Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Desirable Difficulties

An esteemed faculty member in my school, Allise Vicens, was kind enough to share a recent OpEd piece written in the New York Times.  This article emphasizes the need for girls (and boys) to practice math nightly.  According to the author, the focus on conceptual mathematics (i.e. the Chicago school of math) has been largely proven not to increase test scores, lifelong devotion to careers that utilize math, or even feelings of success in math.  Despite this understanding, conceptual mathematics persists as a popular approach to math education in the US.  The author of this piece believes that it is precisely this focus on "the fun" and the concepts that takes away from the need for students to really practice and become fluent in the language of math.

I think we need to have both.  I know this sounds like having your cake and eating it too, but concepts alone do not provide enough of a framework for all students to be able to extrapolate what to do in every situation.  Conceptual approaches do not account for the more concrete thinker.  Conceptual approaches do not address all learners in the classroom.   Conceptual approaches alone lack a vital element.

Anyone who wants to learn a foreign language needs to practice learning vocabulary and practice actually speaking the language.  So too, in order to perfect your math ability, you need to actually do math.  The author also explains that there is a big difference between understanding how to play an instrument and actually playing it.  While I do think there is a merit to understanding what you are doing, a stronger focus needs to be on the practice of doing.

The author also explains that focusing so much on making math fun detracts from providing students with the skills and experiences needed to practice enough to become masters in the subject. While I am all for having embedded in lessons parts that evoke curiosity, discovery, and intrigue, I find a focus on fun to the detriment of providing students with real learning experiences to be a problem with many "popular" education fads.  Ultimately, practice will make perfect and while you can certainly come up with creative ways for children to practice, not every child will find every moment of class fun.  I actually think that is a teachable moment.  ( I might suggest though that truly meaningful education provides students a love of learning that surpasses just one simple experience one day in a classroom.)

Math is not the only subject where repetition and practice matters. This year we are spending a lot of time as a team delving into our writing curriculum.  Something I have noticed is that in following the Judith Hochman approach, our school has been rightfully scaffolding the teaching of writing a five-paragraph essays.  Traditionally, third grade has been the year we teach one paragraph writing.  In fourth grade, traditionally we teach four-paragraph essays writing.  By the end of fifth grade, students are expected to have mastered the basic five-paragraph essay. The goal was for children to have a clear understanding of the concept of essay writing, but also for them to have explicit direct instruction in how to do so. 

I agreed with the approach, but I felt the specific expectations per grade level were limiting.  While I do believe there is tremendous merit to any scaffolded approach where basic skills are retaught with new skills are added on each year, I think our students can do more writing.  In looking at national and international standards, we now expect our third graders to write three-paragraph essays.  We now expect our fourth graders to write four to five paragraph essays (albiet not nearly as fleshed out as in the older years) and we now expect our fifth graders to write five-paragraph essays.  The reason for this is simple. The more students practice writing and the more they write, the better writers they will be.  The "longer" they write, the better they will be.   

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hour rule.  He explains that in order to be truly great at anything, to become a master, you need to dedicate 10,000 hours of your time invested in practice. Practice is not glorious.  You do not always reap immediate rewards.  It is important to teaching our students to relish in the satisfaction that will come from sustained effort.  The critical component here is that success will not always come immediately. This lesson is a glorious gift we need to give all children.  It is a lesson of perseverance. 

Somewhat related to what I have just written above is an understanding that through the practice of a discipline, the student will acquire a new language- the language embedded in that discipline.  There is a dialogue that can only take place between the student and the subject when the student has mastered that language.  It is the language of background knowledge, of the basics within that subject and understanding of how that subject functions as a whole.  Hence, it is always important when designing lessons in any subject to not only think about engagement, but engagement in what.  The "what" matters. It is what makes a subject different from another and valued as a discipline.

I have heard this debate many times in my career.  I will never forget the social studies department head who questioned why children needed to know the causes of World War II when they could look them up online.  Yes, absolutely they could, but like a foreign language there is a vocabulary of history, of civilization we want our children to be aware of (even if more broadly) throughout their lives.  As a former AP teacher, I would have found it very disturbing for my students to walk out of my class not knowing that 6 million Jews had died during the Holocaust or that the Nazis believed in racial superiority.  Simply knowing how to find something, or do something, is important, but without background knowledge, you often cannot even know where or what to look for.

Concepts matter.  They will always matter.  Concepts frame the skills and the content, but alone concepts are hollow without skills and content.  I stand for a concepts plus approach.  


Friday, February 27, 2015

Beijing Science Teachers' NJ Visit to RYNJ, Fair Lawn, and Ridgewood

After the American Liaison to the Beijing Institute of Education, Doris Pokras, visited RYNJ this fall, she contacted me about visiting RYNJ with 17 of Beijing’s best science teachers during a four week trip to see best schools in the US.  I coordinated their visit to Bergen County schools.  They visit RYNJ this week and we hosting them for a one day science conference and classroom visits.  

This Tuesday, February 24th their team came to RYNJ to engage in three sessions. The first session focused on having teachers build a satellite and in doing so, answer the question, “how do GPS systems work?” Through engaging in this activity, teachers were able to learn more about sound waves and basic physics. Utilizing the approach of learning through doing, the teachers were simultaneously learning about one of the most innovative concepts in science education today, the Maker Movement.   They then discussed the real world application of this Maker Movement activity to a classroom.  Our RYNJ teachers do this project in the spring with the 5th grade.  Chinese teachers teach physics in elementary, middle, and high school as well.  Next, teachers worked collaboratively using RYNJ and Columbia University writing methodology to enhance the way lab reports are utilized in science classrooms.  They watch a demo of a powder investigation our 3rd graders do and created templates for innovative writing assignments around the activity.  The third session, run by Elle Barkin from Fair Lawn, consisted of engineering related inquiry based science approaches where teachers were able to generate their own hypothesis and create experiments to solve it involving building towers out of pasta and marshmallows.  

Our science coordinator, Penina Richman helped plan the event with our two educational technologists, Rabbi Efraim Clair and Rabbi Dov Hochbaum.  Ron Durso, the Supervisor of Science at Fair Lawn School District was key in help running the conference and came to present about the recent focus of Engineering on science education in NJ state science standards.  He also ran one of the three mini sessions.  Fair Lawn also brought four science teachers to attend.  RYNJ teachers worked collaboratively with Beijing teachers and Fair Lawn teachers on these science related projects and discuss implementation of new science techniques in the classrooms both here and in Beijing.  Rabbi Horn, the principal of Judaic Studies for the elementary school had lunch with them to discuss the importance of time management in curricular instruction.

Tuesday afternoon their team visited Fair Lawn Memorial Middle School.  There they got to see science courses, a dynamic math course that incorporates STEM subjects together, and a Chinese language class.  They spoke with the teachers afterwards about new initiatives, like the next generation science standards and how they are affecting Fair Lawn schools.  Teachers from China spoke about how small American classes were and asked questions about group based learning.  It was a very great collaborative day!

On Thursday, after they spent the morning at Ridgewood with Tara Taylor's terrific science team visiting classes and speaking with teachers, they came back to RYNJ to visit our classes, speak with Cindy Wiesel about blended learning, and participate in a Q and A about American teaching.   We were so proud of our 8th grade boys who actually spent time rehearsing beforehand and then spoke to the teachers in Chinese!  It was another great day of learning and a wonderful experience for all involved.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tablets and the Classroom

Over the past few years, Ipads and other tablets have been advertised as great educational tools in the classroom.  Their user friendly nature, easy accessibility, and cost seems to make them obvious choices for the classroom environment.  In fact, many local schools purchased iPads for a variety of different grades and have tried to institute a 1 to 1 ratio.  While I love my iPad for home use and find it the perfect tool for surfing the web and chatting online with friends on my leisure time, I do not find it to be a good tool for students in the classroom.  This is why:

1) most tablets do not come with a standard computer size keyboard.  Most keyboards that work with tablets are in fact much smaller and do not lend themselves to proper typing for long term use.  This is a problem even when you can find a keyboard that works mostly well because the bottom line is now you have 2 devices you have to put away in a cart, track, and not break.  Two devices that will need to be replaced.  Oy.   As a result, students loose out on computer skills.  In addition, note taking itself is a burdensome task on a tablet.

2) the touch screen is an amazing feature making it very kid friendly, but on the other hand, since most computers do not have this it impedes a child's ability to learn to use a mouse

3) Many tablet are unable to multitask which is something that is often needed when a child is working on a paper or doing an activity for school.

4) Tablets have very definitive life spans, often much shorter than a computer, such as a macbook.

5) The iPad does not have a standard operating system like Windows on it nor does it operate in any way similar to a desktop or laptop. Students will not become familiar with basic navigation of files that are essential.

It is for these reasons, that I veto purchasing tablets for schools en masse.  It might be that a few could be useful for students to utilize to make videos in older grades or as devices to listen and watch flipped videos, but as a main computation device, they don't fit the bill.  They are simply not laptop replacements.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Revolutionizing Education through Technology? My response to the youtube video.

I must admit, when my husband forwarded me this video, "This Will Revolutionize Education": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEmuEWjHr5c&feature=youtu.be  I was a bit skeptical about it's claim.  But, that was exactly the videos point. that in fact no technology has revolutionized education, in fact all change in education is an evolution.

First, as a historian, I have to put the word revolution in context.  When we think of the modern definition of revolution, immediately what comes to mind is the notion of an immediate, often bloody, change that has long lasting effects to a government when a people revolt.  The quintessential example in America of course, we believe is the American Revolution.  When we think of the American Revolution, in fact often we are told this story.  American Colonists, inspired by the Enlightenment thinkers and wishing to assert their own rights revolted against a harsh king and a parliament that provided them no say in government and abused their handwork and righteous efforts. After a profound declaration and a war, America emerged and grew into what it was today.  We will revisit this story for it has rather profound holes.

Perhaps, we remember as school children other major "revolutions"and we begin to revamp our view of term revolution as being quick, permanent, and completed turning what was the status quo on its head.  We think of the English "Glorious Revolution" which was in fact the result of many subsequent stages truly beginning with the English Civil War, where parliament essentially executed their king for not consulting them on taxation and war.  Following his execution, Oliver Cromwell, the real life epitome of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas (yes it was banned under him), reigned in near dictatorial form all of England in a period which the British at the time referred to as the Interregnum Intergerum. Then, upon his death and the failure of his son to successfully take control, parliament welcomes back the brother of the very kind they executed.  The gambler and statesmen, Charles II, who through frivolity and appearing lighthearted, won the country back to the kingship, as if they had ever been in doubt.  After his subsequent death and his brothers open religious conflict (as a Catholic in a protestant nation), his brother's daughter and protestant husband where invited to take over England.  So, as James the II had done once before, he dressed up as a female and sailed to France in the dead of night.  Undiscovered, and unharmed, he escaped.  England once more had a new King, William and Queen, Mary and with that came a contract, the English Bill of Rights, which guaranteed much of what was already in the Petition of Right, Charles I had been forced to sign and in the Magna Carta from long before. While now there would be a constitutional monarchy, this was not a revolutionary act.  It was a long drawn out evolution from what at times had been more absolutist government to more balanced approach.  Yet, it didn't happen over night and it certainly didn't come out of no where.

It is possible, the second you think of Revolution, you think of the grand upheaval began by the French Revolution where commoners stormed a military barricade that held gun powder and chopped off the man in charge of watching the Bastille, even after he peacefully gave them the keys at the Bastille.  Or the almost mock trails that existed for both Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.  Or the rather extreme nature of the French Revolutionary calendar changing the days of the week to add 3 more so no one would even remember which day was Sunday and religion could be erased with Saints of the revolution rather than Catholic ones.  Where a directory ruled the country and the guillotine was the form of justice.  You might think this revolution was clearly one where it was clear separating from the past and had a profound difference on France permanently.  I might disagree.  This revolution certainly came from many kings before, most notably Louis XIV, his grandfather, who had paid for Versailles, an epic palace built a mere 17 miles outside of Paris.  It was fraught with expenses for which the poorest in France held the highest burden.  Louis the Sun King's wars were costly and largely unsuccessful.  When young Louis XVI took over there were terrible farming seasons contributed to outright starvation and poverty at the level that was insufferable, especially to a population that thanks to much of the industrial revolution, was higher than it had ever been and relied largely on wheat to survive (yes read that gluten).  It didn't help that in an effort to get back at the British, teenage Louis XVI actually helped fund the American Revolution.  Yet, the French Revolution happened over a rather lengthy period, in stages that often contradicted each other.  In fact, historians still argue till this day whether the Napoleonic period afterwards was an extension of the French Revolution, or a separate period all together.  Either way, after Napoleon's demise following his invasion of Russia (note to all DON'T INVADE RUSSIA IT IS COLD), the Congress of Vienna, lead by conservatives put back a king on the thrown of France and other countries who during that time had been replaced.  This restoration of royalty, while not long lived, and the subsequent "revolutions" in France with various people, including Napoleon's relatives trying to reassert power, certainly shows that even the French Revolution was not a permanent solution that was immediate, despite how much the Jacobins wanted it to be.  It too was an evolution over much time, more than a generation, that enabled France to get to the Democratic structure that it has today.

In fact, even the American Revolution was not so quick, not so simple, and certainly not so revolutionary.  Inspired yes by the Age of Enlightenment,  English Colonists living in America were actually pleading with the crown for quite a while to maintain the rights they believed they were due as Englishmen.  The war itself, at least the first two battles were actually fought before the Declaration of Independence (largely a plagiarism of Locke's 2nd Treatise on Government) was written. Among the rights they were in fact referring to where ones no less that Charles the 1st, the very one beheaded in the English Civil War, had been forced to sign into law as the Petition of Right, by nobles.  In fact, after the American Revolution and the subsequent "crowning" of a president, our "George" Washington replacing their King George, we wrote a document, the Bill of Rights, that is actually largely plagiarized version of the English Bill of Rights for which King William and Queen Mary of England had agreed to upon taking office during the Glorious Revolution in England.  Hence, these rights were far from "revolutionary."  Furthermore, even Edmond Burke, the most conservative philosopher and statesmen in Europe during that time actually supported the American Revolution, unlike the French, because he dubbed it exactly what it was a "conservative revolution" of men simply reaffirming rights they should have been given and that the status quo had given them prior to this.  So, the American Revolution, was far from "revolutionary" in the ways many have been led to believe.   Using the word revolution in commonly understood sense, really does make a lot of historic sense for an American to do.

Why do I begin with this?  Because the word revolution is largely misunderstood and before we begin to ask if anything really is an educational revolution or revolutionizing education, we must realize nothing comes out of thin air, it rides on the backs of lots of other failed attempts.  Nothing is permanent, and like all things it is a process, often long, hypocritical, and often those involved are themselves uncertain of the outcome.  I love when people attempt to tell me what education will be like in 10 or 20 or even 30 years, I just laugh.  How could they know?  Did France know what it would be like after it killed its king?  Did America know what would become of it when colonists threw tea into the harbor in Boston?  It's crazy to believe anyone has any clue.  What I do know without a moments hesitation is that it will be a rather evolutionary process and that I am enjoying being a part of that.

Now to the video.  The author claims that at each major technological finding, people claim it will be the next best thing to "revolutionize education."  I don't doubt that, in fact, I fully agree.  I remember how excited my teachers in the 80's where to get those apple 2e's into computer labs and start having us learn to use them.  I remember when IBM's became affordable and everyone thought teaching us DOC's and BASIC meant US children could beat the Soviet Union and win out on our economic rival, Japan.  It's very naive.   We weren't.  While both the Soviets and the Japanese fell out of fashion as our rivals, it was not because of our educational system.  We were a mixed matched heterogeneous group of kids from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and value systems.  Schooling isn't optional in the US.  These are really the main factors I rarely take studies from Scandinavian countries educational systems as relevant to helping us grow and learn here.  I will discuss this more in another post to come about testing and fallacies in comparing international test scores.

Is technology something we can use effectively in education?  Absolutely.  I can use a pencil effectively or ineffectively as well.   A blackboard can be effective or ineffective.  Of course a smart board too.  Do I think kids need to know about and be able to use many of the latest technologies to be successful thinkers and workers in our century?  Yes.  But, do I think suddenly school buildings will crumble, teachers will be replaced by robots, and the very notion of elementary school will cease to exist?  No.  Sorry, you totally lost me there.  We may change the way we standardize education to customize it more for our students, but schools already have begun do this without technology, i.e., Montessori, portfolio and standards based grading, and the growth of the unaccredited colleges.  We may spend less time teaching handwriting than we do typing in the future, but who knows, maybe typing will be replaced as well in the years to come.  The internet has definitely enabled our students to become more interconnected with the world around them and learn more things in areas that are obscure and interesting to them.  But, this doesn't mean we value expertise any less.  In fact, I'd argue the real experts today are even more successful than they were in past.  So no, wikipedia hasn't replaced your need to memorize essential information.  It's now more about how you use the information you know really well and how you decipher which information is more important than other information that matters even more, but you still need to know.  It's just now a given that you do.

What technologies have really changed education?  The printing press, international travel (spurred by inventions like the train, the plane, and effective commercial boats that can travel across oceans),  and international trade.  Those are probably my big ones.  If this was a history blog, or there is a demand, I could elaborate on this further, but those are my big three.   I like 3D printers, I love my macbook, I learn a ton off itunes university, and yes, I am all over the little bits.  But, I don't think any of this will revolutionize education.  Rather, I think education is still at the center of all learning and students and teachers will use these tools to assist them to grow as learners collaboratively.  So, I agree very much with the video.  The social aspect of education is fundamental and will not be changed even if the methods we communicate will be.  And, I don't apologize as an educational technologist at the least for it, I embrace it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


As we approach the epic parent teacher conference season, I stumbled on an article that I found very profound.  It's not often that articles challenge me to rethink the way I approach things and even make me cry, but this one did just that.  Thank goodness, I am now responsible for 600 children and their families.  I have a distinct pleasure of walking up every day and going into a building knowing I can help children learn better, grow, and blossom.  I love sitting in the classrooms of my over 40 teachers watching them work with the children to facilitate learning and foster critical thinking skills and a sense of ownership in our students over their educational experiences.  I love spending time with teachers on curriculum, new initiatives, and exciting projects they are doing in class.

In anticipation of the upcoming midterm progress reports, I have met with most of my staff already to have the first class progress meetings with them of the season where they actually fill out a sheet http://bit.ly/cpmtemplate prior to the meeting telling me various information about each child in their class.  Then, we use to meeting to discuss each child and create a plan of action for every child in the classroom so that they can succeed.  Inevitably, at most meetings with teacher, the issue of "that child" comes up in each classroom (or many).  After reading the recent article in the Washington Post, I really feel like I have been approaching "that child" wrong.

First, let me describe to you who "that child" is.  According to the article, "that child" is the one who "hits, disrupts, and influences YOUR child," but I actually took this to mean a lot more than that.  Sure, in the lower grades and even in nursery programs that is probably an accurate description of "that child", but in the older grades, "that child" can also be the one who "doesn't do her homework, curses at other kids, pushes kids in the cafeteria, and or bothers them on the bus.  So regardless of the exact criteria that make "that child" the one and regardless of what age the child is, the perspective shared in this article applies.

What the article does nicely in the beginning is turn the focus away from the child's behavior and toward the causes.  Most of the time, the causes of this extreme behavior are in fact linked to issues outside the boundaries of the school itself.  Everything ranging from family problems, to psychological problems, to medical issues appear to be the most frequent culprits. Then, the article focuses on what is being done for the child in this situation by the school and parents to help the child.  Lastly, the focus becomes "that child's" growth.

After a discussion about that child, the author turns to the parents of the other children and promises that if ever there child becomes "that child" the teacher will continue to do everything in her power to help their child. She states that she worries about every child in the classroom, including the other kids.  That every child has something that keeps her mind turning.  It is such a powerful letter that I really think every educator and parent needs to read it.  I have the link below:


What is the lesson we can take from this as educators?  While there is so much we cannot reveal to parents about what is going on in the classroom (with other children) the focus must always be consistently on their child and what we are and should be doing for them.  We must reiterate to parents that ultimately we feel blessed every day to have this sacred obligation and calling to teach their child and every child who walks through our door.  And that yes, we are doing everything we can for each child.  We also need to go into parent teacher conferences confident in addressing parents who voice concerns over that child that in fact it is being dealt with and that ultimately if they too had a problem with their child, we would be there for them as well.  We must reiterate that we really are there for their kid who is not "that child."  We must also never stop and think of "that child" as the disruption in the classroom, but rather someone who is suffering who we are blessed with the ability to help.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Open House Challenge Response Video!

Thanks Stephanie Summers for the Challenge! https://www.wevideo.com/hub/#media/ci/258788674

My First Month @RYNJ

Below is a letter that I wrote to our parent body. I have adapted it for the non hebrew speaking audience.

 Dear Parents,

 It is with tremendous enthusiasm that I write to you to tell you about my first month of school at RYNJ. Every expectation I have had for faculty, students and administration has been surpassed. Having had the personal experience of attending some of the best private schools in the nation, I can say without reservation, RYNJ stands out for its commitment to academic excellence in all fields and its incredibly dedicated faculty. In this short time, I have greatly enjoyed the experience of getting to know your precious children and our exceptional faculty. I have entered each and every classroom observing students engaged across the grade levels, teachers challenging students in diverse and incredibly creative ways and growth happening all around me.

After working closely with faculty on a classroom observation tool that utilizes both best practices from top private schools and is customized for a dual curricular setting, I have had the pleasure of beginning initial pre observation meetings to discuss upcoming teacher observations. I plan to observe all teachers this year with this tool and help them create professional development plans that focus on specific areas of growth that suits their needs. The entire General Studies staff will also be working on perfecting utilizing differentiation in the classroom as one core area of professional development.
I wanted to take this time to reflect on the recent initiatives that been made so far in the lower school. 

  • A team of dedicated teachers have been working together to create discovery learning centers where students will conduct inquiry based projects on scientific topics related to Shmittah (the biblical agricultural rest period every 7 years that is happening now in Israel). This year, each grade will be focusing on one core project that incorporates an interdisciplinary exploration of the connection between science and shmittah. Together with Rabbi Horn and the Judaic Studies faculty, General Studies teachers will help facilitate student led labs and the Judaic studies faculty will help students learn about the Torah concepts and connect what they have learned in science to Torah (Bible) and mitzvot (commandments). Students will write laboratory reports on these activities that connect both elements. 
  •  The "Best Practices" initiative connects our teachers with schools (private and public) within a 30-mile radius where they can go to for site visits to perfect their craft in the morning. Round 1 will begin next week. (The best part, teachers don't miss school, since they visit in the mornings during Judaic studies! Over 26 teachers eagerly signed up for the first visit.) 
  •  RYNJ serves as a role model for other schools as well. On October 6th, the American head of the Beijing Institute of Education came into classrooms to watch our teachers in action in a variety of subjects and report back to her superiors about the areas of curricular advancement she found particularly profound. They are discussing the possibility of bringing a team of science teachers to RYNJ for a day in the future. 
  •  I am meeting regularly with teachers of grades 1, 2 and 4 to help further the process of implementing balanced literacy and designing a comprehensive curriculum that addresses all areas of English Language Arts. This will enable teachers to best utilize their time by ensuring grammar, writing, spelling and reading are happening simultaneously in the classroom. A large part of this is enabling teachers to embrace non-fiction reading and writing as a means to teach other subject matter at the same time. 
  •  We are creating a Project Based Learning initiative in social studies in 3rd grade where students gain knowledge and skills by working together to solve a real world challenge that connects social studies to everyday life. 
  •  We are working on creating a social science unit in 5th grade that connects neuroscience to the psychology of motivation. Students will learn how training their brain to think differently makes them more efficient and successful in their studies. 
  •  Science curricula are now in the beginning stages of revision. Our goal is to create a more inquiry based science approach that utilizes engineering in the classroom. 
  •  We created an "enrichment committee" of faculty members who are working together in the lower school to provide increased rigor and differentiation for students who could benefit from it. We plan to create enrichment opportunities for students on all grade levels and in all units of study. We area also in the process of creating a template for Individual Differentiation Plans for students who could benefit from this enrichment in class to help teachers customize the differentiation further. 
  •  Our four newly hired teachers have been incredibly successful in their first six weeks of school each have added a wealth of talent to our staff and school community. Each are being mentored by senior faculty members and I have met numerous times with them to ensure curricular alignment within their grade level and helped them acclimate. 
 I am very excited about the work that has begun and even more excited about the work we are doing and hope to do. With Hashem's (G-d's) help and that of our fine faculty community, IY"H, RYNJ will go from strength to even more strength in the years to come. I feel honored and privileged to be a part of this learning community. Recently, a fellow educator asked me what the motto of RYNJ was. I simply said, we are uncompromising in all the areas that matter.

 It is such a bracha (blessing) to be a part of a place that feels this way. If I have not yet had the opportunity to meet with you, please feel free to introduce yourself in the hallways, around town or to make an appointment with me to discuss anything you like. I look forward in getting to know the parent community better in the weeks to come. May you have continued nachas (joy) from your children!
Jenni Levy
Lower School General Studies Principal

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

To Chrome or Not to Chrome, that is the Question (Hint the Answer is YES!)

I must admit, after spending years in education and believing I really had my "head to the ground" on the latest trends, I was dead wrong. My first computer was an Apple 2E. My whole family shared it. I grew up playing math games on it and writing my first essays. When I went to Chapin, they had a "high end" computer lab back in the 80's filled with IBM PCs where we learned computer programming with in BASIC and DOCS, and utilized Mavis Beacon to learn typing. The first laptop I ever bought was a Toshiba. It lasted me from 1997 to 2002. In laptop years, that is ancient. I loved that laptop. It got me through all of college and the ever so important senior year of high school. After spending some time in a variety of different NJ school districts and having some bad PC experiences where computer broke in 2 years flat, I became skeptical about the use of PCs. Hence, I began researching an alternative that had 1) good battery life, 2) fast start up time, 3) durability, 4) inexpensive 5) able to be used easily by multiple students. I must say I resisted the Chromebook originally thinking it was just a fad. I had trouble understanding the possibility of a using a computer that really didn't have a native hard drive. I had trouble wrapping my mind around using a device that didn't have a Windows or Lion operating system. I'm now fully sold. In fact, I've instructed my school to make their future purchases exclusively in Chromebooks and here's why.

 As a school of roughly 1200 kids and over 200 adults, we need computers that multiple users can use for almost an entire day of school and really maximize the limited time each teacher has in each class. Given that the same computer might be used by up to 7 people a day, battery life is and will always be my number one. Chromebooks average 7-8 hours (the Acer specifies 8.5 hours). That basically means the entire school day is covered. Because the computer has no software on it, it doesn't have a long start up time. This is crucial for a teacher who has somewhere between 40 and 50 minutes a period to teach. It means kids can grab a Chromebook from the cart and literally log in and get started in under a minute. No more waiting for the computers to start and eating 10 minutes into teaching time.

 Durability and cost are also huge factors for me as a principal to consider in any purchase. You can't beat that price point. Now just so we are all on the same page, the average NJ classroom as about 22 kids in it. So any laptop cart you have will need at least 23 computers. That means we are talking about a laptop cart for under $4,600 dollars. For a school really trying to increase the number of digital devices in the classroom with a set budget, Chromebooks are the way to go.

 Ok you ask me, what about the PARCC, MAP Testing, and other online exams? Does it work with them? The answer is yes! Unlike iPads, these little guys can be used easily for online state exams or any online exams without a problem. In fact, you can still use Dreambox, Lexia, Accelerated reader, and most blended learning software or assessment tools with ease.

 I have also noticed some features of Chrome that I have found particularly useful that I didn't even have as "must haves" on my shopping list, but have now become "how did I ever live withouts?" The latest Google apps addition to your google account, you can have them native to your sign-in on Google and utilize them as home games once you log on. The games in education vary and are all rated very accurately. I love some of the typing software, math games, and sight word recognition games. They are really great for kids to practice and learn skills they will use in their appropriate grade level while providing enrichment and remediation to students who need it.

 In addition, Google has now worked hard on an LMS for schools and RYNJ is actually using it this year. So, a student who uses Google's LMS has it natively as well. As long as you have or create a Gmail account, you have Google Drive (word processing, basic Excel, basic PPT, and forms, and more), video usage that can be saved and organized, all your music can be uploaded to Google as well (now on the cloud without hogging space on your machine), and all your photos can be uploaded and stored on the cloud as well. The best part for me is that all my favorited websites pop up and my homescreen looks the way I set it no matter what Chromebook I sign on to. A student no longer has to remember to take a specific numbered computer to begin working. In addition, you don't have to worry about students downloading software, videos, pictures, or apps onto the device. This doesn't mean they can't personalize their Google account with apps, it just means they aren't saved onto a specific Chromebook creating slower start up times. It is the ideal device for education.

 For more information about the Chromebooks, I've found this website especially helpful Intel.com/ChromeEDU.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why We Need to Make Math More Relevant and Rigorous In Schools

It's pretty much a known fact by now that the US lags far behind many other nations in our math education.  This is not to say that there are not some terrific mathematics programs out there that are currently being employed in schools throughout the country or that many schools have some great projects they do in math at an early age.  NYC's recent museum opening (ok relatively recent) of the Museum of Mathematics is an attempt to make math more approachable to students starting at a young age.  I coordinated a field trip for a bunch of 9th grade honors students to go this past year, and it was a surprisingly huge hit.  But, the issue of making math relevant and exciting to students in school in a rigorous way still exists.  In China, it is not uncommon for 7th graders to be taking preCalculus.  So, the argument to me that we are totally unable to teach certain math at younger ages just does not hold much water.

When I grew up, it was the end of the Cold War and in America's attempt to "beat the Russians" mathematics education was given tons of funding.  As a result, I was able to take a math elective course at a pretty young age with a college professor.  In my prep school, Chapin, it was a given that most students graduated 8th grade knowing Algebra I.  While I think we can do better than even that, the dumbing down of mathematics education all over the country can now be seen quickly by simply asking the typical 9th grader what math class they are in.  

The situation is not so simple though.  We cannot simply introduce more complex math topics in younger grades.  It won't "fix the problem."  We must also a) look to how other countries that are teaching math effectively are doing it and b) craft meaningful PBL assignments that create a culture of inquiry in math.  Everything from the terrific project by Andrea Layman for 4th graders teaching them fiscal responsibility by working with local banks to realworldmath.org's PBL assignment using Google Earth to teach math having students look into access to drinkable water across the globe.  These projects can start by being done a couple a year and eventually interwoven into the curriculum completely.  Our students need to see the relevance to the use of mathematical principles if we want more of them to be math literate.

Just as we cultivate a strong sense of reading and literacy in schools, American schools need to become fixated and even obsessed with mathematics education at the highest level.  This will mean seriously looking at some of the math we are currently doing and sometimes discarding it.  Certainly some of the math that might have been relevant years ago may no longer be needed (and some may be needed even more).  In fact, I would suggest looking at higher math and reviewing what skills, what knowledge students need to be able to bring to the table to do that math well and focusing on this first.  We may find the order of how we teach math might also need to be altered. (This is already being done with common core math and Singapore math, but I am skeptical how.)  Certainly computer based math needs to be taught at an earlier age (by this I mean calculator math). Estonia is investing a lot in it, but has seen little results on the TIMSS as of yet, so I am not jumping on their bandwagon so fast.  We may find even older math curricula (like from the 1800's) to be better than today.  I'm open and willing to entertain all ideas, but the current system is not producing real results among Americans in mathematics like it can and should.

I'd love to hear from upper level math teachers and college professors on the topic as well as practitioners of math in the professional fields.  How do you think we should change math in this country?  What can we learn from other nations programs that are clearly more successful?  How can we craft a better learning environment in schools that fosters serious mathematics education that is relevant and rigorous?

If you'd like to see what graduating 5th graders in china can do click here: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2008/06/sample-of-summer-math-problems-in-china.html

Info on Estonia's use of Computer Based Math https://www.computerbasedmath.org/computer-based-math-education-estonia.html