Educators ponder tech innovation in Rhode Island

Comm. Gist introduces (l-r) Gov. Bob Wise, Allison Powell, Tom Vander Ark

More than 300 teachers, administrators, and education professionals met at Rhode Island College today for the first-ever "Innovation Powered by Technology (IPT) conference, convened by the RI Dept. of Education (RIDE). Attendees from across the state spent six hours hearing from nationally recognized experts, doing deep-dive breakouts, and networking with counterparts from other districts.

One of the goals of the conference was to jumpstart participants' creative thinking as they gear up for a newly announced RIDE IPT Model School Grant program, which will award $470K to a district to redesign a school by leveraging technology.

Commissioner Deborah Gist, who convened the conference, urged the attendees to think big as she kicked off the day. "Try to imagine what schools will look like in just a few years," she said. "I sometimes marvel at sitting and doing [videochats] with my sister and think, 'this is something that only used to happen on The Jetsons'. Imagine what's possible."

In what became something of a running metaphor throughout the day, Gist recounted an anecdote about a very bumpy plane flight where the pilot announced to the passengers that they were experiencing "constructive turbulence" — so called because the tail wind was going to bring them to their destination sooner.

It was a theme picked up by one of the first panelists as they sketched a big picture of the future. "On the way, it's a white-knuckle ride," said Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, adding that the only certain thing was that "each classroom in each school will look different."

One thing that Allison Powell, VP of State and District Services at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) was certain of is that teachers are not going away. "I envision classrooms where kids all have technology, and are able to work at their own pace," she said, adding, "Face-to-face interaction is important; the teacher is key to all this."

Tom Vander Ark, author of Getting Smart, urged attendees to consider the future as a lot closer than might be imagined. "You need to plan today," he said. With prices dropping and the rest of the world leapfrogging America, "You're going to see countries like the Philippines that will flip to tablets. You're going to see whole countries running their education on sub-$100 tabs."

Wise agreed. "The main misconception is that you have a choice. We can't do the same thing any more."

With that burning platform for change established, the second panel tackled options for creative restructuring of schools.

It was all about personalization for Michael Horn, Executive Director of Education at Innosight Institute, co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. "It should be a very intentional shift to personalizing learning for what each student needs." And, he added, "It should be exactly the steps to reach those children who are having the most issues."

Jeff Mao, the learning policy director at the Maine Dept. of Ed talked about the importance of breaking out of our current concepts of the school house. "We need to get beyond Adult Paradigm Paralysis — APP — and leadership is what really makes these things move. It's not a technology program, it's a learning program."

Anthony Kim, founder of Education Elements stressed design thinking. "It's an iterative process, and you need to start by thinking about the end state," he said. "It takes time to get there. You can't expect everyone to be there on day one."

The panelists offered their specific advice to districts approaching the tech grant process. "There are some good models out there. Look at what's going on in other schools, but don't be constrained," said Horn. "If you can't get to 1:1 [ratio of device to student], find some ways to leverage." For Mao, the pre-work was critical. "Build a shared vision across constituencies of where you're going and why," he said. "Make sure you start with solutions and educational goals, and don't start with the hardware." Kim also spotlighted working backward from goals. "Think about what you're preparing students for: college." He suggested designing the kind of school that would provide preparation. "Create that kind of environment."

After the two morning panels, the attendees broke into small topic-focused groups. In Jeff Mao's "Access to Technology," participants peppered Mao with questions about bandwidth, security, and hardware selection. One key takeaway for me was Mao's insight about device multiplication. "It's not if you're going to 1:1, it's when," he said, "But then, you have to start thinking about 2:1 and 3:1." Kids are walking around with phones and iPods, he noted, and it's better to leverage than ignore them.

In the second pre-lunch group, Allison Powell talked about communication, and fielded a series of questions about the best way to engage all stakeholders — including the sometimes-fearful staff members. "You need buy in from everyone," she said, stressing the need to involve groups like guidance counselors, paraprofessionals, and especially the tech guys. "But don't let them dictate," she said.

The group had a working lunch — pasta and salad — as they sat around tables color-coded for "birds of a feather" discussion topics. Then it was time for a series of deep-dive breakouts.

Portsmouth resident Dave Fontaine ran a session on open educational resources, higlighting the free, open-source options available for schools. Two wonderful resources he demonstrated were CK-12 and Curriki.

CK-12 offers "Flexbooks," a free library of peer-reviewed STEM textbooks which can be printed, PDFd, or read online, with many downloadable in a variety of e-reader formats. What makes them "Flex" books is the cool web interface that allows registered users, with just a few clicks, to mix and match chapters to assemble a customized package (Imagine a customized physics text that had a chapter or two of calculus built right in.)

Curriki (a portmanteau of "curriculum" and "wiki") offers educators a read-write environment where they can upload, revise, share, and rate curricular materials, with a search engine that allows educators to filter the collection by grade and subject. And just by signing up, educators can upload and share their materials. "Imagine common plannign time or professional development spent doing open-source curriculum development," said Fontaine. "What we educators have been doing for years is giving away our knowledge. This just adds a tech twist."

In the second session, Tom Vander Ark engaged a small group of attendees in a discussion of the possibilities and challenges of tech innovation. The technologies ranged from simple games and simulations — like those at PhET — to the thick descriptions available to teachers from a student's day-long interactions with "learning objects."

"Think about how much Google knows about you, and compare that to how much we know about our kids," said Vander Ark. "The shift to big data, when we can capture and mine keystroke data and mine that for individual learning patterns will enable customized learning driven by 'smart' learner profiles." He cited New York's School of One as a possible adaptive curriculum model, where students arrive in the morning and find their schedule for the day on LED signboards. Students rotate through six different centers, with their specific experiences programmed by data-driven analysis to meet their needs for that particular day. Imagine a small group with a teacher, said Vander Ark, where the algorithm has determined, "That's the right mode, the right day, with the students prepared for that lesson. That's magic. Smart tools that get teachers and kids together at the right time."

The wide-ranging discussion did not minimize the challenges. The perpetual arms race with cheating, the question of print literacy vs. the digital, and the challenge of local control all came up. And the grip of the local can be hard to shake, said Vander Ark, "But, come September, shame on you if every student in Rhode Island doesn't have access to every AP course and every language. Technologically, you can do that."

And a bit further out, there is the emerging challenge of comparability. When students take many individualized paths to mastery, how can these be aligned so that teachers and administrators can confidently assess progress. "Right now we don't have a good way to compare the results of diferent assessments," said Vander Ark. But he suggested that big data pointed the way. "This is something we're going to have to invent around the Common Core -- how different systems translate. We need a kind of Lexile scale, so that if a kid is in 12 different apps during the day, we can make sense of of it when it lands in the grade book."

The attendees reassembled for a final comment from Commissioner Gist, who acknowledged that the agenda was still very conference-like, and promised that this was only the first iteration of RIDE's vision. "We have big plans for how we move this forward, including future gatherings like this, using technology." After a raffle of door prizes (including a Middletown HS junior who took home an iPad!) the event concluded shortly after 3pm.

You can review the real-time conference Twitter feed here.

Editorial note: Long-time readers will know that I have differed with the Commissioner in the past on issues of funding, but when it comes to technology in our schools, I believe we are in alignment. We had a very nice chat after the conference, and I thanked her for organizing this event, and for her leadership. I think this is critical for our schools and our kids. Thanks to Comm. Gist, organizer Holly Walsh, all the folks at RIDE who worked to make the conference happen, and the hundreds of educators from around the state who gave up their Saturday to push this forward.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, IT stuff, RIDE

Help the Portsmouth High School Band buy new uniforms

If you're a resident of Portsmouth, you know about our fantastic PHS band, and the great opportunities it offers our kids. They need money for new uniforms. You know what to do.

Visit Portmouth Music Boosters to donate. Thanks!

Localblogging, 02871, Schools

Portsmouth senior runs anti-bullying fundraiser; Cicilline helps collect names for Obama

Anti-bullying benefit tournament at Ernie's Karate
PHS senior Amanda McCabe kicks off anti-bullying fundraiser

This morning, Ernie's Karate in Portsmouth hosted PHS student Amanda McCabe's senior project, a benefit martial arts tournament which raised more than $500 for the RI Parent Information Network 2012 Anti-Bully Walk.

More than 100 students, parents, and friends packed the East Main Road studio as McCabe kicked off the event. "Close your eyes," she said. "Now raise your hand if you've been bullied, witnessed bullying, or even been involved in bullying yourself." She waited a moment. "Now open your eyes and look around," she said. A majority of those in the room had their hands up. "That's why we're here."

Participants donated $5 to compete in each event (forms, weapons, synchronized forms) and parents and friends stuffed a jar on the counter on the way in to support RIPIN's efforts. It was a a fun morning of wonderful karate demonstrations for a good cause.

Rep. David Cicilline talks with Len Katzman
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) talks with Portsmouth's Len Katzman

This afternoon, Rep. David Cicilline was on hand at the People's Cafe on Thames Street in Newport to help volunteers collect the 1,000 signatures needed to get President Barack Obama's name on the April 24 primary ballot.

Local political figures who stopped by to help included State Sen. Lou DiPalma (D-12), RI Rep. Peter Martin (D-75), and Portsmouth's former Sen. Chuck Levesque and Democratic Party chair Len Katzman.

And, just a reminder. If you're a Democrat, and want to throw your hat in the ring as a delegate to the national convention in Charlotte, the RI Democratic Party will be hosting a workshop on running for delegate next Tuesday night in Bristol.

Full disclosure: Our son is a student at Ernie's (which is an awesome school) and I am an officer of the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee who signed President Obama's nomination papers.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, PHS, 2012

Portsmouth school district tech planning committee reviews updates

Recently upgraded PSD Web site.

The Technology Planning Committee of the Portsmouth School District (PSD) met last night to hear updates on current initiatives and discuss a proposed social media policy to be forwarded to the School Committee.

The committee, chaired by PSD Tech Director Rose Muller, comprises teachers, staff, and community representation, and meets several times during the school year to review progress and goals. Items on last night's agenda included the new School Information System (SIS), Upgrades and initiatives, and a proposed social media policy.

Muller updated the group on the migration to the new SIS, Aspen, which required significant data cleanup (the previous system suffered from significant denormalization). One important new feature is the attendance automation which integrates with an automatic call feature — parents are now automatically called if no absence is reported, and in a much more timely fashion.

The district has also finished upgrading all switches to gigabit speed to be ready to take advantage of the BTOP fiber ring currently being run through the state to connect educational institutions.

And if you haven't yet had the chance to check out the new look of the PSD Web site, you may want to go take a peek. The new design, rolled out over the holiday break, aimed to simplify the navigation and and refresh the look and feel.

The group also discussed the proposed social media policy, which will be forwarded to the school committee for review and action. The goal was to provide educators and students with a framework for the responsible use of these new communication tools within and related to school.

Full disclosure: I've been a parent volunteer on this committee for about four years now, and I think this is the first meeting I've reported on, since the content is typically pretty mundane. You may not think it accidental that tonight, the school committee will be voting on who to appoint to their "official" technology subcommittee; my letter of application is among those being considered.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, Info tech

Portsmouth Middle School suffers blackout

According to an AlertNow message from the Portsmouth School Department, PMS lost power at 11:30 in an outage that is currently affecting portions of Middletown and Portsmouth. PSD said that National Grid hopes to have power restored by 2pm. Here's the text from their AlertNow e-mail:

Emergency back-up lighting is operational at PMS. Lunch has been served to all students. The teaching staff is making modifications to their afternoon instruction and working to ensure the school day is minimally impacted. Students needing to use the restroom will be accompanied by adults.

Due to the power outage the phone system is currently not working. Any parent/guardian who needs to have a message relayed to the school can contact the Portsmouth School Department offices at 683-1039, extension 0. We will relay your message to the school.

Please be assured that your children are safe. Thank you for your patience and understanding during this power outage.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools

Portsmouth Education Foundation 10-year anniversary and teacher showcase Nov 3


The Portsmouth Public Education Foundation (PPEF) celebrates ten years of making a difference in the quality of education in our community with a Fall Showcase and Social on Thursday, November 3 at Glen Manor House in Portsmouth. You can get your tickets at the PPEF web site.

Everyone is welcome to stop by between 6-8pm to enjoy appetizers and a cash bar while you view exhibits by last year's grant recipient teachers, who come from all of Portsmouth's schools. And if you get your tickets online before October 24, there's a special early-bird discount.

This year's event will be in one of Portsmouth's gems, the Glen Manor House at 3 Frank Coelho Drive. Many local businesses have generously offered their support to public education by donating exciting offerings for our Silent Auction. Offerings include 6 day free dockage at Brewers Marinas, Golf packages from Green Valley, Newport National and Montaup Country Clubs, Season tickets to the Gulls plus a week of baseball camp, Theatre tickets, Museum tickets, Portsmouth Holly Ball tickets and much more.

Why not get your tickets now? Advance tickets (if you don't use the web site) may also be purchased for $15 per person or $25 per couple by contacting Marilyn Brockway at 683-3021 or or Eileen LaCazette at The night of the event, tickets will be $20/$35 per couple.

Over the past ten years, PPEF has awarded 149 grants totaling nearly $84,000 which have directly impacted thousands of Portsmouth public school students, parents and community members. If you can't make it to this event, I hope you'll consider making a donation.

Full disclosure: I serve on the board of PPEF.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, PPEF

More than 40 Portsmouth High School students score academic kudos

More than 40 students at Portsmouth High School (PHS) have been recognized for their performance in the National Merit Scholarships and Advanced Placement Testing, the district announced yesterday.

Two PHS seniors, Caroline Herter and Sam Black, were named National Merit Commended Students. Their performance on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) placed them in the top 5% of the 1.5 million juniors taking the test.

And 39 students earned honors in the College Board Advanced Placement (AP) Scholar Awards for their performance on the May, 2011 AP tests.

Class of 2011 students Christopher Corbett, Anna Elleman, and James Ryan earned National AP Scholar Awards, for average scores of 4 and scores of 4 or higher on 8 or more exams.

AP Scholar With Distinction Awards, for average scores of 3.5 and scores of 3 or more on 5 exams, went to 11 students: Jeremy Amundson, Madison Burns, Christopher Corbett, John Corbett, Anna Elleman, Henry Lang, Christopher Mickey, Dennis Morral, Gordon petty, James Ryan, and Louis Taylor.

AP Scholar With Honor Awards, for scores of 3.25 on all exams taken and scores of 3 or more on at least 4 exams, went to 7 students: Nicole Androved, Samuel Black, James Brown, Nicholaus Carter, Dale Castronuevo, Mackenzie Donovan, and Thomas Raulli.

And AP Scholar Awards, for average scores of 3 and scores of 3 or more on 3 exams, were earned by 21 students: Julian Almeida,Lauren Binter, James Boyadjian, Jennifer Drake, Emily Frantz, Colleen Geasey, Caroline Herter, Sarah Heleman, Alex Jenkins, Camille Jones, Hayley McClintock, Claydon Nordhill, Courtney Parks, Grace Perkins, Jacob Ricci, Audrey Rinkel, Spencer Roberts, Aaron Towers, Nicholas Tyler, Kirstie Urgasan, and Megan Vebber.

During the 2010 school year, 136 students took a total of 284 exams, with a pass rate (a score of 3 or higher) of 78.7%, well above the state rate of 66.3% and the national averate of 60.2%.

Job well done to all these students for their hard work and achievements, and a big thank-you to the excellent teachers and staff throughout the system who helped prepare them. And, of course, congratulations to the proud families, who helped make these young scholars successful.

Editorial note: Written substantially from a press release.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools

Portsmouth schools and Town work on moving bus stops to avoid flooded area [update]

Interim Town Administrator David Dolce sent an e-mail letting the Council and media know that he's working with the school department to move pickup and dropoff locations on Park Ave to avoid the flooded area.

Update: I received an e-mail from the Portsmouth School Department saying that they were working with the bus company to move the stop most directly affected by the flooding. Also got an e-mail from School Committee chair Cynthia Perrotti thanking me for the heads-up on the issue and saying that she would discuss with the Superintendent.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, IP

Island Park flooding and school bus safety: An open letter to the Portsmouth Town Council

Park Ave and Gormley school bus stop flooded

To: Portsmouth Town Council,,
Subject: Island Park flooding and school bus safety
Date: Thu, 08 Sep 2011 09:05:41 -0400

To the Town Council:
This morning, for the second time this week, heavy rains flooded Park Ave in Island Park, forcing schoolchildren to wade through ankle-deep water to board buses. On Tuesday, the streets were so impassable I had to use the Escape Bridge to drive my son to school.

Here's a photo from today:

And one from Tuesday:

While such flooding is not a new issue (Channel 12 reported on it back in December of 2009: it's not clear to me whether things have suddenly gotten worse, perhaps because Irene contributed to blockages in the stormwater drains.

Whatever the cause, I would appreciate it if the Town Council could investigate this issue affecting the safety of Island Park residents and our children.

I'm cc'ing school Supt. Dr. Krizic and School Committee chair Cynthia Perrotti so that they're aware of the situation, and copying in local media and Jay Edwards, our state rep.

Best Regards.

Full disclosure: I'm annoyed.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, IP, Irene, flooding