Monday, October 31, 2011

Pumpkin Party!

Enjoy these photos from the Edina Family Center's annual Pumpkin Party. These young students are our future scientists, artists, communicators, thinkers, environmentalists, teachers. We are preparing them for a world we cannot yet imagine, and for jobs that have not yet been invented.

--Ric Dressen @EdinaSuper
photos by Julianne Prior

Friday, October 28, 2011

Opening Doors

Join us at the Technology Open House Saturday morning for more information and  inspiring stories like this one.
--Ric Dressen @EdinaSuper

I just came back from an Edina Education Fund Board meeting, where we got an update on one of the Innovation Grants we awarded last year. Nichole Krier, Assistive Technology Specialist for the Edina Schools Special Services Department, filled us in on a pilot project using iPads for students who access our Special Services programs, including English learners and students with IEPs or 504 plans. This particular Innovation Grant provided seven iPads to teachers in several schools.

The idea of the grant was to test how iPads might make a difference for this particular group of students, and the preliminary results show that this technology is not only helping them learn, but in fact dramatically improving the quality of life for many of these students.

You might be rolling your eyes right now. I’ve already written here about how an iPad helped my son (and me) navigate the first few weeks of middle school, and so I am probably coming across as a technology-crazed iPad fanatic. An Apple stockholder? No. In fact, for the past decade, I have been officially labeled the meanest mom in the world because our television set (a hand-me-down) is 25 years old (I’m not kidding), and I have so strictly limited my kids’ screen time that on several occasions they have been unable to participate in conversations with their peers (cue the glares).

So I'm not a big fan of technology for technology's sake. But Nichole’s presentation about how this technology can be used effectively was pretty eye-opening. iPads have amazing potential for all students, but especially for this group. One $599 iPad (plus a few of the 140,000 apps currently available to customize it, many of them free) can now perform the tasks that in the past a student might have needed several very expensive and single-function technology devices to perform. (One simple text-to-speech device, for example, costs $3,000-$4000.) All iPads come loaded with software that can turn the text on screen to audio, zoom in to make text very large, show text white on black, or provide closed captions for students with visual or hearing challenges.  iPads are portable, so students who have difficulty learning in their seats can work with them on the floor, under the table, behind the fan…anywhere. iPads are socially acceptable, so it’s actually cool to be seen with one. And if you’re not reading the same book as everyone else, no one will ever know. You’re just another kid, doing your work.

Nichole shared one story of one student that I just can’t get out of my mind. This student has no verbal language, and it has been difficult for his teachers to figure out how to know what he really knows. This elementary student has been working with an iPad from this grant, and in just a few short weeks, the student has amazed his teachers, showing how much has been locked inside him until now—including spelling words.

The success story sends chills down my spine. My family is intimately familiar with Edina's Special Services department. This could so easily be my child, and in some small sense, is my child, our child. I am so grateful to be part of a school system that wraps its arms around all of its students. I am grateful for teachers and professionals like Nichole who are constantly learning, growing, evolving, and for a generous community that works to keep innovation and possibility alive.

Cheryl Gunness

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Marching Band 101

One of the challenges of a large public school system is to constantly improve transitional moments to make students more at ease. Read below as 9th graders are introduced to what lies ahead for their high school years in the band program. 

—Ric Dressen @EdinaSuper

It is a lovely, warm Indian summer October  evening—one of the many we have been blessed with this fall. The lights of Kuhlman field are bright in the night sky. On one end of the field, empty instrument cases of every shape and size are strewn about,  tossed carelessly with sweatshirts, water bottles and odd items. Hundreds of band students are scattered on the field: some in clusters of their section, others running back and forth. Some kids are chatting. A Frisbee and a football can be seen flying through the air over the emerald Astroturf. There is a feeling of anticipation, as just before a game starts, but this time the bleachers are empty, except for parents of ninth graders slowly filing in and taking a seat.

This was the ninth grade marching band night. It is the first time that all the ninth graders in band from both South View and Valley View join forces during a marching rehearsal on the football field with the tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders. The ninth graders have learned the music during class time. The evening is designed to give the ninth graders a taste of marching, learn a couple of basic formations, and meet the older kids and the band directors. There was also an opportunity for the parents to ask Mr. Paul Kile and Mr. Andrew Richter questions about the high school band program. When all these students from four grades are together, they number around 450.

To see 450 musicians working together is impressive.  They do the circular swam in the middle—forming the ‘Hornet’s nest.’ They spell out E-D-I-N-A  in huge human letters.  The drum majors – the seniors who lead on the field—work extra hard to include these soon-to-be sophomores.  We sing, cheer and clap for their inaugural efforts.  Mr. Richter does a nice job speaking clearly into the microphone, directing the students while explaining to the parents what is happening. He also talks about the band trip this fall.  In November, the Edina High School band will march in the 92nd annual Veteran’s Day Parade in New York City.

As a parent who has already had one ‘bandie’ graduate, I understand the many benefits of being part of this large, powerhouse group.  I could write about the diversity of the band, the bonding experience,  the fabulous trips. There is the excellent leadership, the high standards of musicianship, and the long standing tradition of Pops—the lively variety show produced for the community every February, primarily by the seniors. There are wonderful concerts, and friendships formed among the parents. And most definitely, the band’s presence makes a home football game and the homecoming parade complete.

But on this mild October night, it’s transition in action. This well-planned evening has taken away a little fear of the unknown heading into high school. Putting on that band uniform for the first time is a little scary—much like trying that instrument was in the 5th grade.  So I applaud this evening, and not just for the perfect weather.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Writer's Block

Writing Centers at the college level are common, but Edina High School's Writing Center, The Writer's Block, is only the second high school writing center in the state. Thank you to the Edina Education Fund for making this leadership experience possible for our students. And happy National Day on Writing!
--Ric Dressen @EdinaSuper

The bell for first lunch rang as I sat down at one of the round tables situated throughout the Writer's Block in the sub-sub basement of Edina High School. As my first day on the job as a writing coach, I was unsure of what to expect. I braced myself for a flood of eager writing students, all desperate for help and vying for the attention of a relatively small cluster of novice coaches. However, as I prepared my coaching materials, I was surprised to find only one student waiting for advice. I asked her to take a seat and we began to look over her paper together. As she threw out ideas and we discussed the organizational strengths and weaknesses of her essay, I was astonished feel that I was learning as much through participating in the experience of coaching as she probably was from receiving a coach's advice. As the coaching session drew to a close, I was left with a sense of satisfaction greater than the sense I would have achieved by merely offering advice informally to one of my peers.  Together, the student and I had collaboratively accomplished something, and we both took away new knowledge from the experience.

Strangely, this humble room in the basement, deprived of sunlight and fresh air, has grand implications for Edina’s young writers. The Writer’s Block came to life with a grant from the Edina Education Fund, and is currently staffed by a handful of junior and senior “Coaches” under the tutelage of Ms. Martha Cosgrove and Ms. Bethany Mohs. According to the website, the mission is to “provide non-evaluative, individualized writing support through one-to-one consultations to all students and staff.”

All of the coaches have embraced a notion fundamental to the idea of the writing center: we are coaches, not editors. We sit next to, not across from, students; and we ask questions meant to formatively influence students to improve their writing.

This style is what has drawn me into the writing center. I feel that our purpose is to improve the writers in our school, not just to improve our writing. We coach writers. This philosophy makes us excellent, Ms. Cosgrove brags. “We have the best-trained and most engaged coaches in the state. You can’t touch us.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Edina Day of Service 2011

Thanks to all of the families who shared part of their Saturday making Edina Day of Service a great event for our schools and our community.
--Ric Dressen @Edina Super

Today was the third annual Edina Day of Service, and projects all over town were expected to involve more than 1,000 volunteers and 3,000 hours of donated time. Some of the largest projects took place in Edina schools.
At Cornelia, students gathered gently-used kid items including clothing, outerwear, books, toys and sports equipment. They sorted and sold these items at their Kids Helping Kids Sale. The proceeds will be donated to Somali famine relief through Feed My Starving Children; any items not sold will be given to Family Partnership of the Twin Cities, serving our community's most vulnerable children and families.

The sale is the fifth annual fall service project for the school, and part of Cornelia's Doing Good Together service learning program. One mom working the sale today said, "We are helping our children learn that they can make an impact on global disasters like the Somali famine by doing something as simple as selling our used stuff and donating the proceeds."

At Edina High School, students worked on cleaning up school grounds. Student project organizer Tom Anderson said, "I really think that being part of a community means helping out. Edina is a really great school, and whatever I can do to help keep it that way, I will do it."

My family and I spent the morning and part of the afternoon at Highlands, where 99 student, staff and parent volunteers worked on maintaining school grounds--easily 250 hours of service right there, and all for the price of 300 doughnut holes. Highlands is very lucky to have a diverse campus with a variety of outdoor learning spaces, but it takes a well-organized and committed school community to keep them humming. We weeded and mulched and watered. We re-liberated the path to our pond classroom area and got covered in burrs. The play area outside the kindergarten classrooms was buzzing with new kindergarten families weeding, mulching and generally beautifying. We put our produce gardens to bed, digging in composted manure so students can plant as soon as the ground thaws in the spring. We also made good progress on our newest learning area, a sensory garden. As one student summed up the new space, "You have to use all five of your senses to discover all of the surprises."

We got a lot of important work done today, we had a lot of fun, and we are sincerely grateful to everyone who participated! But we also know that we could not do all we do at Highlands, in our schools, and in our community, without a sustained commitment to service throughout the year. As one mom said to me today, possibly a tiny bit ironically, "Isn't every day a day of service in Edina?"

Cheryl Gunness

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Fifth Grader Has a Cell Phone

As many recent tributes note, Steve Jobs taught us to "think different" about the way we approach and use technology. Our challenge as a District is to harness the power of  technologyin its simplest and most complex formsto make learning deeper, more layered and more meaningful.
Ric Dressen @EdinaSuper

That’s right, she has a Pantech Laser. She paid for half of it with her allowance, the plan has unlimited texting, and partnering with her on the purchase was one of my best decisions as a parent.

“Why does a fifth grader need a phone?!” my friends ask. “Not until she’s in high school!” others state. Some don’t say anything and instead flash a polite look: “I’m glad you aren’t parenting my child.”

Of course, I understand all those responses; I also think they are short-sighted. I thought a long time about if and when to allow my daughter to have a phone. I thought about
research conducted in June 2011 by Parenting Group and the BlogHer network, finding that 20 percent of Gen X moms give their children access to smartphones by age two, and 33 percent of Gen Y moms do. I am sensitive to the idea that we are all becoming a dynamic mix of human-ness and technology. I decided that in essence, her phone could be about safety, security and love, and at the same time it could be about helping her to connect meaningfully to the world around her.

When I’m late to pick her up from school, skating, or camp, I simply text her: “I’m running late, honey, but I’m on my way. Hang in there.” I receive a message back that reads: “thx dad.” She knows I’m on the way and I know she’s safe. When I’m traveling, I send her a text: “I miss u.” And I get a text back: “miss u 2.” And when my wife loses her phone, I send my daughter a text that begins with: “Tell mom that….”  When our kids wake up sick, I text their teachers and the nurse to notify them of the absences; we learn about potentially dangerous situations instantly through emails from our district communications leaders. We are all intertwined.  We can help each other in ways previously unimaginable.

My daughter's teachers are using digital technology daily to connect my daughter with people, concepts and ideas. Could she still be learning on a blackboard? Yes—but instead she works interactively with her teachers on a white board. Could she still write her reports on paper? Sure—but last year she presented her report on polar bears using Powerpoint instead. She reads her class-assigned books on a Nook.

Does this mean there is no longer value in writing, talking, or sitting in a coffee house face to face? Of course not. Have we had to take the phone away when she has abused it by downloading too many games or when she has not taken care of it? Unfortunately, yes. But I am choosing to guide my child gently, responsibly, and wholeheartedly into the world that she is quickly being thrown into—whether I like it or not. Either I lead her into it as I deem appropriate, or someone else will.

Like her teachers throwing her head first into interactive white boards, powerpoints, and wikipedia research, I too am connecting her to her family, her friends, and the rest of our big but oh-so-small world.

And it’s one of the best things I’ve done for her.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Taking Care of Business

Parents, teachers and administrators can all be effective advocates for students. Our ultimate goal, though, is for students to take charge of their own education, as we see here.
--Ric Dressen @EdinaSuper

“Lately all I see of William is what he can’t do. The work that is coming home from school is largely above his level. Orchestra is too hard. Reading is too hard. In Social Studies they are learning concepts like “cultural landscape.” In sixth grade. I don’t know how non-autistic kids are doing it. Yet I know they are.  

And he’s not.

Every day I am reminded more and more of how he’s not doing it. Until I see him only for what he isn’t and not for what he is. Only what he can’t do and not what he can.”

That is the beginning of a post I started a couple of weeks ago but didn’t finish because it was too depressing.  

This happens sometimes – I see William only for what he doesn’t seem capable of.  Which is a terrible way for his mother, being chief cheerleader and advocate, to feel. 

I lose the perspective of "person first" language. This is the concept where instead of an “autistic child,” you have a “child with autism.”

It seems a lens of worry and uncertainty clouds my vision during those times, only letting in the disability and not the abilities, even though I know deep down that there is more William can do than he can’t do. 

Then last week, when I was still feeling pretty low, William’s principal left me a message.  Of course, when I saw the caller ID from school I prepared myself for the worst, but instead I got to hear how my son was seen through her eyes:

“Mrs. Nisi, this is William’s principal. I just had to call you to let you know that William and I spoke today, and he is so very personable!  He made sure he knew who I was, and made sure I knew who he was.  I wanted to let you know this because I read your blog post about sending him here, and I just want you not to worry, and to know that William is taking care of business at this school!"

So, a different set of eyes, a different lens, and William became more than the autistic child having trouble keeping up. He became a child with autism who is taking care of business!
Laura Nisi