First Person

The Internet is a Language

I presented yesterday at the GooglePlex in Mountain View at the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference. I was on a panel called “New Learning Designs: Scaling Innovation to Reverse the Dropout Crisis.”

My goal was to paint a picture of 339’s turnaround (so far) and the role technology has played. Keep in mind — I only had eight minutes for my remarks!

A theory I’m developing is the the modern Internet is a language. I’ll be writing more about that and further fleshing it out in the coming weeks…but for now here’s a transcript of my remarks. I’ll insert hyperlinks when I can.

In August of 2004, I became principal of IS 339, a large, public middle school in the Claremont section of the Bronx. Then we had 945 students, now we’re ‘down’ to about 820. 339 is roughly 70% Hispanic and 29% Black. About 25% of our students have IEPs and 28% are English language learners. The school building opened in 1974, and had twice been shut down and reopened by the state, in 1991 and 2000.

When I arrived 2004, 339 had learned to survive day to day by doing things like locking students down in one classroom only and sending them home if there was a problem. School safety agents routinely escalated conflicts with students, and many adults had adopted an aggressive, loud approach. It felt like a boiling pot was about to explode at any moment, and when it did, the melees were memorable. Ambulances and police cars fought school buses for parking in front.

I had pledged during my very first faculty conference to bring technology to 339. Every computer in the building was from 1999 or earlier, and there were no laptops. What few desktops we had were hoarded and rationed, in a few rooms or offices. Two people knew how to connect to the Internet. The school was off line, and it was out of line. Although there were staff members who cared deeply, they were drowned out by those who didn’t. The language of lockdowns, consequences and battle only perpetuated a prison mentality.

On staff, we were disjointed and suffering in silos. No one knew what was happening, or why. I thought I was a visionary when I installed a giant whiteboard in our main hallway for daily announcements. Problem solved! That is, until 11 AM, when someone would brush their jacket on the board, deleting half of our key information. At day’s end, our institutional memory got erased from the board. We were stagnant in too many ways.

At the end of my first year, in Spring of ’05, we received hopeful news. Chancellor Klein’s administration had tapped 339 as one of 22 middle schools for a 1-to-1 Macbook laptop program. The light at the end of the tunnel might be a laptop screen.

In year two, an influx of new and enthusiastic staff brought energy but not much stability to our school. We continued to struggle. Instruction suffered and student achievement plummeted. I’d read about Fullan’s implementation dip; I never thought we’d be sinking because of it. 9% of our students were now on grade level in math. The New York State Ed department once again designated the school as SURR (School Under Registrative Review). They sent a team of ten to conduct a grueling 3-day inspection. It was demoralizing at best. One official compared our staff to a band where no one was playing the same song. I asked her if she’d seen our whiteboard.

In June of 2006, the first wave of teacher laptops and one grade of student laptops finally arrived. In late June, after our 8th grade prom, I saw one boy scrolling through his digital camera, deciding which pictures to post to MySpace. He then started sending and receiving texts on his cell phone to multiple friends, who each had a different song playing when their messages arrived.

I realized that our students were hardwired for modern technology. Social networking spots like MySpace met a felt need for connecting, and sharing and collaborating. Yet our school ran as it had in the 90s, the 80s and the 70s. We’d rearranged some of the deck chairs, yet our 1.0 band was indeed playing many different tunes, and none that our students wanted to hear. Despite all of our fears, I was determined to get technology into the hands of staff and students. Students were fluent in the language of the 21st century Internet. We adults needed to quickly catch up.

Year three we created teacher teams who met daily for common planning. Adults received training. As Jim Collins predicted, technology became an accelerant for sharing best practices and building communication systems. Daily Notes were now posted online for staff. We migrated everyone away from the city’s email system and into Gmail. Teachers started Google groups to share lesson plans, post units of study and discuss ideas. Connecting and communicating, teacher teams started to quickly transform the work they did together and the work they did with students. We were finally sharing.

In year four we used the Internet to advance from communication to collaboration. Our faculty signed on to the Google Apps—in addition to Gmail, we integrated Google Docs and Spreadsheets into all aspects of adult work in the school. From the main office to the dean’s office to the administrative offices to the classrooms we created networked systems to share information, collaborate in real time on initiatives and to track progress. For those who haven’t had the chance to use Google Docs, they provide the ability for multiple people to co-edit documents and spreadsheets in real time on the Internet for free, so that other people who are shared in can view your changes. As teachers became comfortable with these tools, they introduced them to their classroom.

Last year—year five–we received the final laptops from the original pilot, and went fully 1-to-1 for the first time. We saw that our greatest untapped resource at 339 had been the creative imaginations of our staff and students. The lightning-quick speed of curiosity and innovation was now given voice through 21st century tools. Teachers emailed students assignments, and co-edited Google docs at the same time. Students found answers to questions within minutes, posted responses online and participated in our school’s robust Internet community. The Internet’s language was now being shared between staff and students.

While they’d once felt afraid, teachers now were proud that their practice had been modernized and streamlined. Students felt motivated, professional and respected. They were using tools to prepare them to compete in high school, access better jobs and use their talents. We were fully integrated across the board…you name it, and we migrated it to the Google Universe.

By the end of last year—our first full 1-to-1 year–we celebrated our best results yet. 62% of our students were now on grade level. Our NYC progress report grade had risen from a D to a C to a B to an A. We were removed from the state’s SURR list. And most importantly, the work we were doing in classrooms was giving students creative control over their learning.

In June, we hosted and presented a first-of-its kind Global Learning Reception called Dot-to-Dot. 100% of our teachers and students posted 21st century projects, including films and blogs, some streaming live. A student made a documentary about how to create a Times Square-like hub in the Bronx. One class Skyped with Nicholas Kristof about Darfur as part of their research about genocide. The theme for every project was “Connections.” Thousands of website hits from around the world became dots on our map, and we’d started to redefine what school could be in the 21st century. This year’s Dot-to-Dot theme is “Change”—and you’re all invited.

At 339, we don’t see laptops as toys, or even as tools. We see them as megaphones to give students and teachers global voices. The modern Internet isn’t an idea, or a place. It is a language that we need to speak at all corners of our school systems and in each one of our classrooms. It is a language that has rapidly improved our school, and can help transform struggling schools everywhere.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.