network has agreed to answer a few questions.

Why did you choose to be a teacher?

Choosing to be a teacher, I think, was easy.  I knew that I wanted to make a difference and no profession provides change agents with more opportunities to be influential than education.

I mean, we have the chance to change lives.

That’s powerful stuff, isn’t it?

Knowing that each morning brings new chances to have a positive impact on the students in my classroom is pretty awesome—and while I don’t always get things right, I’m doing my best to matter.

What has motivated you to do so much writing on education issues?

I’m a firm believer, Larry, that the closer one is to the classroom, the more they understand about what works in schools.

The sad reality, though, is that the closer one is to the classroom, the less influence they have over the policies that govern our buildings.

That’s a function of our traditional educational structures.  Teachers, in our thinking, are only working when they are in front of a room of students.

When you’re in front of students every day, though, there is little time to play any kind of role in important conversations about what should be happening in our classrooms.

We’re left with groups of people who know little about the reality of teaching and learning making the most important decisions about the direction our schools should take.

How sick is that?

Writing—particularly blogging—became a tool for me to elbow my way into those important conversations.

I don’t need anyone’s permission to share what I know about teaching and learning anymore.  More importantly, I don’t need any release time from the classroom to get involved.

Every time I sit down behind the keyboard, I can be influential.  I can shape thinking.  I can be heard—and as long as I can hook a few regular readers, I might just be making a difference.

Need proof?

I bumped into a member of our state board of education a few years back.  She sought me out at a function and said, “I’m reading your blog, Bill.  The name scares me, but I’m listening.”

How cool is that?

Can you give a brief overview of each of your three books?

My books are extensions of each of my personal passions—professional learning communities, teaching with technology, and using social media to communicate and connect.

Building a Professional Learning Community at Work is designed to be a practical guide that schools can use to structure their first steps with PLCs.

It includes dozens of handouts that can be used by learning teams to overcome the most common barriers to effective collaboration—and it was recognized as Learning Forward’s 2010 Staff Development Book of the Year.

Teaching the iGeneration is essentially my efforts to document everything I know about good teaching in the 21st Century.

I start by introducing readers to the changing nature of today’s learners.  Then, I try to show readers how to build bridges between what we know about good teaching and what our students know about new digital tools.

Each chapter focuses on an essential skill—managing information, collaborating, communicating, persuading—that teachers will be comfortable with already.  Then, I give practical examples of how I use digital tools to make those skills more effective and efficient for today’s learners.

It’s chock-a-block full of handouts too!

My third book—Communicating and Connecting with Social Media—is an attempt to show school leaders several positive ways that social media tools like Facebook and Twitter can be used to improve their work.

Specifically, we try to show principals how to use social media tools to reach out to their communities, to improve their own learning and to improve the learning of their faculties.

We intentionally avoid introducing strategies for teaching with social media simply because teaching with social media is still a controversial practice in most communities.

We believe, however, that as educators begin to embrace social media spaces as sources for personal learning, they’ll naturally look for safe ways to introduce those same spaces and practices into their classrooms.

What do you think are three key questions teachers should consider asking their principal and/or tech staff person to get them thinking about using ed tech more effectively?

Great question, Larry—and I love that there is an assumption that we should be asking questions about our ed tech choices at all!

Sadly, that lack of systematic thinking often ends up in schools that spend thousands of dollars on tools that do little to change learning in a meaningful way.

Need proof?  Check out this piece about a principal that dropped $18,000 on 6 Interactive Whiteboards.


The most effective schools think about quality instruction first and then work to find the tools—and make the purchases—that advance quality instruction.

These three questions can help to keep an instruction-first perspective at the forefront of any school’s ed tech thinking:

1. What does our community value the most?  What role do creativity, collaboration, and collective inquiry play in our beliefs about learning?

2. What does an engaged classroom look like in action?  What is it that we most want to see happening in our classrooms?

3. How are our technology purchases helping us to move closer to both our mission and our vision of an engaged classroom?

What are three key things you think it would be helpful for many non-educators who are making decisions about education to hear?

Only three, huh?  This won’t be easy, but I’ll give it a try.

Given that current conversations in most edu-circles seem to be centered around canning crappy teachers, let’s focus on what accomplished individuals expect from a profession:

Accomplished individuals expect workplaces that are professionally flexible: Talented teachers are like any talented professional—they thrive in workplaces that allow them to experiment and to explore their practice.

Current policies that increasingly control the work of classroom teachers are simply not professionally satisfying for the best and the brightest.

If we are really serious about improving teacher quality by attracting the best and the brightest to our classrooms, we’ve got to create educational policies that encourage—rather than stifle—innovation.

Accomplished individuals are not afraid of accountability, but they expect to be evaluated fairly: Our education system is currently being broken to pieces by policymakers who are hell-bent on “holding teachers accountable” for performance.

The hitch is that “holding teachers accountable” means nothing more than measuring student performance on poorly structured end-of-grade exams that:

  1. Aren’t given in every class.
  2. Don’t cover the entire curriculum.
  3. Measure low-level skills.
  4. Fail to take into account the impact of out-of-school factors on students.

That’s why we push back when policymakers craft half-baked plans built around testing as a tool for accountability.

We’re not opposed to being held accountable for our performance, but we are smart enough to know when the accountability programs are unfair at best and irresponsible at worst.

Systematically demonizing teachers is driving accomplished people away from our profession: I’m exhausted, Larry, by the never-ending attacks on teachers that have become so common.

Hearing the same vitriol spewed over-and-over again—teachers are lazy, teachers are brainwashing children, teachers are overpaid, teachers are bankrupting states—is making it less and less likely that we’ll ever be able to attract enough accomplished individuals to our classrooms to be successful.

Who wants to be a punching bag for the public for their entire career?

You’ve made a switch this year to teaching Science.  Why did you make that change, how has it gone, and what have you learned?

Are you ready for this, Larry:  I made the switch to teaching science because it is currently an untested subject in my state.

Now, if people want to “hold me accountable,” they need to actually come into my classroom and watch me teach for a while.

They’ve got to see my kids in action and start asking questions.  The only evidence they have to judge me is what they can see with their own two eyes.

When I was teaching language arts, standardized test results became the only indicator that anyone ever used to determine whether or not I was an accomplished teacher.

It was like an evaluation cop-out.  Why bother doing the hard work of observing and evaluating teachers when you’re going to get a set of test scores back each spring, right?

Moving to science guarantees that I’ll be assessed on something more than a test—and I’ve loved it.

Is there anything you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

Sure—you never asked whether I thought I’d still be teaching in 5 years.

The answer is I’m just not sure anymore.

My goal has been to be a full-time practitioner for my entire career.  There’s just something noble about spending my whole life as a full-time classroom teacher.

And honestly, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

But I really can’t justify a 10-month position that requires me to work about a dozen part time jobs just to pay my bills AND that subjects me to constant criticism and insult anymore.

I get paid really well as an educational consultant—and my writing has earned me a ton of opportunities to move into that work on a full-time basis.

I’ve fought to resist the temptation to leave the classroom for probably the past 5 years.

But I’m so hacked off by the way teachers are being treated—and so pessimistic about our chances of seeing sanity return to conversations about schools—that I’m probably closer to leaving than at any point in my professional career.


Thanks, Bill….Hang in there….

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July 1, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo
1 Comment

Interview Of The Month: Educator & Author Alan Sitomer

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, educator, author, and blogger Alan Sitomer has agreed to answer a few questions.

Alan, you’ve had a number of teaching and writing accomplishments over the years. Could you share some of the highlights?

The first thing that always comes to mind whenever I am asked a question such as this is the phrase, “Wow.” I mean in hindsight, it may appear as if there has been some sort of master plan in action which allowed me to get to this point, but as I go through this world, all I really try to do is offer my best, use my abilities and do what I can to help teachers and kids. Essentially, I am pretty much a dork who loves school, books, literacy, reading and writing and for that I’ve been the lucky recipient of a few notable days.

The highlight above all was being named the state of California’s Teacher of the Year, 2007. That one led to me having an opportunity to meet a sitting president in the Oval Office of The White House. Just too cool. I mean I was in the Roosevelt Room standing next to battle flags from the Civil War. Simply amazing. I also received the 2004 award for Classroom Excellence from the Southern California Teachers of English, the 2003 Teacher of the Year honor from California Literacy, the Educator of the Year award by Loyola Marymount University and the Innovative Educator of the Year award, 2008, by The Insight Education Group.

Just the right place at the right time, I guess. And I don’t say that with false modesty because there are SO MANY spectacular teachers and educators working their butts off in our schools these days to make a difference that to be singled out for the work I do feels nice, but a bit undeserved. We’re all in this together.

Where and what do you teach, what led to a career as an educator, and what sustains you in it?

Currently, I am on sabbatical from Lynwood Unified School District where I have been an inner-city high school English teacher for quite some time. A variety of things are being offered to me – literacy coaching positions, charter school staff jobs, blah, blah, blah – but I am really dedicating most of my current time to two primary areas: providing high quality PD to teachers who are struggling to reach reluctant readers and authoring new books.

The inane focus on bubble testing our kids into oblivion (Am I the only one who believes we are over-testing our nation’s schoolchildren?) has sapped school resources from proven areas of doing what really works when it comes to helping to improve student achievement: providing good professional development to classroom teachers. All the studies show how effective PD can be and yet it has been kicked to the curb while bubble tests have ballooned to the point of farcical importance in our schools. Right now I am doing what I can in my own little David vs. Goliath way to help turn that tide.

As for what led me to a career as a teacher, well… I can’t remember NOT being a teacher. I mean I was the kid that would help all the other kids with their homework, their papers, and stuff like that. In college some people flip burgers; me, I tutored student athletes at the University of Southern California. Teaching, education, reading, writing, it’s all woven into my DNA. It’s what I love.

Put me in a windowless cubicle filling out Excel sheets all day long and I morph into quite a mediocre and droll human being. But education, books and literacy… that fires me up! In this way I am extremely blessed. I do what I love. (It not only sustains me, it feeds me.)

What are three important insights you’ve gained over the years that have made you a better teacher?

Great question. The first would be that as a teacher, you have to realize that these are real people with whom you are working day to day. They are not data points or statistical widgets; these are people’s children. I treat them as such in spite of the current attempt to homogenize and standardize every child through brain-dead bureaucracy. Someone must advocate in a grass roots manner where the rubber hits the road. (Side note: as an English teacher, I always insist my students avoid using clichés in their work… avoid them like the plague. *wink*) As a teacher, I believe the educator at the front of the room must do their bet to serve the child and not the institution. Take care of the former and the latter will prosper. Take care of the latter and both will wilt.

Number two, I encourage kids to – as Joseph Campbell once famously said – follow their passion. If you like cars and are good with auto-mechanics than hey, perhaps that’s where you will best fit into this world. But that doesn’t mean books and reading and school and math isn’t critical. I mean why work in someone else’s garage when you can own your own auto repair shop? Education provides liberation. Philosophically, this is how I approach my kids. I don’t tell them what they ought to be; I ask them what they want to be and then illuminate for them why being well-educated is in their own best interest. Lots of ears open up when you show a kid what’s in it for them when it comes to school.

Number three comes right from Shakespeare. “To thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” It’s hard being a teacher these days. And there are moments which really shake your soul. Follow the compass provided to us by the Bard. That insight literally has helped me navigate some mighty rough waters in my day. And it’s helped me stand up for the kids (to the buffoons) more times than I can count. We only live once. Teaching is meaningful and fulfilling and awesome when educators are true to their own colors.

What writing projects are you working on now, and what have you got planned for the future?

My newest book is my first YA comedy. It’s called NERD GIRLS and it hits stores across the nation – courtesy of Disney Book Group – on July 5, 2011. There has been a lot of great response to it already and I am absolutely thrilled about launching the first title in what I plan to be a 5 book series.

Amazingly (really, someone ought to pinch me) I have now authored 11 books to date for publishers like Disney, Scholastic, Penguin/Putnam, and RB Education. These include six young adult novels, three children’s picture books, two teacher methodology books, and a classroom curriculum series for secondary English Language Arts instruction called The Alan Sitomer BookJam. I mentioned Joseph Campbell earlier and the notion of “following your passion”. Well, for me my avocation and my vocation have merged. I am truly lucky in that regard.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Since I am a teacher by trade – and I blog 4-5 times a week on my website – I get a pretty decent chance to “share my thoughts” all the time. However, in closing, I’d like to offer up a quiz I just put together.

Readers, sharpen your pencils… it’s time for a test!

Nerd Assessment Test

Ever wonder if you are a nerd? Take this self-assessment!

· Have you ever said, “Ssshh, I want to hear the school band?”

· Have you ever reminded your teacher that they forgot to assign the class homework?

· Have you ever gotten a 93 on a test and been upset that your score wasn’t higher?

· Have your parents ever told you, “Put down that book and stop reading already!”

· Do you laugh when you read the following sentence: “Nerd spelled backwards twice is Nerd.”

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re probably a NERD!

Thanks for having me.

Thank you, Alan!

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June 1, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month On The Save Our Schools March

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, I genuinely feel honored that two educators I have long admired have agreed to answer questions about the upcoming Save Our Schools March and Call To Action — July 28th to the 31st. Nancy Flanagan has been sharing important insights for years at her blog at Education Week, Teacher In A Strange Land, and I have often shared her posts here. Sabrina Stevens Shupe is a Colorado teacher who has been sharing her own thoughtful insights at her blog, Failing Schools, and at The Huffington Post. Both are key organizers of the March.

Can you tell a little about yourselves — your connection to education, why you became teachers, where you’re based, etc.?

[Nancy] I am a music teacher–now retired–and spent my entire 31-year career teaching in Michigan. I’m a National Board Certified Teacher and was Michigan’s Teacher of the Year in 1993. Those two experiences pushed me into a passion for pursuing teacher leadership on a bigger stage. In America, we continuously make education policy without asking for serious input from the people who actually do the work.

[Sabrina] I am a relatively new urban elementary school teacher in Colorado, who’s taken this year off from the classroom to focus on advocacy and activism. I went into education for a number of reasons, but mainly because I see teaching as a way to affect change in society. I want to help children in low-income communities have the same kinds of empowering educational experiences students receive in wealthier/private school communities. Right now, though, our education reform movement is set up to give them the exact opposite.

What is the Save Our Schools March and why is it being organized?

[Nancy] A national march is an audacious thing to do, isn’t it? It’s become increasingly clear that the policies that shape the work of educating our next generation are headed in the wrong direction. Parents hate narrowed curriculum and over-emphasis on testing. School leaders hate having the federal government take apart programs that have yielded good results. And teachers feel maligned when their efforts to reach every child are denigrated by the media and the government.

[Sabrina] Exactly. Overall, no matter what kind of public school stakeholder you are—parent, teacher, student, community member—the trend right now is that people far outside of the hardest-hit public schools are the ones defining the problem and the “solutions,” not the people who actually know what these schools are facing. As a result, a lot of the “reforms” we see are incredibly counterproductive. And when we speak out against that, we’re dismissed. The March is about saying no to that dismissal. It’s about the true stakeholders coming together to assert our right to set the course of education reform and policy in our communities.

What are you hoping might result from the March?

[Nancy] The March is just a first step, the kick-off of a long-term campaign to reclaim and strengthen public education. None of us who are planning the March see it as anything more than an opportunity to capture the public’s attention and imagination. We hope it might come as a wake-up call to policy-makers: We can’t legislate our way out of a wildly inequitable public education system. We need full participation from parents and professional educators to rebuild our system–but it’s worth the effort and expense.

What are the best ways people can participate in SOS activities?

[Nancy] Everyone can participate. While we’re hoping for a great turnout in Washington D.C. on July 30 for the Rally and March–and the pre-conference on July 28 & 29 for those who would like to learn more and network–we know that a trip to Washington D.C. isn’t feasible for everyone. Several states and cities are planning their own live events. But simply joining the conversation–at our website, through social media, in local newspapers and in the staff lounge–is something everyone can do.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

[Nancy] This is truly a grass-roots movement. The majority of our donations come from small donors– teachers and parents who are fed up with what NCLB has done to their schools and children, giving $5 or $20 at a time. We are not a powerful organization with media consultants and clients to satisfy. We’re just a group of diverse citizens who are enormously unhappy with what’s happening to one of America’s best ideas: a free, high-quality public education for every child.

[Sabrina] Agreed. I think it’s important for people to understand that. There are a lot of Astroturf organizations popping up in education, that make lots of good-sounding statements but their agendas will hurt public education more than help it. They don’t really give regular people a voice; you’re there to make their agenda look like it has popular support. That’s not how we do things.

But not having corporate money and political connections means that we—regular, ordinary people—have to step up and do the work. We all need to be a lot more active and engaged than many of us have been in the recent past, if we’re going to make a real and positive difference for our public schools. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s incredibly important.

Thanks, Nancy and Sabrina!

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May 5, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month: James Farmer, Founder Of Edublogs

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, James Farmer, founder and CEO of Edublogs, has agreed to answer a few questions. This blog (and all my class blogs), along with hundreds of thousands of other education-related blogs, are hosted by Edublogs. As regular readers know, I’m a big fan.

Can you tell us a little about yourself — where you live, how and why did you start Edublogs, and anything else you’d like to share?

I’m based in Melbourne, Australia where I’ve lived since January 2000 having grown up in Birmingham UK, gone to Uni at Hull (also UK) and taught for a year and a half in Tokyo.

We’re now based in Albert Park, Melbourne, where I’m also moving to in about a month with my partner Lol, step-daughter Ibby and my daughter Emi.

Oh, and I’m 35 and a bit too obsessed with football (I’m a goalkeeper).

But enough about me…

I started Edublogs back in 2005 – here’s the earliest homepage, we’ve come a bit since then :)

Basically I was setting up and hosting blogs for lots of different educators, as part of my interest in using blogs in education and separately from my work as a lecturer in education design at Deakin University (they not only wouldn’t help, I even got an official warning that I should not be encouraging their use!)

Naturally I was using WordPress – and then this amazing product called WordPress MU (now Multisite) came onto the scene, I’d bought the domain a few months earlier, just as it seemed like a cool domain… so I put them together… and the rest, as they say, is history.

Edublogs is actually the oldest MU site on the web – predating by a few weeks :)

It’s also the second largest too – along with Edublogs Campus we host well over a million blogs.

What would you say are the three most important things you’ve learned since you’ve begun Edublogs?

It’s been a while :)

I guess in terms only of Edublogs, they would be, in no necessary order:

- Doing something that you are passionately interested in is a great start for any project, I honestly don’t think I could really have gotten anything done or, in fact, do anything in the future that I didn’t really care about. Of course there comes a point where your interests shift (for example, I’m no longer a teacher) but at that point you better hire some folk who are passionately interested in it! Sue and Ronnie are the backbone of what we do now, they both rock out and I’m very lucky to be able to work with both of them.

- You’ve got to be generous, and you’ll receive what you give back, but you cannot be utopian and there comes a point where you need to recognize the value of what you offer in order to make it sustainable.

I was utterly committed to providing a platform that gave people the world for basically nothing (apart from generous ‘supporter’ donations by committed users, for a very long time – essentially paid for by institutions using Edublogs Campus and my other work at Incsub.

But it became apparent that this just wasn’t manageable $s wise and so I did a bit of a backflip, reducing features and introducing some advertising for non-paying users – albeit at the cost of a coffee p/month for a whole class of blogs – but it was that that’s really made Edublogs what it is today, as it gave us the ongoing financial resources to not just carry on but improve and expand.

It was a bloody hard decision, and I got roundly panned by a lot of folk, but I believe that we offered and have consistently improved upon since then a great product for very little cost that really meets the needs of educators the world over.

Basically, you’ve got to give, give and give again – help people, teach them and care for them… but at the same time recognize your value and and how, without a sustainable financial model, you’re not going to be able to do the good which was you main intention in the first place.

Goodwill and fresh air only goes so far :)

What’s been your biggest success and your biggest mistake since you began?

I think one of my biggest successes was figuring out how to set up hosting, install WordPress MU and start Edublogs… I hadn’t even touched a server until under a year prior!

But realistically, I think the biggest deal was leaving my day job and then, painful as it was (see above) turning Edublogs into a sustainable and growing business. I want much, much more for it, but fundamentally having started and continue to run the World’s largest education blogging platform is a pretty cool thing to feel like you’ve done.

In terms of mistakes, gah, almost too many to mention.

Probably, on reflection, it was making some v poor decisions regarding hosting – old school edublogs users might remember that we made Twitter look good when it came to downtime :/ Not fun. Essentially what I was doing was tyrying to get a managed hosting company (peer1) to sort out a 7 server cluster – whereas in fact I was much better off with unmanaged (serverbeach, actually owned by peer1) and hiring a great sysadmin.

There are still improvements we can make, and we’re working on them all the time, but I have less sleepless nights about uptime these days!

Could you share some future plans/hopes you might have for Edublogs?

Well, just around the corner we’ve got a massive upgrade, which will bring a whole heap of new features :)

And then we’re going to really start going for it – you can look forward to integrated wikis, straight from your blog, chatrooms and maybe even some serious online learning environment tools.

Making Edublogs almost a one stop shop for all your online teaching and learning tools… imagine that!

Heck, we’re even considering setting up a system that would allow teachers to use Edublogs to run paid courses or offer paid resources for download – I’d love to know what your readers (and you :) might think of that.

And that’s just for starters… all in all 2011 and beyond is going to be a very, very exciting time for Edublogs!

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Probably one of the most significant things is that I recently brought Incsub and especially WPMU DEV – The WordPress Experts under the same roof as Edublogs – so the number of dedicated resources for Edublogs just expanded about 300% – this is going to enable us to do some great, great work.

Thanks, James!

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April 2, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month: Sean Banville, One Of The Hardest Working People In The ESL/EFL World

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, Sean Banville, one of the hardest-working people in the ESL/EFL world, has agreed to answer some questions. Sean has created some of the most-used websites in the world for ESL/EFL teachers and students, including Breaking News English. All of them are available to use free-of-charge and do not require any registration:

First off, can you give us a summary of all the websites and resources you create for English Language Learners? And is there one place people can go to find links to all of them?

I make ready-to-print lessons that I think are motivating for students. My seven lessons contain 100-1,500 copiable lessons, each with a 9 – 20-page handout, online activities and an MP3. I started in 2004 with BreakingNewsEnglish. I created this after spending several years making news lessons for my classes in Japan for students who continually requested lessons on news. I found their interest in my current affairs materails was greater than that in course books. The students’ background knowledge of the stories helped their understanding of the lesson. It was great when the lesson was the first time they’d heard that news – this added authenticity.

My second site, ESL Discussions, was very different. I created 500 one-page handouts each with 20-questions on a particular topic. We had a conversation lounge at the school I worked at in Osaka and I thought the discussion questions would help students who were more reluctant to talk and ask questions.

I had no plans to create any more sites and I can’t remember where the idea to make lots more came from. I remember sitting down one day and coming up with ideas for lots of sites. I think I bought around ten domain names in one go. I thought if I could make two new sites a year, I’d have them all up in five years. I’m on schedule to do that.

In the past three years I’ve uploaded Famous People Lessons (biographies of famous people in the news rather than the traditional people you find in course books). My ESL Holiday Lessons site is still in progress – I hope to have at least one lesson for every day of the year on holidays as well known as New Year’s Day and as obscure as Inspire Your Heart With Art Day and World Toilet Day. More recently I added News English Lessons (a news site for pre-intermediate learners), Listen A Minute (60-second listenings with activities for pre-intermediate students) and Business English Materials.

I also have a blog and a free ESL materials directory (in-progress) called FreeESLMaterials. All of my lessons are viewable here.

How did you get interested in teaching English Language Learners, how long have you been doing it, and what keeps you going?

I came across teaching English by chance. I was backpacking around Asia and was low on funds. I met an Englishman in a guest house in Bangkok who was going home for several months and wanted someone to cover his lessons. I loved my first day “teaching”. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time but my students seemed to enjoy my lessons. I more or less lectured from a TOEIC book. It wasn’t until I did my CELTA several years later I understood that teaching ESL was not explaining the grammar on dozens of random sentences. I taught in Bangkok for 11 weeks and decided that was the career for me – a good decision.

That was in 1989. I continued travelling for another two years and returned to England to save up the money for a CELTA course. I studied for that in Izmir, Turkey and then headed straight to Japan, where I spent the first 13 years of my teaching career. I left Japan in 2006 to teach at a college in the UAE. I’ve been very lucky to have worked for three fantastic institutions in my 18 years of teaching that allowed me a lot of freedom to experiment and develop professionally.

The thing that keeps me going is the chance to constantly learn about so many different things from so many cool people. I’ve made thousands of lessons on all kinds of very diverse topics. And I’ve learnt loads about educational technology. It’s a great profession to get you learning and trying out new things every day. And the great thing is you are working with people (teachers and students) who are eager to share their know-how about really good stuff. My first career was in accountancy. I somehow don’t think the same level of very interesting learning would be there.

What are the key pieces of advice you might give to an ESL/EFL teacher who is trying to improve their craft? What are the best things they can do, and what are the mistakes you think they should try to avoid?

I think one piece of advice I wish I’d been told when I was training was not to beat yourself up if a lesson isn’t that perfectly communicative, integrated skills, task-based on you planned. It’s impossible for me to count how many lesson plans I’ve made that I thought would be ace lessons but ended up not being so. You have to remember that dozens of things can happen in the classroom to knock the best plans off their tracks. Try to think of your plan as a rough guide and then go with the flow of what’s happening with your students. If they’re tired and don’t want to run around or read that lengthy text, have alternative things to do. So much of teaching is improvising, and spotting exploiting learning opportunities as you go. Highly important in this is negotiating with your students and following their needs. The more experienced you become, the less you’ll worry about things not going according to your plan and the less you’ll feel like a failed teacher because things didn’t happen the way you wanted them to.

The Internet wasn’t around when I first started teaching so there weren’t the incredible networking opportunities there are today. The very best way to improve your craft, as far as I’m concerned, is to build a PLN (Professional Learning Network) on Twitter. Follow the big names and you’ll soon have more links to cool tools, sites, blogs, wikis, conference news, etc. than you could possibly wish for. Be proactive on Twitter – say hello to everyone, repost the tweets you value and you’ll soon be followed by those big names. You’ll be part of a professional learning and sharing community of educators often called the world’s biggest staff room. Twitter has by far been the best source of professional development and networking in my career.

Mistakes to avoid?

Don’t put too much emphasis on planning the perfect lesson – as I said above.

Don’t follow the methodology you learnt on your training course too strictly – there isn’t a single method that works best. Experiment and try different things. Your students will soon let you know what works and what doesn’t. This includes trying things like grammar translation, audio-lingual techniques, dogme/unplugged teaching and everything else. A good class will incorporate all kinds of methods and techniques.

Don’t assume that what you’re teaching is what the students are learning. You need to do your best to understand where your students are, what they need and to what degree learning is taking place.

Remember that the coursebook is not the Holy Grail. A lot of the content is these books may not particularly interest your students. Do your best to personalize the book and introduce parallel texts that are more relevant to students’ lives. Content that interests and thus engages students is key in motivating them.

What kind of future plans do you have for your sites, and what do you see as potential trends or breakthroughs in the use of technology for teaching/learning English?

I have two plans for my sites. One is to make them more interactive. I need to upgrade my technical skills for that. Second plan is to make more. I have the domain names for another 18 sites and will make these over the next decade.

I imagine trends and technological breakthroughs will largely take place via mobile devices like iPads, and apps. I can see many more language students using these in conjunction with their own online teacher – either one-on-one via services like Skype, or in groups in virtual classrooms once online conferencing becomes easier and cheaper.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to say?

One thing I’d like to see in ELT is a greater regard to its status as a profession. Hopefully one day there’ll be a professional body that oversees all the things that are missing today, such as decent pay, contracts that don’t leave teachers jobless for 4 months of the year, employment standards language schools and universities must adhere to, etc.

Thanks, Sean!

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March 1, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month: Ted Appel, An Exceptional Principal

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Ted Appel is the exceptional principal at the school where I teach, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. It’s the largest inner-city high school in the city, and over half of our students are English Language Learners. Ted has also been interviewed by Learning First, and he and I have co-authored an article titled The Positive Impact Of English Language Learners At An Urban School.

What led you to teaching in the classroom, and what prompted your decision to become a principal?

I had been working in outdoor programs for youth at risk for a few years, which was very rewarding and fun, but I felt like school had a overpowering impact on a child’s feelings about being a successful person. I also became interested in the experiential education movement and wondered how it could be applied to classroom learning.

I went into administration because I believed I had received some good training in strong instructional practices and I thought I could have a broader impact by training other teachers in some of those strategies. I eventually became a principal because I realized it was important to have influence over the whole culture of the school in order to really impact the practices in the classroom.

What are the three best things you think you’ve done since you’ve become Burbank’s principal, and what might be three mistakes?

I think the best thing I’ve helped to do at Luther Burbank is create an environment where teachers who are committed to making a difference in students’ lives, have an opportunity to do that work. We’ve created structures, in which everyone has a part, that have resulted in an environment that is orderly, consistent, respectful and dynamic. As a result, we’ve also been able to attract the kind of idealistic, talented, innovative, committed people, an urban school needs in order to make a real difference in kids’ lives.

The other thing I try to do is talk to a lot of people, a lot. The decision making/improvement process is ongoing. I put a lot of ideas out into discussion, hear a lot of feedback and alternative ideas. I think this dynamic leads to a positive professional culture and results in good decisions and creative experiments.

The first big mistake I made when I started was to allow students to use cell phones in the halls during lunch and passing periods. There was an incredible outbreak of organized fights including people from off campus. The hall monitors came to speak with me after three weeks and said, “change the policy or we quit”. What I learned wasn’t just about cell phone rules. I learned that if I think it may be a good idea to make some kind of change, I needed to involve the people who have different perspectives and or would be affected by the decision.

I understand that I make a lot of decisions every day and so I make a lot of mistakes, or don’t do things as well as I could or should. I approach the job like a constant job interview. You try to anticipate issues or questions and prepare with the best approach you know. You often need to think on your feet for what you perhaps did not expect. And you constantly analyze what you said or did and realize how you could have approached it better.

For principals who want to spend some reflective time on their own practice, what might be some important questions you’d recommend they might want to ask themselves?

I think principals need to consider who they talk to. Are they sharing ideas and listening to teachers and staff or just other administrators at the site and central office?

Are the structures, rules, and customs of the school currently necessary and relevant or do they exist for reasons that have disappeared?

Do you believe in the programs and practices of your school, or are you just managing and complying with rules and regulations that have been handed to you?

In looking at the beliefs of those who often self-described as “school reformers,” what do you think might be helpful ideas and unhelpful ones, and why?

It seems that the basis of the current school reform movement, is the belief that teachers and schools are not sufficiently motivated to get better. Thus, competition, punishment and rewards geared to outcome goals are their “innovations” for change and improvement. I believe this creates perverse incentives to manipulate outcomes rather than encourage know how and motivate sound practice.

I also don’t think it is helpful to refuse to acknowledge that some students come to school with intellectual, social, and cultural advantages to be successful in school environments. Acknowledging this fact is not a surrender to poor results. It is merely recognizing what anyone working in a classroom sees every day. It also helps when trying to honestly analyze what is needed, in terms of different approaches and resources, to help students to be successful. We have no problem acknowledging this in art, music or athletics. Why is there such fear in acknowledging it in academics?

I think it can be valuable to give students nationally normed tests. But these tests should not be used to label schools as good or bad. They should be used as a means to evaluate practice and examine ways schools can get better at helping students improve in the skills being assessed.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

People want school improvement to come from a simple fix. With variables as complex as society itself, there will be no simple solutions for all schools and all kids. We need to approach improvement in education not as a fix but as an ongoing dynamic that is achieved through consistent commitment to a common ideal; all children, through education, are entitled to the widest possible array of intellectual, cultural, social, political and economic opportunity. This goal is certainly not easy, nor can we ever really know if it is fully realized. That understanding, that we will never have the absolute answer should not be a source of frustration, should be a source of energy and pride.

Thanks, Ted!

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February 1, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month: Anthony Cody

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Anthony Cody is a teacher and coach for novice teachers in Oakland, California. He writes the blog, Living In Dialogue, which is hosted at Teacher Magazine and Education Week. He is also a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. He graciously agreed to be interviewed this month.

You’ve become a rather high-profile “critiquer” of many of the ideas and practices supported by many who call themselves “school reformers.” Are there some particular moments in your life that led you down this path?

I came of age in Berkeley in the 1970s, and attended a progressive alternative school within Berkeley High. I saw public education as something that had the ability to expand or suppress thinking among young people. I was lucky to have some teachers who encouraged me to think for myself. When I attended UC Berkeley, I was involved in the student movement there in the 1980s, and helped organize for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, and to defend affirmative action programs. I saw that a quality education was missing for many people, so I got my teaching credential and went to work teaching science in an Oakland middle school.

My purpose has always been to provide opportunities for disadvantaged students, and I have actively engaged with my school and district to help provide such opportunities. My focus has mainly been around building collaborative communities of teachers, to take responsibility for our professional growth in order to create a rich and powerful experience for our students. So I have always seen myself as a “change agent” in the schools.

I think the key turning point in my relationship to those who call themselves “school reformers” was the advent of No Child Left Behind. All of a sudden, the responsibility for educational inequity was shifted to teachers and schools. With a wave of a rhetorical wand, “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was the culprit, and the solution, therefore, was for us to “raise our expectations.” As an Oakland teacher, I experienced firsthand several waves of systemic reform based on this assumption. We went through “Efficacy Training,” and then “Standards in Practice,” from the Education Trust. Though these efforts were well meant, they did not address the fundamental reasons many of our students were behind academically.

But my experiences at my own school showed me what COULD work. I achieved National Board certification myself, and worked to help colleagues in the District do the same. I worked with my peers at my school to engage in action research and Lesson Study, and we greatly reduced turnover and built a solid partnership between the math and science departments. We shared assessments, and looked at student work to understand how our lessons were actually building student understanding. I helped lead a District-wide initiative to create a solid middle school science curriculum, and we have seen science achievement in the District improve dramatically over the past decade.

But I saw NCLB greatly undermine the successes we were achieving. Our school made significant gains every year, but due to our many subgroups, we never managed to get each group to rise simultaneously. One year we “failed” because we had a large influx of English language learners, so our Hispanic subgroup dropped a bit. The next year, our Asians, who were performing at a high level, stayed at the same level. Not good enough – we failed again. It became clear that the rules of NCLB were designed to make us fail. This was demoralizing to students and staff alike. I saw the rhetoric of reform being used to destroy hope.

So on the one hand, I had evidence of what did not work, and on the other, I had my own experiences showing me the sort of collaborative effort that does work. I have a firm foundation in the classroom, and in my own experience as a teacher, and a leader of school change, and that gives me the basis on which I stand. I remain committed to a vision of equity for all students, and it is outrageous to me that those who are now attacking the teaching profession, calling for larger class sizes, pay for test scores, an end to due process for teachers, are doing so by donning the self-righteous mantle of defenders of the downtrodden. The policies they promote have worked against the interests of our students, and will continue to do so.

What would you say are the three most damaging ideas/practices that are being pushed in education today, and why do think they’re so damaging to students?

I would say the most corrosive idea is that test scores are an adequate reflection of student learning, and making these scores more and more consequential for teachers and students will lead to an increase in learning. Our students are suffering because they are being told a series of lies. These tests are NOT a reflection of the most valuable forms of learning.

The notion that we prepare for the future by learning a prescribed course of knowledge goes back to Confucius, and is derived from an authoritarian world view. It is very strange that some of the same “reformers” who speak of preparing our students for the 21st century are satisfied with early 20th century models of assessment. Our curriculum has been greatly narrowed – and is increasingly determined by that which will be tested. This leads otherwise good teachers to make arbitrary curricular decisions, and to teach in a manner that turns students into passive repeaters of received wisdom, rather than critical generators of their own knowledge.

Once test scores are seen as an adequate proxy for learning, then we see several further errors that result.

Test scores are used to define teacher “effectiveness.” This is then used to “prove” that experience doesn’t matter much – so we can do away with seniority and hire cheaper, inexperienced interns, master’s degrees don’t matter much, and class size doesn’t matter much. We are going to see a wave of “reforms” built on these assumptions, which will result in a dramatically different profile for the teaching profession. I believe experience matters a great deal, and directly impacts our students. The wisdom a teacher gains over a decade of dealing with a myriad of students, in their infinite variety, is invaluable. Experienced teachers are reservoirs of curriculum and instructional strategies that work, and have been proven over the years. If “reformers” succeed in transforming our profession into one primarily populated by novices, we will lose some qualities and capacities that are far more valuable than next year’s test scores.

On the other hand, what would you say are the three best ideas being discussed in education today, and why do you think they’re so beneficial to students?

It is a strange time, because I think we have an educational world that is almost divided in half. Even as some have bought into the “reform” narrative, the rest of us are more aware than ever of the sort of things that really do work.

First of all, there is abundant research emerging about the human brain and the importance of its development, especially in the early years. This points us towards crucial improvements that must be made in early childhood nutrition and education. So much of the patterns that we encounter as teachers are laid down in those first few years, and we, as a nation, can make a huge difference in outcomes when we begin to attend to this.

Second, I am firmly committed to a vision of our schools as learning communities, and I think many leaders are aware of this. These communities are unfortunately vulnerable, because the federal and state “accountability” systems are forcing every effort to be focused on improving test scores. But our best work is done when we gather to look honestly at what our students are learning, and what they are struggling with. Our best schools emerge when students are given active roles as leaders as well, and can help guide their own learning. There are schools where teachers are seizing the reins and working together to make this happen.

You’ve written a lot about what you think the role of teachers could be in working for systemic change in education. Can you share some of those ideas and specific actions?

I think the role of teachers is related to the circumstances in which we find ourselves – and those circumstances are rapidly changing. I think much of our standing is under direct and systematic attack, and for that reason it is very important that we build solidarity as a profession. I think we need to defend our unions from the unfair attacks that they are under, and build their capacity to respond creatively to the challenges we face.

I think we need to build strong connections with our students, because their futures are being foreclosed upon. Even as they are told that college is the key to their future, our colleges are being priced out of their reach. Even as they are told that we care about them, they are being jammed into crowded classrooms, taught by poorly trained interns who teach for a few years and leave. The students may be the ones that show us the way, as they have in the past – and we need to be prepared to listen and work with them to help reshape our schools in the interest of their future. We need to be prepared to rethink our schools, just as we ought to rethink the way society is set up. All this test preparation is built around honoring received wisdom. Our students don’t need that. They need to question what is happening – in their schools, in their neighborhoods, and in the economy as a whole.

I think our schools need to be places capable of solving real problems in the real world. That is why I am excited about work I have been doing around Project Based Learning. I think we need to engage our students in tackling issues in their own environment, and challenge them to investigate, to use the academic tools of science, history and math to uncover the source of these problems, and come up with solutions.

You’re retiring from the Oakland School District at the end of this school year. What are your plans?

Although I am leaving Oakland, I do not expect to retire. I will continue to write about education, and am also working on organizing the Save Our Schools march in Washington, DC, which will occur July 30th. In July I will be moving to Mendocino County, about 140 miles north of San Francisco. I spent much of last summer working on a cabin near where I will be living, and I plan to host retreats there for teachers, to give them a chance to recharge their creative energies by connecting with nature, and with one another. I also will be doing some professional development work with teachers.

Thanks, Anthony!

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January 23, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo
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Special Extra “Interview Of The Month” With Diane Ravitch

I usual only do one “Interview of the Month” (hence the name “Interview of the Month”). However, this month I’m publishing two.

Diane Ravitch, education historian and author of the bestselling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education agreed to answer a few questions:

What got you interested in education issues — was there a specific incident or family experience?

I have been interested in education as long as I can remember. My first paper in a political science course in college–in 1956–was a study of the influence of a far-right fringe group on school board elections in Houston, where I attended public school. I have been writing about education since the late 1960s. My first book was a history of the New York City public schools, published in 1974.

In your education career, when were times you felt most discouraged? What got you through those moments?

I have never been more discouraged than I am right now. I have been lecturing this past year, and I have witnessed the profound demoralization of teachers across the nation in response to the vituperative, ill-informed and mean-spirited attacks on them. I am discouraged above all by the absence of any national officials willing to stand up for teachers. The current anti-teacher, anti-public education rhetoric is downright disheartening, and it is painful to acknowledge that both political parties have joined in, as has the national media. What gets me through these times is my sense of history. I know that this: that many of the “reforms” are ill-considered, that the “reforms” that target teachers are doomed to fail, and that eventually this too will pass. Yet I worry about the lives and reputations that will be ruined before our leaders come to their senses.

In the face of all the policy battles, many of us teachers can feel discouraged. What is your best advice for teachers who might have days, weeks, or even months feeling like that?

I am asked this question whenever I meet with teachers, which is often. I urge teachers to hang in there, to focus on the social value of the work, to remember why they entered the profession, and to cling to their ideals. I also tell them that this is no time to be shrinking violets, but is a time to let your voice be heard. It is a time to write letters to the editor, write comments to blogs, contact your Congressman and your Senators and your local officials. Do not let the forces of ignorance, the wealthy and powerful and clueless “reformers” destroy the profession and privatize public education. Too much is at stake. Don’t agonize, organize. Alone, you are only one voice; united with other educators and with parents, you can change the agenda and stop the attacks on education and educators.

Some of your critics say you spend all your time criticizing without offering constructive alternatives. What is your response to that kind of critique?

Public education is under attack; so is the education profession. My critics would prefer that I not say so, but I think it is demonstrably true. I am a historian and I try to ground my critique in history. My critics think that anyone who disagrees with their destructive policies is a “defender of the status quo.” I think the “reformers” represent the status quo. It is now 10 years since the passage of No Child Left Behind. This law made testing, accountability and choice the law of the land. The law and the policies it spawned have proven ineffective, divisive and costly. The “reformers” want to change the name of the law–perhaps call it Students First, Children First, Learning First, whatever–but continue to fire principals, fire teachers, close schools, and privatize schools. All of this is wrong.

No high-performing nation is pursuing this punitive path. I don’t believe in any quick fixes. I have proposed constructive alternatives: I believe that all children should have a balanced curriculum in the arts and sciences, physical education and health. We must improve schools and strengthen the education profession instead of closing schools and destroying the profession. Every district should offer high-quality pre-k programs for all children. Teachers should have more and better preparation and mastery of their content. They should have good working conditions and adequate resources, including reasonable class sizes. All principals should have experience as master teachers. All superintendents should be highly experienced educators. Instead of blaming schools for all that is wrong in school and society, we as a nation must take action to improve the lives of children; instead of saying that poverty is just an excuse, we should try to help families and do whatever is possible to reduce poverty and its related disadvantages. None of these is a quick fix, but together they represent constructive alternatives to the present course.

What do you see as the brightest rays of hope — policies, people, organizations, etc. — do you see for public education these days?

When I visited San Diego in November, I was very impressed by the collaboration I saw there among different stakeholders. The teachers’ union was working together with the district leadership, and the school board, and together they are trying to create a vision of community-based school reform, involving parents and local communities. I saw a spirit of “it takes a village to educate a child.” Will it last? I hope so. In Cincinnati, I was impressed by a collaboration of civic and educational organizations called STRIVE. The spirit again was one of people working together to improve education from many angles.

I was reminded in these places that the current “reform” movement is extremely divisive. It sets parent against parent, in battles for space in public buildings, and its sets young teachers against older teachers, and it sets the media and the public against teachers and public education. We won’t make any genuine progress until everyone who cares begins to work together towards the common goal of educating children and improving their lives.

Thanks, Diane!

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January 18, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

Interview Of The Month: Two Authors Of The New Book “Teaching 2030″

The book, Teaching 2030:What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools–Now and in the Future, is being released this week. It’s an amazing book on a number of levels, and I suspect it will be the most influential and discussed education-related book this year.

It was written by Barnett Berry (check out Barnett’s blog when you can) and twelve classroom teachers from around the United States, and coordinated by The Center For Teaching Quality.

As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

This month, I was lucky enough to interview two of the thirteen authors of “Teaching 2030.” One is Barnett Berry, and the other Ariel Sacks. Ariel teaches seventh grade English in Brooklyn, NY. She can be found blogging about teaching practice and education policy at On the Shoulders of Giants.

What would you say are the main points made in the book?

Barnett: We have a bold vision for the teaching profession of tomorrow where the lines of distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead them are blurred. There are at least three big ideas you will find in TEACHING 2030:

1.Teachers will serve as brokers of learning, in and out of cyberspace, and experts in defining and measuring student and school success for the public;

2. Teaching will be a well-compensated professional career with differentiated pathways into the classroom, guaranteeing that every child has a well-prepared team of educators, led by teachers whose expertise weaves in and out of digital space; and

3. A leadership force of 600,000 “teacherpreneurs” — classroom experts who teach students regularly — will be mobilized for reform as they also serve as teacher educators, policy researchers, community organizers, and trustees of their profession.

Ariel: As I reread the book and think about the 4 emergent realities we shaped it around, I’m starting to see these ideas as a movement that involves radical change in equal parts to (1) the student’s experience and of school and (2) the teacher’s experience within the teaching profession. We build out ideas for making both three-dimensional and suited to the needs of a rapidly changing world.

For students, this means more differentiated and dynamic pathways for learning, including a blend of virtual and face-to-face, local and global, experiences and relationships, as teachers become facilitators of diverse learning communities and curators of knowledge. For teachers, this means more differentiated and dynamic pathways through the profession, with opportunities to develop new context-specific areas of expertise, solve problems in real-time, lead both locally and nationally, and be compensated based on the value and impact of their work.

For me, the book reveals the ways in which students and teachers are stuck in the same outdated system that provides too limited options in a world in flux, and how we can redesign teaching and learning to be more flexible, so as to meet the needs of students and communities we have yet to even imagine.

What prompted you to write the book, and what was the process used to develop it?

Barnett: Every since I left classroom almost 3 decades ago I have been a student of teaching — which the sociologist have labeled a semi-profession. Since my days at a graduate student in the early 1980s, my work as a researcher and now an advocate has been to advance a fully realized teaching profession, finally freed from its 19th century industrial roots and ready to meet the demands of 21st century learners. I wanted to develop a story that embraces and celebrates the future of teaching and the many millions of teachers who nobly serve students. I also wanted to tell a story that transcend the current narrative of self-proclaimed school reformers who pit teachers versus administrators while pressing for simplistic policy prescriptions far removed from the realities of teaching, today and tomorrow.

But I did not want to write this story alone. I have been out of the classroom way too long. Putting expert teacher voices square in the middle of the national debate on school reform is a central mission of the Center forTeaching Quality. I knew that my front-line colleagues in our virtual community of expert teachers (Teacher Leaders Network), with their deep understanding of students and schools today, would immeasurably enrich a book about the future of teaching. They did.

Ariel: When I received a call from Barnett about working on a project about the future of education, I was instantly hooked. Co-creating Teaching 2030 turned out to be one of the greatest exercises in imagination that I’ve ever been presented with. It has been so meaningful, because the landscape of teaching and learning IS changing a lot right now, but teachers have largely been excluded from the decision making processes behind these changes.

As we do get more involved in education policy, we often find ourselves in a position of “fighting back” against decisions that were already made without us. Our teacher voice can easily be labelled as a contrarian one, which is not the best, when most of us in education have in common that we want the best for our nation’s children–we just see from different vantage points. What we need to establish is that the teacher vantage point is absolutely indispensable, since we are the single most important factor in our the education of students. Looking toward the future, as Barnett says as well, we were able to transcend the current debates in school reform and create a vision worth fighting FOR.

One piece of our process that I’d like to share is about how we came up with the structure for the book. After our first face-to-face meeting, each of us wrote a chapter (an essay, essentially) on one of four sub-topics of the future of teaching. The collection of essays was very interesting, but when we came back together and shared our ideas and pushed our thinking about the future further, we came to the conclusion that the structure was “so 2009,” and we wanted a structure that was closer to our vision of 2030.

Co-writer Jose Vilson recalled a book he’d read about Muhammad Ali that was structured as a conversation between Ali and various other people. We decided to chop and remix the ideas as a conversation between all of us, Barnett, and featuring the many students whose stories directed us toward our future vision. TLN co-founder and editor extraordinaire, John Norton, was instrumental in the chopping and remixing that shaped the progressive book structure.

What kind of impact do you hope the book will have?

Barnett: We hope to engage a broader group of community leaders, who care about teachers, but have yet to fully grasp the complexities of teaching now and in the future. We hope to connect these community leaders, with a growing group of teachers who are ready to take action together in pressing policymakers to invest in teaching in new and powerful ways. We hope to leverage a new generation of teacher leaders, who transform their unions into the professional guilds they need to be. And this is what our New Millennium Initiative is all about — turning the ideals of TEACHING 2030 into meaningfgul change for the profession that makes all others possible.

Ariel: I’d like to see this book be a springboard for an ongoing conversation that needs to take place at all levels and corners of our current schooling system about the future of teaching and public education. In particular, I hope that teachers, from preservice teacher candidates to veterans, see this as a helpful starting place to begin to create the future of our profession rather than continuing to react to the changes that come from outside.

What do you see as the main obstacles to the proposals you make in the book? And how do you think they can best be overcome?

Barnett: We have to overcome the 15,000 hour problem — i.e., the average amount of time a typical American has spent in the public schools as a student. As result too many people who make education policy think they know far about teaching than they do. Words alone will not be enough to tell the story of TEACHING 2030 — but powerful images and new messages from new messangers can. This is why part of what we are now doing, with support of MetLife Foundation (our primary supporter of Teaching 2030), is to build multimedia images of key concepts of the book, and help growing numbers of teacher leaders tell their own story.

In the end if we are going to realize the bold vision of TEACHING 2030 we must market to the public that teaching is complex work, in ways that the federal government marketed cigarette smoking as bad for your health. Only then will the public invest in teaching new ways and press the policymakersthey vote into office to make the tough political decisions they have failed to make in the past.

Ariel: Because teachers’ voices are so essential to the conversation begun in this book, the biggest obstacle I see is that most practicing teachers are so busy with teaching they will not have time enough or an efficient vehicle for participation in the discussions and action steps that need to take place in the years to come. One of the first steps will be to create a significant number of hybrid positions for teachers to teach half-time and lead in various capacities in and outside of their school contexts. We can’t just create a few such roles in isolation, because most schools, logistically, can’t just drop a strong teacher to a half-time position without a system to help with the hiring and funding of the other half time position that would need to exist.

Schools can’t be completely on their own to free teachers up to lead in and out of their schools, because the impetus for this kind of change is not as strong on the ground as it looks when you see the big picture of where our schools are going if we do NOT begin to take these to get teachers involved in the redesign of our school systems.

One thing that is surely happening is that great teachers are leaving the classroom in droves to increase their autonomy, career status, and earning capacity. We need to respond to that fact and create hybrid roles that will help accomplished teachers pursue their ideas and help shape the new landscape of the profession. But this is going to be complicated, and adjusting current structures to make it work logistically is a serious obstacle–but certainly not an insurmountable one.

Is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

Barnett: I am troubled by the vitriol in the current debate over the future of teaching and learning, with both self-proclaimed reformers and media mavens stoking fiery rhetoric about who should be recruited to teaching as well as how they are prepared and judged, and paid. The attacks on the unions, no matter how backward many of their policy positions may be, are unjustified and, I suspect, are often based on insidious motives to ensure we have a cheap and compliant teaching workforce with little or no voice.

However, soon, as expert teachers become more well-known through viral networking, and social media, the public will come to recognize that 21st century teaching and learning will require three things that are not currently on many reform agendas: (1) teachers who are more skilled in the science and art of teaching than ever before; (2) teachers who embrace their roles as leaders of school improvement; and (3) teachers who have and use a strong collective voice to ensure that the needs of all their students are adaptively met. And one day before I retire the highest paid anybody in a school district will be a practicing teacher whose handsomely rewarded for advancing and improving our public education system.

Ariel: One of the questions that we constantly had to ask ourselves–and co-author Renee Moore was particularly good at reminding us– as we wrote this book was, how will X idea work for all students across the country, urban, rural, suburban, affluent, poor, etc. As we move forward with any one idea suggested or inspired by Teaching 2030, we will need to face the fact that many ideas will require more financial/material investment in under-resourced communities than we are currently seeing and than other more affluent communities require.

Use of the Internet and all it has to offer children in their learning, for example, is only helpful where there is an affordable and accessible Internet connection and up to date computer technology. There are still many areas of the United States that are not “connected,” and residents of urban areas who cannot afford a reliable Internet connection. This is just one example of investments that will need to be made if the changes we envision are going to benefit all Americans.

As co-author Shannon C’de Baca put it, in a time of rapid change, someone has to be the “keeper of the flame,” the person who makes sure that quality education, equal opportunity, and developmentally appropriate goals are not lost along the way to 2030. Teachers, who are inside schools working with students every day, are in the position to be the “keepers of the flame” and speak up about what we see and think.

Thanks, Ariel and Barnett!

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