Friday, May 2, 2014

Reflections on My Trip to Minnetonka, Minnesota

It is only natural for us to get used to our surroundings, our school culture, our faculty morale, our student demographics, etc., but it is so important to find time to get out and see the world. In this context, I don’t mean to sight see the world, although that has its own merit. Rather, I mean go visit other schools and see what they are doing.

I write this posting on the flight home from Minnetonka, Minnesota where I spend the last day and a half on a National School Board Association Site Visit of the Minnetonka School district. All I can say is wow! I saw a school district focused on innovation, utilizing technology to advance learning, a staff morale where teachers love coming to school and embrace new initiatives, a district which understands that proper staffing is key to advancing learning through technology and so much more.  Best of all, the district is all about collaboration, sharing all of their experience and resources. Yes, I am sure they like the public relations generated from these site visits, but they sincerely want to share what they have learned with others.  Led by Dave Eisenmann and a huge staff (I won’t mention all the names, but you can find them on my twitter following list), they put together a visit where we went into classes and saw the learning enhanced with their iPads and other edtech tools.

It would be difficult to share everything I saw on the visit, but here are some of my highlights. You can see some of my pictures and short notes of the Middle School by CLICKING HERE and of the HIGH School by CLICKING HERE.  

   1.       The Middle School News Show – this was simply awesome. A group of students produce a live news show every morning, where they report the weather and important school announcements. With state of the art equipment, the faculty only facilitate the process, but the entire production is done by the students.
   2.       The 6th Grade STEM class, led by Lisa Reed, was outstanding. Seeing kids learn about and build robots is truly inspiring. The resources Lisa uses can be seen by CLICKING HERE
   3.       We saw an 8th grade History class, where students were building their own custom maps. After coloring in a black and white paper map, the students colored in the map, took a picture of it with their ipads and brought it into an app called Thing link. This app allows students to place stars in locations on the map, then they can insert data, pictures or videos relating to the locations. This app really makes geography come alive.
   4.       One of the objectives I had for this visit was to leave with a clear vision of the classroom workflow from iPad to LMS. Not only did I gain that (topic for a future blog posting), but Minnetonka has created a series of workflow videos and post the QR codes in every classroom so that students are always prepared and know what to do.
   5.       The High school principal discussed how he drives the iPad program from an instructional point of view. He made a number of great points:
a.       The iPad is a tool. The excitement is how we are using it to enhance learning.
b.      Assessment: If we ca Google the answer, why bother assessing it?
c.       He asks each teacher  two questions in the beginning of the semester
                                                               i.      What is the one thing you want to do with the iPad this semester?
                                                             ii.      What do you need from me to support you in that work?
d.      It is all about Staff Development. They have a global PD plan, but only share one piece at a time with the teachers so not to overwhelm them. They started with classroom management with the iPad how to always leave a path in the back of the room so you can see what the students are doing. Then they moved on to assessment and other objectives.
e.      Be sure to hear the student voice. They created a panel of students to hear their input on how the iPads were being implemented.
f.        Going paperless! – They began the process but with great incentive for the teachers. “If we save 25% of our photocopying budget, imagine how much money we could give to teachers as mini grants to develop new programs.

The bottom line is that Minnetonka Schools are at the forefront of edtech and learning and they are willing to share it all. I would highly recommend going to their upcoming Ipad Institute from June 26-27. CLICK HERE to get more information about the institute.

Here are a number of links that they shared that would be beneficial so any educator:
   1.       Minnetonka Schools iPad in the Classroom Document - ****** This is a must for any school going 1:1 with iPads. They share everything from the acceptable use policy to list of apps to data that they presented to their school board. If you are looking for data that shows iPads in the classroom improve the learning (when teachers know what to do with them), this is the place to look.
   2.       Minnetonka  Middle School – Site Visit Resources

   3.       Middle School STEM – Program Resources

The Role of Technology in the Classroom

As an institution, we have spent much of this school year focused on the various new edtech initiatives. Our Blended Learning program in the younger grades has shown outstanding results, our teachers in grades 6-12 have been learning and growing with Haiku, our 6th grade and select high school pilots have been learning how to integrate ipads in the classroom and we have all started to utilize Google Apps.  I thought it would be worthwhile to take a step back and try to outline the vision of why we are doing all of this.

When most of us went to school, education and learning was about Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.  Although those skills are just as important today, our students are growing up in a different world, one where being a successful professional requires more skills; 21st Century Skills. Current research suggests that in addition to the 3 R’s, the 4 C’s: Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, and Critical thinking are as or more important to the education of our children.  It is about more student centered classrooms and work spaces, and giving students more independence to manage their own learning. It is about project based learning and students collaborating with other students. At a recent conference, I heard a Google executive make the following statement: If a Google employee were to come to his boss with a finished product that he worked on alone, it would be looked down upon for lack of collaboration. But historically, a collaborative, more heads are better than one approach is usually seen as cheating. This type of classroom is about unleashing student creativity, making projects that show their knowledge in multiple ways. It is about assessing students not just with pen and paper tests, but with video and image creation.

21st Century learning is not about any one tool. It is not about iPads, Haiku, Google or any other specific tool.  It is a classroom where I as a teacher  can no longer say I use the smart board every day so I must have a 21st century classroom. Although that is a tool, how is it being used? Who is writing on the board? Just the teacher, or are we involving the students. In fact, current thinking would suggest putting the smart board on the side of the classroom where it can be more student centered as opposed to the front of the room where the teacher tends to be the “sage on the stage.” 

So what is the perfect formula needed to create a 21st century learning environment? After a lot reading and collaborating with educators throughout the country, I can tell you with confidence that there is no one perfect formula. It is about how you structure your lessons and the learning that takes place in your classroom to focus on 21st century skills! It is about your teacher “tool kit” or “tool box” as many refer to it. As a teacher, I have to learn ten tools so that I can choose which ones would be worth becoming an expert in and utilizing often, while knowing some other tools to integrate at other opportune moments. It is about teachers not being afraid to experiment and fail.  It is about not worrying if your students are more tech savvy than you are.

We often teach our students to be determined and resilient through the challenges that life presents to them. I would argue that the world of education today is one such challenge for us as teachers. What would you tell your students? You can do it! Well, for those of you skeptics, I say to you, you can do it too!