A JetBlue ticket agent and City Year

The Setup

City Year is a national non-profit which places young adults for one year each in high needs schools to keep kids on track to graduate. City Year corps members do tutoring and mentoring and lots of other work within the school to support the students, particularly those who have an early warning sign that they might be off-track.

This past week in Boston, City Year held its national Summer Academy, a weeklong training and community building conference for people from City Year sites across the country.

The Journey

Upon the conclusion of Academy on Friday, City Year Jacksonville’s team, of which I am a proud member, headed off to the airport to catch our 6:00 p.m. flight. Upon arriving at the airport, we discovered that the airline had delayed the flight. Unfortunately, the delay meant that we wouldn’t be able to catch our connecting flight, and that connecting flight would have been the last of the day to Jacksonville from that particular city.

Since the delay of our first flight would make it impossible to catch the second. Our team got in touch with the company that does the booking for airline travel for our organization. Through much maneuvering, we were able to get refunded for the original tickets and rebooked on another flight through another airline.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, our group of 12 was split into two groups of six in the computer system during the rebooking process. As the departure time for the new flight got closer, the first six people finally got their boarding passes and were able to go through security to get on the flight.


As the departure time ticked even closer, the second half of the group still hadn’t gotten our confirmation and boarding passes. At this point, Kelly, a ticket agent for JetBlue got involved. At first, she simply gave as updates on our status in their computer system—apparently, our seats had been reserved on the flight, but tickets had not technically been purchased, yet, so boarding passes couldn’t be printed (a purgatory I hadn’t previously known was possible).

English: JetBlue Airplane in Flight over Houston

Our group members were on the phone with the travel booking company to try to work through whatever the series of technicalities that were preventing the tickets from being finalized. Eventually, Kelly the ticket agent offered to take the cell phone from the person in our group who was on the phone with the travel booking company and work with them directly to get things figured out.

By this point, it was getting very late: T minus 20 minutes or so until we had to be on the flight. Upon determining that the obstacles with the current reservation-in-limbo were insurmountable in the remaining time, Kelly canceled it and began the process of reserving new tickets for the six of us. This is quite a process: grabbing IDs from everyone to get names and addresses spelled correctly, juggling credit card info (and overcoming the additional obstacle of credit cards requiring approval for transactions this large) and getting our passes printed.

A final sprint to the finish

By this point, were at about T minus 8 minutes.

She ran out from behind the counter (it would have been cooler if she had leaped over the counter, but sadly, she didn’t). She told us to follow her and she sprinted towards the security line where she cut us to the front of the line. There were some more slowdowns going through security and she eventually went through security herself and ran us to our gate, with me barefoot and carrying my City Year Timberland boots. We arrived right at the last moment we could have gotten there, according to the time posted on all of the screens.

Upon arriving at the gate, it turns out the time had really been wrong on the screen and the flight had been delayed a few minutes and that they were just about to begin boarding. We got on the flight and had a pleasant journey home to Jacksonville.

So what?

Through a series of circumstances outside of our control (and some behind the scenes circumstances I still don’t entirely understand), we were at-risk of not making it home to Jacksonville that night. We were working hard to get things straightened out, and the people at the travel booking company and other airline staff were doing a solid job of trying to get us to our goal.

However, as the situation got more dire, Kelly jumped into action, clearing obstacles and roadblocks to help us meet our goal of getting home. It turned out we had a few extra minutes to spare at the very end (but we didn’t know that until we got there, and we wouldn’t have gotten there without Kelly’s support).

Here’s a quick thought-experiment:

Let’s say that my group of travelers are students (7th graders, maybe).

The other ticket agents, the TSA people, the people on the phone at the travel booking company, etc. are teachers and other school staff.

The airplane is “on-time and on-track arrival in 8th grade.”

In this scenario, who is Kelly?

Kelly is a City Year corps member.

Let’s go through the story one more time:

Through circumstance that are out of their control (and may even be unknown to them), some 7th graders are at-risk of not making it to 8th grade on-time and on-track. They are working hard to reach this goal, with the support of countless teachers and school staff, all of whom are working as hard they can to support the students (and they have LOTS of students). Some of the 7th graders are eventually able to meet their goal.

However, some of the others are still not quite there. A City Year corps member sees this and does whatever she can to clear obstacles out of the path for these students. As they get their attendance, behavior, and course performance on track, they realize that in fact they were further along than they had thought and are able to finish the year successfully, and move on to eighth grade ready to learn!

This year, I hope to support my team of City Year corps members as we work to develop into a whole bunch of Kellies.

Don’t get me wrong–corps members won’t wait until 20 minutes before a student fails 7th grade, and certainly won’t shove other students out of the way to clear a path.

What corps members will do is identify students in need of an extra something to overcome the obstacles in their path and corps members will do their best to provide whatever this something is: math tutoring, a reminder to go to class, a simple pat on the back, whatever is needed.

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A student solidifies her new “good student” self-image

As the school year nears its end, I have been thinking quite a bit about how to solidify the personal and academic gains my students have made this year. For students who are now understanding math better and/or have a better attitude about school and about their own abilities, I want to make sure that these positive changes stay in place in the future.

A colleague’s student has been selected to speak at City Year’s big end-of-year gala. This student will speak about how working with her City Year mentor this year has helped her steer herself onto a much better academic path.

In her remarks at this event, she will describe publicly her new perspectives on school and academics. She will discuss her new-found work ethic. She will talk about how her school attendance has improved and how her classroom behavior has improved. She will talk about how much better she is understanding course material.

My guess is that just by articulating these (true) things, she has taken an important step towards injecting all of this stuff into her personal self-image.

It is great that she is on a a better track! More importantly, this speech is really an opportunity for her to convince herself that she is on a better track. Now that she thinks of herself as someone who is good at academics, she can continue to be successful next year and beyond.

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The education system needs a seagull carrying a bucket of paint

There is a children’s book by Daniel Pinkwater called The Big Orange Splot.

Though the author may not have intended it particularly in this way,  this is a book about education reform.

A man named Mr. Plumbean lives on a “neat street” where all of the houses are identical. One day, a seagull drops a can of orange paint on the roof of his house (“nobody knows why”). His neighbors pressure him to repaint his roof to get the splot off and make his house look “neat” again.

Instead, he goes out, gets many colors of paint, and supplements the big orange splot with “little orange splots, stripes, elephants, lions, pretty girls, and steam-shovels.” Out front, he adds a variety of flora and fauna, a hammock, and a pitcher of lemonade.

He professes wisely: “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

His neighbors call him crazy.

One by one, they each go over to his house late at night with the intent to convince him to put his house back to normal. However, after having individual, long, lemonade-filled talks with Mr. Plumbean, the neighbors each go out to the store and buy the materials needed to transform their own houses into homes “that looks like all [their] dreams.”

One neighbor turns his house into a boat, another turns his house into a hot air balloon.

By the end of the book, all of the neighbors on this previously uniform street have redesigned their homes and proudly proclaim: “Our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.”

The original book ends here, but let’s explore Mr. Plumbean’s world a little further, remembering, of course, that each person’s education is really embodied by each “house” in this story.

Some houses around the corner

Not on Mr. Plumbean’s “neat street” from the book, but maybe on the other side of the neighborhood, there are some houses in disrepair: peeling paint, broken windows, mold in the ceilings, cracks in the walls, broken appliances.

Over the first few years when these houses were being constructed, the builders weren’t very skilled at creating new houses. In fact, some didn’t even realize they were supposed to be building a house at all! The construction was pretty haphazard.

A worker was called in to fix some of the interior walls. She worked very hard for several weeks. However, each time she fixed a wall, a few days later it would need to be repaired again. Apparently, there was water leaking from above. Acknowledging the futility of fixing walls that would just keep getting damaged, the worker moved on to other houses.

The leak had really been coming from the roof. A roofer had indeed been asked to fix the roof. However, he couldn’t send his team out to fix it until he was sure that the walls underneath were structurally strong enough to support the added weight of his team. The roofers continued to fix other roofs instead.

Wall fixers gave up since the roof wasn’t fixed yet. Roofers gave up because the walls weren’t sturdy enough to go out on the roof to fix it. This cycle (and several other issues) continued for many years.

Eventually, many people from both the neat part of the neighborhood AND the not-so-neat part of the neighborhood agreed, correctly, that having children living in houses that were in such condition was simply not OK.

A solution!

Public pressure led the city council (who didn’t happen to be builders or architects, themselves) to implement some new building codes. If a house didn’t meet the code, the people living in the house plus the workers who built and fixed the house would all receive stiff penalties. The penalties may even be severe enough to put the workers out of business.

The city building inspectors would come around at the end of each year to make sure all structures were up-to-code. Since the penalties for residents and for workers were so severe if they did not pass this inspection, the neighborhood association decided to send representatives around to all of the houses once every two weeks to make sure the residents and workers were on-track to being up to code by the end of the year. They did, indeed, want the buildings up-to-code for everyone’s benefit—but they also wanted to make sure there weren’t lots of homes that fail the inspection in their neighborhood…..then people would want to move to different neighborhoods.

Many of the workers were very excited about the extra attention and support their work was now receiving! After all, they didn’t want the hard work they were doing on all of these houses to keep falling into disrepair!

The building codes

The building codes required that all roofs and walls get fixed—houses can’t exist without these things, after all, and these essential parts of the house’s structure were in disrepair in many homes. There were strict requirements about the types of materials the walls and roofs could be made out of and how they must be assembled.

To make room for these new thicker, sturdier walls and roofs (and for the constant stream of workers who will be constructing, testing, and fixing these walls), all of the residents’ family pictures and artwork were taken off the walls and all of the bookcases (and the books they contain) and other furniture were removed from the house so they didn’t get in the way (or get sawdust or paint on them).

The residents decide to sell the computer, TV, some of the toys, and their guitar so they have the resources to pay for all of the improvements to their house (Plus, they don’t have time to use any of these things anymore, anyway, since they were devoting all of their time to organizing all of the workers who were coming in and out of the house all the time).

Failure cannot be tolerated

Over time, some more of the houses do indeed pass their yearly inspections. (Hooray!)  Some even go above and beyond the walls/roofs requirements and get their windows fixed, which isn’t even part of the official inspection. The residents (as well as the neighborhood association and the city) are proud to live in an area where more homes pass the inspection! The workers are proud of their hard work!

For the houses that fail inspections, the contractors that worked on these houses are given precise new guidance about how to do their jobs more effectively, so that houses they work on don’t fail the inspection. Some are indeed able to get more of their houses to pass the inspection in the next round.

However, some of these workers start to get frustrated, particularly the craftsmen who had previously enjoyed working closely with residents to design specialized floor plans, built-in bookcases, backyard playsets, etc. as well as many interior designers who previously oversaw all this work. The get fed up at being repeatedly told what to do by the city inspectors and they are frustrated in particular that they have to JUST work on the walls and the roof instead of working on all of the other components that really make a house a home. Many of these talented people leave and take jobs in other cities without as strict a focus on the inspections, or they take on new careers altogether.

In addition to providing more specific requirements for the contractors, the neighborhood association schedules even-more-frequent check-ins for the houses that failed the inspection in order to monitor progress towards passing the next round of inspections. In order to schedule all of these check-ins and prepare for each of them, the residents don’t have any time to do anything but just work in their house with the contractors who are working on the walls and the roof. They don’t have time to go outside; they don’t have time to talk with their neighbors; they don’t have time to relax.

Particularly after a few failed inspections, some residents get pretty frustrated with this process and start to think that their houses will never pass, no matter what. Many of these residents stop working as hard to support the contractors that keep coming in to work. A few particularly frustrated residents even make such a scene sabotaging their own walls and roofs that more contractors have to spend more time on their house repairing the damage instead of working on their neighbors’ houses.


People notice this problem.  They send in some new workers who are particularly passionate about getting the residents out of this situation, fixing their houses once and for all and transforming the neighborhood into one full of solid houses that will never fall back into disrepair. Some of these people get hired to be contractors and others even volunteer their own time to help out with this effort!

These new workers and volunteers are indeed able to help some of the houses pass their next inspection. Among these houses, some even keep passing their inspections a few years down the line!!

However, there are still LOTS of houses that aren’t passing their inspections and even the houses that did pass were still without many of the things that really make a house livable: family pictures and artwork on the walls, a computer, a TV, bookshelves/books, toys, etc.

Luckily, a young resident of the neighborhood (maybe one of these people) took a walk one day and happened to come across Mr. Plumbean’s street.

A young resident’s inspiration

She saw Mr. Plumbean’s Big Orange Splot and his “little orange splots, stripes, elephants, lions, pretty girls, and steamshovels.”

She saw one neighbor’s house that had been turned into a hot air balloon and another neighbor’s house that had been turned into a castle.

She thought to herself: “These houses are actually worth living in. These houses look like their residents’ dreams. In creating their dreams, these people certainly ensured that the basics are there: intact windows, working appliances, and–interestingly enough–solid walls and roofs.”

She hatched a plan…

She got a couple of her neighbors together and they talked to a few local architects, artists, engineers, and contractors (some of the good ones that were still left). These people jumped at the opportunity to help her out.

Together, they worked to reconstruct the girl’s house and the neighbors’ houses. They built the houses to look like the dreams of each resident.

One house was built to look and function like a giant computer. One resident created a new company and built the headquarters in her front yard. Another resident constructed a theatre in her basement and let spoken word poets and stand-up comedians perform every night.

Another resident’s home became a medical lab (this house was right next to the giant computer house, so the resident of that house could crunch some of the data generated in the lab).

Another neighbor’s house included a comfy coffee shop area where she organized daily discussion about interesting topics and held weekly dialogue groups with neighbors, residents of other parts of the city, and people from around the world, via Skype.

All of these houses had solid walls and roofs.

People follow their dreams

Over time more of the neighbors were inspired by these houses. Through their own excitement, and through the excitement they were able to generate among the contractors who were working on the houses as well as the excitement of a wide variety of other people in the community, more and more houses were recreated in this style.

One afternoon, the girl walked back over to Mr. Plumbean’s street and knocked on his door.

“Mr. Plumbean,” she said. “Thanks for not just painting over the Big Orange Splot on your roof. Your joyfully-inspired home has inspired many others. Now, thanks to you, my house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

Then, she remembered she was living in an allegory, and added: My education is me and I am it. My education is where I want to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

Thanks to Rachel Mattingly and Dave Cutler for their input on an earlier draft of this essay.
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Education portfolios (not just for MOOCs!)

I posted last week about a new website called Accredible. This site is building an online system for students in MOOCs (massive open online courses) to be able to add some substance to the certificates of accomplishment they receive when successfully completing such a course. Students can add in files of the work they have done for the course, final projects, videos of themselves discussing course material, etc.–essentially an online portfolio that describes the course and a student’s accomplishments in it. Accredible calls such a portfolio a “cert.”

I have been thinking back on my own past courses in college and in high school. For a few of them, I could easily create such a cert. For some, I have a final paper or final project I’m very proud of, which would be a perfect addition to a portfolio, for example. For other courses, I would currently struggle to find anything substantive to include in a cert: some exam grades, some notes, some papers–of varying quality. I probably couldn’t currently create even a quick video clip of myself discussing some thought-provoking topic from those courses.

I wonder if the following might be an increasingly reasonable way of judging the quality of a course or learning experience (and of the student’s performance in that learning experience): is the student able to produce something worthy of a portfolio? A deep, thoughtful final paper; an innovative final project; a video or transcript of an in-person or online dialogue about an interesting topics from the course with another student, teacher, or expert in that subject area (where the student showed great insight and posed important questions); some way of demonstrating that the student helped OTHERS learn about the course material; etc.

Consider two students:

  1. Got a 5 on AP Calculus BC. Got a 5 on AP Physics. Got an A in orchestra (and won an award last year).

  2. Got a 5 on AP Calculus BC. Got a 5 on AP Physics. Got an A in orchestra (and won an award last year). Also, used her knowledge of physics and calculus to create and analyze a circuit that would appealingly distort some vocals that she and her ensemble in orchestra class were recording as part of an original track they were creating. She included a digital copy of the recording as well as a written description of the project  in an online portfolio for those courses, which she submitted along with her application.

The following chain of events is plausible (and probably even desirable):

  • Students (rightly) realize that colleges would prefer to accept student 2 over student 1, so students all try to be more like student 2. They try to do lots more interesting and original work that utilizes learning from their classes. They LOVE it when courses automatically provide opportunities to do this kind of work. Innovative teachers love supporting this work, and jump on board.
  • Other students, notice that they are more likely to get accepted if they can demonstrate their understanding and engagement with their coursework in this kind of way –> so they do! This starts to become the norm in college admissions–students know they won’t be very successful without this.
  • Some students submit BAD portfolios: test scores, video clips of themselves reciting the math procedures their teachers taught them, copies of boring and uninspired papers, etc.
  • Schools start realizing that THEY play a role in the students’ ability to create quality work, and begin to structure their courses (and perspective) in such a way that is designed to help students create cool stuff, engage with the material, make connections between the different things they are learning (in and out of school), work together with other students/teachers/experts, and BE INNOVATIVE AND CREATIVE.
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“Accredible:” a new online service to document mastery of a particular (online) course or skill

Typically, upon successful completion of a MOOC (massive open online course) through a provider such as Coursera, students are provided a certificate of accomplishment stating that the student has successfully completed the course. For example, here is my statement of accomplishment for a recent course I took: E-Learning and Digital Cultures

A new website, accredible.com is allowing MOOC participants to create “Certs” which combine the statement of accomplishment provided by the course itself with actual documentation in support of that statement of accomplishment.

Such documentation could include links to work done online, files containing submitted work for the course, personal notes taken during the course, videos of you explaining concepts that were explored in the course, etc.

Here’s an example: https://www.accredible.com/certs/3

This is an interesting attempt to increase the perceived meaningfulness of certificates from online courses by combining the certificate with a full portfolio of work. I’m curious to see how well this progresses.

If LinkedIn is smart, they will seriously consider buying this new website and integrating it into their website as part of the Endorsements of Skills/Expertise section!

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When a student is a “bad fit” for a (charter) school

At the American Montessori Society conference last weekend, I sat in on a session about the increasing number of Montessori public and charter schools, which are a minority among Montessori schools–most Montessori schools are still private.

This is of particular interest to me since, typically, charters must be open to ALL students–not just the few who can afford a private school.

Because charters are publicly funded, they cannot deny admission to particular students. However, in reality, some students are nudged out due to requirements in place at the school, or the due to the extent to which the student is miserable at the school.

In the session at the conference, the discussion arrived at the seemingly self-evident point that if a school is not a “good fit” for a student (due to a student’s completion of all existing coursework at the school, physical or psychological disabilities, severe behavioral or learning disabilities,  learning style, etc.) that the student shouldn’t go to that particular school–if the student still ends up at that  “bad fit” school, this would be to the detriment of both the student and the school.

Particularly for a relatively small or relatively specialized school, it is indeed hard to argue that a particular “bad fit” student should still attend.

However, wouldn’t this same argument have to also then apply to traditional public schools: if a student is a bad fit for a (traditional public) school, then it doesn’t make sense for the student to go there?

What happens for students (possibly MANY of them) for whom no school is a good fit? Certainly, all students are entitled to a high quality education.

I think a worthwhile goal for ALL schools is to strive to form itself into a “good fit” for all of its students.

If nothing else, this line of thinking at least shines some light on the public and charter schools that are trying to do this every day, with varying amounts of success. Meeting the needs of all students is indeed quite challenging!!


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Montessori conference!

I spent some time last week at the American Montessori Conference here in Orlando. Lots of thought-provoking presentations and conversations! I’m still in the early stages of learning about Montessori philosophy and practice, but much of what I have seen so far is a real breath of fresh air compared to the drill and test reality I see every day in the low-performing high school where I work.

Here are some cool things about Montessori:

  • Focus on “soft skills:” self-monitoring, self-correction, independent decision making, empathy, innovative problem solving, etc.
  • Multi-age grouping
  • Lots of well designed and intriguing manipulatives
  • Self-paced progression through the curriculum
  • Teachers working with many of same students for multiple years
  • More than one educator in the classroom (I should clarify–more than one adult educator in the classroom, plus lots of students who are ideally educators themselves, too!)

I’m excited to keep learning more!

(Note: more blog posts based on thoughts from the conference are forthcoming.)

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Teaching Robots #EDCMOOC

I have been working through a Coursera course called E-learning and Digital Cultures #EDCMOOC. This post represents the final digit artifact of my work for that course (or rather, “artefact,” as my Scotland-based instructors write).

Among other things, the course and its embedded discussions explored what it means to be educated in an age where much of human knowledge is very easily accessible online and in the not-too-distant future when there will be even easier ways of connecting our minds with that information, beyond simply reading it on a screen (think Ray Kurzweil).

What should math education look like?

I struggle with this question personally, as well as on a daily basis as I seek to empower my students to understand math–what should math learning look like in such a world?

My guess is that such an education should focus most on the creative and original aspects of human thinking that can’t easily (or at least can’t soon) be mimicked by a computer. However, it is a constant struggle not to fall into the trap of treating my students like simple computers.

I support students in a low-achieving school. The students, their teachers, and the school itself are under intensive pressure to pass  big standardized tests to prove the kids are learning. The school’s response to this pressure and to the fact that students are academically behind where they should be is typically to teach most of the material fairly superficially and spend time focusing on lots of test-taking strategies to decode the questions that are being asked and convert them into correct answers.


When tutoring a student, my instinct, therefore, is often to help them understand the general procedure they have been taught to solve a problem, and give them a few contingency plans to use in certain situations (what happens if x=0?).

It occurs to me that this is also what I’d do when programming a computer to perform a moderately complex, but routine task: create a process for it to follow, with a few other procedures to follow in certain specific situations for which the original process wouldn’t work perfectly.

I don’t want to think of students as computers or robots to be programmed. I am reminded of a song from the musical Ragtime: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpRNa01JZYY <–This makes good background music for reading this essay!

The song glorifies the new-found efficiency of the assembly line and of people who work on the assembly line:

See my people?
Well, here’s my theory
Of what this country
Is moving toward.
Every worker
A cog in motion.
Well, that’s the notion of
Henry Ford!

One man tightens
And one man ratchets
And one man reaches
To pull one cord.
Car keeps moving
In one direction.


Even people who ain’t too clever
Can learn to tighten a nut forever,
Attach one pedal
Or pull one lever


I am not a cog

As an educator, I do not want to be a cog, nor do I want to spend my time developing my students into future cogs.

I want them to actually understand the world and engage with the world. Cogs don’t do that, computers don’t do that, robots don’t do that.

The problem is, the reality in many contemporary low-achieving schools is just that. The scary thing is that this is a reaction to being low-achieving. I think we need to explore the possibility that it is really a cause of being low-achieving…..

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this (yet). My guess is that it has lots to do with developing students’ intrigue and students’ responsibility. I am excited that, as I write this, the 2013 winner of the TED Prize has been announced as Sugata Mitra. His focus on kids’ natural curiosity is exciting.

In the meantime, later this week, I’m signing some of my guitar students up for a songwriting course on Coursera. That’s a start, at least!

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A cool idea for building a better relationship with a particular student

At a training yesterday, a colleague shared an excellent idea for strengthening a relationship with a student–possibly a student you have had trouble connecting with previously.

Two copies of a book

Have the student pick out a book. Then, you can check two copies of the book out of the library, keep one and give the other to the student to take home. By checking out a book in your name and giving it the student, you prove to her that you trust her.

Agree on a particular set of pages or chapter that you will BOTH read that night and will discuss for 2-3 minutes before or after class tomorrow. During that quick discussion the next day, agree on a new chapter to read that night, and repeat! You could also possibly pick a slightly longer section and agree to check-in a few days down the line instead of the next day.

Strengthen your relationship

In addition to showing that you trust the student by giving her a book checked-out in your name, you are also showing that you care about her enough to want to share the experience of reading this book together.

This gives you something positive to discuss together each day. The student gets to see another side of you beyond the distant, or boring, or mean, or annoying, (or whatever) teacher they may currently think you are. You are reminded that this student is more than her grades, test scores, and behavior referrals.

Hopefully these brief, shared discussions each day lead to further strong conversations between you and her and a strengthening of your relationship.

Chronic attendance problems

This can also be a helpful technique to try with students who have unresolved attendance issues. If your relationship with the student is currently not sufficient to be able to uncover the true root cause of the missed days of school, sharing this reading experience with that student may help.

First, your relationship with that student will be strengthened, which can hopefully make it possible to figure out why exactly the student is missing school in the first place (and make it more likely that you can effectively intervene on those issues). Second, when the student gets to the point where they are looking forward to your daily discussions of a chapter with them before class, they have an authentic reason to WANT to be in school, which may minimize attendance problems.

Reading: not just for English teachers anymore!

It is also important to note that this applies not just to people working in language arts classrooms. In fact, my guess is that this tool may be even more powerful in a math class (or science, social studies, etc.) since many students don’t expect their math teacher to read a book with them!

It is also important to consider how the effects of this tool differ compared to simply assigning a whole class a chapter of book to read and discussing it the next day–which teachers at all levels do every day.

The major difference here is that, instead of framing this as a class assignment, the student can think of this as a cool thing you are doing just for them: you had an idea of something to do just with that student, instead of just “doing your job” by assigning homework.

Image: http://www.phd2published.com

HT: J. Warn, K. Brentano


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Some unexplored effects of MOOCs in the long-term

There is currently lots of thinking going on about the implications of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)–courses that are free online and enroll tens of thousands of students at a time from all over the world:  How will these affect traditional colleges and universities? Will students still be willing to pay (lots) of money to go to college? What will happen when incoming freshman arrive having already taken numerous MOOCs? etc.

These questions are already being deeply explored by a large number of people and organizations.

However, there is a class of questions that is equally interesting, but not receiving nearly as much attention: how will instructors of MOOCs and instructors of non-MOOCs  alter their courses as a result of themselves having access to MOOCs and thereby being able to view courses taught by other professors?


It is a widely agreed upon principle that to improve at something, it is extremely helpful to receive ongoing, constructive feedback from others about the effectiveness of the work and with ideas for how to improve.

Last year, as a first-year 7th grade math teacher, there was no easy way for me to get feedback on my teaching from my colleagues and supervisors besides the time-intensive and labor-intensive process of having an administrator or teacher-mentor sit in my classroom for a period.

This couldn’t possibly happen often enough (they have lots of other important responsibilities) and when it did happen, they were only able to see a quick snapshot of my class for one particular lesson, so they didn’t have enough information to be able to provide useful feedback regarding what I may have done well (or poorly) during weeks of previous lessons which may have led to any of the good or bad aspects of student learning or classroom culture that were visible on that particular day.

In fact, only rarely did a teacher who was teaching the exact same subject observe my class or did I observe the class of another teacher. For any particular lesson, someone else may have been doing something subtly different (or very clearly different) that was altering the effectiveness of the lesson, but I could never know because I wasn’t there.

Certainly, we often planned lessons together, but, as everyone knows, two different teachers who are teaching a lesson that is supposedly similar can end up with very different outcomes.

Lots of data

However, instructors of courses such as MOOCs, for whom 100% of the course is captured digitally, are not constrained by this. They, or anyone else, can always look back and explore in great detail exactly what they did pedagogically and exactly how students responded.

I have seen some discussion of how data from MOOCs can provide some insight into the effectiveness of various teaching strategies: see exactly what the teacher did, see exactly how the students responded, and draw some conclusions. I have even seen some discussion of the intriguing idea of testing different teaching strategies in different sections of the same MOOC and comparing the results: A/B testing for teachers!

However, there is a whole class of questions about the effects MOOCs may have on other faculty members (and their courses) which I have not yet seen any discussion of.

New questions

Feedback and the ability to observe other faculty members’ courses:

  1. To what extent will faculty members who teach non-MOOC courses view and participate in similar courses offered as MOOCs led by faculty at other universities?
  2. How will faculty members who teach MOOCs use the easy access to the entire course to solicit feedback from colleagues and students?
  3. If Instructor A views the MOOCs led by Instructor B, what impact will this have on Instructor A’s OWN courses (traditional or MOOC)?
  4. As instructors who lead MOOCs get feedback (and adjust their courses accordingly) while other instructors see what is happening in the MOOCs (and adjust their courses–traditional or MOOC)–based on what they see, how will this change the content/pedagogy/structure of both MOOCs and traditional courses in the long-run?
  5. When comparing courses (say, Calc I) across different universities, how will the fact that all faculty have the ability to view several Calc I MOOCs, cause certain aspects of the courses’ content/pedagogy/structure to….
  • CONVERGE? For example, when one instructor uses an excellent demo or example in a MOOC, will other faculty adopt a similar technique in their classes?
  • DIVERGE?  Since faculty probably have a desire (and incentive) to make their courses distinctive and unique, once something starts being presented a certain way in MOOCs, will faculty change their instruction to make it different than the “free version” online?

Historical pedagogical trends:

6. All courses change in content/pedagogy/structure over time. Modern MOOCs provide a detailed record of exactly what material was presented, exactly how it was presented, and exactly how particular students responded to that material. This is extremely useful information now due to the ability of researchers to learn more about how students in these courses learn (see above).

However, this record will also provide an interesting historical snapshot of current courses. In 50 years, someone can look back and explore how these courses were taught in 2013.

Wouldn’t it be cool to look back at a Math or English Lit course that took place 10 or 50 or 100 years ago and see how it worked back then? What about a course in Psychology, Computer Science, or Biology?

10 and 50 and 100 years from now, people will be able to look back on contemporary MOOCs and explore how these courses look right now and see how they will have changed over time, which I imagine will lead to some fascinating results.

Certainly, MOOCs don’t offer a comprehensive snapshot of all teaching and learning that goes on in Universities, but they provide much more extensive and detailed information about this particular subset of higher education than possibly could have existed before.

I am very curious to see how the existence of MOOCs affects courses on similar topics elsewhere.

How will this all play out?

Is anyone aware of any work that is currently being done to explore any of the questions posed above? (Particularly #4 and #5–how will all courses on a particular subject change as a result of the availability of MOOCs?)

Update:  Ryan Tracey has a good list of potential implications of the current growth of MOOCs available here.

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