among schoolchildren

Where digital natives roam, paper and pencil have a place, too

Back in September, when Nancy Amling first opened the doors to her new technology-themed high school in Chelsea, parents asked her what supplies they should buy. “I told them, ‘You don’t need supplies! We have laptops,'” Amling said.

Over the next few weeks, she and her staff learned that paper and pens have their place. But aside from the notebooks students carry around, almost nothing is traditional about Amling’s school.

Located in the basement of the Bayard Rustin Education Complex, the Hudson High School of Learning Technologies is part of the city’s massive investment in technology and online learning, known as the iZone pilot. The pilot is funded with a combination of Race to the Top money, private donations, and city tax dollars.

Hudson High School is a “blended” school, which means its teachers combine face-to-face instruction with online courses and homework assignments. Each student has a laptop and every teacher has a webpage where they can upload assignments for students to access later.

When I visited last week, students in a math class were progressing through a series of online word problems and drawing out graphs of the problems by hand. In a science class, groups of students were creating PowerPoint presentations about famous bacteria, such as the ones responsible for the bubonic plague, while the teacher floated from group-to-group.

Amling said one of the most surprising discoveries was finding how widely students’ Internet-savviness ranged. Of the 109 students in her freshman class, some showed up knowing how to design a web page, use Google Documents, and send emails with attachments. Others weren’t sure how to save a file to their laptop’s desktop.

“There is that expression: digital natives. But just because somebody knows how to send a text and get an email, doesn’t mean they know how to be digital learners,” Amling said.

Hudson High School is also textbook-less, a fact that has earned it considerable media attention. Instead of textbooks, students taking an Algebra class are enrolled in an online Algebra course. Through programs offered by Aventa and Compass, two companies that provide much of the city’s current online courseware, students can progress through a series of lessons at their own pace. The programs aren’t perfect, Amling said, and she hopes to eventually have her own teachers write online courses.

“What we find is the digital content is in its early stages right now,” Amling said. “Somebody once gave me the example of when they took radio shows and read them aloud on TV — in some way that’s what digital content looks like right now.”

Students mainly progress through the online courses at home, where the majority of them have Internet access. For the ones that have Internet but no laptops, the school has been able to give them take-home laptops that were donated. Amling said that some students’ parents had cable TV, but no Internet, and she’d been able to convince them to drop HBO in favor of getting their children online.

For all her enthusiasm about her school’s blended learning model, Amling said that if she had more money, she’d hire more teachers.

“Education is a combination of using the technology to support instruction, but it’s in the collaborative relationships where students are learning,” she said. “Because if that’s not where the important piece is, then why even have a school?”

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”