Failure is not the Opposite of Success

“Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone.” Arianna Huffington

flierOn Saturday March 4th, 52 high school students, most from Manhattan with a fair representation of all the other boroughs of NYC, joined together for the high school version of the Manhattan Make-a-thon. It was a glorious failure, gorgeous mess, and just about the most amazing STEAM event ever!

Building on the original Make-a-thon concept I wanted to give an added challenge to older students. The elementary students had such wonderful support from parents and teachers in making their paper roller coasters, the middle school students had minimal help from teachers, so the high school students had to have more of a challenge. Making a paper roller coaster that hits a trigger created from a Makey Makey to start a program they designed in Scratch wasn’t enough, they needed that next level of design challenge, the grandfather of all design challenges, the Rube Goldberg challenge.

Rube Goldberg was an illustrator during the early 20th century who drew intricately complicated machines that were designed to complete a simple task. The napkin wiper, the hat tipper, and the OK Go music video for “This Too Shall Pass” are all examples of Rube Goldberg machines.

MFTA with  NYC DCA.aiI gathered donations and materials from a variety of places including the amazing Material for the Arts in Long Island City (seriously, if you need supplies it’s worth going, the place is like a wonderland of creative supplies such as fabric, beads, tubes, toy cars, bowling balls, you never know what you’ll find.) The new, improved challenge was to build a working paper roller coaster with trigger and program that would be started with a Rube Goldberg.

We held the high school Manhattan Make-a-thon at the High School of Fashion Industries. The cafeteria tables there are covered with art that is protected by a clear plastic cover, making them nearly indestructible. So they were perfect!

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Students from Gregorio Luperon High School, The High School for Environmental Studies, Emma Lazarus High School for English Language Scholars, The College Academy High School, Talent Unlimited High School, UA Maker, and The Green School represented Manhattan. A former student of mine put together a team from her high school, Brooklyn Latin, and we had a squad made up of alumni from my former school, Halsey in Queens, which was run by the amazing Patti Elfers-Wygand.

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MFSC’s Lori Stahl-Van Brackle, J. Greyston Holms, Francis Urroz and CS4All’s Joe Melendez

Amy Sacks, who organized the elementary school Make-a-thon in District 1, and Lliana Villegas, who organized the middle school Make-a-thon at PS/IS 96 brought their impressive skills. I conscripted my talented husband, Greg Van Brackle, to serve as the event’s Tool Guy to cut or drill anything the teams needed. We also had support from the MFSC staff, Francis Urroz and Greyston Holms, and Joe Melendez from CS4All reprised his role as Makey Makey and Scratch instructor.

Amy ran the Material for the Arts store, which was a table piled with the most eclectic collection of things you can imagine. Did I mention Material for the Arts is amazing? Teams had 50 points to spend on additional materials for their builds, though each team started off with a bag of supplies that included twine, lanyard, blocks of wood, pvc tube, metal and golf and ping pong and tennis balls, paper clips, glue gun, a plastic boat and pony, 20 dominos, and more.Teams were encouraged to bring recycled materials like shoe boxes, paper towel tubes, water bottles, and bottle caps.

20170304_093034However, in the end every single build failed at some point or other and it was WONDERFUL! The focus and energy the teams put into building their designs was incredible. I’m running out of adjectives to describe the phenomenal awesomeness of the Make-a-thon so I’ll just say it was a magnificent mess in the best way!

Pictures speak louder than words and video captures the moment. Thanks to Jesse Lapin, who just stopped in to say hello but was conscripted to film the final event, we have excellent footage of each of the builds. Here are the results.

Gregorio Luperon High School Team 1 with team teacher Deepak Kapoor.

Gregorio Luperon High School Team 2 with team teacher Deepak Kapoor.

The HS for Enviornmental Studies and The Green School with team teachers Maximillian Sugiura from Environmental Studies and Vince Hold from the Green School.

Emma-Lazarus HS for English Language Scholars with team teacher Michael Giovacchini

Halsey Alumni with team teacher Patti Elfers-Wygand

The College Academy High School with team teacher Elvin Batista.

Talent Unlimited High School with team teacher Jason Rann.

Brooklyn Latin High School with Design League Intern Avijit Paul.

UA Maker with team teacher Margarita Lopez for the win!

Our final event is coming on April 1. We’re going to take all the builds created at the elementary, middle and high school event, as well as the mini Make-a-thon we held in the office in February, and connect them all. It’s going to be either an amazing success or an awesome experience, either way I’ll be posting about it in April.

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School Web Sites

I was planning on writing about my amazing experiences this past December, but before I do, I wanted to talk about school Web sites. I need to set this up right, align the content so it focuses the eye on the main message which is in today’s climate of high stakes school competition a Web site is essential to the health and continued existence of any school in New York City.

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Before I was a teacher I was a Web designer. Before I was a Web designer I was a journalist for a small business magazine that served the video rental and retail industry. Video was an industry at the time, and magazines were printed on paper, sometimes weekly, as was Video Business. It was the mid-90s and the internet had been a thing but once Tim Burners Lee invented HTML, the internet was THE thing. I saw the potential to better serve our readers and so, with my bright-eyed optimism in tow, I pitched creating a Web site for our magazine.

videobusiness-screen-grabThe meeting, me in my publishers office, was something out of a comic book. Imagine James Jamison, chomping on a cigar, listening to me spin my vision of the importance of putting publications online. My publisher laughed at me, shook his head and declared the Internet was just another fad. However, he was game and handed over $100 and told me to make a site. I dug into the project, taught myself HTML, and worked with a designer who also had the vision, Nimish Shah. By the end of a month we had our first Web site. Years later the magazine was bought by Variety partly on the strength of that Web site. A few years after that the magazine folded, but by then I was in the classroom teaching Web design to 8th graders.

portalWhen I started teaching at Halsey the school Web site was hosted by the DOE on it’s portal. The content management system (CMS) was a relic of the late 90s, with limited abilities and no real design tools. I was given the site as my administrative duty and up until last year was able to massage the content I was given to fit on the site in a reasonable way.

And then DIIT pulled support for the content management tool. I could no longer upload images, which was just about the only function of the CMS I used regularly. It became clear to my administration that it was time to jump ship and create an external site. I was tasked with researching tools and designing the site while I taught 340 students, ran an after-school program and attended workshops for the Software Engineering Program.

Somewhere in there I needed to write lesson plans, grade homeworks, feed my family, bathe, sleep, pay my bills, you know, live. However, I do believe that a school site is one of the most important ways schools can communicate with parents and prospective parents as well as students, teachers, and prospective teachers. It is the first place I look when I need information about my daughter’s upcoming events, and when we were looking for a house, we based our decision of location, in part, on the school Web site.

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with the folks at DIIT about the CMS no longer being supported. I wanted to know what I could tell schools about how DIIT was going to help them develop their school sites. There is a wonderful new tool coming out for pre-k through grade eight that is an extension of the excellent NYC School Finder. Currently it helps families and students searching for high schools to get information about each of the schools they are considering. It’s a nuts and bolts overview of a school. It doesn’t, however, capture the flavor or the feel of the school or the people or students who work or study there.

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Creating a school’s online presence is essential in today’s climate of high stakes competition. In order to get the message out to prospective parents and students about a school, a robust, engaging site is fundamental. I may be repeating myself here, but it bears repeating.

This morning I went to P.S. 185, the Early Childhood Discovery and Design Magnet School to help principal Jane Murphy with her school site. In December the person who had been in charge of the site left for another position outside the city. While eventually the NYC School Finder will help, the purpose Principal Murphy wants her school site to serve is more community building and tone setting than straight information.

“I want to create a warm, welcoming site for parents and potential parents,” she explained as we looked over her site and compared it to other sites of schools in the area.

ecddContent is King! This is the saying that dominated my thoughts as we spoke, but I also kept thinking it was unfair to have this burden of having to re-invent the wheel hoisted on a principal and her parent coordinator. With the removal of a simple, uniform site management tool, the need to learn more about Web design, the work flow of a Web site, and general coding has fallen on the already over-taxed shoulders of administrators.

In my conversation with DIIT I mentioned what happened at Halsey when I left. I had recommended WordPress as our site tool because it offers multiple editor accounts and has a simple content management tool. Editing templates in WordPress is a full time job and, while I managed to pull something respectable together, we were lucky to have a parent who was a WordPress designer pitch in.

hslseyWe worked together and got the site up and running and when I left for my new position, I offered to help in the transition for the site. That offer was finally taken up in October. When the person who maintained the site at PS 185 left, there was no one to continue his work so the parent coordinator, Monika Vargas, is taking it on.

To be honest, I think it should be a responsibility of the parent coordinator, though I know they are busy. If the purpose is parent outreach it makes sense that the parent coordinator would be the voice of the site. Generating content based on emails sent out weekly, gathering information from administrators and teachers to post on the site, it seems a natural part of what the Parent Coordinator does. But the skills needed to design and run a site are not common skills.

School Web sites struggle to maintain consistency and currency and the disruption of maintenance happens over and over, sometimes yearly. Besides other disruptions, the turn over of teachers or administrators can leave a school site untended and create a glaring hole in the window schools show to prospective parents, and can be a missed opportunity to create a bond with the families in the community.

I’ll be helping P.S. 185 by learning Weebly and figuring out how to help make the site they want a reality, but I’m hoping to work with DIIT to create a series of workshops to train parent coordinators or others on how to design a school Web site. Let me know if you’re interested in joining the mission to create school sites that are sustainable and useful to the communities they serve.

 

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New Year’s Resolution – Make More…

Since the last time I posted, back in October, I have been running all around Manhattan, getting to know folks, schools, creating opportunities like a Make-a-thon at PS 96 in East Harlem and the Winter Recess Family Event at my lab at the MFSC. It has been a whirlwind few months, amazing and challenging and fun. I haven’t been documenting what I’ve been up to, though, and that’s something I know I need to do, so, that’s my New Year’s Resolution, Make More… and DOCUMENT it!

I am going to break down what I’ve done since the beginning of October, month by month, only three months, it feels like so much more, in the best way.

OCTOBER:

20160930_130448Maker Faire was at the start of the month. I was on a panel at the Maker Ed Forum about Creative Computation that I am so grateful to have been a part of, and that it was filmed. I was feeling a little overwhelmed before the new year, and then I showed the video of the panel to a friend and I was reminded of why I’m doing what I’m doing. It was a wonderful experience and inspiring. On the panel were Leah Gilliam, Vice President of Strategy and Innovation for GirlsWhoCode.org, Errol King, Student Experience Manager for Google, Mark Lesser, Senior Director of Learning Design for Mouse, Amon Millner, Assistant Professor of Computing and Innovation for Olin College, and Hillary Kolos, Director of Digital Learning for DreamYard Project. If you have a chance, check out our sometimes playful discussion.

Mark Lesser of MOUSE is one of my favorite people to work with. For years I’ve taken inspiration from MOUSE and once even tried to get some students to the White House Maker Faire with Mark’s help. I was determined to continue my work with MOUSE and when I got the green-light to create a hack-a-thon using student interns I went right to MOUSE.

Over the summer I met Lliana Villegas at a workshop I was running. She is the tech coach at PS/IS 96, a school that won one of the Verizon grants giving her school one-on-one IPads for the middle school students. I invited her to Maker Faire and together we brainstormed up ideas for a Make-a-thon. We both were enamored with paper roller coasters and our CS4All Ed Manager Joe Melendez added a computing element to our project for the event, students would create paper roller coasters that would end with the marble hitting a sensor that would be connected to a computer which students would code using Scratch. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

We began thinking and plotting and organizing in October for our December Make-a-thon.

20161013_1357141I stopped by the Google Geek Street Fair at Union Square and met Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. It was a raucous event and much fun, but I realized that events like this aren’t as much fun without having 30 kids with you.

To ease the ache I started working with students at New Design Middle School in West Harlem one day a week. The goal there was to build a Maker Space and to interest teachers by showcasing what can be done. The issues that have come up have been technical in nature. The school is co-located and when the building was divided the library on the second floor was split as well. The other school used the space for a classroom and Wifi wasn’t installed. It’s hard to work online without Wifi so the school began to work to get the Wifi situation resolved and it’s still being resolved. That meant that the making I had planned for the students had to be offline. That’s fine for a start, we designed board games, but eventually the kids needed to get onto computers to design their pieces in 3D and to design their boards.

 

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NOVEMBER:

After having spent 13 years in one school, eight years in one classroom, I leaped at the chance to go on Showcase visits to schools throughout Manhattan. The first one was at The School of the Future which was, unbeknownst to me at the time, the school where MFSC 20161101_085642director Yuet Chu served as principal. The current principal, Stacy Goldstein, spoke of Yuet and how she had come to visit the school after it had transitioned to a focus on rigor. Yuet had noticed that the students were doing the work only because it was expected of them, not from the joy of learning. It was a critique that Principal20161108_095506 Goldstein took to heart and from that grew the schools focus of giving students choice and agency.

For Election Day Joe Melendez and I ran a day long workshop at the New Design Middle School on using Makey Makeys. The point was to remind teachers of what it feels like to be a learner trying something brand new. It was great fun and the teachers came away with an interest in learning more.

20161108_124903Following that I met up with Principal Monica Berry and a few of her teachers to talk about a tech vision for her school. It’s exciting to be part of that process. She is developing a five year plan for the building by going floor by floor and addressing tech update needs. She’s focusing on the fourth grade on the third floor first. We talked about the vision with two tech savvy teachers Ina Horowitz and Laura Resnick.

These are highlights but when I look back on my calendar for November there are so many things I haven’t mentioned, like visiting UA Maker Academy and meeting up with two of my former students who attend high school there, or working with Paula Waldron on a three day institute on teaching ELLs coding, or visting MOUSE for Maker Night, or visiting Darlynn Alfalla at MS 167 and hearing about all the great work she’s doing, or visiting Lliana Villagas and building our prototype of a paper roller coaster with the interns from MOUSE’s Design League, or meeting with Principal Blank at Fashion Industries, or the MFSC Retreat at Clinton where we all got to see what each other is doing, or talking to the District 5 Principals about creative computing, or getting my Google Administrator certification.

All good, but now we’re into December, and for December I feel I need a whole new blog post so…

…to be continued.

 

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Making Opportunities

World Maker Faire is held annually at the New York Hall of Science in Corna Park, Queens, and I am a fan. The first time students of mine attended Maker Faire they came back with footage of 3D Printers, Arduino robots, and a jet rocket carousel. Watching the MakerBot print out the poker chip my student gave me as a gift I saw the world unfold and spread like filament on a hot platform. I was dedicated to bringing a 3D Printer into my classroom.

MOUSE, the non-profit organization that has made so much possible for my students, had gotten my MOUSE Squad tickets to Maker Faire in the first place. So, when they contacted us about a grant opportunity from MakerBot, I was ecstatic. MakerBot was donating their old Thingamatic kits to, I think ten, New York City schools with the caveat that we would have to build our 3D Printer. I threw all my wishes at that grant and when we got it, I was bouncing like a jumping bean around my computer lab. It took a monumental effort to get our Thingamatic working, we named it the Beast not because it was ferocious. In the end it took about five months to finish building but then… what to do with it?

http://www.schooltube.com/embed_force/f5a3ef6967dedc500a0e/

8045007445_0b7e859b42_oBrainstorming with the students who had helped us build the Beast, Jordalyn and Nikhil, we talked about what we imagined 3D Printers would make possible in the future. Housing came up and we designed a geodesic dome with printed out pieces we then lashed together with pipe cleaners. The students created a Prezi on their vision and presented it at the 2012 Emoticon and then again at the 2012 World Maker Faire, this time at the MakerBot booth with the co-founder of MakerBot, Bre Pettis.

That Maker Faire ended with my finding out another MakerBot was being donated to my classroom, a Replicator 2 this time, that would come fully assembled. I built a unit around custom chess pieces and printed out pieces on both the MakerBots until the Beast gave up the ghost. Another Replicator 2 was donated to my class so that I had two Replicator 2s and the print out of chess pieces resumed.

wp_20130921_047What can’t you make, or do at Maker Faire? What vision of the future, what world, what inventions that are trembling on the dawn of existence and imagination? Bring the children. Bring them and let them wander around, curious, eager, interested. I assigned Maker Faire as a homework to encourage as many students as I could to attend. It was an expensive homework, but I didn’t ask for paper towels, flash drives, binders, special tools for the class, just this one expense.

But it grew more and more dear. My last year as a classroom teacher I had many parents complain about the price of the faire. I can’t imagine the cost of running Maker Faire, the logistics alone must be nearly insurmountable. This year a music festival at Citifield added to the difficulties for parking for the faire. The price of attendance didn’t go up but the amount of discount tickets seemed to dwindle.

In a perfect world I would want Maker Faire free for children 12 and younger accompanied by an adult. I would want to make it possible for parents who would love to bring their children but can’t afford to take a day off of work to register their children and have them escorted by a teacher. I know not every child will want to attend, but it breaks my heart to think of that one child who would benefit, whose eyes would open wide, whose imagination would usher in the next generation of possibilities because they were introduced to this generation’s vision of the possible, of that child not being able to attend the faire, not being exposed to the 3D Village, the Dark Room, the collection of Makers from around the world sharing their vision, their journey.

2bd3cb_3d856d26a9744dfdb789a911a7471e15-mv2So, one of the first things I did in my new role as Director of Instructional Technology for the DOE’s Manhattan Field Support Center was to organize a contest for tickets to Maker Faire. I begged at every door that might open to tickets I could give to students who might not be able to attend otherwise. Sadly, the only door that opened was at NY Sci itself. They generously provided me 15 tickets to give out in packs of five to the winners, four for families, one for teachers.

I’ve never run a contest. I’ve never organized groups of people to make something like this possible. I’ve taken full advantage of opportunities like the one I wanted to create and was so pleased when the entries poured in. The premise of the competition was for students to write about what doors making can open for them. I used a writing prompt I’d used with my students in the past based on a Peter Reynolds poster that asked that question about technology. I was given permission from Fablevision to use the poster and to alter it for my competition.

img_5707Three entries stood out as those of true makers. Tommy Wong from P.S. 199 has made lamps out of water bottles and a guitar out of a shoebox. He came to the faire with his mother and science teacher, JoEllen Schuleman, and was so excited by the technology he had a chance to explore. The rain prevented our middle school winner from attending, sadly.

However, Elijah Brown, from B.A.S.E., took the prize of tickets to Maker Faire to the next level. In his entry he spoke of his interest in creating an aquaponic system to grow food to help feed the homeless and wanting to meet Stephan Ritz from Green Bronx  Machine, an amazing Bronx educator who has brought making in the form of aquaponic farming into his classroom and to the community at large.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-2_19_40-pm“As soon as I arrived I was amazed by all the cool things you guys had there, but I had work to do,” Elijah wrote of his experience. “My teacher, Jon Mannion, told us about Stephan Ritz and his booth the Green Bronx Machine. As soon as I figured out where it was that was the first place I stopped. I told them all about my project for a aquaponics greenhouse and they loved it. Within 20 minutes of talking to them they said they wanted to donate their machines to my school.”

Jon Mannion, a Computer Science teacher, is one of those teachers that brings everything he can to his classroom, stalks opportunities like Maker Faire, Games for Change and MOUSE Squad for his students. He models the power of purpose and Elijah has learned from Jon that if you pursue your interests you will amaze yourself.

Bringing more kids to Maker Faire is something I will work toward but also, bringing Maker Faire to the kids. We have plans for Make-a-thons that will give kids like Tommy and Elijah an opportunity to make something amazing. Stay tuned.

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September Guilt

three-heartsI am a foul betrayer! Today I received a message from my colleagues at my former school. “We miss you!” the message read and was accompanied by a photo of my friends pouting at me from a classroom. I miss you, too. I wanted to send back, but instead I sent a wordless triple heart. I have no words for them. I have betrayed them.

I am a New York City educator, and until September 1, that meant I was a public school teacher. Today it means I am the training teaches in the use of instructional technology in the local branch of your friendly Department of Education. I took the leap from classroom to managerial and I am teetering on the edge of delight, depression, determination, and denial.

Today my colleagues had to deal with the yearly sorting of the students. Normally, this is done by the administration, but because my colleagues and I were not core subject areas, we had the delight of having to figure it out for ourselves. At issue though was that there were five of us, then last year six, and we had to educate all the students of every grade in the school; an overcrowded school with 300 students more than the 1400 it was built to contain.

My first year as a none-core teacher, 2008, I taught two sixth grade classes, two seventh grade class, two 8th grade classes and a ninth grade class. I had just over 200 students.

My final year as a none-core teacher, 2016, I taught three sixth grade classes, three seventh grade classes, three eighth grade classes, and two stand-alone sixth grade classes. In total 340 students.

My colleagues teach Band, Chorus, Art, Drama, STEM and I taught Computer Science. My classroom was a computer lab with 34 computers and student chairs. My colleagues’ rooms have more space than mine did and can accommodate and accommodate and accommodate up to 45+ students. When I was faced with more students than chairs I was told I had to accept it. I fought and was rewarded with low rating scores.

I love my students. They are a special group of people who are unlike any other group because THEY were my students. I want what is best for them. Theoretically I also wanted what was best for all the students in the school, and I did, but that was not always my first concern. My first concern was the safety of an overcrowded room with technology, wires, and outlets wherever you turn. It was a scary room if it wasn’t controlled. I had a student get a nasty shock my first year from handling an exposed wire from our outdated equipment. The lab was updated five years ago, but wires strip, and whole banks of outlets have been destroyed by water from a careless mop.

wp_20150922_002I have betrayed one of my dearest friends. While I am working now in an office with the respect of new colleagues and autonomy… I am expected to get my job done, and to define what that job is, in order to meet what I perceive as the needs of teachers in the borough around instructional technology—while my friend has taken my former position. She is now going over her class lists, trying to figure out how to seat the students who are more than the chairs, again. Last year I hit upon having the kids stand at a standing desk which was made by a board over a turned over milk carton. It became the cool place to work, SMH.

I often made noise about these things, but in the end I was given an effective rating, because I worked hard for my students and got every opportunity I could find for them to use technology in creative ways. I would always get a snide 2 for my lesson plans because I stopped trying to conform and just did my job. I was beaten, I had up to 40 kids in each of my 12 classes and no time to look up from my workload.

I didn’t actually need the evaluations to know I was an effective… f*%$ it, highly effective teacher. I had my students working daily on intriguing, complicated projects, stretching themselves to learn new technology and expand their ideas of the world and what technology can do for them in the world. I was rewarded daily with students eager to get to work, to come into my class, to be part of that special group of people who are unlike any other group because they were my students.

But no matter the noises I made, the lack of respect continued on wholeheartedly from the top down, from the tippy top down, from outside sources that claimed teachers were lazy or useless or baby sitters, from editorials in the paper claiming that after 25 days of substitute teaching the author knew exactly what was wrong with our boring schools system, from privateers who claimed they could educate students at home for a fraction of the cost of an in-class experience (with no learning involved at all), and from my own mother who said I was lucky to have off when my kids had off. How could she have known that when I came home from school, after helping my own children with their homework, putting food on the table, and putting my kids to bed, I would then get back to work for my students. Sometimes I would work late into the evening or early morning.

I came home today from my new position. I had no work to do. I had finished what I had intended to do in the office and when I left, I left my job behind. This is how it’s done in the real world. I know this because I was in the real world before I was in the sweat shops of public education. How a company treats an employee matters because employees are needed, trusted, and depended upon to perform.

wp_20150826_019In education, at least at my former school, teachers were needed and expected to perform according to the script tightly controlled by an administration that was doing exactly what they thought was best for the students. I understand this fact, that there is no enemy in administration. I understand that there is far more to running a school than one class overstuffed with students. Teachers jobs are to focus on that one class, administration has to focus on everything else. Somewhere along the way the trust for teachers to do their job was lost. I don’t understand it, I’m not sure how it happened, but it was a crime against humanity.

I left the classroom because I have seen too many things, heard too many stories, and understand that education is not a simple formula that will always work. It is a vastly complex Rube Goldberg that has to be built and fine-tuned for each child in order for the understanding to strike the right point. I love teaching, I love my students, my colleagues and even the administration of my former school. I think there are ways we can improve everything for the benefit of the children and for the benefit of the teachers who work for those children. It is so important that teachers be given the trust and respect their position deserves not just from their students, but from the public at large, the press, and the Department of Education itself. I believe Carmen Fariña is trying to restore this, which is why I could leave my classroom behind and join her in her efforts to set things right.

I am sorry ladies, I do not mean to betray you. I mean to be a voice for you, and an ear for you to voice your own hopes and dreams for your students. I miss you! We must have a PD soon!three-hearts

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Go-To Teachers

d327c8_eed3658bdb6a470e8b3f0408c338c783I grew up in New York City, in the outer-borough of Queens on the border of Long Island. When friends from out of town would come to visit they would be surprised by the fields and groves of trees and the farm stand down the road from my house. Queens was once nothing but farmland and the Queens Farm Museum as well as all the vast parks and green spaces attest to that past. Our eyes always turned to Manhattan, we called it THE CITY. My father worked for the City Department of Transportation and knew all the best places to go, from Barnes and Noble’s Annex to the best Chinese restaurant in Chinatown to the coolest street fairs and art shows that littered the avenues of Manhattan in the Fall.

I went to Jamaica High School where I learned about the many opportunities that existed for city students, like inexpensive Broadway tickets, free trips to the Met, opportunities to meet with the Mayor, or work as an intern at the Stock Exchange. I didn’t take advantage of many of these opportunities, and I often regretted that. Whenever I caught up with a classmate who had done something spectacular I wished I’d had the gumption to do the same.

19779065Jamaica High School, when I was a student there, was among the top 5% of high schools in the nation. Mr. Consigli was the man who made much of it possible. He was involved in everything. He sponsored just about any club a kid could think up and ran the Debate Team, where I utterly shamed myself. Among the other things he did, he also taught and ran the Humanities program.

As an honest reveal, I was a horrible student. I was a girl with ADHD before they knew what it was and in elementary school they’d no idea what to make of me. My academic folder is stuffed full of papers that showed how intelligent I was but that there was something “wrong” with me. I loved school, loved learning, loved books and thinking, but school didn’t love me. I was not good at sitting in a seat, or listening, or following directions, or long division. By the time I got to high school I was a student who had learned to fadebateil. It was alright if I squeaked by with a barely passing grade, I didn’t do anything in the classes, not the homework, studying was a foreign concept, and paying attention in class occurred only if the teacher was animated and interesting. In middle school I’d been blessed by an English teacher, Mr. Cusimano, who saw something more in me than I knew was there and pushed me into the Humanities/Honors program in high school, and therefore into the realm of Mr. Consigli.

I was not a good student when I took my first class with Mr. Consigli and I was cut from the Humanities program because of my abysmal grades and attendance record. He pulled me into his office after report cards were issued and sat me down, slamming the door shut. I’d never seen a teacher angry like that. He wasn’t angry because I’d been talking or didn’t do my work, he was angry because I was wasting myself. He woke me up from my long slumber and kicked me where I needed it. I got myself back into the Humanities program and lived happily ever after. That is until I had my first debate on the Debate Team and did everything wrong. He didn’t yell at me for that, didn’t chastise me, just suggested I keep practicing.

Mr. Consigli was a go-to teacher. He could bring the kids to their toes and make them stretch. He was a master at managing and culling opportunities and he spread his bounty to any kid who would bring their interest and willingness to learn. I don’t know where he is now, I heard rumors that were not very good. I hope he’s in a retirement community somewhere creating amazing opportunities for those with an interest and willingness to learn.Jamaica HS 1929
However, Jamaica High School is still there… or the husk of what it was, the building. It’s a beautiful old school, built in 1925, on a vast rolling hill. It’s truly a stunning piece of architecture. The school was closed. The school was gutted. I don’t know much about what’s there now, charters, police holding cells for truants, or a combination of smaller schools. I don’t know if there are any go-to teachers in the “New” schools.

Teachers are the school. The building is lovely, but without teachers like Mr. Consigli, it’s lacking a spark, a link to a distant past or a bright future. I don’t mean to demean any teacher who might be teaching there now. I don’t know what the programs are that are being offered there. But when I bring my kids to events around the city, I don’t see any semblance of Jamaica represented. I am a go-to teacher. I bring it, I drag my kids with me, I am the one you can call to get kids interested and on-board. I’ve been lucky, determined, and driven to get my students as many opportunities as I can, like Mr. Consigli did for me and my classmates.

New York City needs more go-to teachers. Teachers are the gate-way to the students. Google knows that as does Apple. They court teachers, train teachers, and give teachers tools that make it easier to teach as well as create corporate bonds with the students. Whether you’re a Mac or PC depends on what you’ve been exposed to (I’m a PC.) Exposing students to Google Apps can create adult users later. It’s a brilliant strategy because everyone wins… so long as the teacher is on-board and believes in the product they’re using. (I believe Google Apps are AWESOME!!!)

When I leave the classroom my next job will be to help teach teachers. One thing that I want to teach is how to be the go-to teacher. I think it begins with having a model of what a go-to teacher looks like. I was so blessed to have Mr. Consigli in my life. I do model myself after him in a fashion and when I teach teachers, I will work to extend his legacy to a new generation of teachers.

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Pride and Hack-a-thons

08_unisphere

If you look out of my classroom window you can see the Unisphere at Flushing Meadow Park. It’s over a mile away, and yet it looks like it’s only a couple of blocks away. There must be some sort of optic illusion going on, or my sense of size and distance is not so good. Still, today if I lean a little in my seat I can see the massive statue of the world, a symbol of Queens but of so much more.

WP_20160319_001Like every new teacher, I came to teaching with dreams of making kids happy, of giving them the sweet gifts of my knowledge and sending them out into the world to make it a better place. Like every new teacher, I grew to doubt that dream, and question my own ability to make an impact on a student. The vision of teaching I had conjured up before I set foot in the classroom and the reality of it were at odds. So much has to be accomplished in such a little time and the evidence of having been successful as a teacher can sometimes be hard to see. Even though a student might ace a test, did they truly learn, internalize, own the skill I was trying to teach them?

I’m of the opinion that the only way to know for certain if I was successful is when the student uses that skill in a creative way, without assistance, but instead with something approaching mastery.

As an English teacher I was able to see evidence in written work, in conversation, and in the understanding of concepts about the way words work. As a Computer Talent teacher I see evidence in the completion of projects, written reflection, and their ability to use the tools I teach in unique ways.

sep-sugarshoppe-mailchimp-bannerThis past Saturday I had a chance to share this experience with several other teachers in my school as we hosted a hack-a-thon. Halsey/SEP Sugar Shoppe Hack-a-thon was centered around Web design. Students were to create a candy company and then design a Web site. I decided to hack the hack-a-thon and add a bit more direction to the challenge. Students at Halsey had to hack, or redesign, a gumdrop or a lollipop. Then, based on their candy hack, they created a company, designed a prototype in 3D to be printed on our Makerbots, and created Web sites to present to our judges, one of whom, Eileen Mullins, designed our school Web site.

I presented the challenge, gave students an example of a hack by using jelly beans that were hacked to become Jelly Belly Jelly Beans. Then students split down by group, team gumdrop or team lollipop, and, using the tools I taught them to use in class, got to work.

When the dust settled, we had a winner, SuperDrops. The company designs gumdrops based on superheroes. It was a fun idea, the flavors were creative and interesting, the 3D prototypes were colorful and fun, and the Web site offered a depth of content and easy navigation. The girls who designed it presented to the judges and parents who were in attendance. They spoke of cross-promoting their product line and product placement in movies. Two of the students in the team I’ve had for three years and have seen them grow from eager 6th graders to confident 8th graders. The third is a 6th grader who came to the hack-a-thon because she wanted to try it out.

Halsey is a world school. We have students from every country, over 40 languages are spoken here, it is a beautiful, colorful, diverse student body. Our parents are outstanding. Many of them came to America seeking better fortunes for their children. I like to imagine the reason we are so diverse is because these families saw the Unisphere and decided this was a good neighborhood in which to live.

When I imagined teaching, perhaps I was imagining a hack-a-thon. Bright students, focused, engaged, eager, bringing their best game to the table and working to overcome any problems they faced. I am so very proud of my students and the mastery they have achieved of the tools I’ve taught them to use.

Special Thanks to Tracey Fuller, Eileen Mullins, Patti Elfer-Wygand, Kristen Schwarz, Sara S., Mayra Quinones-Seda, Patrick Sarris, Francis Trainor, John Wygand, Jennifer Hubbard, Danielle Pellarin and SEP’s Amna Siddiqui for all their hard work in pulling off the sweetest hack-a-thon at Halsey!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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