Power to the Teacher

Amidst our current obsession with online learning it is important to remember that a good teacher can have a tremendous impact on student learning outcomes. Renowned education economist Eric Hanushek puts it best that,

the initiatives we have emphasized in policy discussions—class-size reduction, curriculum revamping, reorganization of school schedule, investment in technology—all fall far short of the impact that good teachers can have in the classroom.

We are lucky to have not only a good teacher, but arguably one of the best K12 computer science teachers in the state, Brian Van Dyck, on our founding team at Embark Labs.

Brian in action at our Google Spring Academy

Brian in action at our Google Spring Academy

I have learned so much from working with Brian and am constantly impressed by the energy he creates in any learning environment. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who has recognized this. In the past few weeks Brian has been featured in a couple articles that provide a glimpse into his teaching philosophy and the unique approach we are creating at Embark Labs.

InMenlo, a local Bay Area publication captured Brian’s 20+ year history working in this area while the Code-To-Learn Foundation wrote a fantastic profile on how he uses Scratch in innovative ways to teach kids coding and computer science.

We don’t need a special ‘appreciation’ day to celebrate the educators that inspire our children every day. As the school year comes to a close, this is as good a time as any to share your appreciation for someone who has impacted your child’s learning journey. My gratitude goes out to Brian Van Dyck.

(If you’d like to experience Brian’s magical teaching, there are a few spaces and scholarships still available for Embark Labs summer programs in Mountain View and Menlo Park. Enroll today!)

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Mitch Weathers: Building a Startup from the Classroom

The 4th and final profile in the Teacherpreneur Spotlight Series that I’ve produced in collaboration with EdSurge.

“When students know what you want them to do, and they can do it, they tend to do it. You’ve built in a chance for them to be successful in your class and it has nothing to do with content mastery– It’s about acting like a student and students want that.”

Mitch Weathers was destined to become an educator. From his early years in college he knew he wanted to work with at-risk high school students. After a brief stint in the nonprofit sector with Young Life, where he spent time as Executive Director, Weathers decided he could have a greater impact helping kids be successful in the classroom. His teaching journey began in 2001 in Sacramento, and shortly afterwards he moved to Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA, where has has been teaching science for the past 12 years. (He also serves as the Chair of the science department.)

The motivation to create Organized Binder came directly out of his experience at Sequoia, where he taught students who were coming to school everyday but often without completing any work from previous days. Somehow the students didn’t believe they could be academically successful, but Weathers believed otherwise.

“Much of our effort and emphasis in education is around content, yet, it quickly became clear that these students lacked the basic skill set to even access that content,” says Weathers.  Organized Binder is exactly what it sounds like: a physical 3-ring binder that houses a paper-based system to help educators ritualize the classroom, by setting clear expectations about class work and processes.

The system is composed of different color-coded pages that represent a set of best practices, thus clarifying expectations so students know what it means to be ready to learn. It establishes clear classroom processes to make explicit what some refer to as the “hidden curriculum”– learning skills unrelated to content (such as organizing papers created or handed out in class, taking good notes, managing calendars, and tracking progress towards tests/deliverables) that students often struggle with.

OrgB Pic

After prototyping the system for much of 2003, Weathers began to see meaningful improvement in learning and engagement with the students in his classroom. Soon, other teachers began to inquire about the Organized Binder system and the following school year Weathers led a pilot across all the 9th grade teachers and students at Sequoia High School, thus expanding the usage from 3-4 people to 50. “As I walked through various classrooms observing the Binder in action it became very clear the system was content agnostic.” Epiphanies like that really drove Weathers to continue refining the product.

While currently in paper form, Weathers is working with a couple of designers and developers, with input from several other educators, to translate the process into a web version with a mobile app for teachers which they hope to release this summer.

Beyond the School Walls

Growing the Organized Binder user base beyond Sequoia High School happened serendipitously.  In 2005, Weathers was asked to share his model at the California Teacher’s Association’s (CTA) Good Teaching Conference. Having never presented at an education conference before, he was a bit surprised when his proposal was accepted, and even more so when hundreds of people tried to get into his session. “About 50 people followed me down to the lobby after the session and the hotel made more copies of the binder pages because we ran out.”

Organized Binder is now being used in over 30 states and around the world, with both school and district-wide implementations. The results speak for themselves, where schools using the system are making over 100 point API gains, and EL and Special Education students earn huge gains on standardized exams. Weathers started off by traveling to each school to conduct training sessions himself. Over the years he’s built up an army of regional trainers to scale the business and provide support around the U.S.

Bridging the Offline and Online Worlds

Through his many training sessions with teachers around the country, Weathers has captured valuable insights into what teachers want and need in order to successfully integrate technology into their teaching practice. “For many teachers the issue with tech is that when you bring in new tools and you have the ‘wow factor,’ but then each thing becomes a discrete chunk in the lesson.” One of the challenges with integrating tech into classroom instruction is achieving lessons that flow smoothly. These insights are helping shape the digital version of Organized Binder and future training methods. “What I’m most excited about in translating this system online is that it will function very much as a virtual binder. That is so important to educators who have been teaching (and often using paper-based systems) for 15-20 years because they understand a classroom that functions in that fashion; it fits into their way of thinking and conducting their class.”

However, there are challenges around moving fully to virtual binder, such as cost, access to hardware & wifi, as well as the ability to actually see if a student is disorganized. With all this in mind, Weathers is designing a blended system that allows for both on and offline elements.

Balancing School and Startup

Weathers is straightforward about the lack of any work-life balance, having very little time for much beyond the classroom and Organized Binder. Weathers has impressively built Organized Binder into a sustainable business, with profit built into each of the school contracts, however, managing the growth is a different story. The question of leaving the classroom is a sensitive subject for him, but he openly acknowledges that juggling two full-time endeavors is not sustainable. “For years, standing in front of crowds saying that I’m a teacher and that I use this tool myself on a daily basis gave me incredible legitimacy. I’m getting closer to a time where I will have to leave the classroom or go part-time and I’m not sure what that will look like.”

As with any entrepreneurial enterprise, the trajectory is uncertain but Weathers is confidently optimistic about what the future holds for Organized Binder. You can keep up with his progress by following Mitch Weathers on Twitter @OrganizedBinder, get updates on Facebook and reach him directly at mitch (at) organizedbinder (dot) com.

Adam Bellow: Journey of a Teacher turned Entrepreneur

One educator’s gritty journey to turn a pain point into a product and company. Profile #3 in the Teacherpreneur Spotlight Series that I’ve produced in collaboration with EdSurge.

Adam at Desk

“I never thought I would be a teacher”

Adam Bellow decided early on in life that he wasn’t going to be a teacher, even though both his parents were respected educators. As a self-proclaimed ‘nerd,’ Adam started programming BASIC when he was 7 years old on an Apple IIe.

But life plans aren’t set in stone. After completing film school with a minor in sociology in 2003 he was an assistant teacher at The Churchill School (a school in Manhattan for students with language-based learning disabilities). In 2005, Adam took over teaching a class, “Technology in the Special Ed Classroom,” to 22 eager graduate students at Hunter College. Over the next couple of years, he started to piece together a “terrible catalogue of sites using iWeb,” in his words, and in 2007 the first version of eduTecher was born. “I thought of it simply as a place to organize resources for my class,” Bellow remembers, “and then when I eventually saw hits coming in from Australia and China I realized was meeting a need for a larger community.” His entrepreneurial spirit began to blossom.

Evolution of eduClipper

eduClipper Screenshot

The countless positive testimonials motivated Bellow to continue eduTecher as a side project while he worked full time with a series of teaching jobs, technology training positions, and as Director of Technology for the College Board Schools. In 2009 Bellow launched one of the first edtech iPhone apps, eduTecher Backpack, and the momentum continued. “I was curating the web for educators and it was cool to see the community organically grow.”

In 2011 he added a custom social network component and began spending more and more time building in new features. “I thought about what it would mean to work on this full time. I put out a survey to my edtech friends to get their input on what aspects of eduTecher I should rebuild and possibly even build a business around.”

The feedback was overwhelming and he learned that what educators valued most was the simple, visual curation element that eduTecher had offered. Around this time, Pinterest was gaining popularity, which led him to think about how he could optimize the “clipboard” experience specifically for educators.

Bellow built initial mockups for the rechristened eduClipper in Keynote and in early 2012 outsourced the project to developers in India through Elance. He convinced his wife to let them put some money into this project and began working night owl hours to test out his idea. “It was rough…On a typical day, I’d wake up around 3 am to work on my startup until 5 am, before I left for a full day of work. Then once I’d tucked the kids in at night I’d jump back online. I was sleeping  around 3 hours a night and it was not sustainable.”

However, all that hustling paid off by June 2012. He had hoped that the first iteration of the site, intended to be a proof of concept, would attract 200 users. Instead, he got 20,000 a month. He realized he was onto something and decided to pursue the project full time.

He was blown away. “The number of accounts created and positive buzz around the potential was a clear indication that I had to explore the possibilities. I made the transition from educator to entrepreneur; however I had no knowledge of startups beyond watching The Social Network and religiously reading TechCrunch and other related blogs.” Connecting with the growing edtech community was a significant driver in his success and after a serendipitous encounter with Jeff O’Hara, co-founder of Edmodo, during a trip to Chicago, Bellow was more motivated than ever to build his own product and company.

Bellow is currently gearing up for a major re-launch of eduClipper slated for June and expand his user base beyond the 25,000 that he currently supports; at last count, there were 16,000 on the waitlist.

Show Me the Money

Balancing his schedule between teaching and product development was grueling. But for Bellow, nothing prepared him for the plunge into the fundraising world in the New York venture capital scene. “At first it felt like a waste of time,” says Bellow, who felt awkward revealing that he didn’t have all the answers. Over time, he became more comfortable going to investors for advice after having met many who supported his vision for change. And he realized, “who wants you to succeed more than your investors?” 

Bellow is getting ready to close his seed round which includes some luminaries in the edtech space.

Lessons Learned

Consistent with the Valley’s spirit to embrace failure, Bellow is quick to admit that he made a ton of mistakes along the way. “The trick is to learn quickly and keep going.” In thinking back on what helped eduClipper come to life, Bellow offers these few bits of advice:

  • Focus on real pain points. “Don’t just set out to build something cool. If I set out to build Pinterest for educators that would suck. Start with a real problem and understand that pain point that you’re trying to resolve.”

  • Community is at the core of everything. “Even before there was a real product, I focused on talking to people and being accessible. Growing my network in the startup space, especially around edtech, has been invaluable especially fumbling through our failures.”

  • Education is about people. “Our core values, as you can see from the sign on our door, is that teachers and students come first. If we started from the perspective of trying to make a ton of money it would never work.”

Fellow educators often ask Bellow if he misses the classroom, to which he replies, “I still think of myself as a teacher. I train a ton of people in schools all the time. I miss doing that legitimate work with kids, but I think that what we are developing is designed to help kids and teachers get results everyday.”

Adam will be the keynote speaker at ISTE in San Antonio this June. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdamBellow.

Angela Estrella: Empowering Educators to Embrace Edtech

Profile #2 in the Teacherpreneur Spotlight Series that I’ve produced in collaboration with EdSurge.

Angela Estrella’s personal fascination with technology began during her undergrad years at UC Berkeley, using her Palm Pilot whenever she was riding on BART. “I used that Palm Pilot ALL the time- as a calendar, to take notes so in many ways that was my first ‘smartphone.’”

Her passion for teaching traces back to her own experience in middle school, where she was deeply inspired by teachers who took an interest in her and motivated her to become the first in her family to graduate from a university. Fast forward a few years after graduating from Cal and she found herself teaching at Overfelt High School in East San Jose, which didn’t quite have the resources to match Angela’s passion for technology. Still, she quickly noticed that her students were more engaged when she used various tech tools, especially those that involved using videos to demonstrate their learning. This inspired the savvy entrepreneur in Angela to seek out tech grants, and in collaboration with a visionary principal her school was awarded a substantial grant to start a Multimedia Academy at Overfelt through the CA Partnership Academies (CPA) Program.

“I encourage aspiring teacherpreneurs to identify small pots of local funds, such as the SVEF Innovation Grants or funding from your PTSA, to fuel your vision. I’ve also had 3-4 grants funded by DonorsChoose, so that’s been really helpful.” She added that starting off small creates a unique sense of ownership and the ideal scenario is to collaborate with local schools or educators to apply together. “As a member of SVCUE (the Silicon Valley chapter of Computer Using Educators) I can apply for their mini-grants. I think joining organizations like your local CUE affiliate is a great way to connect with educators and learn more about professional development and grant opportunities.”

Things changed when Angela began teaching in the more affluent Cupertino area in 2010, where teachers and students had more access to technology. But new challenges surfaced. While teachers had access to the latest devices, such as iPads, Apple TVs and SmartBoards, few of them had the knowledge or confidence to integrate them into their teaching practices.

So Estrella took it upon herself to create a more collaborative environment among her students and fellow faculty to help one another locate and try out new tech tools. As Lynbrook’s Library and Media Teacher for the past couple years, Angela has launched some innovative programs for students and teachers such as the Virtual Vikings and redesigning their Tech Menu Days. Virtual Vikings, essentially a student-powered geek squad, has illustrated for teachers how students can provide real-time tech support and enable the smart adoption of tech tools in the classroom. Through Tech Menu Days, Angela has tapped into the expertise within her teaching community to showcase best practices on how to use various edtech tools, such as Google Aps for Edu and KidBlog.

Fostering support and buy-in from her district has been a major factor in her success. “I’m working with our Director of Technology at the District to expand what we’re doing,” she said. “That guidance and support is essential to scaling what we’ve proven works at Lynbrook.”

Estrella turns to her extensive online PLNs (professional learning networks), mainly via Twitter and Facebook, for sources of inspiration on how to creatively use tech in her class.  She’s constantly trying out edtech tools and finding creative ways to introduce those tools and the entrepreneurs who build them to her school community. It’s all part of her larger vision to create a culture of experimentation and embracing of edtech for both students and teachers at Lynbrook.

Hear directly from Angela about her work from this video profile, connect with her on Twitter @am_estrella or check out her blog.

Ryan Kinser: From TV Production to Teacherpreneur

In the first of my ongoing Teacherpreneur Spotlight series with EdSurge on innovative educators who take initiative to experiment with new teaching practices and tech tools, we look at Ryan Kinser, 8th grade English teacher at Walker Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL.

Ryan Kinser bio pic

Ryan Kinser stumbled upon his passion for education the second time around. After an extensive career in the TV production world he found himself recruited into the DC Teaching Fellows Program. After an incredibly challenging first year, leaving school each day exhausted and emotionally spent, Ryan considered that maybe teaching wasn’t the right fit. But, for some reason that did not sit well with him. “I loved the few moments that I was teaching and not just trying to tread water.”

After moving to Tampa, FL, like any good student he decided to give it another try. He found a Walker Middle Magnet School, a school with strong leadership that recognized the value of his business background, and this time was different. Through strong mentorship Ryan realized “I started to find out what kind of teacher I could be and I loved it. A big piece of that was mentorship, which is SO critical to attracting and retaining the best teaching talent.”

Ryan’s teacher turnaround story doesn’t end there. In 2010 he was a finalist for Hillsborough Teacher of the Year which helped him catch the attention of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Ryan joined CTQ as one of their handful of teacherpreneurs in a hybrid role where he maintains his role in the classroom during morning hours and spends his afternoons focusing on his areas of interest: advancing teacher leadership, developing PLNs/VLCs and supporting the edtech ecosystem. The truly liberating piece is that CTQ works with the district and school to negotiate Ryan’s release for the 2nd half of the day, over which he has full autonomy to define his contribution as a teacherpreneur. Those afternoon hours are often focused on blogging, research as well as various speaking engagements and advising local, state and national stakeholders on the importance of empowering more teacherpreneurs.



Sounds pretty amazing, huh? Of course my immediate question was how do we create more opportunities like this for teachers across the country. CTQ has been looking at various ways to scale their efforts through their virtual community which current engages 1500 teacher leaders nationwide. In his teacherpreneur role, one of Ryan’s tasks is to think about working with other districts and next year Tampa will be rolling out 15 new spots supported with Title 1 funds.

Edtech Insights

You may find it surprising that a middle school English teacher’s favorite edtech tool is Code HS, a platform for teaching high school students how to code, which he became deeply familiar with after mentoring the Imagine K12 startup last fall. “We are rethinking literacy- what does it mean to write and create in an online world and coding is a big aspect of that shift.” In 2012 Ryan received one of 10 Magnet School of America grants nationwide, which he used to conduct a mobile app-building project with his students. This game is an example of one what student created during that project. Creating this opportunity for his students illustrates how teachers can (and must) fill in their own tech gaps rather than waiting for instruction or professional development to find them.

Beyond the tech, connecting in the offline world is equally important to supporting the teacherpreneur process. Having the chance to speak and travel to various education conferences (which could be it’s own full time gig) I asked Ryan which ones he found most beneficial. “I found the scope and number of teachers at ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching) really impressive.” Another one that stood out for him was FETC (Florida Education Tech Conference.) Both of these have already passed for 2013, but looking to the rest of year Ryan will definitely be at ISTE in San Antonio in June, and of course, EdSurge will be there, too. While these events can be effective what is really needed is for “more teachers to publicize what they are doing. There is such a silo of education, we don’t step outside our classroom doors.”

Now let’s hear a bit from Ryan directly:

With the explosion of social media tools no one has to wait to attend a conference to learn about a new tool or share their favorite trick. What are your favorite social communication tools?

I love Twitter and that’s how I get most of my information. I lurked around for 9 months before I sent my first tweet and often share that with teachers that are new to Twitter. It’s easy to be a lurker, which is low-risk and potentially high-reward. With my VLC work I am a big YouTube and Google+/HangoutsOnAir fan. Honorable mention to Edmodo, SlideShare and LiveScribe.

What advice do you have to new teachers and/or aspiring teacherpreneurs?

They have to be their own advocate. Do the work and make sure it’s needed by someone else. Be a self-advocate. Get connected with other teachers, with social media it’s impossible not to connect someone that knows someone else. Once you’re doing the work you’re passionate about, find the people who can advocate with and on your behalf.

Also, teachers need to be vulnerable and learn alongside their students. If you’re not adaptable, then there is no use for you in the classroom.

What efforts would you like to see that would truly advance the role of teacherpreneurs?

Meetups are important in regional pockets but what I’d love to see is a widespread exchange program– teachers rotate through an edtech program which also allows entrepreneurs to spend time in the classroom. I’ve been working closely with CodeHS to connect them with my educator network and would love to see this type of edtech-educator exchange on a grander scale.

One program I created at my school to help teachers get more comfortable with tech is small group office hours. I get 10-15 people together and we have a casual and customized conversation about Google Hangouts, Dropbox, etc… They are optional but I invite specific groups of teachers based on their needs and discuss how certain tools can make their teaching lives easier. I hook them by asking questions like “Have you thought about expanding the walls of your classroom? Stop by for 20 min and I’ll show you how.”

(Ryan Kinser can be reached at rkinser@teachingquality.org and followed on Twitter @RyanKinser. He also blogs for CTQ’s TransformEd and Impatient Optimists.)