Category Archives: Social Impact

Men in kilts preparing to play bagpipes

Honoring the Past and Engaging a New Generation of Activists

Each September 11, members of the NYPD and the NYFD and their families gather at the Firefighters Memorial right outside the front door to my apartment building. Preparations begin early, with the sounds of bagpipes entering each apartment here, letting us know it is this day again, this time to remember.

As I left my apartment yesterday morning, I took a moment to stand among those gathered pre-ceremony, and noticed how, on the face of it, the demeanor of the entire scene had changed over the years. This is how grieving becomes public ritual, I thought. An action repeated over time seems less of the response to the immediate event and more of a prescribed process. Fair enough for an observer but not so much for those who continue the real work of grieving. So, while we come together as a community to honor those lost, we remain somewhat separate in how we experience our grief over that day of loss.

We came together after that, for quite a while, and we come together when things happen as they have in Boston and Orlando, for example. As a nation, we face continuing, unfathomable threats in our schools and our neighborhoods due to gun violence. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Charlottesville, and too many others.

We come together. And yet, we come apart.

And today we are seeing a threat from within our own executive branch and in response to that a resurgence of social protest such as has not been seen since, well, the last century. The vehemence and the cruel intent with which the current administration seeks to destroy the legacy of the Obama years, to close our borders, to expel this nation’s immigrants, to strip us of our right to healthcare and to choose, to a safe and clean environment; all of this certainly does feel like an attack from within.

We started living in a new world on September 12, 2001. It was a world of fear and new vocabulary in the form of orange alerts, first responders, TSA, and Homeland Security. Sixteen years later, I don’t think that any of the fallen would recognize our current world. And not only because of added airport security or new technology.

We’ve made so much progress. And yet, we have regressed to a place I no longer recognize.

As is the case with any passing from one generation to the next, my kids grew up in a different world than I did, and in many ways, better.  My kids, cognizant of their own mixed race, grew up in a world with diminishing racial bias and with increasing acceptance around gender identity and fluidity. There had been fewer lines drawn in their world.  Until 45.

So, the bagpipes do bring me back, and they do trigger reflection. After so many years of effort to heal this nation, to move past the hatred and extremism of the early 2000s, we find ourselves struggling against not only rebooted rhetoric but an invasion of what should be ancient and outdated political theory and action. A new wall and new Nazis. We did not envision these things in 2001; we did not anticipate them in 2008, either.

The current administration has the potential to cause harm for years to come, and the threat of this has engaged the spirit and intellect of our young people like nothing before it. Despite experiencing the catastrophe of 9/11 as schoolkids, many did not suffer any personal loss. It was part of their world but once removed. Not so with 45.

My respect to the families of 9/11. As a nation, we will continue to honor those who were lost in the attacks and their aftermath. And as we work to protect our immigrants, our right to choose, to love, to drink clean water, to preserve our national monuments, to safely attend our local schools, our right to health care, and the basic tenets of living in a civil society, we’ll be aspiring to a way of life that our kids should feel proud to defend.

 

 

 

 

Mother dropping son off at school

How Will Today’s Lessons Learned Impact the Future?

In the above cartoon, Henry Payne transforms our concerns over the impact of changing values and gun violence into a seemingly simple yet cynical cartoon. If you look closely, you can see that the year was 1993. Unfortunately, the cartoon remains relevant in more ways than we’d like it to, which leads to the question: How can we really learn from the current discord and violence to make a better today and ensure a better future?

The very recent events in Charlottesville come just before most public schools open for the 2017-2018 school year. My heart goes out to all of Charlottesville, and in particular to the families and teachers of young students who need to navigate their ways through yet one more tragedy of the 21st Century, one that if not seminal, is sure to have an impact on their world view moving forward.

Those kids who were of school age in 2001 well remember the impact of September 11 on the classroom on the very day of the bombings and in the years following it. Teachers were instrumental in helping our children through the aftermath of the bombings, balancing the immediate needs of their students with the pressure to continue the prescribed curriculum.

Our nation’s teachers may be getting a little too adept at managing their classrooms in the midst of a crisis. Whether you were a New York City teacher on September 11, 2001, a survivor of one of the 220 or more school shootings since December 14, 2012, when a single shooter took the lives of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook, or anyone close to or in any way affected by these events, it’s natural to want to learn from such horrific circumstances, if only in order to in some way, prevent them from happening again.

9/11 and each of these events become something of a line drawn between “then” and “now” for the victims, those close to them, and to the rest of us, with all too close-up of a view of these situations given social and other media’s immediate access to them. The event becomes a marker in time, a loss of innocence for the younger generation and a growing fear or cynicism among others.

What is there to learn anew, what is there to teach, and how will what we do now impact on how we interpret the history of this moment?

Throw out the lesson plan!

Specifically with college and high school students, there is much to be said about practicing flexibility in planning and to seize the moment after such events. Give the class what it needs now rather than adhere to a strict timeline to back you into final exams, SATs, or some such end goal. Whether a Political Science course, American (or World) History, Literature, Sociology, Creative Writing, Journalism, etc., working with the facts of today’s events, including relevant analysis, and understanding what has led to this moment, will be a tremendous (and perhaps painful) catalyst for learning.

If ever there was a time to teach history or government . . .

Again, depending on grade level, Charlottesville will become the theme for meaningful learning experiences on the civil war, civil rights, civil disobedience, and more.

Beyond the very visceral images of Nazi and Ku Klux Klansmen marching on the University of Virginia campus, on the sacred yet public Lawn, Charlottesville and events like it have heightened debates over our approach, as a nation, to the interpretation of history. An article on Atlantic.com discusses how the history of Charlottesville has contributed to the extremism of the neo-Nazi and KKK groups there.

It is a city that embraces its history, not as a frank fact of the past but as a defining feature of its present. Plaques and statues are everywhere on the becolumned UVA campus. Thomas Jefferson—as a person and as an idea—infuses the place. But Charlottesville is not merely a blue city in a red state; it is also a southern town in a southern state. The monuments that make the city’s history manifest are often ones that celebrate figures of the Confederacy. And one of those monuments, in particular, has served as a bronze-sculpted lightning rod.

The tension around the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee from the town’s center indicates the extent to which these fringe groups hold on to a history and monuments to it that so many people have strived for so long to move past. Dan Rather, in a video posted to Facebook on August 13, speaks about this being a day to think about “who we are, where we are in the arc of history, where we seem to be going, where we ought to be going, and where we want to be going.”

Real Problem-Based Learning

Learning to interpret and respond to current events in light of their history becomes less of an academic exercise and more of a means to potential conflict resolution when applied in real time.

An article in the New York Times the other day, titled “What U.Va. Students Saw in Charlottesville” asked U.Va. students for their interpretation of the events on August 12. Among the many thoughtful responses, one student struggled with the University’s decision to allow the rally:

Instead of saying that the university is going to keep me and my peers of color safe — or reassuring students that we belong on our campus and no one can take that from us — Teresa Sullivan, the president of University of Virginia, sent out a statement that reminded us that the college “is a public institution and follows state and federal law regarding the public’s right to access open spaces.” She wrote that the University of Virginia supports First Amendment rights but rejects “the ideology of intolerance and hate.”

Another student spoke about his change of heart over the same question of First Amendment rights:

The way I see it, white supremacists — despite their irrefutably toxic ideology — are entitled to the same constitutional liberties as anyone else. I figured, maybe naïvely, that allowing the alt-right to assemble in public, under the scrutiny of daylight, would galvanize public opinion against their hateful beliefs. It would reveal the rotting foundation on which their ideology rests.

These students are being touched by history-defining moments in very different ways. Working together, facilitated by an instructor, they can apply the lessons of history, the tools of sociology, an enhanced understanding of constitutional law and other “subjects” to assess each other’s world views and hopefully contribute more effectively to ensuring that this moment in history does not repeat itself. Their stories have already had a deep impact on all who have heard them.

Just as with all teaching and learning, there is no one answer.

Each situation is unique and requires its own specific response. Similarly, each student is uniquely curious about or able to cope with such events. While most schools and local authorities provide additional counseling following events like this, there is no doubt a responsibility for classroom teachers at all stages of the educational continuum to direct conversations, respond to questions, assign research if relevant, and provide comfort as needed. It is a very significant role to be playing nowadays.

The tools at our disposal, including content curation platforms, can make such research easier to gather and knowledge sharing more immediate and more sophisticated in terms of media used to present such stories and analysis that will come out of this tragedy. Classrooms can connect beyond their physical environment to add voices to the story that needs to be told.

How soon and how early can we start?

One is tempted to say “yesterday,” but we cannot undo the damage to our youth and to all victims of gun violence, physical violence, or intimidation in any form that has already occurred. But we can look back in order to move forward. That will help ensure a place in history that our kids and grandkids can be proud of. And that is something that we need to start to do today.

While most of the examples in this article refer to older students, it is not too early to start teaching the skills that our children will need as they continue to grow and as their own stories unfold. We can start providing them with the tools for tolerance by extending the classroom, as is being done in some schools (Alt School, for example), to the greater community. That means less time in the classroom and more time learning about how the world around them actually works. It also means using the available technology to interact with kids in other parts of the world and working together building shared experiences and reporting of these experiences. It also means building digital literacy and teaching kids how to use the technology responsibly to get and share information. In A Common Sense Approach to Talking with Students about Charlottesville, post to her most recent Innovative Educator blog, Lisa Nielson introduces teachers to some Common Sense Education tools for the tough conversations K-12 teachers may be having over the next days and weeks.

A little Social Emotional Learning, Anyone?

Teachers have always worn multiple hats, but the best in the field are those who nurture their students in the process of educating them. In today’s increasingly divisive American culture, it is essential to support kids at all stages of the educational continuum by infusing the curriculum with opportunities to not only develop subject matter knowledge and essential competencies with which to enter the working world but to interact with others around them in a civil and respectful manner.

As tempers continue to flare, we have a responsibility to not only listen, really listen, to disparate voices, but to also effectively work together to ensure less conflict moving forward. We have the opportunity and the tools to generate perhaps raw but nevertheless meaningful dialogue around the most challenging of issues facing us.

In that way we can more effectively ensure a better place in the arc of history.

Hacking an Eagle’s Nest to Teach Ourselves

The most effective education doesn’t usually take place in the classroom. Whether you’re a public or private school advocate, charter school supporter, homeschooler, or unschooler, we all recognize that the greatest learning often occurs at the time of extreme need, when facing a real-life problem that needs to be solved. These high-stake lessons may also take place when we are in the service of helping others.

What follows is a tribute to learning that triumphed in the worst of circumstances.

Hacking is the method used to stimulate Eagle nesting and Eagle population recovery in a particular area by releasing fledgling Eagles into the wild from an artificial nesting tower.

The principle behind Eagle Hacking is that Eagles tend to return to the area from which they were raised and fledged (within approximately 75 miles) after they choose a lifelong mate.

Eagle Hacking, the American Eagle Foundation

A Tale of Two July Fourths

On July 4, 1999, President Bill Clinton held a ceremony at the White House commending the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) for their work in helping to restore the environment on and around the Anacostia River and reintroducing the bald eagle to that area. Eight years later, DDT had been banned, and the bald eagle was taken off the Endangered Species list. The team at the ECC had successfully introduced many young eaglets to a hacked nest along the river, and the first pair of breeding eagles had made their home in the area right near the Metropolitan Police Station. In 2013, another pair (the ones I have been following) made their home in the National Arboretum and have successfully hatched two sets of eaglets.

In contrast to that turn-of-the-century celebration of our nation and the very symbol that represents it, this Fourth of July was marred by the shooting of a juvenile bald eagle who later had to be euthanized.

The fate of these baby eagles is something my fellow D.C. Eagle Cam followers and I watch very closely and oftentimes, very anxiously. We always learn something.

Working Through A Constant State of Grief

What many eagle watchers and others may not be aware of is the story of the team responsible for their return. They may not know how the filmmaker Bob Nixon started working with a group of disadvantaged youths in part to fulfill a promise to Dian Fossey, and that through the process of caring for the river and its inhabitants, he saw them evolve into avid conservationists.

More poignantly still, people may not know that in the first 11 years of the program, nine Core members had succumbed to the violence of the streets of Ward 8, leaving their teammates in a nearly constant state of grief even as they sought to save not only the eagles but themselves. As Nixon said in a 2003 article published in The Washington Post, “When I volunteered to oversee the fledging national service program in 1992, I did not realize I was also signing up to be a pallbearer.” The ECC would eventually lose 26 members over the period of 25 years, which Nixon attributes to both the violence in and around Ward 8 and illness associated with the poverty so prevalent there.

Nixon and his team at the ECC captured the early years in the film “Endangered Species,” released in 2004. More than a decade later, its lessons still ring true.

As we return to this full work week after what may be this nation’s oddest July 4 ever, the success of that original ECC team and those who followed is more than evident in their restoration efforts and in the positive impact they have made in their neighborhood.

But we have not as a nation escaped the issues they faced, and we are in danger of unlearning the lessons they so bravely learned.

One Mile Southeast of All That

The story of the Earth Conservation Corps is simultaneously cautionary and inspiring. As Twan Woods, the narrator of the film tells us, “We didn’t do it for the fish or birds; we did it because the river was dying and all our friends were being murdered.” Much of this violence was concentrated in D.C.’s Ward 8, one of eight wards and 179 neighborhoods in the commonwealth, and one of its poorest. It sits just about a mile southeast of Ward 2, Twan tell us, where the White House is located.

The Anacostia River takes on the burden of several decades of neglect as well as becoming the life source of not only the returning eagle but the Corps members, their families, and by extension, their community. Woods’s commentary throughout the film guides us through the journey these young people took in banding together to restore the river and themselves. “Back then,” he says at one point, “people thought only the birds and fish needed a clean river. Man, were they wrong.”

In the 15 years since the film was made, the ECC did indeed make an impact on the river, the birds, and those living along the Anacostia.

Walling People off from Nature

The film reminds us of earlier times when the Anacostia was clean and people swam, fished, and were baptized in the river. As the Anacostia fell victim to increasing industrialization, all of that ended, and over time, the community also suffered. And the eagles left.

Julius Lowery talks about growing up on the river, and speaks of the peace and serenity that the river seemed to bring in those days, emphasizing the connection between the access to nature and one’s growing up in a peaceful environment. “The young people today,” he concludes, “would make fewer problems for themselves if the river and the parkland were available to them like it was to me.”

Reiterating this is Brenda Richardson, a community leader and environmentalist with strong ties to the ECC. Richardson cites the state of then boarded up but subsequently razed Valley Greene housing projects as an illustration of people being “walled off from nature.”

”Nature gives communities a sense of connectedness that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she advises.

The cruelest evidence of the disconnect is the death toll it took on an astounding number of early Corps members. The first was killed in August, 1992, not too long after the start of the project. Monique Johnson was an inspiration to her teammates, and it was her sense of dedication that motivated them to continue their efforts despite the pain of her loss. The first eagle to be named in honor of a fallen Corps member was named after Monique.

As the film progresses, you can’t help but be struck by the pain of each loss and to start seeing the ongoing efforts of the ECC as some epic battle between nature, the evils that man has wrought upon it, and those who seek to save it.

Can there be a winner in such a battle? Can hacking nature have any impact at all?

The Eagles Could Have Warned Us

Woods compares the eagles of today to the canaries of the past, endowing them with the ability to warn us of the danger up ahead. Today we face a great many challenges to victories of the recent past, including threats to the environment and our great national monuments, threats to diversity of all kinds, threats to healthcare and the potential loss of millions of lives as a result, and threats to our young people through senseless gun violence.

The work of the ECC expanded over time. They have built parks and walkways, and hosted educational events. Team members have graduated from the program to go on to college through the Americorps scholarship program, earned their GEDs, found jobs, or stayed on, as Woods did, with the ECC.

The spirit of those that were lost lives on not only in the fledging eaglets released over the years but also in the revitalized river and parkland. The ECC has been involved in a number of initiatives, ranging from Anacostia Explorers, which extends the original ECC mission to encompass clean-up, protection, and educational programs; to Guns to Roses, which turns firearms to works of art, and in the process trains participants for work in the construction industry.

On April 25, 2017, the ECC celebrated its 25th anniversary with an eaglet naming ceremony, the name having been chosen in an online contest in which 10,000 people participated. The newest addition to the Police Academy nest was named Spirit; she fledged on June 3, and returned to the nest on June 5, an event that brought together thousands of avid eagle watchers from across the country, online communities of people who may never meet each other but who share a passion for these wonderful creatures.

On May 20, 2017, NPR aired “In Washington, D.C., A Program in Which Birds and People Lift Each Other Up”. The report provides an update on the program and highlights the work of Rodney Stotts, an early ECC participant who went on to become one of only 30 African-American falconers in the U.S. Stotts attributes his time with the ECC with saving his life. “I’d have been dead,” he says in the NPR report. “If I didn’t get into animals, I’d have died in the street.”

Stotts continues the work of educating young people about raptors through Rodney’s Raptors and ongoing work with the ECC.

In the days leading to this July 4, much was made of the rescue of a bald eagle in Washington, D.C., thought to be Justice, the parent eagle of the above-mentioned Spirit. While it was heartwarming to see the nation rally around this now-recovering bird, there is still so much work to be done to ensure their safety and survival, and ours as well.

Is it true that the eagle can help us save ourselves?

This Fourth of July was very different for a nation struggling to right itself in the midst of a great deal of political, social, and economic turbulence. Much of our nation was reflective and poised to continue the fight for the return of . . . justice.

As Woods says, I still think we can learn from eagles. More than that, I think we can learn from the brave members of the ECC, and their ongoing efforts to save the wildlife around them, and in the process, save their communities and themselves.

Meetups and Goodniks: Technology-Enabled Social Impact

“You can never be smart enough to know how it will evolve.” Such was the advice from Scott Heiferman, CEO and co-founder of Meetup, the online platform for organizing face-to-face meetings that now boasts nearly 200,000 meetup groups worldwide. Early recognition came when people started using the platform to organize for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, something its founders had not planned on. “Whatever you’re doing, you need luck; you need a hook. We had politics.” Heiferman explained.

The occasion was the launch party for Goodnik’s skill-sharing platform, an online community for people to swap services and support social impact projects. It was a good example of how the Meetup platform has inspired and enabled other groups to pursue their own missions.

Heiferman shared several tips for success with Nate Heasley, Founder and Executive Director of Goodnik, an organization that since 2002 has provided training and resources to start-up social entrepreneurs. And when Heiferman talks, people listen. With over half a million monthly meetups and 21.47 million members in 180 countries, he and his team have figured a few things out.

Preserve the Core

Primary to his philosophy is the concept of empowering people to do what they want to do. “It’s not about you,” he insists. “It’s about others.” With that, he also believes that success lies in knowing who to listen to. Heiferman reminded the audience of Jim Collins’ advice in Built to Last, “Preserve the core, but stimulate change.”

Preserving the core, to be useful to others, Heiferman has not been afraid to take chances. Four years after launching Meetup, Heiferman decided to start charging for services. The initial backlash was huge, resulting in a loss of 95% of their activity. But with the fees came more discerning customers; they built it back up and continue to work hard to empower others through the platform and to simplify the user experience. Reducing their sign-up process from three steps to one, for example, brought in three times the number of users.

The model must be working, as Heiferman announced last night, they have reached the $100M revenue mark.

An Alternative Currency Model for Social Entrepreneurship

Goodnik currently deals in a different kind of currency. In his quest to encourage people to do good for others, he has developed a “time-based alternative currency” called Goodnikels that are earned in the service of others and which can then be spent in seeking out the expertise of others in the system.

In honor of the launch of the online Goodnik platform, Heasley organized a face-to-face skills-sharing experience wherein attendees sought advice from technical, legal, and business experts; paid for their services with Goodnikels; and then mined others for advice, paying them as well. The activity mirrors what will happen on the site as well. Judging from the level of engagement, people got a lot out of the exchange and were appreciative of the expertise shared.

When asked what he expects in terms of the growth of the network, Heasley noted “During our beta test we were working with a group of several hundred members. My expectation is that this will grow rapidly as communities like co-working spaces, alumni groups, meetup groups and others become aware of the value a skills-exchange provides to their members, and how it can enhance community. But really it’s not just about the number of users, it’s about how they’re connected. A person can find someone to work with even in a community of a few dozen fellow coworkers or alums.”

How Will It Evolve?

What about the concept of Goodnikels? Will it catch on? According to Heasley, “There are thousands of Goodnikels in circulation, and there have been many successful exchanges so far. Most of the exchanges have been for ‘consultations’ where one person is looking for just an hour’s worth of advice on a particular topic. That’s how we recommend our users to start their projects, since otherwise they might not know what is realistic on a bigger project. As the system expands, we expect to see more projects of 10-20 hours, as well as people continuing to use it for one-hour consultations.”

Will Goodnikels become the currency of choice for social entrepreneurship? And will the Goodnikel skills-sharing platform help drive more social impact projects? Time will tell whether or not the system works and how it will evolve. As Heiferman pointed out earlier in the evening, “Everything we thought it was going to be, it wasn’t.”

Can Two Extra “Vs” Help EdTech Save Education?

Last week I heard Guy Kawasaki talk about his passion for writing, his two latest books: “The Art of the Start-Up 2.0” and “The Art of Social Media,” as well as the updated MVP (Minimally Viable Product) model. During his livestream interview withStartup Grind’s founder Derek Anderson, Kawasaki reiterated his appreciation of the Lean Startup model and provided details on the two additional “Vs” he hoped might strengthen Eric Reis’s model. As Kawasaki says, “The concept is that you have this Minimal Viable Product. You do the prototype, you test, you get the product out there.”

Adding Value and Vision

So why do we need a couple of extra Vs?

According to Kawasaki:

  • The first V is for Viable. It’s foreseeable that you will make a return, that your revenues will exceed your costs.
  • The first extra V is for Valuable: You are changing the world. You are doing something significant. You are not simply making a buck.
  • The second extra V is for validation: You have something that makes a buck, but it validates your vision for the future.

Where Are the Two Vs in EdTech?

The two Vs reminded me of proliferation of EdTech products and companies and how we need to be wary of digital bells and whistles masquerading as the saviors of education. With the endless rollout of iPad apps alone (TechCrunch reported 20,000 education apps developed for iPad in 2012 alone), one has to wonder how much “V” (any V at all, really) has gone into each one.

Lest you label me a Luddite, I should tell you that I’m a huge fan of educational technology, and I spent half my professional career helping corporations train employees using online simulations and schools expand their footprint with online courseware. But I simply have to sometimes wonder how many of today’s solutions are developed with these two Vs in mind. How valuable is the solution in rescuing education from the test-driven, grades obsessed institution it has become? And what vision is the product serving?

EdTech Products in Largest and Smallest Concentrations

Think about where the largest concentration of technology tools in education is focused today. A quick scan on The EdSurge EdTech Index reveals the highest concentration of products in the following five categories:

  1. Math (134)
  2. Language Arts (90)
  3. Games (58)
  4. Assessment (50)
  5. Science (44)

With the exception of Games, these are fairly standard subjects, right? Much of the software in that list is designed to align with and promote success with implementing the CCCS. There’s a theme here.

Where do you think the lowest concentration of tools lies? Looking at student-facing applications in K-12 with 10 or fewer apps in their respective categories, we see:

  1. Digital Storytelling (9)
  2. Arts (9)
  3. Maker and DIY Tools (10)
  4. Social Learning (10)
  5. Video Instruction (16)

To be honest, I think this second set of numbers would be higher if there were more a little extra “V” involved.

Rifting on Value

Guy Kawasaki is as powerful a speaker as he is an effective writer. When he talks, you can’t help but pay attention and enjoy yourself. And most of the time you are wishing you had said whatever he just said. So maybe my rifting on the “two Vs” is my way of showing my respect. That being said, I’ve got to admit that “value” can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.

Using technology to help understand and expand the ways in which people can learn is of tremendous value. The work being done to understand how people think and learn and applying that to blended learning programs, for example, is adding great value to kids previously “stuck” in preconceived notions of how to solve problems and one-size-fits-all curriculum plans. These are real tools that can help teachers support learning in diverse populations. It expands and scales the capability of those who already know how to personalize learning and enables those who may not have been doing so much of that already.

Building a better way to help kids practice for a test?

One of the other topics Kawasaki and Anderson discussed was the concept of “nail it and scale it.” “When do you squeeze the trigger?” as Anderson put it. Kawasaki’s response is to run a qualitative test: “Have you jumped curves and pushed the technology enough?”

I think this is exactly what is happening. Everyone is pushing the technology, and that is a really exciting thing. But without a coherent, game-changing educational mission, an EdTech company on its own may just be pushing the technology. That’s not really enough.

You need a little more “V.”

How We Can Help Community College Students Graduate

What do Tom Hanks, Chris Rock, Walt Disney, James Dean, George Lucas, Teri Hatcher, Eddie Murphy, and Halle Berry have in common?

They all attended community college but never finished.

The same thing is true for 66 to 80 percent of students who enroll. But clearly, they don’t all end up with careers in the movies. This week’s NY EdTech’s “Community College Spotlight: Edtech at 2-Year Schools” illuminated the challenges for those who attend and operate these schools and presented some potential ways technology can be part of the solution to these huge dropout rates.

Panelists Making a Difference in Community College Today

The panelists represented a broad range of expertise:

Alexandra Meis, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Kinvolved

Kinvolved has developed an app to improve PK-12 attendance that records, shares, and analyzes data among families, schools and after-school programs. The company is extending its reach into the college market, and is a Finalist for the Robin Hood Foundation $5M College Success Prize, which recognizes the most promising technology interventions to help community college students continue their studies and attain their associate degree. Alex was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Education and is a 2012 Education Pioneers Fellow.

Gina Sipley, Instructor, Nassau Community College, SUNY

Gina is a tenure track Instructor of Reading and Basic Education at Nassau CC and a PhD student studying Digital Literacies and Gaming at Hofstra University. She writes about EdTech for Al Jazeera America, EdSurge, Mic and is a nationally recognized Teacher of the Future.

Professor David Finegold, Chief Academic Officer, American Honors

David is the founding Chief Academic Officer for American Honors, an organization that expands opportunities and lowers the costs for talented students to obtain a high quality undergraduate education by building honors colleges at leading community colleges, combined with 2 + 2 pathways to the leading public and private US universities.

Melinda Mechur Karp – Assistant Director, Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University

Melinda is a leading expert on smoothing students’ transition into college and supporting them once there. Over the past 15 years at the Community College Research Center, she has led studies examining advising, counseling, and support services; college 101 courses; and dual enrollment programs.

Starting with Basic Truths about Community Colleges

The panelists agreed that, compared with private four-year schools, community colleges are asked to do more for their students with fewer resources. There appeared to be consensus that the $60 billion President Obama wants to spend on tuition relief for community colleges could be better spent on helping students to graduate instead. The main areas highlighted for improvement include:

  • Improving systems and processes to run the schools more efficiently and effectively (registration processes, administrative loads, etc.).
  • Investing in means of helping people graduate, providing them with the tools and resources to navigate (Better designed online resources, improved mobile access, more effective counseling services, etc.)

Who is Today’s Community College Student?

While community college students have typically been older than the students attending four-year schools, we are seeing younger students enrolling these days, with the average age of 27 years old.

Community college students typically:

  • Need to get caught up academically before immersing in a complete academic program.
  • Lack the “social capital” to navigate the college experience. Most are first generation college students and so have little or no resources at home to help enculturate them to the college experience. They have no guidance as to how to navigate course selection, scheduling challenges, etc. like students whose parents have already lived the experience.
  • Work part- or full-time and thus have less time to focus on their studies.
  • Have families and thus require more flexible scheduling or childcare or both.
  • Don’t form cohorts like most students in four-year colleges do.
  • Confront a major information barrier when it comes to policies, processes and procedures.

How Can We Help?

Suggestions for improvement were filtered throughout the evening’s conversation. As a means of shedding further light on what is needed, NY EdTech co-organizer Michelle Devan asked the panelists what they would say if they could speak to President Obama or Governor Cuomo about community colleges. Their responses included:

  • More consistent and reliable broadband.
  • Donors Choose for higher ed. (Like the popular online platform that enables K-12 teachers to ask for donations for specific projects or resources from anywhere in the country, not just from within the school). I need to credit Gina Sipley with bringing this up. It’s an interesting concept, folks!
  • More dual enrollment opportunities.
  • Doing more to prepare students for the college experience before they get there.
  • Putting systems in place for relationship building amongst students.

In terms of EdTech, the panelists had some suggestions for people who want to get involved:

  • Need to focus on process: Design, Develop, and Re-design.
  • Know your audience; for example, provide ways of communicating that get students where they are at. Depending on the age of the student, they may not use traditional email or Facebook. Texting is often a more efficient means of communication. Some systems allow for this already, for example, letting students select which mode of communication they prefer. It’s just one example of making sure you are designing for the target audience.
  • Design with empathy: How can you make these students’ lives just a little easier? The stories shared about people who strive to complete community college reveal tremendous financial and emotional challenges. One story shared told of a student who was raising his siblings after their parents left them. A fellow audience member told me his mother never completed community college because of the language barrier.
  • Consider using students as resources in developing tools and thereby provide them with meaningful work. For example, hire entry level programmers, host local hackathons, use students as beta testers, etc.
  • Get people to the table to discuss necessary change. Include students and administration to ensure all voices are heard.

Building Community for Community College Students

One of the main issues that came up throughout the evening was the isolation that many community college students feel either due to scheduling realities, the information barrier they confront, or the lack of meaningful advisement. The picture that was painted for us in the audience was of a student wandering campus trying to find his advisor and unable to do so.

It would be great to find a way to bring people whose lives are so challenging and so diverse together so that they could better succeed despite those challenges.

Got an app for that?

Thanks again to NY EdTech Meetup co-organizers, Kathy Benemann and Michelle Dervan for arranging such an informative evening. And thanks to the panel, for the work they do and for sharing it with NY EdTech. Explore the links in the article to learn more about what these people and their organizations are doing to help improve community college today. The ongoing research at the Community College Research Center, the programs offered by American Honors, the dedicated teaching by people like Gina Shipley and others, and the meaningful application of technology in this market by Kinvolved are impressive and are efforts many of us can contribute to in order to help drive progress in this sector.

Have some thoughts of your own on the issue? Share them here!

Sheri Handel’s passion for teaching, learning, and technology continues to evolve from a career as a college instructor to a designer and manager of online and classroom learning experiences for corporate, higher education clients, and K-12 learners. To talk about learning strategy and to partner on learning design for social impact in education, visit us at Designs2Learn.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Redux

We’re frequently presented with approaches to teaching and learning as if they are somewhat new. Or there’s a new study defending the efficacy of the approach as if it had never been proved effective before. For example: Social learning. Emotional learning. Democratic learning. All sound, valuable concepts.

But if we look back, we can see some genesis for these methodologies in earlier pedagogical constructs. When I was in grad school, I was introduced to the work of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian-born educator whose work to eliminate illiteracy in Brazil eventually landed him in prison in the 1964 coup d’état. Freire’s work was seminal to the work I was doing at the time and was incorporated into my thesis project. Over the years, I have turned to his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to refresh my thinking and to shed some light on issues that we are confronting in educational practice.

A Newly-Defined Relationship between Teacher, Student, and Society

Most importantly, Freire’s work assumed a newly-defined relationship between teacher, student and society which, I believe, we are still striving to achieve. He defined as the antithesis of his approach the “banking” concept of knowledge, in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” I’m thinking that Paolo Freire would have loved the concept of flipped classrooms!

Steps towards Knowledge Building

As steps toward achieving an open and equal relationship between learners, teachers, and society; and as a means of utilizing literacy as an instrument of freedom, Freire incorporated a number of concepts into his approach that may have impact on how we view and design learning programs today.

  • Dialogue
  • The tool of literacy had as its basic purpose the goal of liberating a class of people with no voice. Dialogue is a process that according to Freire “presupposes equality amongst participants.” This includes mutual respect, care, and commitment. Through dialogue, he wrote, we recognize that thoughts will change and new knowledge will be created.

  • Problem Posing
  • The process of problem posing enables people to become active participants in a dialogue, linking knowledge to action.

  • Praxis
  • Freire believed that action and reflection must both be present for dialogue to be effective. By taking action, you then can critically reflect on reality in order to change it further.

These are a few of the concepts Freire promoted and ones that should play a part in the decisions we make when considering the direction education is taking. You can learn more here.

Democracy, Tolerance, Language, and Standards

Freire eschewed being defined solely as a specialist in literacy. Instead, he preferred that literacy be thought of as one chapter in his critical view of education. He proposed a critical way of thinking, knowing, and working with students. Freire recognized that students needed to learn the “standard” language in order to participate in and change society. At the same time, he urged teachers to recognize the beauty of their students’ natural speech and their right of students to use it.

Today’s test-driven and standards-based curriculum makes it difficult to appreciate the diversity of not only language, but also approaches to thinking, problem solving and creativity. This is one reason I believe neurodiversity is such an important concept to incorporate into education these days. What would Freire think?

Do We Want Things to Stay the Same?

Paolo Freire believed that “We did not come into the world to keep the world as it is. We came to change reality.”

We need to decide if we want things to stay the same in terms of educational practices, or if we want things to change. We should ask ourselves:

  1. When we send our children to school, do we encourage them to find and use their own voices?
  2. Do we provide teachers with the means of engaging in effective dialogue with their students?
  3. Are the activities we offer as part of daily curricula ones that encourage action and reflection?

One of the most obvious tools for change that we have at our disposal today is technology. Technology can help us understand how students problem solve, individualize their learning, and extend access to world class learning programs where none previously existed. This is where we need to put our efforts, not in digitally recreating poor learning methodologies.

The ultimate success of an educational system will be a citizenry of independent problem solvers who feel welcomed by and equipped to participate in a democratic process. That starts with learning. The willingness to learn comes from engagement in the learning process. Social, emotional, and democratic learning can add great value to the educational process. Sometimes we need to look back in order to discuss best steps for moving forward.

Learning How to Do Good

Social entrepreneurism is a goal to which many of us aspire, but how do you even start? The team at Goodnik has made it their business to help promote social entrepreneurism, as their mission statement says “by bringing not-for-profit and private companies together to share resources and ideas about better ways to do business.” They hold workshops, connect new business owners with established partner companies and host these meetups so that people can share their projects, get feedback and network with like-minded self-starters.

Earlier this week, I attended the Goodnik Winter Demo Day, and heard about some amazing projects that leverage technology for social impact. Seen through my lens of educational impact, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned and perhaps spread some of the inspiration.

Visit.org

Visit.org helps travelers add “immersive local experiences” to your existing travel itinerary. That experience is offered by a local not-for-profit organization, lasts usually half a day, and may include some combination and variation on the following: a presentation of the organization’s work, guided tour to related sites, interaction with community members, workshops, etc.

Tour proceeds go directly to the hosting organization.

User scenario: Say you are planning to travel to Greece with your family and would like to include a social impact experience in your vacation. On the site, you simply:

  1. Select where you want to travel.
  2. Select what issues you care about.

You will be presented with one or more options. In the case of Greece, there are opportunities to

  • Aid in the recovery and rehabilitation of sea turtles
  • Visit classical sites of Athens and engage in social street work, distributing humanitarian kit (sleeping bag, clothing, food)
  • Participate in a wheel chair tour of Athens to experience it through the eyes of mobility impairment
  • Tour the food markets of Athens, visit donor establishments and the recipient groups that distribute them

These tours range in price from $17 to $68 and last anywhere from two hours to half a day. Visit the site and see the options for Peru, Cambodia, Senegal, Costa Rica and many others.

Visit.org was designed to educate people about countless social causes through deeply immersive engagements. Like “Ecotourism” and high school service/adventure programs, these experiences enable someone to experience a culture close-up, but for shorter periods of time and for less money. Their vetting process is well-defined and there is not mismatch of services. Partner organizations really do benefit from the involvement of the tourist participants.

The team at Visit.org is as diverse and as dispersed as their partner organizations and so can offer a truly world view on social impact opportunities. Most importantly, I admire this group because they make a direct connection between providing economic development opportunities for their partner organizations and educating the public as to the issues at hand.

Amp Your Good

Remember all those food drives you participated in as a kid? Well, we now know that those cans of stringed beans were probably not the best choice of sustenance we could provide on a long-term basis to a family in need. And unfortunately oftentimes goods are delivered beyond their expiration date. Not only that, but apparently 10-60% of goods donated are never used because of mismatched needs. All that hard work, but all that waste! As I said earlier, most people want to do good, but we don’t always know how. That’s where Amp Your Good comes in.

Amp Your Good is a platform that takes a traditionally offline activity, goods-based giving, and boosts its effectiveness online. They help those who are organizing campaigns to establish their presence online and provide fulfillment services to ensure timely delivery of those goods. All this is provided free of service to those organizing the campaign. CEO Patrick O’Neill calls this “crowd feeding.”

User scenario: If you are interested in organizing a campaign, Amp Your Good sets up the page on its site for you and provides tools for helping you get started, including tips for seeding the campaign, templates for press releases, best practices, etc.

As a donor, the user scenario couldn’t be simpler.

  1. Select the campaign you are interested in.
  2. Select the product you would like to donate.
  3. Click to pay.

Because the campaign incorporates a hunger organization’s wish list, you can only donate (i.e. select and pay for) those specific items. And true to Amp You Good’s mission, campaigns can include non-perishable and perishable goods. Because Amp Your Good manages fulfillment, they can ensure all products are fresh and appropriately dated. No more unusable donations!

From a user perspective, the site is intuitive, designed as O’Neill says, “like a mini wedding registry.” The collateral is well-written and invites . . . engagement.

Not only does Amp Your Good provide tools and resources for hunger organizations and charities to meet their goals; they also are educating the public about better practices for giving at the same time they are donating to these causes.

Open Green Map

Learning about Open Green Map (OGM) makes you want to be reborn as a cartographer. But actually, because of OGM, you can participate in helping to chart relevant ecological, cultural and civic resources without being a map maker yourself.

In 1995, Green Maps Systems was a resource that Green Map groups all over the world accessed for building their own maps. The original intent was to create a database of sustainable maps to help “guide citizens toward making better everyday choices.” By 2009, they had launched OGM and Green Map Icons, an award-winning resource that enables map makers and users to contribute to the ongoing development of the project. Combined with Google Map and open source Drupal technology, the OGM links mapmakers in 65 countries who have engaged in over 900 locally led projects, and published more than 550 local Green Maps.

User Scenarios: There are many ways to engage with OGMs, including but not limited to mapmaker, map user, student, educator, researcher, and participant who would like to add a site to an existing map.

Anyone can use the site to locate restaurants and businesses categorized and tagged as sustainable living, nature, or culture and society. On the local map of your choice, you can deselect any of these categories on the Legend tab to make your browsing easier. You can also search for a specific site (establishment) if you want to.

If you are interested in contributing comments, as a registered user you can click on a specific site and add your comments or post a related image. If there is a site that you want to recommend be added to a map, there is fairly straightforward form for doing so.

Open Green Maps is already making incredible strides in terms of connecting like-minded people who want to contribute positively through this vast project. The organization does work with universities and schools, and provides suggested lessons and materials for kids both in school and out. Probably my favorite line from all the Green Maps material I have ingested recently is “Green Maps and the process of making them gives youth a better understanding of current conditions and community resources and a voice in their own future, helping them communicate with their peers, older people and decision-makers.”

Inspired Yet?

Even though at first glance the presenters at the Goodnik Winter Demo event may not have aligned directly with my work in education, it was pretty clear early on in the evening that not only can I learn so much from these organizations’ efforts but so can a lot of other people, too. Each provides further, authentic opportunities for truly experiential learning.

Thanks again, to Goodnik founder and organizer, Nate Heasley; Michal Alter, co-founder of Visit.org; Patrick O’Neill, CEO of Amp Your Good; and Wendy Brawer, founder of Green Maps. Thanks, too to Brett DiDonato, a rock star of a web architect, and Ron Suarez of IoT4ClimateSolutions, an awesome site for crowdsourcing solutions to climate change, for their presentations as well.

What Drives Teacherpreneurship? The Need to Get It Done!

Who are your learning heroes? Is it a former teacher from elementary school? Someone you’ve read about making a difference in today’s embattled world of K-12? Or maybe a MOOC innovator within higher ed? Think no further. I have some nominees for you:

  • Maya Gat
  • Kara Carpenter
  • Mike Zamansky

Who are they, and how did they get on this list? Let me set it up for you. Then I’ll get into the details.

Why Teacherpreneurship?

There’s a lot of new terminology that has come out of the influx of technology into education in the past few years. Most of us know about the edupreneurs who have entered the education market to provide tools, services and dollars to implementing technology solutions into the field. More and more, we are hearing about teachers who are taking on the mantle of business ownership in order to parlay their expertise into providing educationally sound technical solutions to educational problems.

I was fortunate enough to spend the other evening at a great event called “Real Teachers of Silicon Alley: Teacherpreneurs’ Impact on EdTech” organized by NY EdTech Meetup, co-organized by Michelle Dervan and Kathy Benemann. I was blown away by the dedication, business savvy and technical expertise of the panel.

Classroom Challenges to Integrating New Technology

The discussion started with a provocative question addressing concern around the products and the bad rap that edtech is getting in educational circles these days. The biggest two challenges, as we have written about before in this space, were summarized as:

  • Teachers are in danger of spending more time dealing with new technology than with actual teaching.
  • Much of the technology being introduced can be classified as “substitution products,” or “digital replicas” of existing, and perhaps sub-par teaching practices. Think test prep on steroids.

Each of the three teacherpreneurs is certified classroom teachers. Two have left teaching to focus on running their companies, one is still teaching. The fourth panelist is serving as the iZone Director of Special Projects for the NYC Department of Education.

The panelists shared various anecdotes and perspectives on gaps in the current offerings and processes for integrating technology into the classroom:

  • Trading existing best practices in the classroom for time spent working with new software programs
  • Not enough release time or time to actually learn the systems
  • Lack of appropriate content or toolset

The Basic Business Challenges to Teacherpreneurship

As our small sampling illustrates, the major challenge to teacherpreneurship is that it often takes people who truly love being in the classroom out of the classroom. Therefore, if a teacherpreneur does leave the classroom to start up a business, maintaining a team of teacher content experts, developers and consultants is a large requirement for developing the right kind of product.

Additionally, while teachers may have their fingers on the pulse of what kids need, they may not have the business acumen required to start and operate a business in today’s dynamic market. Some teacherpreneurs take on a co-founder or partner to fill this role.

More on our learning heroes

So let me present today’s learning heroes, three teachers who have taken technology into their own hands in order to improve learning.

Maya Gat, CEO and Co-Founder of Branching Minds

Prior to starting Branching Minds, Gat taught both locally and overseas. Through her own experience trying to understand why certain students struggle in the classroom, and through the principals of activism that were inherent to her teaching, Gat started Branching Minds to help identify appropriate strategies for individual students. Part of the solution lies in Gat’s understanding of neurodiversity and the role that plays in how people learn.

A series of questions answered on the Branching Minds site, much like those you may input into a “Web MD type application,” provides users with the learning strategies tailored to their particular learning style.

The platform enables you to:

  • Identify students’ learning challenges
  • Find research-back support
  • Track and report on student progress

Branching Minds just won the Netexplo Digital Innovation Award for 2015. Off to a good start (up)!

Kara Carpenter, Co-Founder of Teachley

Carpenter started up Teachley in 2011 while finishing her Ph.D. in Cognitive Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has over 10 years of classroom teaching experience from kids to adults, and has also taught overseas. Teachley’s program is a research-driven, game-based product that recognizes the distinct thinking processes different learners apply to solving math problems. Knowing how that child approaches these problems, a pathway to learning appropriate to that child can be developed.

The platform provides:

  • Personalized learning
  • Progress monitoring
  • RTI and intervention support
  • Professional development

Teachley has been recognized by the Breteau Foundation as a 2015 Prize Finalist and was awarded a Research@Work Honorable Mention in 2014 by Digital Promise. Their work has been cited by Scholastic, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets.

Mike Zamansky, Teacher and Founder of CSTUY

Mike Zamansky was a software engineer who left his job at Goldman Saks to teach. He and a group of fellow master teachers built developed the series of computer science courses taught at Stuyvesant and out of that developed the non-profit organization CSTUY (Computer Science and Technology for Urban Youth) to bring computer science to an audience that may not otherwise have access to the type of teaching and learning that CSTUY provides. Through afterschool and summer school programs, they bring best-in-class CS learning to a much wider audience.

One strong component of the CSTUY program has been bringing together the hundreds of Stuyvesant alumni and creating a network of advisors and connections to those just coming up.

Zamansky is passionate about teaching and learning, about providing quality computer science offerings to students within his school and beyond it.

The Need to Get It Done

The other day I wrote about the need to disrupt education if we want to change it. It was great to hear how these powerful innovators are using technology and business modeling in a way that is truly disruptive in order to improve education. When asked why they would take on teacherpreneurship despite the challenges, the consensus was that “it needed to be done.” These are the reasons I’ve added them to my list of learning heroes.

Visit Designs2Learn to discuss partnering on learning design for social impact.

Imagine a School without Teachers: Would that Work?

This weekend, the drive along the New York State Thruway was full of wind, ice and snow. It was challenging to keep the windows clear, and the road was so bumpy that I thought maybe I had blown a tire. Or two. I was escorting my high school senior to another college audition, and we had already laughed about how this was the perfect time to see the school, in the worst weather conditions possible. We arrived safely, and the next morning made it to campus and a welcoming reception and series of presentations while the kids all took their music theory tests and headed to their individual auditions. What stood out for me were two conversations I had in which Governor Cuomo’s name surfaced in relationship to careers in education and the increasing degree of jeopardy in which teaching jobs have been placed most recently.

Where will we be without the music?

Because we were at a college of music, the focus of these conversations centered on arts education and the migration of prospective music education applicants to other areas of study because of ongoing cuts to music and art. This is a shame. The curriculum for a degree in music education is rigorous, including both performance and pedagogical requirements. These programs prepare students for a broad range of teaching responsibilities. To see these programs declining is to portend the decline of one of the most significant components of a K-12 education.

How are we approaching evaluation and professional development?

But of course conversations about the Cuomo plan do not end at shortfalls in funding to arts education. Much of the controversy today comes out of the challenge to teaching and teachers in general. “The 2015 Opportunity Agenda” includes proposals to evaluate teachers based on essentially two criteria.

  • 50% of evaluations will be based on student performance on state exams (Proposal #37)
  • 50% of evaluations should be limited to independent classroom evaluations (Proposal #38)

On the surface, it is easy to say that if your class is not performing well on the test, you as a teacher are not performing well at your job. But it is more complex than that. As we know, the advent of Common Core has introduced serious challenges to those schools who have adopted these standards. Test scores have dropped recently as both teachers and students venture into unchartered territory.

As I have previously written, bravo to those pioneers in edtech and teacher development who have provided a range of tools to help prepare teachers and to support students who have been immersed in the CCSS curriculum. But if the issue is with the curriculum itself, will any amount of professional development improve overall outcomes? We are painting our teachers into a corner. Where does that leave our students?

Are we abandoning public schools? And by extension, are we abandoning our teachers?

Charter schools are a political hot button and under as much fire now as ever as people question Governor Cuomo’s request for additional funding for and a raise in the cap on charter schools. That these schools play a vital role in both the populations they serve and in innovating teaching practices should not be questioned. This should not be an either/or argument. All public schools can benefit from best practices in teaching and curriculum design from the nation’s charter schools. But at what cost to the overall budget? Should young people have to “go where the money is” rather than choose an honorable profession because of an allocation of dollars? What we really need here is some creative business modeling to further leverage the private dollars going into education these days.

What is the forecast moving forward?

My high school senior and I were lucky enough to arrive at our weekend destination safely despite the difficulty of the journey. The road upon which our kids are undertaking their educational journey is well-worn and bumpy, and the conditions under which they are traveling are quite stormy. As an educator, as an optimist, as a lifelong learner, I want to envision our kids all arriving safely at their destination. I can’t see them doing that without well-trained and motivated teachers there to help them along the way. Right now, the conditions are a tad hazardous.

How can we ease the way?

A well balanced and well-designed curriculum that both requires and lets teachers do what they do best will provide some enticement for people to continue entering the profession. Most teachers I know want their students to succeed in life. In most cases, that means providing the skills to make better decisions and to sort through masses of data to effectively problem-solve in a wide range of situations and in confounding circumstances.

As long as we have a curriculum based on achieving well on tests rather than understanding how to effectively gather and use information for problems solving, we won’t be best serving our students interests. And if we decide to judge a teacher’s ability to teach based on the results of and prepping for that exam, we won’t be serving anyone’s interest. And we’ll probably be losing some valuable teaching candidates moving forward.

Let’s get back to the drawing board on this one, folks!

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