Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where I Stand on Differentiated Instruction

Call me part of the digital education revolution, but I am just going to say it …. You need access to technology in order to more effectively differentiate instruction.

To ask teachers to meet the needs of all learners using differentiated worksheets, different textbooks, flexible grouping -- which by the way simply translates into homogeneous grouping within the same classroom-- with the teacher running around the room like an athlete on the track team trying to give some modicum of individual attention to every student and/or every group, is just plain impossible.  And more importantly, the kids are not getting what they need. They are not really being challenged or helped to become self-directed learners because we are still working way too hard to construct a gamut of appropriate multiple learning activities for them.

 To “differentiate” means to make different.

And in most classrooms in most schools, we are doing very little differently. We are pretty much doing the same thing we have been doing for the last 50 years; probably longer.

If you want to get an idea of the complexity of differentiating instruction, I would invite you to explore the Universal Design for Learning  website at and take a look at the model lesson plans. Consider the level of expertise and time that would be involved with thinking through the differentiated activities, testing them out, redesigning the lesson and reflecting on the student outcomes. And keep in mind that these are single lessons. Think about an entire school year and an entire course of study. Think about the fact that even the most talented, and dedicated “uber” teachers would occasionally, when they are not in their classrooms, actually need some time to …..perhaps ….have a life.  Absent of spending every waking hour working with colleagues to design these kinds of lessons for ever single class and every single student; I think it is fair to say that we are asking a lot. 

I’m a big proponent of differentiation, but I also believe in the power of technology. And I believe it is the means by which we can most effectively help teachers differentiate instruction to its fullest degree. 

Picture this:

·         Teachers use social networks to engage students with their peers in other schools, in other states, in other countries and around the globe to share their ideas and their work.
·         We “flat out” ban worksheets …. period ….no more worksheets projected on the SMART Boards, no more paper worksheets, electronic worksheets …..can we just try this? Maybe start with a “No Worksheet Week” and see what happens?
·         Teachers and students embrace and take risks with project based learning (project based learning is synonymous with learning in depth). We educate and actively engage parents about project based learning and what they can expect and not expect to see in this kind of learning environment. (These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of “lifewide” learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom).
·         As a community we are willing to commit resources to teacher professional development that helps them to understand inquiry based lesson design, and then support them as they engage in an inquiry based instructional approach. (An old adage states: "Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand." The last part of this statement is the essence of inquiry based learning)
·         Teachers talking to parents and parents talking to teachers about instruction, having conversations where EVERYONE – teachers, administrators, parents and students --are learners knowing that they are valued equally in the learning community.
·         Parents letting go of the “great idea, love risk-taking” as long as it is with someone else’s child philosophy; this attitude hinders teachers from trying new and innovative strategies.

So back to why I think that differentiation is more and more dependent on technology.  In his paper for the Centre for Strategic Education  Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto says, “Teachers need to get grounded in instruction, so that they can figure out WITH students how to best engage technology.”  He believes that technology can be a dramatic accelerator if we put instruction and skilled motivated teachers and students in the lead.

Kids and teachers need to be able to access the internet in any classroom in our buildings. Both students and teachers must learn to effectively leverage the power of social networks.  True exploration with inquiry involves students developing personal learning networks where they can access on-the-job professionals and academic mentors. Project based learning in its most highly evolved state requires students to work together in groups, and work as a team to design and demonstrate their understanding of central concepts and principles of a discipline. Quite frankly, they will probably facilitate this process most readily on Facebook. 

Whether students bring their own devices to school and are permitted to use them in the classroom; whether we give teachers tablet computers so that they can have their resources always in hand; whether we furnish kids with low cost tablets, netbooks or iPads ….. 

We simply must do things differently, if we want to make the most of differentiated instruction.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why I Love To Talk To Parents

In September I invited the parents in my school district to join me in reading Tony Wagner’s text The Global Achievement Gap. As you may recall from my early blogs the Wagner text speaks to the Seven Survival Skills necessary for students to be successful in the 21st Century. He talks about why schools - even the best schools - are failing in this regard. He also talks about what needs to happen to change the educational paradigm rooted in an industrial education model which is ineffective and obsolete.Wagner was the key note speaker today in Boston at the Learning and the Brain Conference and the message is resonating with educators and social scientists from across the country.

In recent weeks, my conversations with parents have been fascinating, enlightening and encouraging. I am learning that parents:

  • ·         Are passionately interested in the education of their children
  • ·         Value innovation and creativity over teaching to the test
  • ·         Wish that we would talk more about engaging students in learning and not engaging them to take tests
  • ·         Believe that if students are learning to be critical thinkers, adept problem solvers, collaborative work partners, influencers, leaders and self-directed learners …..the tests will take care of themselves.
  • ·         Embrace the philosophy of the International Baccalaureate program but would like to understand more about it
  • ·         Want to understand how they can engage meaningfully with our teachers and administrators; especially at the middle and high school; understanding that there is a changing dynamic at these levels but still a place for them to be active and valued as parents
  • ·         Believe that there are many extraordinary teachers in our schools and strongly support all efforts to give teachers the professional development resources necessary  to grow and develop their skills
  • ·         Understand that they can and do play a critical role in maintaining the necessary community support for our schools especially in these challenging economic times
  • ·         Agree that we need to do more to improve technology resources and the use of technology in our classrooms to enhance the instructional program
Although our book chats always begin with discussion of the Wagner text, we quickly move on to parent perceptions, experiences, concerns and hopes for growth in our schools. As one parent expressed recently, “I felt like I was part of a ‘think tank’ and we were thinking together about how we could explore ideas for richer experiences and improvements.”

Parents need to be partners in learning. Educators need to embrace instead of exclude them.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Game On!

I have never been a gamer.

And I will totally date myself here by saying that I was never into Pac Man, I don’t own an X-Box or a Wii and I was generally not following the connections between games and the classroom.
That is until a couple of summer’s ago at the Harvard Graduate School’s Future of Learning Institute where I both learned to “tweet” and had the opportunity to attend a session with Chris Dede, Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard. 

And I thought …whoa! 

He was talking about disruptive innovations and that the disruptive innovation heading toward our classrooms was the customization of individual needs. This was way beyond  differentiating instruction. Chris Dede talks about a full customization of the learning process that is student driven. 


Students understanding themselves in ways that allow them to create the learning situations which will help them to meet their goals as individual learners.

And then we talked about gaming.

At the recent New York State Council of School Superintendents Conference in Saratoga Springs, Mary Cullinane, Director of Innovation – US Partners of Learning for Microsoft Corporation focused part of her  presentation on gaming. 

She shared an amazing statistic ….. that kids playing video games fail at the game 80% of the time.
 Think about that  …….and think about what do they do every time they fail? 

They go back for more!

When I get a mental image of what this type of perseverance and persistence would look like inside our classrooms I am filled with excitement. Kids so engaged with an activity or a concept that if they failed to understand it 80% of the time they would willingly and of their own volition keep going back until they got it.

 Just picture that! 

Consider the incredible implications this holds for learning. 

In the September issues of “the Journal,” an educational technology publication which you can check out at writer Charlene O’Hanlon talks about “a new generation of gamers who are not just picking up skills by playing video games – they’re learning by designing an creating games themselves.” In her article she explains that game creation as a learning tool is really just a digital-age take on the learning-by-doing approach to teaching. All of the current curriculum re-design work being done in schools across the country is being structured to include more opportunities for project-based learning. We know that students pick up concepts more easily and retain more information when they are hands-on with their subject matter. 

I am especially drawn to the use of Gamestar Mechanic because it is targeted toward middle school students. There is much research that points toward middle school as the time when many students disengage from learning; especially boys. Gamestar Mechanic is built on a foundation of pedagogical research that includes systems thinking, digital literacy skills and STEM learning. It is being used in 800 schools and the basic program is free. 

I would encourage you to check out some of the following websites:

I am convinced that the use of games as part of the instructional program holds endless opportunities for our students to practice 21st Century skills such as communication, problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork. These skills simply cannot be replicated in the same way by traditional classroom activities. 

According to David Samuelson, Executive Vice President and Director of Games and Augmented Reality at Pearson and co-moderator of the working group that focuses on game-based learning within the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), “we are graduating through the stage where we’ve accepted that games are now a part of society, and we’re looking for the best ways to incorporate them into the teaching environment. It’s a natural progression.”

So … innovative teachers willing to embrace the redesign of teaching and learning for our 21st Century classrooms ….

Game On!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ask A Sixth Grader

Change is good and these are exciting times! As the new superintendent in Dobbs Ferry, I have been trying to unravel the “state of the schools” in an effort to pick an entry point for where to begin. As is the case with all schools, we are attempting to “change the tire while the car is moving.” How do we establish the technological culture that will inspire, educate and empower all students to be successful participants in a 21st Century global society?

We began over the summer with our Board members and administrators reading Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap. The text grapples with the issues facing all schools in teaching our students what Wagner refers to as the “seven survival skills” that our children need in order to be successful in a global society.

In November, I am beginning a series of Parent Book Chats coordinated by our District PTSA. Hosted in neighborhood homes, we will meet in groups of 10-12 parents to discuss the Wagner text and engage in dialogue about the kinds of things we want our students to be able to know and do when they graduate from Dobbs Ferry High School. It is hard for me to imagine a group more invested in the changes that need to occur. After all, every parent holds high hopes and dreams for their child including the ability to secure a decent job and become a contributing member of society.

Today, I met with a group of our new sixth graders. This is their first year in Middle School and .their ideas and feedback on what they think would make their learning more relevant astounded me. In a recent piece in The Next Web, entitled What today’s Digital Native children can teach the rest of us about technology,” Neela Sakaria, Senior Vice President of Latitude (a research consulting company to leaders in content, technology and learning) explains that research is “focused on giving children a real voice in the broader, often very adult, discussion of future technologies and real-world problem solving. We believe that kids are the architects of the future- they’re creative, have an intuitive relationship with technology and have proven that they think in extraordinarily sophisticated ways about how tech can enhance their learning, play and interactions with people and things around them.”

The sixth graders were explaining to me that one of the things new to them this year was having different subject area classes and that they really needed to be more organized. I asked them the obvious question, “What are you doing to keep yourselves more organized?” They started by explaining that they were using multiple folders and binders to keep all the class work separate, but that there was always lots of “stuff” on their desks because of the various papers, folders and notebooks.

I was fascinated by this since I was thinking “how many adults in the “real world” use notebooks and folders to keep themselves organized?” I will admit to a small number of file folders in my office but …really ….do we think that this is the way that these kids will one day structure their homes and offices? Unable to contain my curiosity about how the students would respond, I asked “Do you think there is any other way to keep yourselves organized?”

Well … I wish you could have been there. Without having any knowledge of Wagners’ “seven survival skills,” our students’ answers demonstrated many of the attributes that he cites are imperative for the next generation to master including critical thinking, understanding resources, problem solving, adapting technology, analyzing information and imagination. Here are some of their creative ideas:

  • “Everyone should have an iPad because when we get home we have an ipad and we just use online folders to organize our work.”

  • “I think that someone would have to write the code, but you should be able to bring your iPad to school and log on to a network where all of your game apps are disabled while you are in school.”

  • “If kids don’t have money to buy an iPad they should able to rent one from the school.”

  • “If you added up all the money that the school is going to spend on paper for us from the time we are in sixth grade to twelfth grade it would probably cost the same as an iPad. Using technology is a better environmental solution.”

  • “All the desks in the school should have a ‘built in’ iPad so that whatever classroom you went into, you would just log-in to the iPad in the classroom.”

Trying to put aside the pros and cons of ipads vs. netbooks vs. laptops, the larger conversation revolves around why our classrooms are so disconnected from what our students encounter and engage in during their daily life? Why are they being forced to “power down” when they walk through our doors? The research being done by Latitude has found that today’s children perceive a very seamless connection between online and offline worlds.

The pivotal question is “how willing are we to hear what our digital native children are telling us, and what are we willing to do about it?”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Let Kids Rule The School

Let Kids Rule the School
Published: March 14, 2011
Eight teens were given the chance to create their own curriculum, and the results have been transformative.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Student Reflection on Project Based Learning

Sometimes, the kids just “nail it.”

 For the past 18 months, as a learning community of teachers and administrators at Hunterdon Central we have been reading, discussing and exploring the changing dynamics surrounding what we love and what we do. We are teachers. And we embrace the challenges that we face in preparing our teenagers for a rapidly changing world. We have been pulling forward and toward becoming the kind of school that our students really need and away from the traditional school that we have always been.

I think that the following essay from one of our tenth grade students as she reflects on her recent Chemistry class paints a compelling picture:

“When students hear the phrase ‘science lab,’ often their first thoughts are troubling: memories of deciphering monotonous sets of instructions, plowing through procedures, saddled with uncooperative partners. So let’s just say I was less than thrilled to be starting chemistry in September of my sophomore year. However, as the first week unfolded, it became quite clear that this was not the experience my classmates and I were about to have.

On day 2 we were presented with our first lab; a fictitious popcorn company sought our advice to improve their product and increase market sales. We were tasked with analyzing the kernels of several companies to determine the most favorable traits in an ideal popcorn kernel. But there was something missing from this assignment – a set of instructions and a list of lab partners. Soon my classmates and I realized that there would be no one holding our hands, guiding us through every step of the process. In this class, labs challenged us to access and apply our prior knowledge, take advantage of available resources and work together to complete the given task. We would lead ourselves.

At first none of us understood or appreciated the lack of structure and format in our labs. It was stressful having to read between the lines, sift through ideas and collaborate until a feasible solution was reached. What happened to passively following a designated path laid out by our teachers? Where were the rules? We eventually adjusted and surprisingly, my classmates and I grew fond of this approach – it felt as if a layer of freedom and opportunity had been added. We developed a new sense of pride and ownership in our work. Thinking, working and creating together was immensely satisfying (who knew)?

Almost nothing in the “real world” will be simply handed to you. Upon leaving for college, parents can’t give you a detailed map outlining the rest of your life (although many would love to). To some degree, you engineer your destiny. For my classmates and me, Chemistry was an introduction or glimpse at this new world soon to be thrust upon us. Lessons learned transcended mastery of the subject. In working with others we learned compassion; through failure we developed perseverance; free format sparked our creativity; and independence moved us to self-reliance – an unexpected outcome in a subject so absolute.”

As we move through the transformation of traditional teaching and learning, we continually ask ourselves the pivotal question – “Why Change?”

For me, I think of all the kids like Sydney. I know that I want to be smack in the middle of her “ah ha” moment. Where teachers and students belong …..together as they co-create and co-construct learning and discovery.

So thanks Sydney! I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The School Newspaper Meets Social Networking

School Newspapers Meet Social Networking

If you haven’t yet checked out Hunterdon Central’s The Lamp Online, you really must. The students and their advisor, English teacher Tom McHale have done a fantastic job and the online publication is snappy, professional and informational.  Taken directly from the publication’s mission statement, “the online student newspaper of Hunterdon Central Regional High School is an open, public forum for student expression, to promote inquiry and to provide an authentic venue to showcase student work. Opinions expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the school board, administration, sponsors, staff, or student body.”

Once again, we tread into some interesting territory as we continue to embrace the many opportunities offered by technology. Traditionally, student newspapers have been tightly controlled by school districts and content considered the property of the district. At Hunterdon Central as both the principal and the superintendent, I have always given wide discretion to The Lamp. The circumstances in which I have asked to see the content of the paper prior to publication have been extremely rare. Perhaps because I was a newspaper reporter myself when I was in my 20’s I have a different level of respect for freedom of the press. I have also enjoyed the benefits of extremely conscientious student reporters and a student newspaper advisor with whom I share a common sense of what is appropriate and what is not. We are also extremely fortunate to have the support of a Board of Education that embraces divergent opinions and perspectives. This is one of many factors that make Hunterdon Central a forward thinking, progressive district. We are a district that values leadership at every level.

So now, we have the online publication and a marked relinquishment of control. We are excited about taking the leap to allow opinions and the posting of content from across all sectors of our school community (students and staff) who are registered users of the site. As a team, we have committed to “responsible discussion within our school community.” We have also committed to allowing divergent opinions that, when expressed in an appropriate manner, will remain posted to this online, public forum.  We have come a long way from the parameters set forth in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case that held that “speech that can be reasonably viewed to have the school’s imprimatur can be regulated by the school if the school has a limited pedagogical concern in regulating the speech.” With the online publication, other than profanity, hate speech, personal attacks, false/inaccurate information or plagiarism; content will be permitted and remain in the public domain. Kind of like the school newspaper meets social networking.

We have been working over these past months to craft a policy for students and staff that want to post and comment to our online student newspaper. The proposed policy states that The Lamp Online staff will work toward meeting the standards set for professional journalism developed by the Journalism Education Association. This includes, but it is not limited to, a code of ethics concerning accuracy, balance, fairness, independence, and responsibility.

I have great faith and confidence that this “leap of faith” has far more benefits than risks. We shall see.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The School Schedule Choke Hold

Over the past 20 years, there seems to have been a never ending conversation about school schedules. Block schedules, traditional schedules, modular schedules, alternating schedules are all examples of the efforts of education reformers to improve the experiences of teachers and students in our classrooms. With the invasion of the 21st Century learning revolution into our educational culture, conversations about school schedules have taken on new and much more interesting tones. With e-learning, virtual schools and the open source learning management software being used by almost all schools, just how limiting are the constraints of any of the traditional modes of scheduling? For many of us who hope to continue to tear down the walls of traditional schooling, traditional schedules can feel like a choke hold on innovation and the creative use of time.

Over this past year, our School Schedule Task Force at Hunterdon Central has been working to explore alternatives to the 4 X 4 Block schedule that my school has been using since 1996. One of the earliest schools in New Jersey to move to a block schedule, it has become clear that with the changing educational landscape as related to 21st Century learning environments as well as standardized testing schedules that are dictated to schools by the State, our current schedule may not be meeting the needs of our students in ways that it once was. The extended learning time afforded by any block schedule is something that we believe is best for our students however the way that we allocate time for learning needs to change if we are going to seriously consider the exciting opportunities that technology and virtual learning may offer for both students, teachers and parents.

Currently we are looking at the following Exploratory Topics:

o     Year Round Schooling/Trimester Plans
o     Staggered Day/Flexible Hours
o     Community College Schedules
o     Virtual Schools/Hybrids
o     Extended Learning Time/Block Schedule Variations/Modular Schedules
o     Academies/Schools within Schools/Freshman Teams

As the need for more flexible time to engage with our students in a true 21st Century Learning environment expands, the way that we use our time – both students and teachers – needs to change. Or at least be considered differently. As we have moved to the use of open source learning management software (Moodle), our teachers and students collaborate with one another in an almost 24/7 environment. The constraints of traditional school schedules are becoming more limiting. Some of the questions that we have asked ourselves include:

  • Do all students and teachers really need to be here at the same time?
  • Do all students necessarily have to start and end school at the same time?
  • Should all teachers and students be exposed to some kinds of virtual/on-line learning opportunities in preparation for college and work?
  • How does that translate into teacher time since it is not a traditional class taught in a traditional way? How does this translate in the old “seat time” paradigm for kids?
  • What about year round schooling and trimester plans? Wouldn’t some kids, parents and teachers simply like this model better? 
  • Does “teaming” make more sense for freshman in a large school district or for students with learning challenges?

Working in teams, our teachers and administrators have been researching schedules in a variety of schools and consistent themes are emerging. We know that we need to find and create time for teachers to meet together in professional learning communities to discuss student work and individual student progress among the teachers working directly with each student. The shift toward educational progress plans for EVERY student mandate that teachers have this collaborative time. Students seek more opportunities to work collaboratively with one another on inquiry based learning projects and to work virtually taking a blend of both on-site and on-line courses. Traditional schedules are not designed to allow for this kind of collaboration which is critical in a 21st Century learning environment.

Although once considered a “taboo subject’” especially at the high school level, why not simply attend school year round as they do in many countries on a trimester type schedule that mimics more of a college experience. An example of a year round schedule seems to really resonate with many members of our committee.

The traditional year round calendar features a long summer vacation of 12 weeks followed by a long period of in-session days, with the first break coming at Thanksgiving. The winter holidays are followed by 55 in-session days before a short spring break. Spring break is followed by 40 work days before the end of the school year. Realistically, most schools in the Northeast are in session until almost the end of June anyway. Many, many students are already back at school by mid-August for band camp and fall athletics as well. On the year round calendar, everyone is off during the month of July which is pretty much when we are off on a traditional calendar. Year round schooling allows for both remedial and enrichment opportunities and has a strong research base that points to the importance of the “loss of lag time” for learners who are struggling. For those who have fewer learning challenges, they can choose to expand their learning through enrichment programs during time off, virtual course work or simply just take a break.

Putting aside issues regarding transportation (which are very real constraints), why do all kids have to be in school at the same time? Why do all the teachers have to be there at the same time? Maybe there are kids who would rather start at 10:30 and be finished at 5:30. Maybe there are teachers who would rather do this too. Especially if I am not involved in athletics, a later school day may make sense. There are myriad interesting issues and options to explore.

We are excited that our next steps involve students into our conversations in a meaningful way so that we can begin to fold their input and ideas into the dialogue. Knowing that “one size does not fit all,” I am looking forward to some challenging and lively discourse as we expand our conversations. Involving parents and community is the next phase of our plans and I welcome your thoughts, comments and concerns.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution!

Student 1:1 Pilot Project and 21st Century Teaching and Learning

With everyone talking about 21st Century classrooms and changes for teaching and learning, I thought I would share what we are doing at Hunterdon Central with our student 1:1 computing program. This is our second full year running this program and for our kids and teachers involved with this initiative, it has radically changed the way that instruction is being delivered in these classes.

Student 1:1 computing was an idea that we piloted and implemented during the 2009-2010 school year. No one can argue that we are in a time of remarkable technological change. Having witnessed the rise of a truly interactive World Wide Web where people of all ages and interests can create content and share their ideas, it is hard to not be on fire about the implications for our classrooms. This new connectivity has ushered in an era of communication and collaboration that our society has only begun to understand. Transformational tools such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, social networking and simulations make sharing information and interacting with others easy and efficient. Wikipedia, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, and Ning, are just some of the high profile examples of the types of technologies that are connecting disparate people in communities of work and play.

This world-wide shift has manifested itself at Hunterdon Central in many ways, including a classroom model that equips each room with at least six computers, a wireless projector and multimedia sound, a teacher tablet PC program, monthly technology professional development meetings, a summer technology academy and a teacher technology self-reflection survey that informs the development of professional improvement plan goals. A 1:1 student computing environment, in which each child has a computer for use at school and at home, builds upon this existing foundation in many ways. First, it enhances the classroom environment by giving every student access to powerful tools throughout the school day. Second, it gives students the same kind of technologically rich environment at home that they receive at school. The 1:1 computing program allows students to begin to spend their class time and homework time operating in the same kind of information rich environment that they will use after graduation. This gives students enhanced opportunities for leadership, increases the level of possible personalization and enhances the environment for teaching and learning.

We believe that it is critical that schools take the lead in producing technologically rich learning environments since many students, despite their facility with basic technological tasks, do not understand how to leverage these resources into powerful learning tools. Students need the same kind of scaffolding for their technology use that they receive in many other areas. They need to learn how to operate safely online, how to create an age-appropriate online presence, how to connect with other people to further their learning, how to filter the torrent of available information and how to contribute meaningfully to the world through their online activity. We believe that a well-implemented student 1:1 program will measure the same increase in student technological skills and understanding that we have traced during the past few years in our teachers and will better prepare them to compete in the Twenty-First Century.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 17 teachers and over 300 students participated in the 1:1 pilot project. The data collected as related to their experiences has been exciting and powerful for both teachers and students. During the summer of 2010, an additional 27 teachers were trained and the pilot has been expanded this year to include over 1,000 students. Through a partnership with the Verizon Foundation, we have been able to provide internet access at a reduced cost to the district for our students who are economically disadvantaged. We have also reached out to community members and businesses who have generously provided financial support for economically disadvantaged students to have netbooks even if they are not part of the 1:1 computing classes. This gives these students the same resources and access as their peers from more financially stable families.

Changes in the way that instruction is delivered is a critical catalyst for the kinds of changes that will engage our students in the kinds of authentic learning experiences that will prepare them to be the kinds of global citizens and independent learners that we envision when we think of their future success. Although the technology is important, it is the changes in the way that we think about teaching and learning that will define the successful schools of the future.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

AP Courses, Workload and Expectations

More from teachers and students

I have been very encouraged and grateful to the Hunterdon Central teachers who have given me an opportunity to gather feedback from their students about the film Race to Nowhere. Especially for the AP teachers who felt the film important enough to take time away from their extraordinarily crammed schedules (something talked about a lot in the documentary) so that they could engage their students in this important conversation.

I am sharing responses from a class of AP students who were asked before viewing the film to consider the speakers and perspectives presented in the film and determine if there were things they could relate to. They were also asked to consider whether they agreed or disagreed with the comments made in the film. The students were given some time the following day to share their thoughts; some of which I am sharing with you now. First however, I would like to share some feedback from some of our finest AP teachers:

“I had a chance to see the film today. As a parent of a Junior at another high performing high school, I though I had my act together. Since as far back as I can remember I have told my daughter that there was no such thing as a good school (college). There were only good fits between schools and students. I left picking her schedule up to her with the advice to take AP classes only if she was really interested. I told her not to worry about grades as long as she was working as hard as she could.

However, I still asked about homework, I still asked about tests and I stilled checked her grades online every couple of weeks. My behavior is in need of further modification.

I need to spend some more time mulling over what it means to me as a teacher. I don't think that simply not assigning homework is the answer. We (as a community) need to figure out how to prevent students from just "doing school." Thanks for making the film available.”


“Initially had to decide whether it was worthwhile to take my classes/miss instructional time (it was!) I think there are numerous and varied issues raised in the video; I agree with some and disagree with others (much like my students. The single biggest point raised, and this was by AP students and their teacher, was time management. In addition to teaching our AP courses, we continually work on time management skills at the AP level (Even I could identify with the AP Bio teacher that said "This course is a runaway train - no one can possibly teach it all in the time allowed!") My students found strength in this and expressed the real value of these skills as they get ready for college. Sleep was an issue for so many of them, as was "pressure from parents and counselors to take as many Honors and AP courses" as they could. Their favorite quotes from the movie were "the world is run by C students" and "maybe you don't need to take 5 or 6 AP courses." We also discussed (and continue to discuss) issues involving motivation and goals - these vary greatly for the different students as enrollment has increased in recent years in our Honors/AP courses at Central. The trick, of course, is to keep our standards high, courses rigorous, and still keep kids "coming to school full of life and creativity without taking it out of them" (you can tell some of the quotes resonated with me).”

AP student feedback

“Something that really resonated with me from the movie was when the one boy was talking about balancing his sport with school. He said in wrestling his coach would say his whole life is wrestling and you have to devote everything to wrestling. Then is school, your teachers say your school work is everything. I have to deal with this everyday with my sport and my coaches ……it is a struggle to do all my school work after a hard practice. Sometimes I am extremely tempted to just not do my homework. After a hard practice all I want to do is sleep but then I have about 4-5 hours of homework ahead of me sometimes not starting to 7 -7:30 p.m. Often I get less than 4 hours of sleep from doing my homework. This just leads to getting yelled at by my coach for not sleeping. It is a long never ending cycle.”


“I felt that the movie accurately showed how students are stressed but in an exaggerated way. I felt the examples shown were extreme cases that aren’t realistic with normal students. Also, I don’t agree that students are on a Race to Nowhere because if the students are motivated and want to amount to some higher standing, then it is worth it for them. I believe in the saying “short term pain for long term gain.”


“I could really relate to the section about AP and Honors courses. A lot of times my parents ask me why I take so many AP and Honors courses that I won’t necessarily need. For example, I took AP English which I don’t think I will be majoring in. I’ve tried to explain to them how EVERYONE ELSE is taking several AP courses and how all the counselors say to take as many Honors and AP courses as I can handle and how taking several AP courses is practically necessary to stay competitive in the college selection process. My parents don’t really seem to understand. A lot of times I wonder, what is the point of all this work? Why do today’s students have to participate in so many clubs, advanced courses, community service and after school activities? Why has it become BAD to get a B or a C once in awhile? I often wonder if I am wasting my energy in a literal race to nowhere.”


“I liked the discussion on the overtired/no sleep issue because I can relate to that completely. The most important thing to consider is time management. Procrastination is a big issue with many people I know and time management is something people should really understand and think about.”


“….another relatable situation presented in the film was parents putting pressure on their kids and the kids wanting to make their parents proud. There are many times where I overstress and get tired not only because I want to do well, but also to make my parents proud. When I do not do well on a test, I feel like I have let my parents down. Having an older sister, my parents want me to meet the same expectations or at least come close.”


“My parents pushed me so hard to take all the AP classes that I could. I ended up taking 8 in total because (just like the movie said), I wanted to be in the top 5% to get into a good college. I was accepted Early Decision at my top choice and I think that was due to my strenuous workload. Therefore, when the movie talked about limiting AP courses, I strongly disagree. Although I may have lost sleep, I found time to socialize, date and play sports. I have fun. AP classes are not that much of a hindrance and should not be considered one. They stimulate thinking and surround me with the other people who have a thirst for learning.”

As a superintendent and educator, I am moved to take action by the film, the issues raised by our students and teachers (these are just a small fraction of the responses) and I will be sharing the parent feedback in a few days. One of the overarching issues that our students have not seemed to highlight but which resonated with me is whether or not our students are prepared to be successful in this new society that continues to emerge and evolve. There are critical issues related to the way that instruction is being delivered in classrooms across the country. Students who are able to ‘game the system” and “do school” are at a distinct advantage in traditional classrooms but are they really prepared as critical thinkers, self directed learners with a love of learning?

This is a topic in which I am keenly interested and in which I have great concern is not being addressed in many schools. Inquiry based learning, authentic learning experiences and project based learning are more than emerging new ed-speak. The leveraging of social networking sites and personal learning networks has, like a magic wand, made the walls of the traditional classroom simply disappear.

There are incredible, exciting changes ahead for EVERY student, in EVERY school. The discourse around what is happening in our classrooms must escalate rapidly. We simply cannot allow our educational systems to continue to move at their traditional rate of change.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Race to Nowhere

This has been an interesting 2 weeks of dialogue and sometimes very intense conversation following the screenings of the documentary film Race to Nowhere at Hunterdon Central. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly, over 1000 parents, students, educators and community members had an opportunity to see the film and reactions were interesting and varied. For those who are unfamiliar with the film, it highlights many of the pressures being faced by our young people today and also their families. The film captures the maniacal pace and pressure to succeed at all costs and the toll it is taking on the lives of our teenagers and even our middle school students.

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind comments that the film “raises important questions that educators and parents must confront ….a provocative, conversation starter of a film” which is precisely why we chose to be a screening venue for the film. Hunterdon Central, along with most high schools, is desperate to engage parents in meaningful conversation about what is happening in our classrooms and why we need to make dramatic changes in what we are doing. What all of us are doing. The film is an edict on the value or lack of value in the amount of homework being assigned to our kids. What is the quality? What is the quantity? What exactly is the goal of homework?

In addition to pointing a finger at our schools, it points a finger at our parents who have bought into the relentless over pursuit of extracurricular activities and over scheduling of our kids from elementary school through high school. This running from one activity to another that overwhelms their children and decimates any chance for the kind of “family time” that most of us agree is essential to strong family connections and meaningful relationships with parents and siblings.

The film also speaks to the outrageous competition being created by the college application process and the fact that colleges have become “big business,” marketing to our kids and relentlessly piling on requirements for AP courses and Honors classes in order to be considered for admission. In addition, the coupling with exacerbated demands for community service and participation in athletics, clubs and activities has left our teens and their families exhausted, physically ill and depleted.

For more information about the film you can go to

Here is some of the parent feedback I have received –

“Just wanted to again thank you for bringing "Race to Nowhere" to the high school. Many friends and family attended and commented how informative it was. I was very impressed with the students who stood up and talked, my college son being one of them
We were a little nervous since we had no idea he was going to speak, but the documentary has really moved him.”

“I wanted to thank you for acknowledging the stress of our youth by sharing the documentary "Race to Nowhere" at HCRHS. I attended the 4pm viewing with some other educators and parents and we all thought it was fabulous! I cried a few times as it hit me personally as a parent as well as an educator. Watching my senior daughter, suffer from stress over the past few weeks has been painful. She currently has AP Statistics (along with Honors Physics, Honors English and Holocaust) and is waiting for college acceptances. She puts a lot of pressure on herself. The fact that you are facilitating discussions with your staff is encouraging. I know there is a trickle down effect and pressure from gov't on down to see performance by test scores,(College Board is a whole other story) however it is so sad to see so many of our elementary students already with anxiety/stress disorders.”

“Thank you for facilitating the showing of the documentary last night. It was well received and so many people are interested in an ongoing dialogue. My daughter was the freshman who spoke at the end about how overwhelmed she already feels.”

Below is some of what my students have to say:

“The most important take away is homework. From the movie we saw yesterday, it talked about the importance of children growing up and living as a normal kid. With all the school's homework and extra activities outside of school, children have less time to be themselves and grow individually. Kids as young as 9 years are coming home with hours of homework to do and don't have enough time to spend with there friends and family or do any hobbies they are interested in learning. And all of this homework responsibility put on little children has caused them to be overly stressed with getting assignments handed in on time because they don't want to upset their parents or teachers by not doing the work. Too much homework and extra time put in to learning and getting good grades has caused young teens to kill themselves, stop eating, and not getting enough sleep. I think that in order for improvement in staying healthy and taking care of themselves, homework needs to be cut to an extent time. Some schools argue that it is not needed and shows no improvement with a child's ability to learn. If schools keep overloading young teenagers with homework that is not needed to begin with, they will continue to be overly stressed and unhealthy.”

“I thought this was a very interesting film to say the least. What I thought was interesting was that a lot of the students felt the same way about the work they were given. It was pretty unbelievable to see that some kids are so stressed out about school that they begin to get stomach aches and have physical pain. But another thing that was interesting was that most of the parents did the same thing when they saw that his/her child was stressed. They sent their kids to a stress management course to help them out. One high school took a different approach and ultimately took a big risk for a big reward. The high school actually decreased or eliminated homework which brought test scores up in that school. I think that may have worked because when you have a lot of homework most kids just try and finish it really fast so they can get to their next subject to complete their homework faster. But if you have little or no homework it gives you time to think about what you’re doing and finish it correctly. When students try to finish their homework fast they won't necessarily do it all correctly. But I thought giving very few or no homework assignments was a very unique approach to the whole situation. Overall though, the film really shows what's really happening with students in school. But it's not just students. Surprisingly, school not only effects students but also effects the parents. All parents hate to see their son/daughter fail or do poorly and that's how it was effecting the parents. High school also effects the teachers as well. One of the teachers in the film actually quit her job because it was too much for her as a teacher. She couldn't handle what she had to teach and the amount of work she had to give. The film really brought out the key aspects of what actually happens behind the scenes for high school students, teachers, and parents.”

“I really enjoyed the film Race to Nowhere because it was about a topic that I could relate to. There was a lot of information that could be taken away from this film that teachers, parents, and students could ponder. The most important take away piece of information is that students are becoming stressed due to their parents, teachers and education system, and colleges. This aspect of the film was the most important because each one of these people is pushing the students to their breaking points in order to get them to be the “perfect” student/child. Parents are pressuring their children to do really well in school so they can be successful in the future. Teachers and the education system are stressing students out my giving them tons of homework and tests as a way to teach them. The students worry so much about getting good grades on these that they are staying up to late hours of the night studying and doing their homework instead of resting and being able to spend quality time with their family and friends. Colleges are putting pressure on students as well because they are making a mold of what they want in a student in order for them to be accepted into their College. The standards for this mold are over the top. They want students to get good grades, do extracurricular activities, like sports and clubs, and on top of that they want them to do community service. Due to this mold that the Colleges are creating students are becoming stressed because they can not fit the mold and they feel that they will never be able to go to a “good” college. If all these people make their expectations lower or change their education system students will not be as stressed and they will not go into depressions where some commit suicide.”

Reading about the reactions to the film …perhaps you might want to respond ….this makes me think (what?) and makes me wond

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Welcome to my weekly Superintendents Blog!

In an effort to engage in ongoing and meaningful dialogue with our parents and community, I will be sharing information about teaching and learning at Hunterdon Central while inviting and encouraging your feedback. We are in the midst of great changes on the educational landscape as evidenced in this recent piece from the January 7, 2011 New York Times regarding the status of Advanced Placement courses

This month, Hunterdon Central screened the newly released film Race to Nowhere for our parents and community on Tuesday, January 25th in an effort to engage in meaningful dialogue around serious issues plaguing our teens such as extraordinarily overscheduled lives, voluminous amounts of homework, parental pressure to be accepted to select colleges, self-imposed pressure to achieve at all costs and other issues such as sleep deprivation and depression. Hunterdon Central plans to take a leadership position around these issues and engage in structured dialogue with our students, teachers, parents and community.

Hunterdon Central is a high performing high school with strong community support and high community expectations. It is a privilege for all of us who work so closely with our community’s children. With this privilege however, comes great responsibility and over the past two years, our school has engaged in rich conversations internally with our administrators and teachers around 21st Century skills and high school redesign.

Initially utilizing the work of Dr. Tony Wagner, Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of The Global Achievement Gap, the district began collaborative inquiry work with administrators and teachers in the spring of 2009, focusing on what Wagner calls the Seven Survival Skills: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leadership, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective written and oral communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination. By using these skills, promoted by Wagner in his journal article Rigor Redefined published in Educational Leadership in October 2008, the district was able to give specific examples of what is meant by the phrase “21st Century skills.”  By doing so, the phrase achieved a universal understanding among our constituents.  Traditional faculty meetings were abandoned during the 2009-2010 school year and that time was used instead for cross-curricular teacher groups, activities and discussions.  This strategy gave teachers the opportunity to consider the nature of today’s learners who are ubiquitously connected, globally aware, motivated to make a difference and developmentally different. Teacher groups explored the realities faced by today’s students, who will be required to work independently and to adapt to rapidly changing technological environments.  From the perspective of teaching and learning, it soon became obvious that an effective educational system cannot continue doing things the same way they have always been done.   Strong student performance on standardized tests can no longer be the sole standard used to evaluate preparedness and proficiency.  Old measures can no longer be used as an excuse not to change.

Over the course of this school year, I will be sharing the district’s pathway toward reform and inviting your feedback and insights.