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SLCs- Students Lead, We Succeed!

Thank you to 5th grade blogger, Evie. Her post, "We Lead and We Succeed" was the inspiration for the title of this post.

Who Owns the Conference?

Every fall and every spring, a letter goes home to parents with the schedule for parent-teacher conferences. A line at the bottom reads, "Please remember that students should not be present at conferences."

Every single time I read this I think, "This is missing the point."

If our goals are to empower students and focus on individual learning, doesn't it make sense that students should be present when the important adults in their lives meet to talk about their learning, their growth, their goals?

I was excited when, in the course of writing professional development plans with teachers, 5th grade teacher Shelly Zavon expressed an interest in focusing her PD on a student-centered answer to Alan November's question, "Who Owns the Learning?" Shelly is already using several of November's "Digital Learning Farm" models and ideas in her classroom, so we decided to delve into something new by exploring student-led conferences.

We began by reading and researching- looking for models, examples, and stories. Shelly, Silvia and I created a collaborative Pinterest board to share our finds.  Everything we discovered from the field was positive and reinforced that this was the right direction for a school dedicated to nurturing a culture of reflection and growth.

As far as preparing the students, Shelly found a model she liked and made time for the students to reflect. She asked the other teachers to write goals for each student, and the students used those goals as part of their own goal-setting. I was basically there to watch and learn, to support and champion the process.
Is Pushback Inevitable & Even Necessary?

One thing that was interesting and is worth noting is that we had a "moment" of expressed negativity from the students just as we were beginning the most focused part of the preparation. Seemingly out of nowhere students told us they were "against" the student-led model. What they expressed was anxiety, lack of confidence and a discomfort with change. They were overly worried about "bad grades." They didn't really want to come to school (for only 20 minutes) on a day off! One honest student admitted, "Sometimes I tell my parents and my teachers different things; I don't really want to have to talk to them together."

We also heard uncertainty from parents and others. What if there was something that shouldn't be expressed in front of a child? What if the conference was needed to begin a "difficult conversation?" Although I usually am quick to question myself, in this case I remained unwavering in my belief that students belong at the "conference table."

We decided to make the SLC's optional. If a parent really wanted the traditional parent-teacher conference, they could forego the student-led. However, each student would still participate in the reflection and preparation. We offered to parents that they were welcome to schedule another meeting with the teacher at a later date if they felt that it was necessary. In the end, every parent participated in the SLCs and what we heard from parents and students was overwhelmingly positive.

The video really says more than I ever could. Please watch it!

Student-Led Conferences from Andrea Hernandez on Vimeo.

What's Next?

As part of our action research, we are collecting and processing feedback from all parties. Students were asked to blog about their experiences and feelings after the conference, and parents were requested to comment on their child's post. We have also shared a survey with parents.

Students (who, remember, expressed fear and opposition before the conferences) were overwhelmingly positive in hindsight. Many said they don't want to have to wait until spring to participate in another conference; they wish conferences were every nine weeks!

Students Reflect:

Ben C "What is a SLC?" wrote:

I think the best thing about this experience was me sharing my work face-to-face with my parents. Another thing I like about the conference was explaining to my parents what I did and why I did it instead of my teacher trying to do it for me. I really like SLC and I am looking forward for the next one.

Gil, in his post "Confrontation Conference" wrote:

The best thing about this experience had to be not waiting for my parents to come home and have to tell me what happened, so I think the best part of the student led conferences was definitely being there when people I trust talk about me!

To read more, check out the 5th grade student blogfolios.

My hope is that this successful experiment was not a one-shot deal, that this is the beginning of a process of change in the way our school views parent-teacher conferences going forward.

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Twitter Policy and Rationale

We want to keep our parents in the loop about Social Media use in the classroom and are posting the following Twitter Policy and Rational.

Twitter Policy and Rationale

Several classrooms at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School are tweeting!
We wanted to be transparent in our rationale for using Twitter as a platform with our students for academic learning.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a social media platform, a micro-blogging service. Every tweet is limited to 140 characters or less. Twitter is surfacing everywhere in our daily lives, from your favorite restaurant chain to your rabbi, politicians, celebrities, sports team and TV shows. What is less known about Twitter is the academic value of learning with and from other educators and students, experts, authors, organizations, companies from around the world that support 21st century learning. By tweeting with our students, we expose them to social networking strategies, support their growth as global digital citizens and model focused, clear writing.

Digital Citizenship and Internet Safety

Our students DO NOT tweet on personal accounts. The tweeting classrooms are using a classroom Twitter account, set up and managed by the classroom teachers and the 21st century learning team. We monitor and choose carefully, who is allowed to follow the classroom Twitter stream and who we follow on Twitter. Netiquette, Internet safety, digital citizenship including copyright lessons are interwoven throughout the year and continuously discussed and reinforced. Netiquette is defined as the "acceptable" way how to communicate on the Internet. Learning acceptable behavior is part of digital Citizenship, one of the core literacies of the 21st century. We remind students of  our classroom rules and emphasize that "real world" etiquette,  rules and consequences transfer to online behavior as well.

The use of Twitter in the classroom follows the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School's guidelines for Media and Publishing release. Tweets will occasionally mention students’ first name, but never their last name. We will also be sharing classroom images, video or audio, directly related to student learning.

Twitter as a Tool for Learning

We want students to produce and contribute developmentally and age appropriate quality content. This is a process that can only be internalized by “doing”. The focus of Twitter in our classrooms is always learning. We connect, share and reflect on our learning experiences at school as well as tap into and link to individual student background knowledge.  Younger students will tweet  and document experiences they have through observation. Older students will be “thinking” about their learning on a deeper level and learn to articulate their metacognitive process of reflection.

The classroom teacher and 21st century learning team will actively search for and connect classrooms with same grade level twitter buddies and pre-approved mentors, to give students an authentic audience for their writing, with whom students can share their learning, ask questions and gain perspective.

...First graders might read a story with another first grade class from Canada and collaboratively tweet a summary of the story or describe the main characters. They might even share, via Twitter, a link to artwork they created illustrating the story’s setting.

...Fifth graders might tweet with a High School history teacher from Boston about their studies of the American Revolution and might receive images of historic sites.

We will be continuously modeling quality during the process. Before we click the "tweet" button, the class will ask if their tweet:

* is Informative?
* documents their learning?
* asks questions?
* responds to someone else's question?
* curates information for specific audience?
* links to quality resources?
*adds Value to any links re-tweeted?
* states its intent clearly?
* is globally conscious?
* is grammatically correct?
* is spelled correctly?

As students tweet, they learn about word choices, clarity, the writing process (write/revise/edit/publish), networking skills, research skills, summarizing skills, global awareness and connections.

21at Century Skills & Literacies

Twitter is not the only tool that our classroom and students use to connect globally. We use a variety of platforms, such as blogs, wikis, podcasts and Skype to allow our students to practice skills such as communicating, collaborating, connecting, creating and critical thinking skills. These tools also expose them to and support  emerging 21st century literacies (global literacy, network literacy, media literacy, information literacy) in addition to basic literacy skills (reading and writing)

We encourage our parents to follow our classroom Twitter feed to join their students' learning journey.

We will be adding links to more Twitter classroom accounts from school as they become active on Twitter.

You can follow also our head of school, Jon Mitzmacher, Admission's Director, Talie Zaifert, 21st Century Learning Specialists, Andrea Hernandez & Silvia Tolisano, librarian, Karin Hallett and the following classroom teachers on Twitter: Shelly Zavon, Stephanie Teitelbaum, Deb Kuhr, Amy Stein, Seth Carpenter, Pamela Lewis, Sara Luetchau.


Who Moderates Comments on Student Blogs?

"Best Practices" are Always Evolving
One thing that I find amazing about being on "the cutting edge" of technology in education is that there is no road map. How can you have tried and true best practices for things that have only been around for a short time, so short that most people aren't doing them yet?

I think one important reason for our school's success in this area is our willingness to be a learning organization. This is where the importance of reflection plays a big role, as well as the practice of making learning transparent. It is in this spirit that I have been experimenting with discovering best practices for student blogfolios.

I realize that because I have been involved in ed tech for a long time now, I may seem fearless when it comes to the online world. I do tend to err on the side of asking forgiveness instead of permission, and although I am cautious about what I post online, I am not filled with worry- not for myself or my students. When I look back over the last few years, I see that there is an almost constant cycle of reflection happening. It includes discussions with parents and colleagues, as well as the bigger global conversation taking place via blogs, twitter, etc. in which I make efforts to be a participant.

Recently I received an email from a parent who had a concern about having her  child act as moderator for the comments on her blog. Every time I receive a question from a parent, it is an opportunity for me to articulate my reasoning behind the decisions I make.

"Just wanted some reassurance from you that the school has good spam filters.  My child has been getting comments that are advertisements for products and is deleting them...I'd prefer it if the kids couldn't see the comments on their blogs until they were approved by the teacher."

I had the chance to speak with this parent, and we talked for a while about her concerns. It came out in our discussion that there was only one such spam comment, but nevertheless, the concern remained the same.

Analysis of the Situation:

First of all, we do use a spam filter called Askimet on every student blog. It seems to work quite well, and we have not had many problems with spam comments. In fact, we have had more incidences of the opposite problem, where real comments went into the spam filter. 

In addition, other administrators on the student blog (classroom teachers and myself) also receive comment notifications via email. I have been in the habit of scanning those, although lately I have slacked off a bit, as there have been so many comments. I know that some savvy students have changed some of their moderation settings themselves, as well as changing the admin email from my email to theirs, so I am not receiving emails from each and every comment left on every blog.

So far this year, with five classes blogging and participation in the Student Blogging Challenge, a quad-blogging project and wide sharing of student blogs, there has only been one inappropriate comment of which I am aware (+ the one spam comment mentioned in the email). This comment was from a student in the blogging challenge. I intercepted the comment before the recipient saw it and deleted it completely from her blog. I then spent approximately 2 weeks tracking the commenter's teacher. I finally got her email and contacted her. I know that I would want to be told if one of my students had left such a comment on another child's blog. Although this student was in China and probably thought that he was anonymous with what he said online (although he left his real name and email), I think it is important that students understand that teachers all over the world are looking out for them.

Should we put students in control?

As administrators of their own blogs, we give students control over many aspects of the blog. With this privilege comes responsibility. With responsibility comes the opportunity to learn. I don't want to take this away from them, but I will, on a case by case basis, if a student demonstrates that they are unworthy of the trust we have placed in them.

Spam is an unfortunate fact of digital life. We must be able to recognize it and know how to deal appropriately with it (ignore, delete, never click on a link). Too many adults do not possess this awareness, and the consequences range from annoying to serious. In my conversation with the concerned parent, I learned that her child recognized the comment as spam and knew exactly what to do with it. The child explained to her mom that I had taught them to recognize spam and what to do (yay!). This reinforces, for me, the correctness of the decision to empower students with responsibility while carefully overseeing and guiding them. Parry Aftab, an expert in internet safety for teens, has a saying I really like: "The best filter is the one between their ears." The world of online interaction is not going away. I want our students to learn digital citizenship under our guidance.

If we are going to allow students online, we are exposing them to potential risks. We do everything we can to minimize those risks, but there is no filter that is totally foolproof. I compare it to letting your child ride in a car. There are dangers to riding in a car, yet the benefits outweigh the risks, so we do what we can to make the experience as safe as possible, and we focus on the benefit that is gained.

 What do you think? Should students have administrative control over their blogs? Why or why not? 

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What’s New?

Welcome to 21st century learning in the school year 2011-2012! (Since we're so far into the 21st century, maybe we should call it something else....any ideas?)
We have lots of exciting news to share with you.

New Tools

First of all, we have new equipment! We are thrilled to have brand new MacBooks for student use at school.  We are working hard to get the new laptops set up and into the carts. We are also going to be piloting iPads this year. Stay tuned to learn with us as we explore the educational applications of this technological innovation.



New Spaces

As we have all experienced, with the renovation of our office and hallways, spaces really affect how we feel about a place. Learning spaces should reflect our pedagogy. Sam Gliksman, in "Learning Space Designs & Their Impact on Education" writes:

We go to great lengths and expense to provide technology to our schools - hopefully in part because we see it as a means of empowering students to research, explore, experience, collaborate and more. Does your physical learning environment support that vision? How does it impact the process and flow of learning taking place? 

Here, in the room formerly known as the "computer lab," we are giving serious consideration to how the physical environment reflects our beliefs about learning. The ultimate vision for the use of technology in our school is, in the words of Chris Lehmann, for the tools to be "like oxygen: ubiquitous, invisible and necessary."

So, we have dismantled the computer lab and distributed the old desktop computers to the classrooms. No longer will K-5 students have "technology" once a week as a "resource class." We are re-purposing the space as a hub for our new, mobile technologies. Some possible names for the new space are: "cyber cafe," and "learning lab."  We are still playing with ideas- please share yours in the comments!  We have grouped the tables to enable working together and covered them with map tablecloths to inspire thoughts of global connectedness. We will have a green screen for video making. We hope to see teachers and students of all ages working side by side on projects, using the technology tools in pursuit of great learning.

Parent Education

"Parent Coffee Talk" also has a new name for the new year: "Parent Connect."

 If you haven't joined us in the past, please consider checking it out. The discussions are dynamic, and we all learn from each other. We look forward to welcoming you to our newly-designed learning space where we can discuss in detail our visions and dreams for the year ahead. Feel free to bring interested guests and BYOC (Bring Your Own Coffee!).


This last bit of news is certainly not least. MJGDS will be hosting edJEWcon 5772.0 , a participatory learning conference for Jewish schools, in the late spring!  We have dreamed and discussed, planned and envisioned, and now we will have the real opportunity to open our school and invite others to learn with us and from us. Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs of Curriculum 21 will be our keynote speaker. Much more will be shared as the details take shape, but this is an incredibly exciting event!


Parent Coffee Talk- Curriculum 21

Resources and further reading:

Find more videos like this on Curriculum21


Middle School’s Social Studies Lesson Highlighted on National Geographic Education Foundation Blog


I am guest blogging on My Wonderful World Blog (National Geographic Education Foundation) in honor of Geography Awareness Week 2009 the week of November 15 - 21!

This year's theme is "Get Lost in Mapping: Find Your Place in the World".


I wanted to share a successful geography lesson that continues to grow throughout the school year. I have blogged about the News Events Assignments with a Twitst and The Logistics of creating a Current News Events Google Map previously.

The lesson was born out of a very traditional "Current Events Assignment", handed in to the teacher on paper, which had been part of the curriculum for years.

Our  Social Studies teacher. Mrs. R., was not satisfied with the paper and pencil assignment and was looking to bring the old and tried task into the 21st century. She wanted students to not merely be looking up random and disconnected news events that were handed in to her on a weekly basis. She wanted students to be really making connections among these events by involving higher level thinking skills such as evaluating, analyzing and creating. The new assignment was to not only involve geography skills, but also bring into the lesson information literacy and global awareness.

We decided to create a collaborative map for each grade level (6th, 7th, and 8th grade) with Google Maps. Each student was assigned a different colored or shaped placemark within Google Maps . They were also given the class username and password to be able to log in from home.

googlemaps-8th grade

Their weekly "Current News Events" assignment now consisted in:

  • Logging into their grade level map
  • Placing a placemark on the location the news event had taken place
  • Entering the location's country as the title of the placemark
  • Using the description box to add a category the news article was falling under (Ex. politics, environment, entertainment, etc.)
  • The source link to the original news article or citation if from a paper newspaper
  • A summary of the article. Preferably in 140 characters or less.

Since the start of the assignment, several weeks have passed and new lessons have been learned, input from educators around the world received and new dimensions to the lesson have crystallized themselves.

As more news events are added, we are asking questions such as:

  • In what category do most news events we added fall?
  • In what continents and countries are these news items in?
  • What area of the world do we know or hear the most or least about? Why?
  • How can we expand our horizon to cover more areas of the globe?

It has been good to observe that students are branching out in their search for sources. They are reading newspapers from different locations around the world, such as the UK, Australia, and Japan.

They are realizing that:

  • different sources bring different points of view, opinions and kinds of news items.
  • not all perspectives are represented in one source
  • to get a "fuller" picture of a news event, you have to look at more than one source
  • location of a source influences the content and perspective of the article

We are asking ourselves:

  • What does it mean if the majority of our sources are US based by coming from and
  • How are other countries affected by events happening in different countries or continents?
  • What is ( or is there) a difference in terms of validity of news when the source is BBC or Comedy Central?

Each week students, after they have entered their news event, present the location and summary of their placemark to the class on the SmartBoard.

As students present their news event, other students are working with their laptops at their desk and are editing their peer's placemark. They are becoming collaborators and critical thinkers by validating and cross-referencing sources, asking for clarifications if the summary was not understood and making suggestions to where to place the placemark best. As Mrs. R., their teacher said:

In previous "Current News Events" assignment, there was never an element of self- and collaborative checking of their work. Students handed in their news event and summary on a paper. I was the only one reading it. The collaborative web based map has brought a new dimension of deeper thinking.

Why are students motivated to go over and check their own and classmate's work?

Students are aware that their Google Maps of Current Events have been viewed by over 10,000 people (all three maps combined). Over 20 comments have been left by others from far away countries such as Israel, Australia and Korea, leaving students with a sense of pride and that what they do in class matters. Other teachers are using their maps as examples to teach their students. Commenters have:

  • asked students to add source links to the original articles
  • requested that we double check location placemarks
  • challenged students about the "worthiness" of adding articles in the entertainment category
  • encouraged students to look for patterns about their news event locations
  • shared links to images about a news event

As the Social Studies teacher and I reflect on this weekly task, we want to continue to add new elements and enter into additional phases of the assignment in order to prevent it from becoming routine or just another thing to do for the students.

We are contemplating:

  • To give students a broad topic and asking them to find relevant news sources, representative of different countries? Is there a difference in the "facts" that are reported or omitted depending on location? What is their "take" on a specific event?
  • Ask students to come up with a world news topic, add their opinion and take on the subject, then ask others around the world to contribute their unique perspective to that topic.
  • Have students analyze responses from different locations around the world and consider responses on basis of geography.

Take a look at the GoogleMaps at and leave a comment for our 6th graders, 7th graders and 8th graders.


Hello Martin J. Gottlieb Day School

Welcome to the school's 21st Century Learning blog. I am thrilled to be at MJGDS and am looking forward to a great year of learning with the entire school community.

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