Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Free resources to learn to blog, touch type or connect to informal learning groups

The internet is an amazing place.  Almost anything we ever wanted to learn is contained in it's pathways but sometimes we need a guide to find our way.  There are many on-line courses, email courses and video courses available.  Some of them do not cost money and are also worth the time.  I want to share a few resources that I have found helpful.

  • If you want to create a blog and make your blog more visible try  He has a course that comes to your inbox via email.  The lessons are short, less than 5 minutes, but the information is useful. Even though it's designed for developers the information can be used in a wide range of disciplines. 
  • If you want to learn how to touch type, I recommend  They do not start with the home row instead this program starts with 7 letters scattered around the keyboard.  A short line of semi-English words are posted at the top of the keyboard.  The player is scored based on speed and accuracy.  This program is top notch and it's also free.
  • If you are looking for ways to learn about technology or anything else for that matter is your friend.  there are many groups that meet to talk about and build skills.  The meetup site here in Nashville has over 50 technology related groups.  There are other groups as well that you can learn about by connecting with your affinity community.
When you try these resources we would love to hear about your experience. Also, please share free/low cost resources which have been helpful to you.  Have a joyful day, Amy

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Immersive Learning with Real Gamification

       Several of my recent posts have been about poverty and test scores.  A monotonous diet of test score data can leave you with the impression that test scores are the same as educational outcomes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Test scores are an easy way to measure family household income but authentic learning has never been easy to measure or even completely nail down.  This weekend I would like to paint a small picture for you of an example of authentic, immersive learning.

        This was the weekend of the Global Game Jam.  More than 52,000 people in cities over the world showed up to create a game based on a common theme.  After listening to the theme there is a short brain storming session, then attendees are given an opportunity to pitch their ideas. All skill levels are welcome, so I packed up my family and headed to Franklin, one of two hubs in Tennessee which were hosting the jam.

       This years theme was, "What do we do now?"  In the brain storming session we moved around the room thinking aloud with a variety of people.  Many of us initially thought of apocalyptic games along the lines of alien invasion, zombie uprising and other things like that.  After 20 minutes, people were given the opportunity to pitch an idea.  My usually shy daughter overcame her fear of speaking in crowds to share her idea.  Her game story line involved a family with a single mom. Mom was suddenly called into work and she has to scrape the bottom of the baby sitting barrel.  The player can pick from four baby sitters and the 3 child characters in the game react. Each baby sitter leads to the children being left to fend for themselves.  When odd circumstances cause the baby sitter to abandon his/her post the three children ask, "What do we do now?" The player then has a series of choices to select from with outlandish consequences.

      When she pitched her idea she had a team of 4 people sign up to help.  This 8 year old child helped create story boards, 'lead a team',  provided voice talents, described characters to her artist, and came up with a dizzying array of ways things could go wrong with a baby sitter or with a group of children turned loose in East Nashville.   This weekend she watched the process of game creation from beginning to end.  She has seen some things happen this weekend and been exposed to technology she probably couldn't have conceived of before she walked through these doors on Friday. In less than 4 hours what's completed in our game, along with hundred of others, will be uploaded to the Global Game Jam site.

       This weekend I have thought often  about the type of "flash flood learning" all of us were able to enjoy.  This was available because:

  • the Nashville Game Developers sponsored a hub here
  •  we were able to find out about because we have access to connected technology
  •  had the resources to travel to Franklin and participate.  This learning is utilized by very few young people because they do not have access.

        I'd would wager my daughter is likely one of the youngest game developers here.  There was a first grader here as well who developed his own program using Scratch through MIT. Em was able to 'lead' a team which was a great boost to her self confidence.  She did not walk into this office as a developer.  She walked in as a child with a great imagination.  Then a team of people surrounded her and brought her twisted, funny, little world to life.  It has been amazing!

       There are several resources we've learned about that might be interesting to you.  There are free sound effects and royalty free artwork available on the web.  Just search Google for 'creative commons' to find them.  Soundbible is an excellent website for free sounds but please pay careful attention.  Do not click the download now button in the ad or you could end up with Vosteran on your computer.  If that happens you get to learn about system resets and Malwarebytes to expunge it from your machine.  Adobe had a suite of software for developing cartoons and games that is web-based. Deep discounts are available to teachers and a trial version is also available.  Check it out this summer if you want to create some cool animations for next fall.

       We were able to work with many talented people this weekend.  My daughter wants to take a minute to thank all of the people who helped her this weekend.  Without the team of women who joined our group none of this would have been possible. Brook Rucksdale and Lee Perry both provided outstanding support and displayed "mad" Google skills.  Samantha Collier is an extraordinary artist who brought all of the characters to life.  Kai Vilhelmsen provided several of our male voices and recorded all of the dialogue.  Phillip Smith created the original music score.  Several young people and adults loaned their voices to bring our script to life.  Thank you all for making this possible. Specific credit will be posted along with our game.  If you would like to see the games you can find them at  Our game is called "Where are Their Parents- East Nashville Style".  We understand you can search by location and by title.  We will know for sure after 4pm today.
        I wish every child could have immersive learning experiences like the one we had this weekend. From these opportunities lasting, useful knowledge springs.  Authentic learning in schools is an endangered animal in the current climate. We will get what we measure.  We are not measuring for immersive, authentic learning experiences.  The policy makers selecting the tests do not all recognize this type of learning so they measure what they know to measure.  They trust the test makers instead of the professional educators.  This leads to more tests, more stress, and less joy.  As a society it's past time to reform education reform and bring memorable learning back to America's children.

       In the meantime we will continue to augment our public school education by finding great events, having daily conversations and creating great memories that will last a lifetime.  We look forward to hearing from our neighbors about what they think of our work. Oh, I also wanted to tell you the lost pet is real. She returned home after 3 days and the cat now has a fan club following on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Updated: Poverty Map Published in 2015

      Deborah Brooks from Twitter asked an excellent question this morning.  She wanted to know the dates and source for my earlier maps.  When I was Googling those this morning I did not find them readily but I found something better.
       The Washington Post has some updated information taken from the data gathered from the Common Core/NCES. This graphic is interactive, current and more dire than I expected. It turns out that the majority of US public school students are living without basic necessities.  More than half of the students we are teaching are struggling with the handicapping conditions of poverty.  Right now the calls to fire the teachers and raise the standards are like telling a cancer patient to drink tap water and eat more fresh fruit. Unless we address the cancer the patient will perish.  We need to directly deal with the extreme levels of poverty our students face or our public schools will perish.  These schools are essential for a free, democratic society.
       The people on Wall Street, in the banks and in the halls of government are congratulating themselves on our economic recovery outpacing the rest of the world.  They are building their success on the low wages they are allowed to pay the working class.  Radio and television announcers tell all of us that things are better but the majority of us are not feeling it.   The divide between the haves and the have nots has never been greater.  It's not sustainable.
       Please read the information contained at the link below and like/comment.  It means so much to us when we hear from you.

SOURCE: SEF calculations of NCES Common Core of Data, 2013. Published Jan. 16, 2015.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Map Comparison: Level of Poverty to Level of Performance

          Today we are going to consider two very similar maps.  The map at the top is a map of public school ratings based solely on the students test scores.  The map underneath is a map showing the percentage of poverty.  The similarities are striking.  You can almost overlay one on top of the other. These images give additional weight to the plethora of evidence found on studies of test scores and poverty. Childhood poverty is the highest its been in 20 years.  The United States has a child hood poverty rate of 21% overall but it is not evenly distributed.   Poverty is a significant factor in school performance.  The stress of living with want makes learning difficult as I discussed a few weeks back in the post called Stress, Poverty and Learning.  If we are serious about improving our performance we must address the handicapping conditions of poverty.  We need to abandon programs which are not working at least as well as the public schools had prior to their inception such as ASD and CC/PARCC and instead try something new.
          Take the lowest performing school in your state and update it.  Bring in wrap around services and teachers with masters degrees.  Pay the teachers handsomely and trust them.  Set up the school so the teachers will not be punished for the poverty of the students.  Create wrap around services with small class size and family interventions/assistance.  Test in three years.  Skip the wasted time and money for the annual test.  It's a reasonable hypothesis that you will have academic growth, happier kids, happier families, and happy teachers.  With the funds saved on testing the state can afford to pilot a true reform which is child centered.

           I would like to point out one surprising and, for me, thrilling exception on the map,  the state of Tennessee.  Our state has some of the lowest funded, highest poverty schools in the nation. Our teachers and students have performed above what anyone would expect. Tennessee has out performed all of the other high poverty states and we should be celebrating. Instead, we have succumbed to the Global Education Reform Movement.  There is little tenure protection in our 'right to work state'. GERM has caused teachers to be capriciously fired or subjected to constructed dismissal because the principal just wanted to hire someone else and had the authority.  This is demoralizing for the school population when it happens.  Although allowing for easier dismissal helps clear out those who cannot teach it also seems to be clearing out many of our higher achieving educators as well.  It's trimming the bell curve from both ends.
         When I began in the profession veteran teachers were expected to have taught 30 to 40 years.  Now the average teaching term is five years.  Veteran teachers have 10 or more years. We are hemorrhaging talent.  The teachers in our state who performed this miracle are headed out the door.  If we want to retain our talent we need to find a way to balance power. We also need to recognize the expertise of our educators and trust the view points they share.  They know poverty schools will perform better with wrap around services.  Create a lab school and test it.  Many can tell you the affects of yearly tests and yearly observation and review.  They will have solutions that can be tried and measured.  We need to trust our teachers and give the schools, teachers, and students the support needed to overcome anything that prevents success. 
          If you would like a resource to understand poverty Ruby Paine wrote a book on this subject.  The link is provided here:

Sunday, January 11, 2015

It Really is All About the Benjamins

      There are hundreds of studies  written on the effects of poverty on learning and memory.  Education scholars have replicated prior research to corroborate the findings.  The studies indicate students' education performance is most profoundly affected by the home community, home life and household income.  Students in high income families in the US out perform students from other countries on the PISA.  The issue may not be our standards, our teachers, or teacher preparation programs. There is always room for improvement and teaching is the easiest handle to grasp. However, if any teaching levers were the main issue, students with adequate resources would likely not perform as well as they have been performing.  The issue is resources.
        The top country for student testing performance is Finland.  Finland has a childhood poverty rate of 3%.  The United States has a childhood poverty rate of 22%. The Washington post wrote an article comparing our childhood poverty rate to the rates in other countries.  You can read the article here.  We are ranked 34th in the world.  There are 33 countries with lower childhood poverty rates than the US. When we examine the national scores of students around the world the charts of performance and poverty show remarkable similarities.  The countries which out perform the US have lower rates of childhood poverty.  The greatest issue with American education is not an educational issue.  It is a broader policy issue.
      Teachers see poverty affects play out every year.  Students come to school without supplies.  They are sent to school sick or with a toothache because the caregiver cannot get time off from work without loss of income or possible loss of a job.  Students come to school in freezing weather without coats, hats or gloves.  Teacher buy supplies.  They talk a local dentist into helping a child with a cavity.  I've known teachers who have bought coats, food, clothes and glasses.  They provide for students on a meager income that on average in Tennessee draws less than a brick mason.  Teachers pick up the slack but there are limits to what they can do. 
       Lack of resources and lack of support in the community can affect student's ability to learn in school. addresses the greatest factors in student academic performance. Campbell and Ramey found if the family is impoverished while the child is preschool or younger, lack of adequate nutrition can lead to sub-optimal brain development. The length of poverty can increase the issues related to the condition. This groundbreaking study examines the differences in long term and short term poverty  There are hundreds of articles that correlate poverty to educational difficulties.  If poverty were a food additive the EPA would have banned it years ago
     Campbell and Ramey found the effects could be somewhat mitigated with early childhood education, nutrition. and wrap around services. Their study is here  This study set up a preschool program which was geared to fill in early childhood deficits in learning and nutrition.  Part of this program was parent engagement to improve home life and to connect parents to the preschool.  The wrap around services provided diapers and iron fortified cereal.  The students were followed until age 12.  The experimental group had double the number of students with average intelligence and higher compared to the control group. 
   There are some academic interventions that can make a serious difference. One of the best academic interventions is Reading Recovery.  Reading Recovery has completed long term studies on the Reading Recovery intervention. Students in poverty are more likely to have difficulty learning to read.  When a child begins life in poverty and does not gain literacy skills he/she is at a great disadvantage.  Reading Recovery breaks this cycle.  They have multiple studies showing that children gain reading skills rapidly and maintain those gains over time.  It is likely one of the most disruptive forces of the schools to prison pipeline.  This link will open to an abstract of a study. There are multiple studies and links on this page, all very well done.
      So there are things that we can do to manage the symptoms of this chronic disease or we could reach for a cure.  We can insist on a living wage so no one who works a full week should be impoverished.  We can provide wrap around services, preschool education and Reading Recovery for those who need it.  Poverty is a blight on our nation which is not going to improve over time without direct action.  If left without intervention the poverty rates are likely to go up. Today the US has 16 million children living in poverty.  As a civilized society we need to make sure there are clear paths out of poverty so children who are born into poverty do not have to raise their children in poverty.  That's not just compassion, it's also common sense. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Stress, Poverty, and Learning

         Each year I tell my students I was born BPC, before the age of personal computing. It's part of my classroom schtick.  Due to timing, I never learned to touch type but I recently decided this was going to change. I tried several different programs but I saw very little progress.  Realizing my most effective form of learning involves positive feedback and a sense of accomplishment, I went on a quest for a program that spoke to this style. I recently found a website that generates a series of short samples to complete.  When I do especially well with speed and accuracy, the program posts a little medal at the top of the page.  The awards remind me of Galaga, a video game with which I spent many happy hours during my youth. 
        The award image gives me a sense of accomplishment makes me feel happy.  I noticed that when I worked especially hard to get the medal, I earned a slower speed score with more mistakes.  When I relaxed and just let the score be whatever it was I did better.  This started me thinking about how stress surrounding academic outcome might affect student scores. If the brain is similar to a computer, could processing stress slow down our our learning and memory processes?  The answer is yes!
         In the Journal of Neuroscience, March 2008, researchers at UC Irvine found a strong link between stress and memory issues. "Although it is known that long-term or chronic stress can affect the brain’s learning and memory region, a new finding discovers short-term stress, lasting as little as a few hours, can also impair brain-cell communication in these critical areas."  You can read the link here             
          Students feel pressure to perform well on these tests.  They want to do well because the outcome affects the annual grade.  There is also pressure from the school, the parents and sometimes inexperienced teachers.  There are practice tests throughout the year reminding them the day is just around the corner. Testing looms large in the narrative of the schools.  There is a threat of loss for students who under perform.  All of these things may add up to additional stress.
        Most students do not respond well to learning by threat.  The possibility of loss of standing or loss of a dearly loved teacher could be enough to make these test feel threatening to students.  Based on that alone it's reasonable to conclude, high stakes testing is leading us the wrong direction.  The effects of the perceived threat can be greater for students who are struggling with issues of poverty or are differently-able.
       Our most vulnerable students experience a stronger effect from the stress than others.  If a child is subject to long term stress, such as poverty or illness, they have additional struggles in learning.  The child only managing the short term stress of feeling he needs to do well on the TCAP this week will not be as handicapped.  Children who already struggle to perform in school have additional burdens placed on the learning center of their brain by long term and then short term stress.  It doesn't seem this is the best way to help struggling students achieve great educational gains.  High stakes testing is counter-productive for children in poverty.
          This is the age we live in.  We are in an era of high stakes testing and high stress education for K-12.  The education reformers claim they have found the answer to raise our student's test scores. One of their chief conjectures is teachers need accountability for educational outcomes and there is no better way to measure outcome than through student scores on commercially-produced-annual tests. These yearly tests have become a powerful force deciding if teachers are allowed to continue teaching and a source of significant stress for students.  These tests leave many students with the message they are failures. Students are hearing the accusation of they can do as well as any other student but they just choose not to.  This is disingenuous.
        While children from middle class homes tend to perform well,  these students only have the issues that come with short term stress to do well on the test.  Children in poverty do not generally score as well.  One of the factors is the long term stress of poverty.  If we want to bring up our scores nation wide we have to bring up the scores of the children living in poverty in America.   With this in mind can anyone be taken seriously when they tell us they plan to improve scores without addressing issues of childhood poverty?

.          This blog post does not address the rising rates of poverty and homeless among Americas children. The USA has the highest rate of childhood poverty among first world nations. This post doesn't delve into the question of whether there is any correlation between student test scores and life outcomes, or United States overall scores and world status. It doesn't question the motivation of reformers, some of which stand to make significant money from reform. There are many questions for us to consider about the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM.  Best keep our hands washed as we delve deeper into the issues surrounding GERM.  I look forward to writing to you about these and other topics over the next few weeks.