Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Internet Is A Language

I presented at the GooglePlex in Mountain View today at the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference. I was on a panel called "New Learning Designs: Scaling Innovation to Reverse the Dropout Crisis."

My goal was to paint a picture of 339's turnaround (so far) and the role technology has played. Keep in mind--I only had eight minutes for my remarks!

A theory I'm developing is the the modern Internet is a language. I'll be writing more about that and further fleshing it out in the coming weeks...but for now here's a transcript of my remarks. I'll insert hyperlinks when I can.


In August of 2004, I became principal of IS 339, a large, public middle school in the Claremont section of the Bronx. Then we had 945 students, now we’re ‘down’ to about 820. 339 is roughly 70% Hispanic and 29% Black. About 25% of our students have IEPs and 28% are English language learners. The school building opened in 1974, and had twice been shut down and reopened by the state, in 1991 and 2000.

When I arrived 2004, 339 had learned to survive day to day by doing things like locking students down in one classroom only and sending them home if there was a problem. School safety agents routinely escalated conflicts with students, and many adults had adopted an aggressive, loud approach. It felt like a boiling pot was about to explode at any moment, and when it did, the melees were memorable. Ambulances and police cars fought school buses for parking in front.

I had pledged during my very first faculty conference to bring technology to 339. Every computer in the building was from 1999 or earlier, and there were no laptops. What few desktops we had were hoarded and rationed, in a few rooms or offices. Two people knew how to connect to the Internet. The school was off line, and it was out of line. Although there were staff members who cared deeply, they were drowned out by those who didn’t. The language of lockdowns, consequences and battle only perpetuated a prison mentality.

On staff, we were disjointed and suffering in silos. No one knew what was happening, or why. I thought I was a visionary when I installed a giant whiteboard in our main hallway for daily announcements. Problem solved! That is, until 11 AM, when someone would brush their jacket on the board, deleting half of our key information. At day’s end, our institutional memory got erased from the board. We were stagnant in too many ways.

At the end of my first year, in Spring of ’05, we received hopeful news. Chancellor Klein’s administration had tapped 339 as one of 22 middle schools for a 1-to-1 Macbook laptop program. The light at the end of the tunnel might be a laptop screen.

In year two, an influx of new and enthusiastic staff brought energy but not much stability to our school. We continued to struggle. Instruction suffered and student achievement plummeted. I’d read about Fullan’s implementation dip; I never thought we’d be sinking because of it. 9% of our students were now on grade level in math. The New York State Ed department once again designated the school as SURR (School Under Registrative Review). They sent a team of ten to conduct a grueling 3-day inspection. It was demoralizing at best. One official compared our staff to a band where no one was playing the same song. I asked her if she’d seen our whiteboard.

In June of 2006, the first wave of teacher laptops and one grade of student laptops finally arrived. In late June, after our 8th grade prom, I saw one boy scrolling through his digital camera, deciding which pictures to post to MySpace. He then started sending and receiving texts on his cell phone to multiple friends, who each had a different song playing when their messages arrived.

I realized that our students were hardwired for modern technology. Social networking spots like MySpace met a felt need for connecting, and sharing and collaborating. Yet our school ran as it had in the 90s, the 80s and the 70s. We’d rearranged some of the deck chairs, yet our 1.0 band was indeed playing many different tunes, and none that our students wanted to hear. Despite all of our fears, I was determined to get technology into the hands of staff and students. Students were fluent in the language of the 21st century Internet. We adults needed to quickly catch up.

Year three we created teacher teams who met daily for common planning. Adults received training. As Jim Collins predicted, technology became an accelerant for sharing best practices and building communication systems. Daily Notes were now posted online for staff. We migrated everyone away from the city’s email system and into Gmail. Teachers started Google groups to share lesson plans, post units of study and discuss ideas. Connecting and communicating, teacher teams started to quickly transform the work they did together and the work they did with students. We were finally sharing.

In year four we used the Internet to advance from communication to collaboration. Our faculty signed on to the Google Apps—in addition to Gmail, we integrated Google Docs and Spreadsheets into all aspects of adult work in the school. From the main office to the dean’s office to the administrative offices to the classrooms we created networked systems to share information, collaborate in real time on initiatives and to track progress. For those who haven’t had the chance to use Google Docs, they provide the ability for multiple people to co-edit documents and spreadsheets in real time on the Internet for free, so that other people who are shared in can view your changes. As teachers became comfortable with these tools, they introduced them to their classroom.

Last year—year five--we received the final laptops from the original pilot, and went fully 1-to-1 for the first time. We saw that our greatest untapped resource at 339 had been the creative imaginations of our staff and students. The lightning-quick speed of curiosity and innovation was now given voice through 21st century tools. Teachers emailed students assignments, and co-edited Google docs at the same time. Students found answers to questions within minutes, posted responses online and participated in our school’s robust Internet community. The Internet’s language was now being shared between staff and students.

While they’d once felt afraid, teachers now were proud that their practice had been modernized and streamlined. Students felt motivated, professional and respected. They were using tools to prepare them to compete in high school, access better jobs and use their talents. We were fully integrated across the board…you name it, and we migrated it to the Google Universe.

By the end of last year—our first full 1-to-1 year--we celebrated our best results yet. 62% of our students were now on grade level. Our NYC progress report grade had risen from a D to a C to a B to an A. We were removed from the state’s SURR list. And most importantly, the work we were doing in classrooms was giving students creative control over their learning.

In June, we hosted and presented a first-of-its kind Global Learning Reception called Dot-to-Dot. 100% of our teachers and students posted 21st century projects, including films and blogs, some streaming live. A student made a documentary about how to create a Times Square-like hub in the Bronx. One class Skyped with Nicholas Kristof about Darfur as part of their research about genocide. The theme for every project was “Connections.” Thousands of website hits from around the world became dots on our map, and we’d started to redefine what school could be in the 21st century. This year’s Dot-to-Dot theme is “Change”—and you’re all invited.

At 339, we don’t see laptops as toys, or even as tools. We see them as megaphones to give students and teachers global voices. The modern Internet isn’t an idea, or a place. It is a language that we need to speak at all corners of our school systems and in each one of our classrooms. It is a language that has rapidly improved our school, and can help transform struggling schools everywhere.

Friday, March 6, 2009

What 21st Century Schools Can Learn From 24

Despite numerous accolades and killer ratings, I’d somehow missed the TV counter-terrorist boat. As of last summer, I'd sailed straight past the first six seasons of 24. Thanks to iTunes, I’ve been catching up, downloading season after thrilling season. Preposterous plotlines and torturous interrogations aside, 24 is highly entertaining and a pure adrenaline rush. Admit it, you’ve watched!

There are TV shows I want to keep watching, like The Office and Lost. But then there are TV shows I need to keep watching, shows like The Wire. Shows which are deeply gripping because they speak to big themes in compelling ways. So I was puzzled when 24 made the leap into my “need to watch” pantheon.

I pondered why I felt compelled to watch back-to-back-to-back episodes on my iPod? Did I secretly want to be a government agent? Was I amused by Kiefer’s comeback? Was it the "beep ... BEEP ... beep ... BEEP" cadence that leads gasping viewers to commercials?

Upon reflection, I realize that as a principal of a tech-savvy, high-needs school, I can actually relate to Jack Bauer. Not because a work day involves espionage, violence and chaos. Okay, there is some chaos from time to time. Yet the real ah-hah moment was when I realized that Jack and his colleagues work in smart, effective ways that we can relate to at CIS 339. I truly believe that 21st century schools can learn lots from 24.


Here are some examples of quality practice employed by 24’s Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU):

1. CTU uses cross-functional teams with experts who specialize.

Counter-terrorist operations are carried out by folks with discrete expertise. They have a focused point person making key decisions, but there are also key role players. They have communications experts, weapons pros and scientists. When there's an injury, a top-notch physician knows what to do in the medical area. Field teams assemble and deploy precisely. Everyone works together, and everyone knows their jobs. As important, everyone knows each other's jobs and when to ask them for help. When Jack tells Chloe to rearrange the specs for the operation and uplink them to all of the field agents, he's showing great delegation skills. He also is demonstrating his comfort with his teammates having the answers.

2. CTU enjoys state-of-the-art technology and impressive tech support.

You'll never hear someone at CTU say "the Internet is down" or "how do you turn this thing on?" They have the coolest gadgets, toys and equipment--and they know how and when to deploy their tech tools. It seems like they only hire the best candidates from a Cal Tech / MIT short list. For CTU, technology isn't just anoption, it's the option. Can you imagine Edgar saying, "Jack, I've decided that we're going to track the cannisters of chemical gas using US mail"? Neither can I. We would never tolerate our government agencies saying "enough with techhnology! We're just going with pen and paper this year." So why would we ever allow our schools to 'decide' whether to integrate technology?

3. CTU values real-time transparency.

CTU agents share the same terminology at the workplace. They use consistent language and they collaborate using real-time information. When Tony Almeida barks "Send the schematic of the power plant to my screen now!" you know that a) he means business and b) transparency is an important value. When Jack doesn't have video surveilance working , he instructs Chloe to upload satellite still images to his PDA every 15 seconds. This is excellent real-time intformation sharing in practice. Schools need to do a better job with this, and current tools that exist in Google Apps (as an example) make this possible.

4. CTU agents over-communicate.

Many jokes have been made about the duration of Jack Bauer's cell phone battery. Clearly, 24 serves as product placement for whatever model he's saving democracy with. However, the bigger picture is that Jack and his CTU friends are modeling the practice of "over-communicating." They spell out exactly what they need from each other, providing rationales and details. Sure, we know why Jack is asking for stuff--we saw the last scene. But the person on the other end of the phone doesn't. And when you're saving the world, you can't leave anything to chance. At schools, information sharing is critical, and all too often, over-communication is rare.


Whether CTU agents utilize cutting-edge technology or real-time information sharing, they aren't just saving America. They're offering up some serious models for how we can make school teams faster and smarter, as we make our work even more transparent. I'm betting that schools which employ these techniques will quickly join 24 on "need to watch" lists.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mail Merge Epiphany

I remember the first time I pulled open a form letter. Personally addressed to me, the greeting’s clean typeface read: “Dear Mr. Levy.” I felt the same initial rush of enjoyment from when summer camp care packages would arrive. Then I kept reading the letter, slowly realizing by the 8th mindless paragraph that there were thousands of other recipients. I hadn't heard of a “mail merge” yet, but I certainly felt…well, merged with the masses.

Strange. A letter that had been personally stamped, addressed, and delivered by USPS must surely meant something to the sender. Yet it didn’t feel that way on my end; it seemed to be a trick to force unnecessary information on me.

So when I decided to email merge promotion-in-doubt letters to students this week, I did it with low expectations. I figured that students might pass over the letters, or feel once again feel reminded that they were not meeting expectations.

What I didn't predict was that I would receive over twenty emails back from promotion-in-doubt students! Their responses were genuine, and their concern was heartfelt.
  • "Okay Mr. Levy i am going to make u proud"
  • "Thank you Mr.Levy i wull make shore that i will not give up I want to pass"
As these emails poured in, the guilt I'd felt for using the mail-merge-as-personalization technique was replaced with the thought that I should have done this sooner. The students had read my letter and my mini pep-talk, and they'd chosen to personally connect back to their principal.

What had started as form letters in my outbox had transformed into authentic student communication. I've happily responded to each of these students, and have been able to explain more of the details surrounding their promotional status. In one case, a student had done the work necessary to change her grade and needed to be removed from the promotion-in-doubt list! We were both very excited.

I think my favorite response was a three-word response from a 7th grade boy, who learned he was at risk: "thats not cool."

He was right--potentially bad news is never cool. But email-merging semi-personalized information to students? Cooler than I thought.

Monday, January 26, 2009

We Have a Girls Hoops Team!

Several weeks ago, three 6th graders came to my office, concerned about turnout for their basketball team. At that point, only six or seven young women were attending practice regularly. These girls created recruitment fliers to post in the school, and asked me to make announcements at school assemblies. Well, they're up to around 11 girls at this point--and the uniforms look great! Ms. Chetaitis and Ms. Key are the coaches.

IST Training Today

Gary and Fran are here from Turnaround for Children. They are training our administrators, support staff, interventionists and team leaders on the Instructional Support Team (IST) process. IST's meet each week to action plan around interventions for struggling students.

I am re-working lunch duty schedules so that Assistant Principals can
attend their grade level IST's, which meet on Tuesday and Thursday. A typical IST is comprised of:
  • Team's teachers (6-10)
  • Assistant Principal
  • Team Leader (Teacher)
  • Grade-level guidance counselor
  • Parent Coordinator
The IST meeting will follow Turnaround's protocols, and will reflect the needs of our children. Depending on the focus of each meeting, different school personnel will attend. For example, if a child with attendance issues is being discussed one day, personnel from the school's attendance team might attend to support.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Live Blogging From Educon 2.1 - Day 2

11:51 AM: Sam is facilitating "Inquiry" at our table. He has provided us with a political cartoon, which features an Atlas-ian SLA student struggling to keep the world on his shoulders. Over the horizon, there is another person with a word balloon: "Need help?" Sam insightfully prompted us with questions to analyze the cartoon. He did an admirable job. Sam left us with this:

"Education starts with the student's ability to ask questions. We have to be taught the right questions to ask."

11:26 AM:
Now Marie is at our table. She is presenting on the SLA core value "research." Her sample is a research project she completed on police brutality. Marie's research team chose the 5/5/08 incident involving three men in a car and about half a dozen police officers. Marie and her fellow students learned how to put their bias aside and use facts and concrete research to support findings. Marie's big takeaways about doing research:

-annotate your bibliography
-discern helpful websites from inadequate ones
-create questions before seeking out information to focus the search

11:18 AM: I'm at a session facilitated by SLA students about the values which underpin their progressive education here at SLA. Students are rotating through groups of conference attendees.

Last year I met an outstanding sophomore named Jasmine at SLA. She is an outstanding spokesperson for not just her school, but all young adults. Right now I'm listening to her present on the SLA core value of "Presentation." The five core values here are:


Jasmine is so eloquent and composed! She told me that she definitely wants to teach for a career. I'm hoping I can hire her.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Live Blogging From Educon 2.1 in Philadelphia

01:40 PM: There is so much information on the web. The conversation has now shifted into how to aggregate the pertinent RSS feeds and tagged items and to filter out the rest.

01:24 PM:
Interesting ideas:

1. All Logins that can be eliminated, should be.
2. Everything that can be aggregated, should be.
3. Everything that can be archived and tagged, should be.
4. No new online space (blog, wiki, portal, etc.) should be created that cannot leverage existing spaces.
5. Workflow is king. Any space that doesn’t play well with the tools that people already use, is worthless.
6. Quiet the incessant chatter of the web. Focus only on conversation and voices that matter.
7. All spaces must include specific information for specific stakeholders.
8. All spaces must be able to accommodate an infinite number of stakeholders.
9. Action should be inevitable, and membership should be impossible.
10. You should be obsolete in your space immediately.

01:06 PM:
Watching a presenter from Denver talk about how log-ins require an unnecessary layer, and they should be eliminated when possible. He is showing slideshare which allows students to annotate and then tag pictures, which leads to easy search, classification and teacher grading. I guess teachers can type in the assigned keyword (assigned to students as a tag) and all related items come to the screen.

This is getting me to think about how we manage our student online work systems as a school. It is tricky, because 2.0 tools which get used depend on the preference of the teachers.

12:35 PM: Lunch was outstanding, because there is a Trader Joe's two blocks from SLA. CIS 339 staff I've talked to mostly enjoyed their first session at 10 AM.

11:18 AM: Now conversation is focusing on what kind of political change is possible. It seems like independence/autonomy is being placed opposite system/culture.

11:06 AM: Just shamelessly plugged my workshop for Sunday afternoon. Someone fed me a layup so it was unavoidable. "What do you do when your principal won't LET you use these tools?" I told people to attend The Principal Said No tomorrow.

10:58 AM:
I just spoke about how our country is at the ideal point for widespread change of the educational landscape. People are worried that enough educators aren't committed to Web 2.0 tools. My point was that exposure is the first important thing that happens.

10:52 AM: Taking part in a "Flat Classrooms" debate regarding the future of 2.0 technology. At the Educon 2.1 conference at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.


What: Educon 2.1 Conference
Where: Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia, PA
Who: 20 members of the CIS 339 staff are here for the weekend!