Category Archives: Conferences

The National Council for the Social Studies Conference

by Helen Beyne

Lincoln MemorialMore than 3,000 social studies colleagues gathered in our nation’s capital to share their ideas, research, and expertise at the world’s largest and most comprehensive social studies conference. The texts featured at the booths as well as the topics discussed at the sessions reflected the curriculum changes that have occurred over the past few years: the curriculum is now much more customized, standards have changed the way social studies is taught, and social studies instruction is more relevant now because it is more driven by current topics.

At the conference, it was evident that there is a growing consensus—social studies should take the lead in teaching the critical inquiry-related skill questioning. Education experts encouraged teachers to move away from traditional, lecture-based instruction towards instruction that emphasizes such skills as analyzing primary source documents and writing evaluatively. Many speakers urged educators to adjust their existing lessons by integrating social studies with literacy and by using document based questions.

Document based questions encourage students of history to act like detectives. Students must evaluate primary sources and secondary texts, draw on background knowledge, ask questions, and use evidence to draw conclusions. By analyzing historical sources and evidence, making historical connections, and crafting a historical analysis, students learn historical content and simultaneously develop the higher-level thinking skills emphasized by the CCSS.

One main takeaway from NCSS was the focus on the importance of inquiry-based learning. Another was the importance of civic learning. The message was clear—if we want students to become educated, responsible, and informed citizens, we must expose them to balanced knowledge, instill democratic values in them, and cultivate the qualities that will enable them to understand our society and become active participants in it. Educators stressed that high-quality civic learning should engage students by making the curriculum more relevant to real life and incorporate human rights education.

One way to ramp up civic learning is by teaching important documents, such as the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and demonstrating their relevance in current events. For age-appropriate resources on current and historical international issues, be sure to check out The Choices Program, which offers free videos, handouts, and lesson plans that connect students to headlines in the news. These resources can be used in conjunction with the United for Human Rights Online Education app, which allows educators to easily access human rights curriculum. Students can use these resources to explore, debate, and evaluate challenging topics, such as Immigration, ISIS, and Genocide.

We look forward to seeing how teachers use the ideas and practices they learned at NCSS to promote social understanding and civic efficacy in the classroom. See you next year in San Francisco!

5 Highlights from the IRA 2014 Conference in New Orleans

guest post by Trisha Beck DeOre

The French Quarter, New Orleans, during the 2014 IRA conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

The French Quarter, New Orleans, during the 2014 IRA conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

This past weekend, the International Reading Association held its 59th annual conference in New Orleans. The Crescent City proved an exciting backdrop and offered a metaphor for the richness, diversity, and resilience of students, as well as the increasingly complex world they must learn to “read,” or navigate today. The conference goals are always twofold: to help teachers, administrators, and publishers improve reading achievement and to promote a lifelong love of reading.

1. Today’s Children Are Reading Less—Even for Fun.

Based on recent studies, IRA’s goals are more important than ever. This week, Common Sense Media published a report on the state of children, teens, and reading. The data indicates that reading comprehension is stagnant among teens. In addition, “several studies show a substantial drop in how often children and youth read for fun.”

View from a Canal Street hotel during this week’s IRA conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

View from a Canal Street hotel during the conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

With the declines in reading and the politicization of education reform, it was refreshing to see speakers at IRA focusing on the basics. We need to better understand why and how we read, and how to make the reading process transparent and engaging.

2. Attitudes Surrounding Common Core Are Increasingly Complex.

Common Core was again a dominant theme at IRA. The standards have come under heavy scrutiny this year, and education leaders were cognizant of the criticism, as well as the wide gaps in professional development for CCSS among ELA teachers. The 2014 conference sessions revealed a nuanced response to CCSS and a focus on practical teaching advice.

3. Close Reading Gains Support—Even at the Youngest Grades.

photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

A discussion of reading and CCSS almost inevitably includes close reading, although not everyone is comfortable teaching it or agrees that it’s developmentally appropriate, particularly at K–2. “How many lessons can you really have on Make Way for Ducklings?” a salesperson asked as we discussed Pearson’s new Common Core program, ReadyGEN.

Education expert and literacy advocate Pam Allyn is a strong proponent of close reading, even for K–2. At her IRA session, “The Act and Art of Close Reading,” she noted that we should teach close reading because it is natural, effective, and gets at why and how good books affect us. Allyn argued that young children are naturally drawn to reread favorite books. They are trying to understand the world, and with each subsequent reading, they become better readers as they build stamina and engage more deeply with the text. For K–2 students, Allyn urged teachers to use photos, picture books, and short texts, and to encourage students to support their conclusions with details from the words they read (or hear) and the pictures they see. Even students not yet able to read can participate.

4. New Research on Literacy Teaching Reveals Important Gaps.

In the roundtable session, “Research into Practice: What’s New in Literacy Teaching?” educational experts Peter Afflerbach and Elfrieda “Freddy” Hiebert (TextProject), among others, offered new insights into literacy education. Afflerbach noted that, unlike adults, “students cannot opt out of what they’re not good at,” so motivation, particularly in assessment, is critical. Conversely, students will actively engage with highly challenging texts and tasks if they find the work interesting.

While discussing text complexity, Hiebert noted that readability is a for-profit business in the United States, and it is an incomplete measure of text complexity. Readability measures, such as Lexile, focus mainly on syntax, leaving out other indicators, including vocabulary demands, figurative language, text length, and text features. Readability measures are particularly problematic at lower levels, and scores should not be accepted uncritically.

5. Great Children’s Literature Is Still the Key Motivator.

As the discourse surrounding CCSS grows more politicized, some states are threatening to abandon Common Core or rebrand the standards for their states. In response, even the biggest educational publishers on the exhibit floor this year seemed cautious and subdued. The slick tech booths were quieter. Yet the trade book booths were buzzing as excited teachers clutched copies of Brian Floca’s Locomotive or Peter Sís’s The Pilot and the Little Prince and crowded into long, winding lines, eager to meet the authors who still make it all worthwhile.

Trisha Beck DeOre is a senior editor and curriculum developer at Nieman Inc.

Lessons from ICE14

by Hope Morley

Last week, Erin Dye and I attended the ICE Conference out in St. Charles, Illinois. We met a lot of great people and heard too many great sessions to summarize here, but we thought we’d share our biggest takeaways from both days.

  • Communication is key. We’re all better educators when we talk (or blog, or tweet, or pin…). Connecting and sharing with other teachers is essential and technology makes it so easy. As George Couros said in his keynote, “Isolation is a choice educators make.” If you don’t make the right choice, you risk becoming irrelevant.
  • Technology means you have to work together more—not be more isolated. A common misperception of technology in the classroom is that it will turn all students into isolated drones who don’t need a teacher. In fact, technology is a great tool for collaboration (CCSS recognizes this too!). Using such tools as Google Apps for Education, Skype, Twitter, blogs, and more encourage students to work collaboratively and learn to communicate. And teachers are necessary to guide students through it all.
  • Focusing on the tools is the wrong approach. It seems like many schools are starting down the tech integration path by saying “iPads are cool! Let’s get some iPads!” without first thinking about what device would be best for their students. Instead, schools and teachers need to focus on teaching and learning first. Older students may benefit more from Chromebooks or laptops that are better for writing, while younger ones may excel with tablets. In addition, schools need to make professional development for teachers a priority.
  • Learning should not be restricted to the classroom. With all the technology available to students, learning now happens everywhere. Educators need to encourage that 24/7 kind of learning. Students should be encouraged to use the tools at their disposal to enhance school work and learn about topics that interest them.
  • Teachers need to care about both the students and the school. Tech integration is hard work. The teacher leaders who blaze that trail need to be committed to improving their school for the future, not the moment. Despite the stereotype that young teachers bring in tech savviness, it’s the experienced teachers who see the benefits of the tools and can fight for inclusion.

For those of you who couldn’t attend, check out the presentations posted on the ICE wiki and YouTube. Did you attend ICE this year? What takeaways did you have?

Hope MorleyHope Morley is a consultant and social media coordinator for Green Light Professional Development. She writes about social media, conferences, and anything else on the web that helps both students and teachers learn. Follow her @GreenlightLT

Dispatches from FETC

by Tom Nieman

A visit last week to the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) proved worthwhile on a number of fronts—a temperature upgrade for me of about 40 degrees and a preview of the new classroom technology that will be released this spring.

Like anyone who attends conferences with regularity, I typically have a few questions upon entering the exhibit hall:

  • What’s new this year?
  • How does this year’s conference compare with earlier ones?
  • What can I learn about ________ that will make this show worthwhile?

My “need to learn” list included project-based learning, Common Core curriculum, and cloud-based interactive whiteboard technologies.

1.     SMART amp and Promethean ClassFlow

The “new” part of the FETC was easy this year as both SMART and Promethean were showing new cloud-based technology for using their interactive whiteboards. In the last few months, both companies have issued press releases touting their new software, called SMART amp and ClassFlow respectively.

Both amp and ClassFlow open up the previously closed IWB systems to engage with any mobile devices in the classroom, rather than the handheld response devices sold by Smart or Promethean. (ActivEngage attempted to work with other devices but was never a successful enough solution to be in wide use.) These developments are enabled by Google Drive. Teachers open a workspace within Google and can drag resources of almost any kind onto it.

Students and teachers can interact seamlessly. The SMART amp software seems open, intuitive, and easy to use. Promethean’s ClassFlow has more assessment features built in but depends more on loading student and teacher apps onto devices. Both of these exciting new platforms are now in beta versions and will be released later this spring. Being cloud-based, they hold the promise of being “device agnostic,” so that they will work on any platform, and the days of developing on both Promethean and Smart platforms may possibly be ending.

Here’s a quick video showing SMART amp in action.

These new IWB solutions take full advantage of touch screens, allowing a teacher to magnify or minimize images just by pinching or spreading fingers. Schools opting for projector-based IWB solutions or boards from PolyVision and other vendors will find that amp and ClassFlow work, up to a point, but definitely not as well as on the latest Smart or Promethean touch-sensitive boards.

2.     Edsby 

A “find” at this year’s FETC was Edsby, a cloud-based social learning platform. When I first saw their booth, I blurted out, “This looks like another Edmodo. Who needs another one of those?”

“I can tell you why,” replied Scott Welch, the vice-president of marketing of Edsby, and he did. Edsby saves work for teachers, not adding to it like so many pieces of software, primarily because it integrates with SIS software such as PowerSchool. Currently, schools that use Edmodo as a learning management system (LMS) have to go back and load the information into PowerSchool for their reporting requirements.

By creating a bridge from PowerSchool to Edsby, the work is done. Teachers do not need to load students into the system. Students are assigned to classes. Grades are calculated and posted for students and teachers. Parents can be alerted with a broadcast email that, say, testing will be done on two days next week and that students need to get their sleep.

Edsby, in other words, appears to have the right stuff. Every question I threw at Scott Welch he answered. Plus, it has an ingenious, simple pricing scheme—a penny a day, for everyone, students and teachers: $3.65 a year. I calculated in my head what the cost would be for my school system of approximately 9,200 students before I was two booths away—around $35,000 to connect all students, teachers, parents, and administrators. It’s worth a look in this day where data management has become so supremely important for schools.

3.     HMH, Pearson, TenMarks

Mention should also be made of some Common Core curriculum at the FETC. While everyone likes to imagine teachers have time to create all of their own lessons every day, that has become more difficult as rigorous new standards roll in. HMH and Pearson displayed new literature curricula aligned to the Common Core, and TenMarks displayed its Common Core math solution. None of these solutions is free, but they do the work of aligning lessons to the Common Core for teachers.


Stay alert for the release of the cloud-based solutions from SMART and Promethean. They herald a new day where students and teachers in 1-to-1 classrooms will be able to interact freely—and easily—minute-by-minute. Cloud-based solutions are transforming classrooms and education as we know it.

Tom NiemanTom Nieman is president of Green Light Professional Development and Nieman Inc., a privately held company that specializes in developing curriculum materials for educational publishers.

6 Lessons in Blended Learning

by Tom Nieman

Last week at a presentation at the Illinois Charter Schools conference, Phyllis Lockett, the CEO of New Schools for Chicago, introduced Chris Liang-Vergara (FirstLine Schools) and Anirban Bhattacharyya (KIPP) as “national experts” on blended learning. That seemed to me quite a large introduction, but they lived up to it.

Both Chris and Anirban were about as unassuming as two presenters could be. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, they addressed the fifteen or so of us in attendance as learners like themselves, seeking answers for ways to raise student achievement. No razzle-dazzle, just here’s what we have been doing, and here are the results, so what do you think?

Following up with them after the presentation, I found both very approachable, and both offered to work with us at our Chicago charter schools if we wanted. Anything they had learned they were willing to share. None of this was about them; what they knew was to be shared in the interest of better educating kids.

Here are a few takeaways from their presentation on blended learning:

1.     Blended learning can increase achievement.

Chris explained that starting a well-functioning charter school improved student achievement by about 25 percentage points, but then the school achievement scores flatlined. Once a blended model was adopted, gains in achievement took off again.

2.     Blended learning is not necessarily about the technology.

Both models of blended learning depended on small group instruction and focused RTI interventions, with personalized and differentiated help for every student.

3.     Blended learning is not about programs.

Both Anirban and Chris deflected focus as much as possible from the curriculum programs they were using. The curriculum software and the hardware were less important than the data they generated, because the data was what helped teachers place students in small groups and address their individual needs.

4.     Data-driven instruction now means individualized data generated daily by each student, not merely their annual test results.

Managing this flow of data into actionable instruction seems one of the biggest challenges in both blended learning and conventional learning environments.

5.     Blended learning involves reworking staffing and scheduling throughout a school.

The blended models described in these case studies utilized all personnel at the school to create the effective small group instruction needed, and the daily schedule also underwent a complete revamp.

6.     Blended learning is about helping master teachers teach more effectively.

The blended models created environments where the best teachers had time to teach their students in small groups, and the whole school seemed focused on helping give students the most personalized and differentiated instruction possible.

So learning seems to come in the most serendipitous ways. One cold Chicago morning, at a small presentation at a small conference, Chris and Anirban shared a wealth of learning on the benefits of blended learning, and the case studies about their experience describe what it takes to make it happen.


For anyone interested in learning more about blended learning, you can read about the specifics of their models in two excellent cases studies published by the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation.

FirstLine Blended Learning Case Study
This is a paper details the blended learning initiative at Chris’s school, the Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans.

KIPP Blended Learning Case Study
This study explains the blended learning initiative at Kipp schools, specifically blended learning at KIPP Empower in Louisiana. Anirban Bhattacharyya works with the KIPP Foundation and is in charge of instructional technology for all 144 of their schools.

Tom NiemanTom Nieman is president of Green Light Professional Development and Nieman Inc., a privately held company that specializes in developing curriculum materials for educational publishers.

NCTE Convention 2013: (Re)Inventing the Future of English

by Mark Hansen

Paul Revere at NCTE convention

“The eBooks are coming!” | image courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration

BOSTON—If Paul Revere were a high school English teacher today, he’d probably be on the edtech vanguard, tweeting messages like “The eBooks are coming!”

But would it be a warning to retreat from or to join the revolution? (I think join.) Most famous for his so-called Midnight Ride—in which from horseback at full speed he warned the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Concord that “The British are coming!”—Revere was also one of the top silversmiths on the Eastern seaboard, parlaying his skill on an entrepreneurial bet that new technology would improve his business. He could have worked in the old method and remained a relevant silversmith, but he embraced technology to extend his reach.

Sure maybe a main reason for him to use technology was profit, and you might then ask how that relates to using technology to raise student achievement, but you see where we’re going. Boston—home of the recent annual convention of the National Council of Teachers or English (NCTE)—was the scene of a robust set of sessions on edtech organized around the implicit mantra “Make it New,” reflecting the explicit convention tagline “(Re)Inventing the Future of English.” Lovers of creative wordplay, syntax, and punctuation we NCTE devotees are, the parenthetical “(Re)” reflects the idea that we’re building off a rich history while breaking free of old regimes to make something new—now you can’t argue much if Mr. Revere would quibble with that!

Beyond the clear presence of the spirit of Mr. Revere, here are some other takeaways from our trip to NCTE 13.

Close Reading and Argumentation

The Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) focus on close reading and argumentation is deeply engrained in the new major textbook programs. Online features of mainstream and supplemental programs that allow digital text markup, note taking, and writing to that end are growing but not perfected.

Surging Startups

Boston marathon finish line at NCTE convention

There’s not one finish line on edtech integration. You can forge a route from myriad options. | credit: Mark Hansen

The Exhibition Hall had a number of surging startups. Here are three worth your time to consider.

ThinkCERCA—This online program includes an array of texts and a neat writing platform with drag-and-drop features for students to structure their papers around the facets of Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterargument, and Audience (CERCA).

Curriculet—A “curriculet” is a layer of annotations, multimedia links, and assessment items in the margin of the text. The program is web-based and it works on computers, tables, or phones of all types, and the authoring system to add annotations is slick.

Subtext—This good-looking app provides a solution for tablet reading in the classroom. Students can have shared discussions based on their note-taking; teachers can embed questions and activities and track student progress.

Session Report

Teachers are still in the edtech ramp-up phase, but interest is palpable.

iPad 1-1 is becoming reality for some. Stevenson High School (Lincolnshire, IL, near Chicago) is rolling out 3,800 iPads next year.

  • Big change—but imagine what the scops, griots, and bards thought thousands of years ago when the first stone tablets rolled out!
  • Good toolsApps and web sites they’re using:
    * Readmill (neat reading app with social aspect—you see others’ highlights)
    * Subtext (robust classroom reading app with discussion feature)
    * Newsela (website with leveled, current news articles)
    * Haiku Learning (innovative LMS—Learning Management System)
    * Overdrive (e-media center)
  • Surface challenge—Kids may just skim and scroll (surface reading at best) on an iPad. Multi-task reading may be a myth—if you’re doing everything at once, perhaps you’re doing nothing with depth.

The power of blogging was espoused by many teachers. Some teachers noted that, with the myriad apps, web sites, etc. available, the most powerful benefit of technology they saw was simply using blogging tools or Google Drive or Docs to give written feedback on students papers, and to facilitate robust student discussion.

  • Be the moderator—For student blogs, have one classroom username, have students post to that one username, and set up the blog with you as the moderator so you can approve (and officially, post) all comments, vetting them for appropriateness. This helps address COPPA regulations (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act).
  • Extend brick-and-mortar discussion—In their blog, have students continue the discussion started in class. Review the comments the following morning and let them shape the discussion that day.
  • Get the count up—Blogging makes daily writing more engaging for students, increasing the amount of words they write, always a good thing.
  • Make it process-oriented, and purposeful—When possible, have blog posts form part of the writing process, such as part of the work used for a full essay, rather than a random one-off comment.
  • For more good ideas—Visit Pamela Hunnisett’s blog  

Did you attend NCTE? Shoot us insights we missed or things you’d like to discuss with us.

Mark HansenMark Hansen is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. Mark recently spearheaded the iPad PD training series for GLPD.