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.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Every night, my wife and/or I read aloud to our kids, ages six and eight. One text we can all agree on to read is Highlights Magazine. Their motto is “Fun with a Purpose”.

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We recently graduated from High Five, a junior version of Highlights, but the tenets of this publication remain the same. There are narratives, nonfiction, visuals, jokes, questions and answers, original poetry and artwork submitted by other kids and, what they may be best known for, hidden pictures puzzles. There is one hidden picture puzzle titled “What’s Wrong?”. The reader is supposed to find all of the silly things appearing in the illustration.

In the Q and A section of the most recent issue, a reader asked why Highlights never provides the answers to the “What’s Wrong?” puzzles. Here was the magazine’s reply:

We don’t provide answers for these scenes because what seems silly to one person may not seem silly to another. For example, a person wearing a space suit on the subway may seem wrong to one kid, but another might say, “That could be a person on the way to a costume party!”

Is this not the most brilliant answer to everything that is wrong with accountability in public education today? I don’t know about you, but I am ready for the editors and writers of Highlights to take the reins of the Department of Education. This ridiculous focus on standardized assessments as the primary focus on student achievement has led to school leaders and teachers teaching to the test and forgoing what they know is best for kids.

Like Highlights motto, we can also have fun with a purpose. There is no reason to wait for the political climate to change to make this happen. Teach with intention. Bring in authentic texts. Avoid cookie cutter curriculum that assumes some random publisher or expert is a better teacher than you. Ask open-ended questions and celebrate divergent thinking. Speak up to your school leaders and ask how the current district initiatives are benefiting students now and in the future, both academically and as people. Even though I place blame on the powers that be, I refuse to use it as an excuse for not teaching well.

I’ll end this rant with how Highlights closed out their response to the young person who wondered why the answers weren’t provided for their puzzles:

Look closely at the “What’s Wrong?” puzzles, compare what you see to what you know, think creatively – and have fun! What’s silly is up to you.

DisruptEd

Matt Renwick:

Is education ripe for disruption? It depends on which areas and who you ask. While eBooks and online portfolios have gained a strong foothold in schools, MOOCs and BYOD continue to have their ups and downs in the K-12 environment. Why do some innovations make an impact on student learning and others do not? Consider sharing your response to this question in the comments.

Originally posted on Theory and Practice:

disrupt, dis-ˈrəpt, verb: to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way : to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something) – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Vince, a pianist with Orchestra for the Young, uses an iPad to house all of his music. Vince, a pianist with Orchestra for the Young, uses an iPad to house all of his music.

Disruptive Innovations in Reading Research and Practice by Susan B. Neuman and Linda B. Gambrell (Reading Research Quarterly, January/February/March 2-15)

The editors of this literacy research journal explore the concept of “disruption”. They compare the corporate world’s definition of this idea, which focuses on the bottom line, with education’s understanding, which “is to promote lifelong learning”. Neuman and Gambrell do not see education as a problem that needs fixing, but rather encourage subtle changes that can agitate the status quo. Both feel this is a necessary step in teaching reading and writing today.

If we are to participate – no less compete –…

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What question(s) do you ask yourself before integrating technology into instruction?

I asked this question in a Google+ Community I created for my book last year.

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Here are some of the responses from members of this community.

The question is whether the goal + technology (strategy + technology, experience + technology, assessment + technology) is better than any of those things without the technology. Perhaps the question is… What does this strategy + technology add to the learning situation that a strategy without technology doesn’t add?

– M Millen

I appreciated this response. There is a contrast created between having the technology and not having the technology, and what the difference might be.

I think one of the most important first questions is: “How does this change or enhance the learning experience for the child?”

– T Maki

Great point, that takes the first comment listed here and centers instruction back to the students in the classroom.

I think there are several steps involved…number one is, what systems are in place that support my teaching and student learning? Also, how can I leverage what we have to enhance my teaching and engage students? Sometimes we have things right in front of us and don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

– E McCarthy

Also a great point, because I think we tend to assume that we need more things – devices, dollars, time – when support for a teacher can be a simple as an extra person in the room to help facilitate a new project that involves digital tools.

I wonder if the technology will help the students feel connected and thus inspired to learn from one another. I also hope the new technology will help students feel valued by others and in return they will gain new perspectives and other creative ways to solve a problem.

– D Hunt

This is where I also see the biggest benefits of enhancing instruction with technology. The idea that you can bring in a broader audience with instruction is incredible. These “new perspectives” that can be gained by Skyping or blogging with another classroom is unparalleled in its authenticity and immediacy. So powerful.

The “PC” answer would be I don’t separate the two. When planning instruction I reflect on the goal, tools, resources and strategies need to reach students. Sometimes I have technology because it is what is needed to move the lesson forward, other times technology doesn’t. I work on broadening my pool of technology resources. I want to make sure what I am using is the best fit. There are so many choices. So the struggle is to make sure the resource changes the lesson, that w/o it my goal of the lesson would change or not be met.

– Z Brown

Being discriminating about technology is essential in today’s connected world. We can get bogged down in always thinking every lesson needs to be “digitized”. Focusing on how “the resource changes the lesson” is a struggle that I imagine many teachers deal with regularly.

What can I do to get students to be more active in their learning? What can I do to make this lesson more fun? What can I do to make student learning more visible?

– J Gauthier

I often forget about this aspect about technology, especially as it has become almost ubiquitous – it’s fun! Making students’ learning visible is also something very possible in today’s highly connected age.

What do you ask yourself before integrating technology into instruction? Please share in the comments.

The Perspective Gap

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photo credit: Grand Canyon (4 of 19) via photopin (license)

I have never seen the Grand Canyon with my own eyes. Other people who have tell me it is a “must see”. It apparently is not enough that I view it in pictures and video.

Certainly, I could look up many details about the Grand Canyon. If I were asked to draw a map of this grand landform, I would probably pull up Google Earth as an aide. If it were the climate and habitat I was asked to describe, surely my questions could be answered with the help of The Weather Channel and National Geographic. For a history of this famous site, I might check out Wikipedia.

But having all of these facts at my disposal does not mean that I have a complete understanding of the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t tell you what it smelled like there, what a person might hear as they enjoyed the view, or what it might feel like to be standing so close to something so immense.

This is why it is so critical that classrooms need to become more connected. And not in the simple digital sense that I previously described. No, I am talking about tapping into the different social media tools that can better bring these experiences to life. In today’s digital age, this is possible.

Skype is one tool that comes to mind. For example, a classroom in my school used this tool to host a video conference with a classroom in another region of the United States. The information that they could glean from one another, about the weather, the wildlife, or simply their way of life, is something that cannot be captured through a digital map or image. People on one end of the camera can share their experiences in a way that only people on the other end can appreciate.

When we talk about gaps in education, it is often about things beyond the school’s control, such as the achievement gap or the socioeconomic gap. These are important issues. Yet, we continue to devote an inordinate amount of time to these issues, which takes up precious thinking time that could be used to consider how we can provide wonderful learning experiences for the students that show up in our classrooms today.

So who can you connect with that will broaden students’ perspectives without having to leave the room? How will these experiences deepen your students’ understandings about the world as well as deepen their love for learning?

If you can answer the previous two questions, I have one more for you: What’s stopping you?

What does it mean to be “connected”?

What does it mean to be “connected”, as a professional and a learner? I think it is a working definition for many educators, myself included.

Lisa Dabbs from Edutopia attempts to define this concept:

Connected learners develop networks and co-construct knowledge from wherever they live. They collaborate online, use social media to interact with colleagues around the globe, engage in conversations in safe online spaces, and bring what they learn online back to their classrooms, schools, and districts.

That works for me. Just as student learning can become more personalized with technology in the school mix, so to should professional learning. Our level of connectedness is best measured in the depth of our relationships and conversations with others in our social networks.

Volume is great. Having many others who follow you and vice versa on multiple platforms certainly creates a more diverse network of learners at your fingertips. At some point though, we have to develop communities of practice if we expect to engage in deep and meaningful learning experiences.

Harold Jarche, whose blog and professional work were introduced to me by Lyn Hilt, has developed a nice framework for understanding how this progression works (Image source: jarche.com).

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Going from right to left, you can see how personal learning networks (PLNs) are only the beginning. My start, like many others, was on Twitter. This channel of knowledge and expertise was essential to helping me become more connected. As a principal, I followed the #cpchat (Connected Principals) hashtag and just started following other administrators. This led to some of them following me back, which led to interactions and sharing of ideas in an open space. Others jumped in when they wanted.

While Twitter was and still is a cornerstone of my professional learning, it is equally important that we develop communities of practice (CoP). Otherwise, our self-directed learning isn’t really self-directed at all; it follows the current of the streams of information that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media feeds provide.

CoPs are generally smaller groups in numbers, typically with a more specific focus.  My favorite tool right now for developing communities of practice is Google+ Communities. You can create private or public groups, develop as many different pages within the group as you like, and control who has access to the conversations. I currently use these groups to continue the conversation about my book. In my school, we also use Google+ Communities to collaborate as staff teams. I am also facilitating a graduate course/book study for district staff with this tool, in between times where we physically meet.

Voxer is a nice tool for this kind of work as well. While it is a little more challenging to share resources like you can in Google+, the advantage Voxer brings is immediacy in the conversations. It works like a walkie talkie, adding audio, text, and images within a chat room. Voxer also requires some moderation, like Google+ Communities. For instance, conversations can go on and on in Voxer. If you are not able to keep up with what everyone has to share, you can feel left behind in the conversation without any more time to catch up.

And then there is Facebook. Of all the tools listed so far for professional learning, this one confounds me the most. I use it for personal reasons only right now. It just hasn’t crept into my personal learning network like it has for other educators. Maybe it is the whole “friending” aspect of it, creating an exclusive mindset for this third space for learning. However, no one can deny the incredible audience that Facebook provides for users.

Tony Sinanis, an elementary principal in New York, shared a novel idea for managing these social media feeds. He uses Instagram as his social media hub for his school. When Tony takes a picture on Instagram, he can then select Facebook and Twitter to also post his image at the same time. This appears to save him a lot of time and reach the widest audience possible.

So going back to my original question: What does it mean to be connected? In my humble opinion, it is what you make of it. Do you want to follow Tony’s example, and create an Instagram account for your school and tap into other social media tools that your school families use? Fine. Embed the feed on your school’s webpage and post away.

Do you want to take advantage of all the professional learning possibilities available through Twitter, blogs, Google+, and Voxer? Also fine! Check out the flyer I made for the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Digital Learning Lounge for some tips and tricks:

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Whatever tool(s) you choose, I suggest keeping your connections manageable, meaningful, and a benefit to both who follow you and who you follow. And have fun!

Graduate Programs Suspended Due to Cuts in Higher Education in Wisconsin

I have been a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, off and on, for the past ten years. I earned my masters in school administration through UW-Superior in 2005. This coming May, I plan on adding a Director of Instruction license to my credentials. In addition, I was considering pursuing my Ed.S. in the same field.

This is why it saddens me to hear that due to more state budget cuts, UW-Superior will be suspending (see: cutting) the Director of Instruction program. Educators still in the program, such as myself, have three years left to complete our remaining coursework. This is but one of several graduate programs in the education department that are being suspended.

In a time when schools and districts need good administrators more than ever, these events come across as short-sighted and ignorant. Mind you, this decision has been made while Assembly Bill 1 is still being debated. This bill would slash an additional $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system. It also opens the door wider for private charter school systems to come in and take over poverty-stricken schools, siphoning off more public dollars to corporations.

I was also disappointed in the response from the University of Wisconsin System leaders. They somehow managed to describe the pros and cons of this legislation, as if it were a balanced plan. Having more autonomy to run your separate institutions only gives leaders more latitude to cut programming and staff that the state government is forcing you to do in the first place. All three perspectives shared were weak and disingenuous.

I have repeatedly invited my representatives to come for a visit to our elementary school. As of today, no one has taken us up on our offer. I will continue to extend these invitations, if for nothing else than to put a name and face with the institutions that they are so carelessly mismanaging. I encourage you to do the same in your school.

Book Review: No More Summer-Reading Loss by Carrie Cahill, Kathy Horvath, Anne McGill-Franzen, and Richard Allington (Heinemann, 2013)

imgresAt only 65 pages, I was surprised at how rich this book was in research and strategies for stemming summer reading loss. Cahill and Horvath start this text by asserting that “the lack of summer reading is actually a reflection of how well we have taught them to be independent readers during the school year” (4). They follow up this provocative statement with why it is just not conducive to try requiring dormant readers to engage in literature without considering their interests. Motivation is the key.

McGill-Franzen and Allington share the research on motivation and engagement in the next chapter. They frequently highlight the power of having choice and access to high-interest books, both during the school year and over the summer. Maybe the most surprising fact to me was, when schools just give kids free books of their choice over summer, the effect is just as powerful as most summer school programs (and at a fraction of the cost).

Cahill and Horvath round out the text with some practical and economic ideas for facilitating summer reading projects. The use of online tools, such as blogs and literacy-focused websites, were especially intriguing to me. While it is only January as I write this, I thought it is well worth my time to have read this text now and prepare for the reading possibilities in the future.