Alexandria Online

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Dalton School: The Dalton Plan: The Dalton Book

Dalton School sits on some of the most sought-after real estate on the planet: 89th Street between Lexington and Park on the Upper East Side of New York City. Whereas The Episcopal Academy spreads out over 123 acres of former farm land in the exurbs of Philadelphia, Dalton goes 12 stories up and is a fifteen minute walk from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim ... New York.  Two very different spaces that are home to two distinct, authentic institutions with strong identities.

Most schools have "the mission statement." For most independent schools it is the same statement, about nurturing the whole child, healthy mind in a healthy body ... high standards ... challenging ... character ... supportive environment ... banana banana banana.

Dalton has "The Dalton Plan" -- an entire book -- not a short one. It's a constitution, not a mission statement. I have read  only the short summary of the plan on the school's website, which I strongly recommend. In it you can see the seeds of Dalton's natural inclination toward using technology and you can also see an early version of a modern philosophy of education called "differentiated education," most notably articulated by Carol Ann Tomlinson.

The kids at Dalton get detailed assignments and they are taught how to take responsibility for dependably completing the assignment step-by-step independently. You could call the "assignment" a "project," which makes this "project-based learning," which is code for what schools desperately try to emulate and not infrequently fail to achieve when they implement one-to-one laptop programs. If kids don't have projects to do in the classroom, then they spend most of their time listening to the teacher, and their expensive, heavy laptops spend all of the time in their backpacks among the squashed bananas.

Dalton is doing it forward, where a lot of schools are doing it backward. Dalton is trying to fit the technology to the education, not the education to the technology.

John Neiers, Director of Technology at Dalton, is a practical guy. He asked why Episcopal was looking at a laptop program. I told him that one reason was that our program is quickly approaching a ratio of two students for every one computer. Our laptop carts and labs are in constant use. We are wondering at what point we should just give every kid a laptop and dispense with carts and labs. John's number, it turns out, is around 1.8-to-1 students-to-computers. At that point it made sense to him to enter a three-year lease on macbooks for every 6th grader and call it a pilot program.

A practical solution for a visionary type of education. That's what a good tech director can deliver. And at a certain point, when the pragmatism keeps taking a vision to the next level, the pragmatism itself is visionary. But beware: there are many false Buddhas out there, and some of them are "visionary" educational technologists who lack pragmatism.

Here's the funny thing, though: in most schools teachers resist new technologies, but at Dalton the teachers were ready. I'll give you four examples.

Example One: algebra
Aran Glancy teaches high school algebra. Yes, he distributes a standard, printed algebra textbook to his kids, but he uses a lot of problems from an out-of-print algebra textbook he found on google books and he has a tremendous amount of his own material on his moodle. He and a colleague are considering writing their own algebra text, so Aran has no lack of content. His "Dalton Assignments" are all there online for the kids to access.

And here are the two questions I always ask: "Can you do without a bound, paper textbook?" and "Can you use your online material next year?" Aran's answers are, "not quite, but soon!" and "yes."

Example Two: Spanish
Several years ago, Sol Gaitan, who teaches Spanish 6-12 at Dalton, heard a speaker from The Institute for the Future of the Book talk about creating electronic books, and she began using a little-known software package to create rich-media digital books. Video and audio clips, animations, mouse-over  call-out boxes, were coherently, tastefully -- I might even say beautifully -- integrated with text. She is now changing to another software program called Sophie being developed at USC.

At the time she started, Dalton did not have a one-to-one program, so the students had to install the software on whatever computer they had at home in order to read their homework. Many headaches were eliminated when the laptop program began and the machines were deployed with the proper software pre-installed and tested.

The course still depends on a bound, paper textbook to provide sequence and structure. Sol's ebook expands and amplifies.

Can Sol do without her bound paper textbook ("BPT")? Not yet. Can she use her own materials next year? Definitely. And one more question: does she need technology to run her class? Definitely.

Example Three: Middle School History
Jay Golon could almost do without a BPT; he feels that the bound paper text he uses just can't be beat for delivering bare-bones historical content in a clear, efficient, structured form. But if you check his pages on the Dalton moodle, you will find several books' worth of historical content stored and organized in keeping with the structure of his course. He mines the Library of Congress website along with the many subscription databases that Dalton maintains.

Jay uses a SmartBoard extensively and posts his class notes on the moodle. And while a map of Europe with a few red arrows and blue circles does not make a lesson, the potential is certainly there for reuse of those  sketches as well.

"BPT"? Still needs one. Reusable materials? You bet.

Example Four: Digital Spanish
Maria Madinaveitia wanted to solve a problem that every independent school faces. As kids advance in world languages, some go on to the advanced placement or honors level, but some don't have the natural inclination to excel in the grammar and literature of a language.

Maria felt that the school was not nurturing this group of students as well as it might. She convinced the head of school that a different approach was needed, and with her experience in curriculum development, she felt ready to take on that challenge. One thing scared her: she knew she had to use technology.

Maria claims that she is a technophobe. What a strange new category of suffering we have now in technophobia. Although thousands are killed in car accidents every year, one doesn't hear much about autophobia. And yet the thought of creating and storing one's work on an inscrutable, whimsical, sadistic little device terrifies so many. It humiliates you in front of students, peers, parents and administrators; it let's you down late at night; it makes you a novice again although you are an experienced and esteemed professional; it makes you dependent -- on electricity, on batteries, on your internet connection, on the snickering teenager in tech support ... But wait: did I mention tech support?

This is where Dalton scored big. Well before Maria started her summer project to develop a new course for conversational and cultural Spanish, she began meeting with Arlo Klinger, a curricular specialist within Dalton's technology department. Arlo knows no Spanish, but he knows how to help.

Maria also took a summer seminar with Carol Ann Tomlinson in order to integrate The Dalton Plan with some ideas borrowed from the new field of "differentiated education." She wanted her kids to take responsibility, plan their own work, identify and address their own weaknesses, assess their own strengths. All the materials would be there -- online, thanks to Arlo -- for them to work with at their own pace. Video, audio, text, animations, everything.

Maria shakes her head when she thinks about the amount of work that went into developing and implementing this curriculum, but it has clearly been tremendously engaging and stimulating for her. You need an Arlo to be able to pull it off. There are Arlos out there. We have some at Episcopal. When you've been in the tech biz long enough you can recognize them pretty fast. And their species is not exclusive to the tech world.

It's that person who doesn't necessarily volunteer first and fastest, may not even offer, doesn't want to be a hero, avoids big promises. The great support people are like entrepreneurs: they understand resources and identify opportunities. Nine parts pragmatism, one part altruism. And it helps a lot if they are nice.

And now the two big questions:
1. Reusable materials: are you kidding? After all that work?
2. Still need a BPT? Brace yourself: NO.
That's right. There is no bound paper textbook for this course. All the content is digital, stored on Dalton's moodle. A true cloudbook! The Institute for the Future of the Book calls it a "networked book." There is no copyright on the material, but you must be logged into the Dalton moodle to read it. Some of it can be printed; some cannot. You need a fully-featured computer to use it.

This cloudbook, or network book, has all the authority of it's author, Maria, and of Dalton School behind it. It is not a mash-up of other people's work and it is not anonymous. It represents a tremendous amount of work, refinement and editing, on the part of students as well as Maria and Arlo. The students' work is also posted there.

Maria's materials are published only for students at Dalton, but as materials like this accumulate on servers everywhere, teachers will begin to think about publishing more broadly. Maybe they will just try to pitch to the big publishers, or maybe they will try Lulu. Soon google will have its own publishing wing through google books. According to The New Yorker, some authors are already selling their content directly to Amazon without using traditional publishers.

Once all the work is done, the only questions that remain are how to make the work public -- and how to get paid for it.


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