Monday, August 1, 2011

So You Don't Have a Textbook...

You've made the commitment, either by choice or by force, to not use textbooks in your classroom. You saw that they are outdated, not engaging to learners, and have a limited purpose; all of that for an enormous drain on your budget. What now?

As I have been working on the state wide social studies team to develop eCurriculum, I have come across some great resources to help replace the dependence on textbooks. While my lens was originally the social studies classroom, you'll find great resources for many disciplines.

@bryanbauer is a quiet tweeter, but he has access to tons of resources at Iowa Public Television to share with schools. If you thought IPTV was just about old TV shows, you are wrong! Check out Iowa Pathways for history research that connects learners to how an event impacted Iowa. There are content area searches that you can perform too. If videos are something you are interested in having more of, check out the video clips at

You can't go wrong using SweetSearch. For example, the social studies page is a great resource for teachers and students and could replace a textbook all by itself. Mark Moran (@findingDulcinea) is also a great one to follow on Twitter, especially if you are interested in teaching digital literacy.

There are many websites dedicated to learning a particular subject. In social studies I found:
Please share examples of other content area resources on this google doc. Thanks!

I'm a huge proponent of integrating social studies and English language arts. This list of notable tradebooks ties the two so well. Primary sources are always a great way to get students to think about author's purpose, the power of persuasive writing, determining historical context... the list goes on. Try some of these resources to gain access to a variety of primary source documents.

Finally, a hot topic in our area is the use of games in the classroom. Check out some of these sites to get you started using gaming in your classroom.
Revolutionary War Time period -
a ten-week crash course in changing the world -
games for social impact -
Civic Literacy Games -

Regardless of where you are at in the continuum of learning without a textbook, I hope you'll find these resources helpful in your journey.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Communities of Practice: The Theory Behind Personal Learning Networks

For the past two days, I have been a learner at the Communities of Practice training in Altoona, Iowa (#IACoPi). During the morning conversation from our facilitators Bev Trayner and Etienne Wenger, my twitter friends were having a lively conversation about how communities of practice relate to the things we are already doing in the state of Iowa with the Iowa Core. Collaborative learning teams are specifically listed in Outcome 6a of implementing the Iowa Core where "educators deepen their understanding of the Iowa Core Curriculum’s characteristics of effective instruction through collaborative teams." So how are collaborative teams and communities of practice alike or dissimilar?

From Etienne's website,"Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." Doesn't that sound similar to professional learning communities (PLC's) or collaborative teams? Sure it does. They come from the same theory. It's the idea that together we are better. If we work collaboratively instead of in isolation, we learn more and become better.

While there are so many similarities, I walked away from the training with a few small, but important distinctions between the two. While PLC's can be communities of practice, they aren't guaranteed to be. First, PLC's group members are often assigned. Their meetings are usually structured within a school. They contain members that share common students or common content, but not necessarily the same beliefs or passions. PLC's don't usually extend beyond the school walls. They are designed to address specific student learning needs. I believe in PLC's as a critical part of a school's success, and an important part of professional development, so please don't take these differences to mean that PLC's are a bad thing.

Communities of Practice are formed by the participants. Community members have common beliefs and passion about the reason they are together. They are bound to one another around a common theme. It's self-governed, self-directed. There's no administrator holding the group accountable. The members hold one another accountable. And if I don't like it, if the community is not meeting my learning needs, I can leave.

Communities of Practice were best described by our facilitators as a first date. During the past two days we met people who were interested in changing and teaching and learning to be more student-centered, more relevant, and more flexible in delivery and choice. I am sure that some of the people who participated in the introductory event will not choose to be part of the community. They may choose to lurk on the edges as they listen and learn. They may form another community altogether.

What I've done the last two days explains what I have been part of the last 18 months as social media has connected me to people I lean on and learn from in my personal network. My twitter friends, often those I feel so close to I hug when we meet for the first time face to face, are members of my community of practice. It's the best learning experience I've ever been part of.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reflecting on Why Change can Seem Like a Bad Word

As some of you can imagine, there are a lot of changes happening in our district. When you are integrating technology, working towards K-12 standards-based grading, are investigating K-5 guided math, and feel the urgency to meet the needs of all learners through a student-centered classroom, change is a lot of what we are about. I am in my second year in Van Meter School District and I feel like I can understand why "change" seems like a bad word.

Talk of change implies we were doing it wrong. We weren't good enough... we aren't good enough... we aren't good.

In this profession - maybe more so than any other profession - we are dominated by passionate and dedicated people who want to see kids succeed. Feeling "not good enough" is a huge slap in the face and runs contradictory to the very reasons educators are in this profession.

So, I feel the need to define "change" as I see it. Change is the ongoing, never-ending, always reflecting, never accepting less, reflective practice of continuous improvement. I have been told I am my worst critic... Yes, I am. I believe I can get better. I can learn more. I can tackle new problems each time I am faced with them better than I did before. I can reflect on what I have done and pick out things that worked well, and things that I should do differently next time. I can identify my weaknesses and improve upon them.

I can improve. I am dedicated to being better. I am growing. This is change.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An App for the Iowa Core

It started with a shared sense of curiosity about every iPad user in the room... what apps do they have? Then it went to Twitter with David VanHorn (@dlvanhorn) asking a simple question about what would an app for the Iowa Core look like. Then David moved forward and invited responding tweeters to a meeting.

When asked to share my thoughts about what type of app could move the Iowa Core forward, my wheels started spinning; our small team assembled from Twitter land started dreaming. Could there be a walk-through template for districts to use and tweak as they look for the characteristics of effective instruction in the classroom? Could teachers use an app to plan and also reflect on their instruction? Could students provide feedback on how they engaged with the learning, how rigorous they felt it was, how relevant they thought it was? Could collaborative teams share in the data and help each teammate improve on their practice?

It's coming people. This fall, we will have tools for districts to use and tweak so they can have and improve those deep, data-informed discussions about teaching and learning.

It amazes me how things are coming together in our state, and this meeting to brainstorm an app for the Iowa Core is just one example of it. We may be hearing that the work is being cut, but what I am seeing invigorates me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Iowa Core Speech to Legislature

I thought I'd share the speech that I delivered to the House and Senate members hearing public comment on House File 45. This file would eliminate the Iowa Core. Thank you for everyone's comment on the google doc that helped me generate these ideas. I focused on making sure the legislators knew that the Iowa Core was the "how" and "what" to teach based on the feedback you provided.

Good evening,
I am the Director of Teaching and Learning for Van Meter Schools, a K-12 district of 630 students just 20 miles west of this capitol. We are a 1:1 district where each of our students in grades 6-12 have a laptop computer. Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you regarding the work of the Iowa Core.

The Iowa Core is often mistaken to be only the "what" to teach. Some see it only as a broad set of skills we want for the students of Iowa. Many don't know the "momentum, excitement and energy" (Dr. Brad Buck, Waukee Schools) starting to grow in our state around the significant pieces of the Core that deal with "how" to improve instruction for students.

Think about your profession, business fields and backgrounds. Was there a process for continual improvement in your industry? That's in the Iowa Core. The outcomes of implementing the work of the Iowa Core are focused on the continual improvement of schools around leadership, community, curriculum, collaboration and professional development. "It’s not just about making changes to what happens inside the walls of our schools, but also about reaching out to the community and getting their involvement in education. It’s a valuable piece of the Core that we have only begun to tap into." (Alynn Coppock, Newell-Fonda Schools).

As you consider the skills that make you a successful legislator, do you need to be creative? Communicate in a variety of ways to a variety of audiences? Do you need to be flexible? Critical thinkers? Those skills are in the Iowa Core. They are called the Universal Constructs. These are the 21st Century skills through which our students learn content (Lynn McCartney, AEA11)

As you first came into your position as a legislator, and I'm sure even now, you probably sought out information on how to be the most effective representative you could be. The Iowa Core has that too. For the first time in our state, educators have a common language to reflect upon the most effective strategies for learners and improve upon our practice.

Standards that over 40 other states have adopted are embedded into the curriculum of the Iowa Core as well. Determining "what" we will teach is an important part of the work that is being done in our state. The Iowa Core puts us well “ahead” of many other states because of this initiatives unique ability to tie the “what” and “how” together. (Matt Townsley, Solon Schools)

As we envision the future of education in our state, we recognize that our state has financial issues to consider and priorities to establish. If the Iowa Core goes away, it will be a clear message to every teacher in our state that our legislature believes nothing needs to change in the way we educate all of Iowa's children. I respectfully ask the legislature to help our state continue the work of the Iowa Core and make it a priority as you consider House File 45. There is always room for improvement. That is the work of the Iowa Core, and it must go on.