Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Online Art Show Opening--in Kitely

Drop in as you can over the next few weeks. If you can join us for the opening, more's the better. Be sure to leave a comment in the guestbook!

Friday, April 04, 2014

Poetiscape with Rich Ferguson featuring James Morrison!

I really really enjoyed listening to this one-hour podcast by Rich Ferguson, with whom I had the privilege and joy of playing musical accompaniment for a yoga class one fine Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles several years ago. I have also enjoyed Rich's recently published poetry collection, 8th and Agony, which I purchased as an ebook a week or two ago. I have followed Rich's work since that day we met, friending him on Facebook and enjoying his regular sharings of his talented work there.

The yoga class was being taught by my dear friend James Morrison, whom I know as "Jimmy." I was in L.A. visiting him after riding up the coast on a double-decker train from a conference in San Diego, visiting him and his son, Seamus, and the beautiful woman of the family, Riad. Rich's guest on this interview podcast? Jimmy!

If you ever watched "24," you will recognize the voice of Bill Buchanan. Just listen:

New Books Podcasts with rarebirdradio on BlogTalkRadio

And you'd be well served to purchase the DVD version of the film they talk about in the beginning of the podcast, "Showing Up," now available on iTunes. Rather listen to the boy's music? Get "I Broke Free" from Son to the Boy and "Son to the Boy" from James Paige Morrison.

You're welcome.

From Online Learning to Classroom Practice. Why not?

This has been sitting in my draft folder at Blogger for over a year. I had been thinking I'd circulate it for publication in an education journal or magazine but hey, what's a blog for anyway? It's for sharing. Let's share:

Virtual Lessons Learned: From Online Learning to the Classroom
By Scott Merrick,
vLearning Support Specialist, Academy Coach, All-Stars Lead Learner, and v-Lead Teacher
At the end of this summer, the small but mighty team at MNPS Virtual School will have been re-inventing and facilitating Tennessee pre-K through 12th grade public school online learning for  four years. True, online learning for high schoolers and younger students has been popping up in various guises in pockets around the state, but it is a verifiable fact that Metro Nashville Public Schools Virtual School is and will always be the first public virtual school recognized as such by the State of Tennessee. That is a story in and of itself, but the purpose if this story is to take note of some lessons we have learned and to pass them on to teachers and administrators who may not be involved in online learning. As our public school district intentionally moves to a fully blended model of individualized learning, it's my belief that many of our practices at our fully online school could be modified to be essential elements of that practice.
In the course of building our school, we have benefited by researching procedures other distance learning entities have put in place; and we continue to research, refine, and invent ways to achieve our mission, which is stated as follows:
To provide Tennessee students with an individualized, dynamic, and empowering virtual education while developing graduates who are college, career, and community ready.
Incorporating some of the habits of duty (I think I just coined that term) that we have developed in this distance learning environment into the “regular classroom” would seem to make all the sense in the world. Florida Virtual School, in particular, has long incorporated the first feature I will discuss, the Pacing Guide, into its Florida online schools and for its clients through its Global School. Most of their courses, many of which we have purchased through Pearson Learning and some of which we lease through Pearson from Global School, have devices built in at an introductory assignment for students to construct these. We go one better and prepare them ourselves. At the outset of each semester, every student is given access to a schedule of assignments for the entire semester. These essays, quizzes, tests, and projects are broken down into discreet sequential sets of assignments due by 11:59 pm every Saturday night.
The Pacing Guide sets clear, concrete expectations of performance, and as we shall see (and as we all should know intuitively anyway), performance is a key element of learning. Regular submission of work product demonstrates understanding. Its evaluation is often termed in the education game as “formative assessment,” and it is essential in the online environment mainly because our students do not fulfill their state-mandated compulsory education requirement by “attending” classes in a school building. In order to comply with the traditional attendance requirement, our students have to perform: “Performance” equals “Attendance.”
This equation has its ramifications. First, it sets every student up with understandable and readily re-accessible expectations. Second, it both challenges them and frees them: It doesn’t matter if a student works all day Monday from 8am to 6pm and does not login the rest of the week, as long as she submits all the required weekly assignments by 6pm. That is amazingly freeing. A young mother then has all week to spend with her child without having to be away from him for seven hours Monday through Friday. If she would rather spend two hours each day working in one class daily, that is up to her. She has control--unless, that is, she chooses to relinquish it by falling "off pace."
A requirement of performance further arms every online teacher with a constantly refreshing and empowering awareness of where each student stands in his or her learning path. At MNPS Virtual School, every one of our teachers is fitted with a constantly evolving measuring stick that allows them to see where each individual student is either progressing, stalling, or failing. A system we call Performance Concerns gives teeth to this measurement tool and helps us support every student. (Note: this procedure has changed since the original writing of this post--I now download the Concerns and pass them along to our v-Enrollment Specialist and v-School Counselor, who analyze them and pass a version revised according to knowledge of individual student circumstances along to our v-Secretary, who creates and mails the snail-mail letters noted in policy below. Our v-School Counselor now communicates via email to School Counselors for Part-Time students throughout the district).
Here is the policy:
Five (5) Percent:
When the student is five (5) percent of the course off pace, the Virtual Teacher will communicate directly with the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) that the learner is off pace in the virtual course.

Ten (10) Percent:
When the student is ten (10) percent of the course off pace, the Executive Principal will send an official notification to the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) that the learner is off pace. Such notification will include the Virtual Truancy policy and ramifications for violating Tennessee’s Compulsory School Attendance Law. Additionally, the Executive Principal will notify the appropriate Attendance Officer who will require a truancy intervention meeting with the student, MNPS Virtual School administration, and the parent(s)/guardian(s). When a part time student, the School Counselor and the Executive Principal from the student’s school of primary enrollment will receive a copy of the notification and participate in the intervention meeting. For full-time students, district officials may also require the student to report to MNPS Virtual School’s Student Center until the learner is back on pace.

Fifteen (15) Percent:
When the student is fifteen (15) percent off pace, the Executive Principal will send an official notification to the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) notifying all parties that the student is truant and in violation of Tennessee’s Compulsory School Attendance Law. Additionally, the Executive Principal will notify the appropriate district Attendance Officer who will initiate the issuance of legal notifications and juvenile court intervention.  When the student is a part-time Virtual School student, the Executive Principal of MNPS Virtual School will also route a copy of the notification to the student’s School Counselor and Executive Principal at the student’s primary school of enrollment.

Twenty (20) or More Percent Off-Pace:
When the student is twenty (20) or more percent off-pace and the student and parent(s)/guardian(s) are not responding to the interventions outlined in this policy, MNPS Virtual School reserves the right to administratively drop the student from the virtual course(s). If the student is full-time, MNPS Virtual School reserves the right to withdraw the student from the Virtual School. When the student is a part-time Virtual School student, the Executive Principal of MNPS Virtual School will also inform the student’s School Counselor and Executive Principal at the student’s primary school of enrollment that the student has been administratively dropped from the course.

So, performance equals attendance. What does that mean in practice? In a brick and mortar classroom, a student can, theoretically, come to school, sit in the back of the classroom, and not turn in a single assignment all semester, all without being truant. Not so in Virtual School. Performance equals attendance. We have a process we call Performance Concerns Reportage which tracks, reports, and supports students throughout the district who may be taking one online course during the school day. The same process supports our full-timers.
Nearly every Monday morning (holiday weeks nothing is due and some weeks the reportage is current grade--for mid-quarter progress reports or semester report cards) I download the privately shared Google spreadsheet document our teachers use to report Performance Concerns (this shared document also serves as our current online roster) and I sort it in various ways to create school specific reports. Typically I create an email each for 20-25 School Counselors--copying their Principals, my Principal, and any in-school facilitators a school has established in that role. My report is channeled to our staff who create truancy letters according to each student’s percentage off-pace according to policy. My questions are these: Why can't a classroom teacher report out  similarly? Why, ever again, does a parent need to be blind-sided by their child's failing grade?
Full disclosure: I have a personal motivation for asking these questions. In the fall of 2012, my 16 year old son failed four of his six 10th grade semester courses. Prior to that, he had experienced some academic ups and downs, but he had never failed a class. Aside from one telephone call from a concerned math teacher early in the semester, and a substandard but not bleak 9 weeks report card, there was absolutely no communication from any teacher until we received the final report card with the failing grades. I cannot imagine this experience is highly unique.
In our virtual setting, partly due to the predominantly asynchronous nature of our part-time (though Certified and Highly Qualified) Adjunct Teachers and their students, Communication is a required element of pay period “deliverables” (items of work completion of which are required for a paycheck).Teachers make a Welcome Call (via telephone, Skype, Google Chat or any other synchronous voice or video tool) and are required to document this important communication with student and parent,. They also carry out periodic one-to-one Discussion Based Assessments (DBAs) and mid-semester Progress Report calls. In courses requiring pre-tests for state mandated End of Course tests, we further require one-on-one Data Communication conversations dissecting the results of the student's pre-test and a plan to address learning gaps in preparation for the final test.
While all that may seem like a lot of communication, each piece of it is essential. More to the point, teachers in brick and mortar classrooms, who in many cases are relying on quizzes and tests for formative assessments, could think about holding DBAs instead of or in addition to those quizzes. Currently, in worst cases, what are supposed to be formative assessments driving re-teaching in the classroom are only letter grades in a spiral bound grade book, not informing remediation or helping craft an individualized learning pathway at all.
In order to streamline scheduling DBAs, we utilize an online tool called Appointlet. Each teacher sets up a free account and establishes parameters for meeting times and it is the student's responsibility to schedule an appointment and then to call or Skype at the appointed time. This really helps reduce email glut, speeds up the process, and creates a running record of communication; and our teachers report that they love it. It also syncs to a teacher's Google calendar and if they have that tool set up to do so, it can message their smart phones whenever a DBA is scheduled.
Our teachers regularly comment that they feel they are able to get to know their virtual students better than they are able to establish relationships with the students in their traditional classrooms. Any guesses why?    
Twice each semester, we require another kind of deliverable of our teachers. At each 9 weeks periods, every teacher must post online and make available to his or her students a Digital Learning Object designed to provide review information for upcoming exams. This is one of my favorite innovations that our team has brought to the table, because it requires teachers to creatively and engagingly address and reframe course content. We define DLOs as any course review tool residing online in a digital format which is by design readily accessible and reusable. We further require that each Digital Learning Object is designed specifically toward supporting success in the course’s final examination.
So far our growing collection of these objects includes PowerPoint slide shows, Quizlet stacks, Prezis, Padlet (formerly Wallwisher) “walls,” videos, YouTube videos, wikis, and more. With the proliferation of new content creation apps and presentation technologies, we look forward to engaging not only students, but their teachers, in expressing what they know and have learned in evermore exciting ways. I know of many classroom teachers who are already creating this kind of review content for their students, but I share it here because if you are not, you certainly should be. Hint: The printed textbook is dead.
The final piece I want to offer in this discussion is our after-school Learning Labs. We believe that the asynchronous online environment can be particularly challenging for students in math and science courses. To address this need, we schedule weekly science, language, and math sessions in our recently redesigned Student Center. With netbooks available and Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) encouraged, these support struggling students in personalized ways, often with a teacher who is not their primary Virtual Teacher. We are finding that, in many cases, this extra bit of direct "just in time" instruction can shore up the asynchronous course content in ways that can make all the difference for a student.
For students in courses for which there is a state-mandated End Of Course (EOC) examination, we require pretesting followed by Data Conversations and face to face EOC Labs to address areas where learning has not been accomplished.
With Google Hangouts allowing up to 10 simultaneous video connections with desktop and application sharing, even more synchronous support will be rolled out in the form of topic-specific small group help sessions, often spontaneously motivated by topics arising through DBAs or assignments. Why couldn't a classroom teacher adopt this tool and run with it for after-school sessions in the same vein? For that matter, mightn't a tweetchat serve a similar function in some circumstances? There I go, asking questions again.
At MNPS Virtual School, we will stop at nothing to ensure learning success for each and every student, in each and every online class. As we continue to improve and to refine our procedures, our policies, and our people, we will leave no learning tool untested and no efficacious learning tool unused.Literally the only thing we will not do to support our students is to do the work for them.
Hopefully, some of the lessons we have learned thus far can translate into increased success for your own students. Keep up with developments as they develop by connecting via our Facebook page, our Twitter feed, or our website.
We don’t know it all. We continue to learn. That's why we're here, after all.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

ISTE 2014 at ISTESIGVE in Second Life!

We're getting set up to share our portions of the ISTE 2014 experience in Atlanta, Georgia with educators around the globe at our ISTESIGVE headquarters in Second Life. Beginning Saturday, June 28, I'll be streaming SIGVE events into Second Life on the rooftop of our beautiful HQ building.

Come join us, whether you're in Atlanta or in your jammies at home.
There's a notecard in the sign that details events, dates, and times proposed for streaming and this information will continue to grow as I plan the conference. I'm very excited this year because my only real presentation (that I'm time-committed to) is the SIGOL Ignite session, which should be cooler than grits and lasts only an hour. The rest of the time I'll be your cameraman on the scene, and I'll be in SL and in Atlanta and in the action's thick. Plan to plop down on a rooftop "comfy cushion" and join us! The Playground this year is organized and run by our own Bluebarker Lowtide and should be worth the cost of admission alone (if there were a cost of admission). See you there: Life(s) is good.

Friday, March 21, 2014

fundamentalrelationships, a videoem

I am lucky to live on the west side of Nashville, in a neighborhood where all the mostly ranch-style homes are backed by steep ridges that run like beef-steak marbling through the landscape. While the tops of the ridges closest to my home are technically not a part of the Conservancy proper (see the map at the Conservancy's website), they are attached to it by virtue of their undeveloped woodsiness and steep remoteness. My own property line contains a triangle of the woods, and just above it is a high ridge that if I follow it up to its highest point, connects to the "Ecological Corridor" protected not just by its elevation, but by law. If I could backpack in a boat to get me across the Cumberland River, I could hike to my favorite fishing lake, Marrowbone Lake, just northeast of Beaman Park, at the north end of the Corridor.

Geese and bobber at Lake Marrowbone

The other day, the last day of Winter, in order to get out of the house for a bit, I hiked up the back yard an onto "my" ridge. (Coming back down my neighbor caught a glimpse of me and phoned to make sure that it was me coming down "her" hill with a mandolin on my back.) I took a trash bag up, because I have for a while been bugged by the amount of beer cans and such up there. Here's the trash I collected, leaving "my" ridge now pristine and uncluttered by the man-made (unless you count the two deer hunter motion cams strapped to trees):

While I was up there, I headed over the overgrown jeep trail that leads up the top ridge north to intersect with the Conservancy and down into what I like to think of as "my" hollow, where there's a horizontal downed tree down into it a bit that serves as a perfect church pew for me to meditate and take in the relative silence. I have achieved such stillness there that I have been able to perceive the swaying of the trunks of trees 3 feet in diameter. But that day, I had packed in my mandolin, which as you will hear I don't play nearly enough these days (you can hear my licks from when I did play nearly enough on my Alaska band's live record at CDBaby. That said, I've long been experimenting with a single or double string technique with the open strings played to creating an often slightly discordant drone, and I ended up choosing a song I originally composed on a McNally Strumstick, "The Morning After," to record on my iPhone's QuickVoice app.

Walking back down toward home, I noted some natural compositions in the woods itself (there are many more), and I filmed a few of them and put together the following film. It's a little video poem. A videoem? Please enjoy:

I keep a Dropbox folder of pics I take when I walk, and you can check into it as you will at that folder's online location. Hopefully, I'll continue to explore and to note more fundamental natural relationships. I feel privileged to live in a city where some nature has been so thoughtfully protected, and I hope the deer, owls, and other critters who inhabit that Corridor and its abutting wild spaces do too.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Getty Images Goes all Social Media Friendly and Such

Very cool: Getty Images just implemented a decision to make its images watermark free and embeddable in exchange for a mandatory link to its site. This is a huge boon to bloggers, students, and teachers who are creating content. I'm just passing it along here, discovered this morning in Facebook shared by Wesley Fryer and Sharon Duffy Elts. they, in turn, got the skimmy on this sea change at The Verge. To find your own images by searching the Getty Images site, simply use the search tool and click on the open/close tags icon beneath your resulting picture. It looks like this:

Copy the code and make sure you are in your html edit mode. Paste it in, formatting as you wish -- I notice the image below, embedded in that way, has a scroll bar which I could noodle around with (likely the size parameters) to make disappear.  I'm thinking that the mandatory link is a citation in and of itself, voila! Auto-citation! At least in online documents. You may need to do an internet citation in a printed document, so be sure to check with your teacher(s) before thinking your academic integrity is in tact for a paper or project!


Monday, March 03, 2014

MNPS Initiates "PD of the Future" with MNPS All-Stars Training

Roughly 6,000 public school teachers will all be consistently exposed to a rigorous online self-paced course in Blackboard over the remainder of Spring semester and through the summer. In all schools in the district this week and ongoing, All-Star "Lead Learners" are introducing this program to their full-time certificated charges of 50 or fewer teachers along with the District expectation that they complete it by what I like to call "August the Oneth."

For the first time in my own 4 year employment with Metro, every single teacher will be on the same page with important concepts, policies, and resources--including Education 2018 (MNPS's plan "to become the highest performing school district in the nation by 2018"),  Common Core State Standards, PARCC testing, District hardware and software, Response to Instruction and Intervention, Teaching for Understanding, and what the district is calling it's "Lever of Change," Personalized Learning.

Ever since I heard David Warlick speak for the first time, likely around 1996 or 1997, I have been on board with the concepts underlying this change. I honestly never thought I would hear support for it coming from any administration. I couldn't even really get support for it in the private school sector. It seemed idealistic and revolutionary. Do you know why? it IThis, my friends, is huge.

I was lucky to have been chosen as one of those Lead Learners and to have undergone a two day training at Martin Professional Development Center last month. When I heard our Assistant Superintendent Jay Steele explain that he believed that there was still to be too much testing going on but "that's the world we live in," even that element glimmered with hope for the future. All through the training, my dear friend Dr. Kecia Ray, Executive Director of Learning Technology and current President of ISTE, and others reminded us that we were blazing new trails and emphasized that any new ideas we had for improvement would be heard and acted upon if deemed appropriate. Again, this is a public school district, the largest in the state, serving well over 80,000 students in an amazingly culturally diverse county, with demographic and socio-economic statistics that should scare anyone attempting to do the right thing by all its constituents. I'll throw one at you: "72% Economically Disadvantaged." You can see them all here.

Expect to hear more about this. We are on the move. I'm proud to be a small part of it.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Grades and...

Okay. I'm a parent who has two high school graduated children. One is a college graduate and who knows if the younger will ever get to that thang.

With both of these kids, we have been unconventional parents, or at least so I think.We encouraged them to pursue their passions, to explore the arts, and we did not ride them or micromanage their grades or their academic performance. My dear wife and I are not academic people; or rather, a part of me is but it's not a major part.

We set them free in many ways. They might argue that, but when our daughter went to college she was the one in charge. She figured out her path, made decisions about changing it, and did so with our support and blessing.

When our son entered his Freshman year at a Nashville arts school, we backed off and worked to let him manage his high school work. Until Fall semester of his Junior year all went well. He failed four of his classes that semester. He had never failed any class, ever, in the history of his schooling. We all went into triage mode. This past December, my dear son graduated early from an alternative school here in Nashville, where he found teachers who cared about him and also who held high expectations for his work.

Heavy sigh. So. Looking back I hear my brother's sing-songy voice "Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda Shoulda, Woulda." I somewhat resentfully sort of wish that I had bought in more to the academic thing.


Well, take a look a last week's release of a Pew Foundation study that compared incomes of high school graduates with those of college graduates. It's profiled in Feb. 11th's "Is college worth it? New PEW study says yes" and I heard it discussed several times on NPR this week, with the repeated tagline "The only thing more expensive than going to college these days is not going to college." According to that article, there has never been more of an income gap between college graduates and millennials with a high school degree or less. Get it from the horse's mouth at if you're the sort of bloke who needs to bypass the synopsis.

After looking at all of this, my rational mind wants to keep on developing this train of thought. What if I had been more positive with my children about the benefits of high grades? What if I had more encouraged academic learning and performance? But I have a confession to make. My heart wants to go "yay." Both of our young adults are going to figure it out so that their lives work best for them. I believe that their experiences in the performing arts and their love of artistic expression (and more importantly and more subtly, the understandings they gained pursuing those paths) will serve them far better than any externally applied assessment or any paycheck. They will struggle and they will figure it out: Heck, so did their mom and I. The big difference, I have to admit, is that it's a much more dangerous world that it was when we were figuring it out.

They are golden, and if we've given them anything, it's love and support, and a healthy skepticism about how things are said to work in the world. Screw PEW. And screw the worship of the dollar. Life is about more than that. Listen to this live recording of a song I wrote on this topic -- God I do love Dana's harmonies.