About Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 14-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he did time as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example (readingbyexample.com), tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book about digital portfolios will be published by Powerful Learning Press in the coming year.

Which case should I get for my iPad Air?

I am currently on my fourth iPad, the first Air model. Because I work in public education, it is a general rule that teachers and school leaders are at least one iteration behind the most current technology offered. But I shouldn’t complain – the iPad Air in any version has been a great upgrade. It is considerably lighter and more powerful than its predecessors.

Source: Mike Lee, Flickr

Source: Mike Lee, Flickr

Here are four cases I would recommend for your iPad Air, depending on how you plan to use it:

If you use your iPad Air primarily for content creationimgres

I recommend the Targus Custom Fit 360° with stylus. The case allows the user to rotate their iPad to landscape or portrait positions. Very nice for switching between writing and reading a document, as well as for any creativity apps that naturally rotate for game play.

If you use your iPad Air primarily with students in the classroom

I recommend Big Grips. Don’t let the bulkiness scare you off. The thick foam sides are perfect for little kids who tend to drop things more often. iPads screens tend to crack at the corners, and these cases protect these areas very well. The stands make for easy storage. There are different versions of Big Grips with various thickness levels, depending on the age of the students. One note of caution: Be sure to purchase headphones with straight jacks, not elbow shaped.

If you use your iPad Air primarily for typing and word processing…

While I recommend the Zagg Folio for a variety of reasons (ease of pairing keyboard with iPad Air, protection against damage, backlit keyboard for night time work), I do not recommend using the iPad Air for heavy typing. The iPad Air is really not designed for this kind of work. If you write and blog often, you are better off getting a laptop in addition to your tablet.

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If you use your iPad Air primarily for reading and for interacting on social media…

MGTT2The Apple Smart Case is my choice. This is my main purpose for using my iPad Air. I use iBooks and the Kindle app to read eBooks, Goodreader for annotating articles and manuscripts, and Flipboard for staying current on social media posts and news. While the case itself does not provide any protection for the shell, it does close smoothly along the glass with the help of magnets. The ability to quickly take off the Smart Case is very helpful when wanting to take a photo or video, a challenge with the other cases mentioned.

Which case do you have for your iPad Air? Why did you buy it? Please share in the comments.

Living in the Cloud

Social media is unlike any other community, if you want to call it that. People join, they quit, then come back online for a variety of reasons. The most common reason seems to be for personal beliefs, often conflated by a political party. For example, a few people in a person’s circle will post something that runs counter to his or her belief system. The resource and related comments that is shared is often accompanied with a tinge of righteousness. This sometimes leads that person into critique within the comments, and once in a while, an outright departure from said social media.

For the most part I have been able to stay out of this fray, even though I will post articles on touchy subjects, such as gun control. I have even been susceptible to engaging in follow up conversations on these topics, although rarely and against my better judgment. I actually appreciate when others post information that may run counter to my own beliefs about a topic. I feel smarter in knowing others’ perspectives, even if I may not agree with them.

This is not the point of this post. I’m more interested not in the dynamics of conversations in online spaces, but in how people shed their memberships with social media. Basically, I have observed people leave a social media in one of two ways. First, they go cold turkey and leave it on a whim with little to no fanfare. They are just gone. Second, they make their departure an event in and of itself. Because they have lived a part of their lives largely within the cloud, it seems like they feel obligated to make a respectful exit.

At first I thought this was a generational thing. Gen X’ers such as myself and others would just disappear. No goodbyes or farewells. By contrast, millennials, at least in my limited observations, will make a provocative statement before they leave a social media. “Because of ____________, I can no longer stay on (fill in social media).” The person’s reasons are almost always attributed to what other people have said and posted online, and the reasons are rarely about themselves, even though it is all about them. They will even delay their departure and give themselves a couple days to connect with those they felt closest to and exchange contact information.

However, I have seen examples of just the opposite with regard to age and generation. Baby boomers and beyond have referred to the relationship we might have as “friendship”, although we have never met in person, know the names of our respective family members, or even where the other person lives. On the flip side, teenagers that are often in our school to work with our younger students are rarely seen on their phones. It’s a small sample, but it does not mean it is inaccurate.

I believe there is a direct correlation between how long and how deep a person is connected within a social media and the level of relationships they perceive to have with those they follow and friend. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle addresses this phenomena. As a social scientist, she has explored the perceived relationships people have within technology, such as a “friend” on social media, or with technology itself.

Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed – and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing. (p 154)

It is a theory that those who are lurkers within online spaces have not developed a deep sense of belonging or connection with others. Whether young or old, they have not shared potentially provocative information and subsequently not had to engage in challenging discussions regarding the content. Turkle suggests something different: Because our connections online are mediated through digital spaces, that our reverence for others has lessened as a social responsibility. In other words, we don’t have to go to work or a place in our community and deal with our decisions. It may be the reason why it is easy to post information and, at the same time, ignore what others have to say on the topic.

So why the differences in exit strategies from social media when what someone is posting seems too much to bear? One thing I know certain is I don’t know the answer. It is a decision probably as unique to the situation as for the individual himself or herself.

I’ll say this: If I were to leave social media, it wouldn’t be because of what someone else posted that I may disagree with. Most likely, the reason would be simple: It no longer is useful to me as a tool for learning and staying connected with others I value, respect, and care about. As I said before, I like different points of view and feel smarter because of their perspective. If someone is sharing absolute nonsense, I unfollow them, mute them, whatever it takes to keep them off my feed. They aren’t allowed to dictate my personal learning network. My strong relationships with those that enrich my life the most are why I am connected in the first place.

Recommended Read: Schooling Beyond Measure by Alfie Kohn (Heinemann, 2015)

I imagine the beginnings of this book idea came about from a conversation between Thomas Newkirk, editor at Heinemann, and Alfie Kohn, frequent commentator on education, that sounded somewhat like the following:

Thomas Newkirk: Hey Alfie, what are your thoughts on writing another book for Heinemann?

Alfie Kohn: Hmm, I don’t know. I’m kind of busy with public speaking and posting my one tweet per day.

Newkirk: Yeah, I hear you. However, I have this idea where we would just reprint some of your more salient posts from your blog and your articles for Education Week.

Kohn: Really? You can book your blog?

Newkirk: Sure, why not?

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I’m kidding! This jest highlights my one beef with this book, in that there is no new material included in the text. Kohn didn’t even write an introduction for his most recent offering.

However, if anyone’s previous work deserves a reprint, it would be Alfie Kohn’s. He has been the voice of reason for years, combating the negative influences of standardized tests, grades used as carrots and sticks, and classroom motivation tactics. With the current climate in education, Kohn’s book could not have been published at a better time.

Instead of a Reader’s Digest version of this book, I’d like to highlight five of the articles I found that most impacted me as an elementary principal in a high-poverty public school.

The Case Against Grades (Educational Leadership, November 2011)

This article should be required reading for any school or district committee revisiting their grading system. Kohn moves beyond the argument between A’s and B’s vs. standards-based grading, and highlights the problems with the system itself. Specifically, he finds that grades lower motivation for authentic tasks, creates a competitive learning culture, and misrepresents student success when teachers try to quantify achievement that should not be reduced to a number or letter.

A Dozen Essential Guidelines for Educators (http://www.alfiekohn.org, October 2013)

While some might feel that lists are lazy, I couldn’t imagine a better format for identifying the compencies that all teachers and school leaders should be applying to their practice. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.
  • In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues.
  • The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing in school, the less engaged they’ll tend to be with what they’re doing in school.

What Waiting for a Second Marshmallow Doesn’t Prove (Education Week, 2014)

In this article, Kohn takes on the term “grit” and how it has been conflated with other concepts such as “resilience” and “engagement” in educational circles. Despite the research presented by Angela Duckworth and other proponents of grit in schools, the writer finds the results unconvincing. Kohn questions the benefits of delayed gratification, noting that sometimes taking advantage of an opportunity available immediately is the better decision. Also, the author wonders if the researchers took into account the home factors that may impact a young person’s ability to defer something rewarding for later.

Five Not-So-Obvious Propositions About Play (http://www.alfiekohn.org, November 17, 2011)

The author starts this post with two personal beliefs:

  • Children should have plenty of opportunities for play.
  • Even young children have too few such opportunities these days, particularly in school settings.

Kohn goes on to support his argument by debunking multiple myths about play, evoking statements such as “Younger and older children should have a chance to play together.” and “The point of play is that it has no point.” The second statement really seems to run counter to how schools operate today, even though it shouldn’t. Kohn’s rationale rests on both current research as well as classic positions by John Dewey and other pioneers of public education.

Encouraging Courage (Education Week, September 18, 2013)

This article was perfectly positioned to end this anthology. Kohn provides a more positive outlook on the future of public education. He encourages educators to ask reflective questions about their own practice, take responsibility on behalf of the best interests of their classroom, and give ownership of the learning to their students. Kohn’s recommendations rest heavily on what we know to be most effective for students.

He ends his text with a powerful statement against the test-driven standardization of public education in America:

It takes courage to stand up to absurdity when all around you people remain comfortably seated. But if we need one more reason to do the right thing, consider this: The kids are watching us, deciding how to live their lives in part by how we’ve chosen to live ours.

Words to live by.

Can Mobile Technology Help Us Be More Mindful?

A product called Spire came across one of my social media feeds today. This wearable technology attaches to your clothing and monitors your breathing patterns. If you are stressed, Spire will know and send you a notification on your smartphone with a reminder to take a moment to breathe deeply. The concept seems similar to a Fitbit.

Source: YouTube

Source: YouTube

To answer the question, “Can mobile technology help us be more mindful?”, I think it helps to have a basic understanding of mindfulness.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (4).
  • Ellen Langer, in her book Mindfulness, describes the benefits of this concept, such as “greater control, richer options, and transcend limits” (4) in our thinking and our lives, versus the negative effects of mindlessness which include poor decision making and being more susceptible to our biases. 

So will wearable technology like Spire help someone with stress (see: everyone) improve their attention span, be more present in the moment, and have greater control in his or her intentions? I think this will largely depend on how a person uses their smartphone and related mobile technology, and have very little to do with Spire itself. If a person is stressed by outside factors at work, such as employee relations, then I could see some benefits. However, if a person’s stressors are a result of their connections, then Spire probably would be a waste of money (and at $149, that is considerable).

I consider my own mobile tech use. I regularly check email, read social media feeds, and receive reminders via text and notifications. After engaging in all of these connections, I’m pretty sure my breathing rate is going to escalate, at least if it is largely related to my work as a school principal. Because Spire utilizes the same features that technology providers also use to keep me engaged in their products, I would predict that the effectiveness of it would be marginal at best. Rather, I would need to heavily reduce all of my connections on my smartphone to become more mindful. But then why would I need this product?

While Spire is a unique idea, I believe its effectiveness is correlated with how well we currently manage our connections. The context determines the outcome. Somewhat related, I think this product is another step toward technology not only becoming essential to our everyday lives, but actually becoming a part of us. There is certainly a paradox here. As I revealed about myself, often the stressors in our lives are the technology we use, such as that ever-growing email inbox. With Spire, are we reducing our stress, or just feeding the monster? That largely depends on our current habits.

Writing is One Part Drafting and Four Parts Revision (and other truths I’ve discovered so far)

I think I am finished with an ASCD Arias book on debunking myths around technology in education. After four drafts, I can only hope.

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I’ve written a “real” book this time, according to a close family member, much different than that digital book I wrote last year. :-)

I’ve realized a few things through this writing process, digital or otherwise.

Writing is one part drafting and four parts revision

This is a very unscientific ratio. I’m basing it on the above image, in which I capture the previous four print drafts of my book for ASCD. It is humbling to think that a manuscript no larger than 10,000 words (roughly 50 pages in paperback) could demand such energy and time to complete. My writing always had room for improvement, and it was largely in the message rather than the mechanics. As teachers, when is the last time we’ve expected the same? To be fair, the stakes would need to be a lot higher for students than a grade, or even a spot on the bulletin board of excellence. At the same time, with digital publishing, there is no reason this cannot be a reality.

Writing is writing

Drafting something for a wider audience to read is special. Whether it be online or in print is largely irrelevant, at least in the mind of the reader. You are giving of yourself to an unknown audience. It’s a personal decision. I believe we reveal much about ourselves through the written word. This is what makes writing both exhilarating and scary at the same time. Remember that when you ask a student to publish a fantastic piece that they may appear to be a little reluctant to share with the world. Writing online, such as on a blog, seems to circumvent this issue, although it may subdue truly honest prose.

Writing is a reduction of our experiences and everything we’ve read

Publishers have a very good method of ensuring that the author produces enough content to work with in the final draft. It’s called a “word limit”. For this book, I was constrained to 10,000 words. 11,500 words later, I am hoping ASCD will reconsider their rules. When we are really passionate about a topic and feel like we have something profound to say about it, there is no word limit that will keep a writer in check. When assigning written work to students, we may want to reconsider our own limits we impose and consider how well they encourage students to write enthusiastically about a subject in which they have immense interest. Revisions they have to make will be out of love instead of compliance.

Please share your own writing truths in the comments!

A Comment I Left On the Renaissance Learning Blog, Regarding Data, Accelerated Reader, and Point Systems

Renaissance Learning, creator of Accelerated Reader, recently posted an article on their blog, titled No datum left behind: Making good use of every bit of educational data. It was written by Eric Stickney, the Director of Educational Research at Renaissance. Below is my comment, which is awaiting moderation. Where do you stand on this issue? Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this post.

As a principal, I’m interested in how specific activities can help increase student engagement, especially at the intermediate grade levels. Numbers are fine, but they don’t tell me a lot about how motivated students are with their learning. Specifically, what qualitative types of information could be measured regarding engagement? What tools could help assess student dispositions toward learning and student interactions with each other about their reading lives? Accelerated Reader has a very robust system. It could be even better if kids were allowed to interact with each other in this online space. They should be able to not only rate books, but also write reviews, recommend books to others, and share their to-read lists. Think Goodreads for kids.

I’m also troubled that Accelerated Reader still promotes a point system. How many studies need to come out before Renaissance Learning decides to scrap this external motivation tool, something that can actually decrease a student’s motivation to become a lifelong reader who doesn’t need a point system to pick up that next book?

Data is great. Quick comprehension checks can give some information about surface-level understanding. These results can aid a teacher in being more responsive in their instruction. But if student information systems only provide a number, then it fails to encourage further learning for the sake of pursuing knowledge and interests. Some things just aren’t quantifiable. This is something I am looking to investigate.

Respectfully,
Matt Renwick

Are Good Schools Simply a Collection of Good Teachers?

This question is actually reframed from a line in Richard Allington’s and Patricia Cunningham’s resource Schools That Work: Where All Children Learn to Read and Write, 3rd Ed. (Pearson, 2007). I was looking through this text as I prepared a site license of my book for another school. Allington and Cunningham devote a couple of pages on types of portfolios that can be used in schools for more authentic assessment. Below is the larger quote in which this question is derived. It is one of five “truths” they have uncovered after a combined 50 years of experience in elementary schools:

Good schools are collections of good teachers, and creating schools where all children become readers and writers is simply a matter of figuring out how to support teachers in their efforts to develop the expertise needed to foster the reading and writing proficiencies of every student. (318)

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The authors do address the role of the building administrator in their resource. For example, they advocate for principals to support Teachers as Readers book study groups, as well as creating their own literacy networks (Administrators as Readers). Also, the authors describe situations in which a school principal has gone above and beyond normal practice to advocate for students, such as supervising a morning study center and making visits to homes of students who have missed a lot of school. I’ve applied their suggestions to my own practice.

Here’s the thing: I am not sure if these activities have made any kind of large impact on student learning, either in academic outcomes or in student dispositions toward learning. Furthermore, while I believe that modeling good instruction in literacy can have an influence on teacher practice, for those educators that may not employ best practice, they will likely not change their instruction in light of this type of leadership. Change in actions comes from a change in beliefs. And changing beliefs can only occur when the person that needs to improve is open-minded and has a desire to grow.

That is why I believe the principalship deserves a bit more focus when authors and experts consider whole school improvement initiatives. Recent resources have highlighted the importance of the principal. In Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014), Regie Routman devotes a whole chapter of her text to “Leadership Priorities”. She makes specific suggestions, such as leading like a coach (193) and making instructional walks a daily practice (197). Her own experiences and her reading of the research leads her to the conclusion that “school leadership matters as much as teacher quality” (181).

Baruti Kafele, a long time school principal, arrived at a similar conclusion. In his book The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence (ASCD, 2015), Kafele also promotes active leadership, encouraging school leaders to be present in classrooms daily and help create coherence in instructional practice throughout the school. He believes that the responsibility for the success of a school resides firmly on the shoulders of the principal.

When the principal can maintain the attitude that his or her overall leadership determines the success or failure of the school, students will benefit greatly. As I like to say, “Show me a school with extraordinary teachers in every classroom but an ineffective principal and I’ll show you an underperforming school.” (9)

What all I have shared here does not contradict what Allington and Cunningham have found in their own observations and studies. However, I do believe that up until recently, not enough attention was devoted to improving the capacities of school leaders. Even today, there is too much of a focus on trying to measure individual teachers’ practices at the state level, and not enough attention on how to accurately and authentically assess the level of effectiveness a school might have on student learning. The outcomes of these results should largely be attributed to the leader of a school.

With that, I’d like to suggest a slight update to Allington’s and Cunningham’s position:

Good schools are collections of the right teachers.

What is bolded is what I changed, for a number of reasons.

  • There are a lot of good teachers out there, but not all of them may be a good fit for a school, team or department.

I’m thinking of a few superstars who by their own right (and probably their own admission) are fantastic at what they do, but are unable and/or unwilling to share their expertise with others for a variety of reasons. Maybe they are afraid that colleagues will take credit for something they developed. Maybe they take pride in having their students outperform other students, even within the same building. Whatever the reason, they can be toxic within a learning community and disrupt a previously positive environment. This can have a negative on a school’s collective instructional impact, even if the kids in that teacher’s classroom succeed. That’s not okay.

  • Who a teacher is today is not necessarily who they might be tomorrow.

If they have a willingness to grow and better themselves as a professional, we as leaders have an obligation to support them in their self-improvement. Simply hiring our way toward an excellent school and/or getting rid of the less effective teachers isn’t as easy nor as effective as others may lead you to believe. I’d much rather work with someone who is willing to better themselves than the alternative. In fact, I’d rather hire a professional with room to grow and a learner mindset than someone who is a superstar but is unwilling to work with colleagues for the betterment of the organization. Teaching is a team sport.

  • Sometimes a teacher is just in the wrong position.

Like a coach of a sports team who moves a third baseman to the outfield, a school leader can and should assign teachers to where their knowledge, skills and disposition are the best match. This can be assessed through frequent instructional walkthroughs, student assessment results, and observation of staff during professional collaboration activities. Principals who acquiesce their teacher assignment responsibilities give up one of their most powerful tools for creating grade level or department teams that have a high level of trust and effectiveness. When making these changes, I always try to highlight the positive attributes of the teacher as part of the rationale for this change.

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I believe a good school is more than just a collection of good teachers. A good school is developed by bringing together a team of educators with diverse interests, skills, and backgrounds. Yes, they are good teachers, and can also direct their own professional learning, work collaboratively with colleagues, and engage families in school activities. This occurs through the thoughtful and intentional work of a principal. To be fair, I’ve searched for follow up work by Allington and Cunningham that addresses this essential element of schools that work for all students. So far, I haven’t found anything. If they were to provide a 4th edition of their essential text, I hope they consider this area.