by Dave Atkins on August 31, 2013

in Uncategorized

I’ve removed some links from this blog and will be reworking as well. I have not disappeared…and I will write again, but for now, I’m pulling back the content from the past year that failed to go anywhere.

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As an early adopter of the iPhone (I remember when there was no such thing as “copy” and “paste.”), I kind of became used to some limitations and never bothered to find out if they had ever been addressed. Many have–years ago, apparantly–including the ability to manage your photos in batches.

Here’s how it works:

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Flipping the Classroom

by Dave Atkins on August 15, 2012

in Education

As the school year rapidly approaches, we are excited to have all three of our children at the same school in Boston. Marshall, who is 4 1/2 years old, will be starting K1, the first year of kindergarten. All the kids are excited.

I need to update this blog because the last post was so long ago and looks pretty negative by the title. The content here has pretty much dried up despite sort of a plan to blog about improving the Boston Public Schools. But I’ve concluded it’s a waste of breath to opine about the lottery or propose complicated solutions to problems that many other people are busy spinning their wheels about. What has caught my attention lately is what exactly we need to do to help our kids learn.

Almost everyone who talks about education today agrees the industrial model is broken. It makes absolutely no sense to have kids sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture and yet we struggle for years to get the kids to a point where they will do that without acting up.

I was excited to read this article about how Simmons College is “flipping” the classroom by having students watch videos of lectures and then using lecture time to engage in facilitated small group problem-solving. It is far from a radical idea but a recent article in the New York times describes how the concept is taking hold in high school and other classrooms across the country. In addition to video lectures, students are using websites like the Khan Academy to learn about hundred of topics by watching compelling videos where the instructor walks through a topic in an engaging manner that is unlike most lectures I recall.

MIT launched Open Courseware earlier this year, and honestly, I was not impressed. Why would anyone want, and what possible value could someone obtain from being able to download the lecture notes for 6.001? I did not learn anything from attending lectures or reading textbooks. The learning happens in working through problem sets which are impossibly difficult. Students get together in groups to work on them and “tool” for hours into the wee hours of the morning.

But when I looked at the new edX initiative, the light bulb started to flicker on. It’s not just a bunch of materials you can download. The online learning environment is like a regular class where you can work on your own schedule, but there are requirements and online discussions that anchor and stimulate the learning. I was so intrigued I signed up for Berkeley CS course on Software as a Service (SaaS). And then, last night, I found myself playing around with, a site that tutors you in learning the Ruby programming language.

I have been hearing about the value of group projects for 25 years and how some people prefer video tutorials to learn (e.g. for Photoshop, Graphic Design, and many more things now), but when I imagined the “flipped classroom” it started to actually make sense because I began to see how the right structure and tools could support a student’s native love of learning and allow a teacher to be more of a coach.

What if, instead of requiring students to attend lectures where nearly everyone fell asleep and half the students just didn’t bother attending, you told them to watch the lecture in advance and then do the problem sites in class? What if, instead of leaving students to form their own study groups and then struggle through on their own at 4am, you said, “this is what the classroom is for!” Imagine a teaching experience where the teacher is responsible for facilitating learning instead of delivering education? Imagine where tutorials are not just something you go to when you can’t keep up…but they are the real education experience. I think I would have learned much more–and perhaps I’d have even discovered and sustained more enthusiasm for advanced math and hard science if I had an experience like that.

What does any of this mean for little Marshall in K2? I don’t think we are ready to enroll him in 6.001 quite yet, but I think all our kids will face a different kind of education than I did. Marshall will be in an integrated classroom–which means there will be special needs kids along with everyone else. Throughout the school, we have widely varying levels of preparation and at least 1/4 to 1/2 of my other son’s class were English Language Learners (for whom English is not their primary language.) The population is decidedly not “one size fits all.” This requires a more individualized approach.

I do not expect kindergarten children to be getting lectures of any kind and I hope the emphasis will be on play, not preparation for future standardized testing. But I think technology could help teachers deliver a more individualized experience. That could take the form of iPad apps that small groups play together and simple games kids take home. Or it might just be that much learning happens independently. A friend of mine has a startup company that is working to develop true learning apps for the iPad based on guiding principles of individualized learning; I’m looking forward to seeing their beta and how it might work for my kids.

All of this makes me think I should shift the focus of this blog…as my rambling post illustrates, the topic of 21st century learning is full of things to write about and the stakes are high and personal.

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Choosing the Worst Schools

by Dave Atkins on May 4, 2012

in Education,Local to Boston

At our parents meeting on Monday night, we heard from one parent who must have drawn the worst lottery number–both this year and last. His child got nothing for K1 last year after ranking 14 schools, then after ranking 16 elementary schools this year, remains unassigned. They are wait listed at 3 schools, but at least 50 families are ahead. There is no requirement that Boston Public Schools enroll his child until January. And there just are not a lot of options for a child who is too old for preschool. Even if money were no object, the private schools fill up, have early deadlines, and require hefty application fees and deposits.

But there’s always the Trotter. Trotter Elementary is in Roxbury, on the northeast edge of the West Zone. It’s one of the few West Zone schools that still has vacant seats. City Councillor John Connolly led a group of unassigned parents on a tour there last month and is excited about it as an option for his kids now because the historical poor performance and reputation has resulted in more resources being poured into this historic school As a “turnaround school,” they have been able to hire the teachers they want and improve the facility dramatically. A growing number of parents are taking another look and thinking perhaps there is an opportunity to be a part of a school community on the rise.

I do not have firsthand knowledge of the Trotter and I do not know if the parent who failed to get any of his top 16 choices considered it, so I do not want to make any assumptions there. What I can observe is the effect our system of choice and crisis reform has on systemically dooming Boston schools and disadvantaged families to a never-ending cycle of halfway improvement. Because the Trotter has been judged by parents, through their lottery “votes,” to be one of the worst schools in Boston, it became a “dumping ground” for lottery losers and parents who don’t have time to figure out how to play the school assignment game. Test scores there track income and demographics–and every time there’s a crime nearby, it’s added to the list of fears parents think about when they size up the school. When you see the demand report…and you see some schools massively oversubscribed and others with vacancies, it’s only natural to ask, “What’s wrong with this school?”

The Curley in JP used to have a bad rep too. Then the school was marked for improvement, being designated a “superintendent’s school” in the parlance of the day. It became a K-8 school with advanced work and expanded its “specials” (art, science, music, etc.). Now it’s a top choice and JP parents agonize that they can’t get in and might get stuck at the Mendel…but that one is actually improving too! Meanwhile, as the focus of reform efforts shifts to the new “worst schools,” parents at the Curley scramble to raise money to keep programs intact while they absorb kids from schools closed last year before the district knew there would be hundreds of kindergarteners looking for space this year…is your head spinning yet?

I want to back off a bit from my earlier blog post where I argued to just eliminate choice altogether, but the current regime of illusory choice and procedural insanity is not just an annoyance for parents who want neighborhood schools, but a systemic disservice to the majority of kids in the system. Something I hear again and again is how parents just want some predictability. We want relief from knowing we don’t have to do another lottery and rejuggle our lives every year. In my case, I feel fortunate to have achieved that for our kids at the Bates–and to feel that the Bates is definitely on the leading edge of the improvement curve, but I think this process and cycle is destined to repeat until we acknowledge the role the system itself plays in suppressing performance and undermining improvements that are happening.

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What’s a Quality School?

by Dave Atkins on May 1, 2012

in Education

I organized a meeting of Boston parents last night to discuss the school assignment process and heard many stories of frustration. We were joined by city councillor John Connolly who is, himself, experiencing the frustration of still having a child unassigned. We didn’t solve any problems, but I believe it was helpful to hear each others stories; all very different, but all the same in so many unnecessarily complex ways.

After we shared our stories, the Councillor asked us to describe what we thought a quality school was. There are so many components to that, but at a very high level, I think a great school would find a way to teach every child to value learning as a way to achieve empowerment. I want my kids to seek out learning because they can see that it provides something of value so they can make a difference in their community and in the world.

I believe that lesson should scale to all levels of income, ability, and circumstance. For those in poverty, it is a way out. For those who are put down and disadvantaged through dysfunctional families and circumstances beyond their control, we must find a way to demonstrate education and learning are not just a thing that has to be done to get through the day, but a tool to seize control of some part of their lives. For students who already “do well” the lesson may be more subtle, but a quality education means all participate in the growing and learning process.

Now such a general standard is far from the day-to-day reality of the classroom. There cannot be a class or standardized test to measure “self-actualization progress.” But such a principle of quality education should serve as a mission against which all our efforts are judged.

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Why Kids Vacation?


We wrapped up April vacation week today in Massachusetts, and it started me thinking about the coming summer vacation. I’m not talking about my vacation, of course, but rather the practice of closing the schools for a week in February, a week in April, two weeks in December, and all of July and August. Why […]

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An Unlucky Start to Weekend

Local to Boston

Sometimes, Friday the 13th is actually unlucky. This is not my car: It’s the scene in the parking lot from Friday evening as we grabbed an unhealthy dinner at the BK Steakhouse on Washington Street in Roslindale. This is my car: Around 3:30am Saturday (the 14th) morning, some clown in a white Chevy Impala (based […]

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Time for Solar in Massachusetts

Local to Boston

I’ve been fascinated by solar power since I was a kid and visited one of those model “homes of the future.” With the current financial incentives available, especially in Massachusetts, it not only makes sense to put a solar array on your roof, it might even be worth cutting down a tree to do it. […]

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The Real Value of Primary Education (for parents)


I’m starting a series of posts on education, and I’ll begin with a practical observation that seldom makes it to the top of most education reform discussions: One of the most important functions of elementary education is to provide a safe, supervised environment for parents to leave their kids so they can work. Many parents […]

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Hubway Relaunch

Active Transportation

Boston cyclists have taken 15,000 rides since Boston’s bike share system, Hubway, soft-relaunched in early March. Memberships have grown to over 5,000. Today at noon, Mayor Menino and bike czar Nicole Friedman officially reopened the Hubway at a short ceremony/event in front of the Boston Public Library.

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