Friday, October 31, 2014

MOREnet Conference Experience

Earlier this week, my teaching partner Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I attended the MOREnet conference in Columbia, MO. We had been looking forward to this conference for a long time. We knew it would be a good opportunity to learn from some of the area's best educational technology minds. Well, we were not disappointed.

Our time began at the Presenters' Picnic, a time to meet and talk to MOREnet staff and other conference presenters in an informal way. Who knew how many resources MOREnet had? Free professional development sessions? Huh? Yep! Online resources that we can use tomorrow in our classes? Yep! As we listened to what MOREnet offered to teachers throughout the state, we kept thinking, "How come we didn't know about this already?" Well, the secret is out!

On Monday morning, we presented about our 20% Time project. Our presentation title was Harmonized Learning: A 20% Time Learning Environment. We keep a blog that documents everything we do for 20% Time and includes videos, podcasts, photos, blog entries and other resources that we use ( We had a good crowd at our session, many of whom knew what 20% Time is but many who knew nothing about it at all. While we sometimes doubt that anyone wants to hear anything we have to say, we also realize that the philosophy, processes and procedures that we have developed around 20% Time are new and progressive for many. We feel that 20% Time leads to a deep learning experience for kids, but we sometimes have to convince teachers to divest themselves of the traditional way that school operates and take the leap.

During the rest of our time there, we saw many cool tips and tricks, learned about several technologies, talked to very knowledgeable people and made connections that will help us in the future. The attendees all seemed to be there to learn, help, collaborate and share. In that kind of environment, one of support and learning, you can't help but flourish. Now we take that learning back to the classroom and implement as much as we can as soon as possible.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What About the Other Kids?

Last weekend I attended a great conference put on by EdSurge and several leading connected educators in the St. Louis area. It was a day full of immense possibilities. Each edtech company represented had a great product and the representatives were brimming with ideas on how to implement the tools into class. Amazing. My head was spinning from all of the new things that I was learning as I walked around the room talking to company reps, inventors, teachers and innovators.

During lunch there was a student panel that answered questions from teachers about classroom climate, teaching and learning, and what modern-day education should look like. I love listening to kids talking about their school environment and their learning because we can always learn from them. The students were bright and articulate and talked about a range of issues from the classroom comfort to the relationships that teachers build with students.

I assume that all of these kids excel at school. They all talked about their success in school in one form or another. As they were talking, I wondered, "What would the kids who are NOT successful at school say if they had the chance to address teachers?" Now, we probably will never know at an event like the EdSurge conference because they probably would not give up a Saturday to come in to a place where they feel so unsuccessful. Still, I wondered, "What about the other kids?"

Would the other kids feel that having couches in the classrooms would make a big difference in their learning? The schedule or the courses offered? I doubt it. Kids who are borderline (not successful, considering dropping out) probably would care if there was a couch in the room much less than if there was an advocate for them in the room. I'm not exactly sure what they would say but I do THINK they would say that they don't see an adult in the building who has their back, who has built a solid relationship with them and champions their learning above all else. Is it fair to expect these kids to care about school when it has been demonstrated to them time and again that school does not care about them? A couple of the kids on stage at EdSurge hit the nail on the head: it all comes back to relationships.

Kids MUST have adults in the building who consider the students their very own kids. What parent is going to want less-than-the-best for their own child? If we change the paradigm to think of our students as our own children, then we will not accept less-than-the-best for them either. Then, those students who are borderline, at-risk and considering dropping out, will have an adult to champion THEM and finally, they will be able to find success at school.

Schools must personalize the learning for each student. We must identify the kids' strengths and work to develop those strengths. After all, those strengths represent the areas in which those kids will be working for the rest of their lives. If we can find out what drives kids, treat them like our own children and always be there to help them succeed, then ALL kids will be able to succeed in school.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Take on Amendment 3 in Missouri

Every once in a while, the state legislature does something that is bad for education. Believe me, in Missouri we educators have had no shortage of handcuffs put on us as we try to do our job. Districts struggle with funding rules, programs are invented and pushed onto schools and, of course, there is always the testing element. Nothing so far has been as damaging as Amendment 3 could be. It is so damaging, in fact, that the legislature never even proposed it. Nope! Some wealthy billionaire who thinks he knows best has paid to have this amendment put on the ballot in November. Rarely have I been moved to write a letter to the editor. I probably should more, but I don't. Until now. This is a letter to the editor that I sent in to be published. I'm not sure if it has made its way into any papers but it sums up my thoughts about the matter.

To the Editor,

I have had the good fortune of teaching in the Webster Groves School District for the last 22 years. I love every day that I walk into school and try to make a difference in my students’ lives. Webster Groves is blessed with an excellent school system that has been supported by the community time and time again. Webster residents are proud of their schools and with good reason. We are at the forefront of innovative teaching and learning, foster a climate of caring and collaboration, and graduate some of the best-prepared student in the nation.

Webster residents should vote NO on Amendment 3 this fall. The Amendment may have its good intentions but it goes about things in exactly the wrong way. The amendment takes local control away from school districts. I have worked closely with our central office administration and Board of Education over the past 15 years and I know that they are knowledgeable and caring advocates for our students. Our locally-elected Board members know our community and our students and those are the people we want making educational decision for our district, not politicians in Jefferson City. The more local the control of a school district, the better off that school district remains.

Another reason to vote NO on Amendment 3 is the “testing on steroids” provision. Webster residents know that students already experience a degree of standardized testing fatigue but the amendment will require many, many more “one-size-fits-all” standardized tests over the course of a student’s career. Teachers will become test proctors. Many more days of the school year will be dedicated to standardized testing instead of learning. We know that student attendance days should be spent learning, creating, problem-solving and thinking. Only a couple of those days should be spent on mandatory standardized testing.

The amendment requires each local district to spend its own resources developing standardized tests that must be approved by a central governing agency in order to be implemented. The money that each district must spend developing those tests must come from each district’s general budget. Because of the amendment, those precious few dollars that every district relies on to educate children will shrink in order to fulfill a mandate from Jefferson City. What happens if a district rightfully decides that these requirements are not in the best interest of children and decides not to implement them? Not only will the district lose its state education money but the state will also take the district’s local education money as well. Effectively, the district will be out of business.

Can improvements be made to our education system? Of course the education system can be improved just as the health care system, legal system, manufacturing industry and service industry can be improved. Are teachers, administrators and board members working on improving the education system every day? Yes we are. Amendment 3 may be well-intentioned, but it is the wrong way to go.

We teachers, administrators and board members are working every day with all of our energy to provide every child with a first-rate education that not only prepares them for the next step in their educational careers, but also for their lives. We are innovating in classrooms, teaching kids how to think and create and problem-solve. We are accessing and using technology to prepare kids for the careers of the future, not the jobs of the past. We are focused on the most important aspect of school - the kids. Amendment 3 hinders each school district’s ability to provide the best education for the children it serves. It is my most sincere hope that everyone votes NO on Amendment 3 this November.

Don Eckert

Monday, October 6, 2014

Google Summit: They Can Take it from There

On Saturday, I attended the Missouri Google Summit at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School. It was a homecoming of sorts since I started teaching in the M-RH School District in 1989. The renovated high school building was spectacular, just beautiful. The learning during the day was equally spectacular.

I got to meet or attend the sessions of several educators that I follow on Twitter which was a kick in itself. The first session I attended was Bob Deneau's (@itechbob) "Beyond the Apps: More Google and Connected Tools for the Classroom". Bob showed us several tools, many of which I knew I had to show the kids as soon as possible. The various creation tools (Powtoon, Google Cultural Institute and Tour Builder) that Bob talked about would go beautifully with the YOUville project we're doing in social studies.

The second session was called "Building Digital Citizens" by Bill Bass (@billbass). Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I have talked about using Discovery time this year to talk about digital citizenship. Bill showed us the Google Digital Citizenship Curriculum ( and the Common Sense Media materials ( Just learning about those two resources made this a killer session but Bill talked a lot more about how to show kids their digital footprint and ways to manage their online content.

I have found blogging to be a good way to document some of the things we do at school and also a good way to reflect. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) is someone I've followed on Twitter for a while and I like his take on learning. We attended his session "Let's Get Blogging with Blogger". It was both motivating and validating at the same time. He talked about consistency and relating experiences and reflections in our blogs.

Julie Szaj (@shyj) moderates the New Teachers to Twitter (#NT2T) chat every Saturday morning at 8am. I try to attend every week and always learn a few things from her. I had a feeling that her talk, "Here an App, There an App, Everywhere an App App" would be really informative. Well, it was more than that. She had a load of apps and tools that our standing-room-only crowd appreciated seeing. Some I was familiar with and some I had never seen before. I especially liked "Build with Chrome" and some of the photo-editing tools that she showed us and will be showing them to the kids this week.

Between sessions, we also had a chance to stop by the Google Sandbox. Patrick Dempsey (@midschoolsci), a fellow Hixson Middle School teacher and Google guru, was featuring all kinds of cool tools from a 3D printer to music apps and gaming apps. Very cool stuff.

Days like Saturday really motivate me to learn more and do more with my students. I get such a charge out of learning all of these new things. It's no different for the kids at school. If kids find things that they want to learn about then they will learn. The trick for me is to figure out what those things are and make sure that I include them with some of the things I have to teach the kiddos. Right now we're creating civilizations based on Maslow's hierarchy of human needs as part of our Ancient Civilizations unit. I saw at least six tools on Saturday that kids could use this week for their projects. Today, I showed them three. Tomorrow, I will show them another three. The kids are already exploring those tools and using them in their civilization project.

I try to implement new things in my classroom as soon as I learn them, even if I have not yet mastered them. For example, I learned about "Build with Chrome" on Saturday and played around with it for about two minutes, long enough to show the kids what it is. By the end of the period today, several kids had already constructed buildings to be part of their civilization. Amazing! I don't have to master everything, I just need to know enough to be dangerous and show the kids. They can take it from there.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Little Sharing

Friday afternoon, Melissa and I hosted a little Google Classroom sharing session. About a half dozen teachers and administrators came to share what they knew about Classroom. For a Friday afternoon, that was a great turnout!

One thing I like about our sharing session is that everyone offered up things they had figured out and ways that they are using Classroom in class. I had figured out a few things either by experimentation or by reading about it online, but on Friday I learned way more than I shared. That's the thing; when you get a group of talented, creative individuals in the same room, they can't help but learn from each other. Sometimes the best PD is just a group of teachers sitting around sharing experiences about a the topic at hand.

We are hoping that we can host more sessions like this one. Since we have gone 1:1 in the seventh grade this year, there is so much that we are discovering. If we can come together occasionally to share what we've learned, we will all learn at a much faster rate than we would otherwise. Good things happen when teachers teach teachers.