A Brief Explanation of Common Core and all the Hub Bub

There has been a lot said about Common Core and it has become a political football for folks regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.  Coming off a political campaign, I got to see how issues like this get used as a proxy for many other ideas, and the reality of the situation gets lost.  Since I will be returning to my volunteer role working as a community manager with Edutopia, and I thought I would take a moment here on my personal blog to try to demystify Common Core.  (Disclaimer: Edutopia does not take a position one way or another on Common Core, so this piece is mine and mine alone.)

The Common Core is a set of academic standards that is meant to make sure kids in every grade have a common set of skills in place before advancing to the next grade.  For example, the Common Core writing standards for the fourth grade includes the following:

Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.
Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
Provide reasons that are supported by facts and details.
Link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition).
Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.

So by the end of fourth grade, kids should be able to write an essay expressing their opinion, that is organized and is supported by relevant facts and details.  This is the standard format of almost every 5 paragraph essay and/or blog post.  What’s wrong with this?  By meeting these standards, kids in fourth grade in New York or Florida or Utah will all be expected to have the same skills.  Even if their families move across the Country, kids will be able to pick up at the same place at the beginning of the 5th grade school year, regardless of whether they read the same novels the previous year or not.  It won’t matter as much whether or not your teacher got all the way through Chapter 10 in the reading book, as long as you have these skills in place, everything is great.  The fifth grade teachers know what kids should be capable of doing, and there’s less time spent re-teaching material kids forgot over the summer.    It sounds great on paper.

Now we get to implementation.  Teaching kids these skills will require them to do more than memorize or recognize the right answer on a multiple choice test.  It requires deeper learning, and deeper teaching.  It’s going to take some time to transition existing curriculum and lesson plans to meet these new standards, and this will require additional professional development.  It’s going to be bumpy, as most changes are.

But wait!  An administrator goes to a conference.  There’s a shiny new box of books and computer programs produced by Company ABC which promises each lesson is Common Core Aligned.  Which is easier- buying the new books or actually training your teachers to teach differently in the classroom?  Those new books are looking like a great short cut.

Let’s talk about all those crazy math problems posted on Facebook that are attributed to Common Core. ( I will also remind those of us who were in grade school in the 70’s about the way we had to learn how to solve problems in Base 8 or Base 3 as well as Base 10, and to remember this before getting bent out of shape about not understanding your child’s math homework.)  The point of the math standards is to begin to make kids as fluent in Math as they are in reading.  We want them to understand more than how to calculate, but how to think in “math”- learning logic, a sense of measurement and proportion, and to be able to reason with numbers as well as words, and be able to combine the two as needed.  The standards are asking kids to show their work more and articulate how they are thinking about the problem.  This is a big change and is often difficult for kids who have stronger analytical skills but weaker verbal skills.  My kids can’t stand it, because they have a very intuitive sense of numbers and can do calculations in their head, but explaining how they got to a solution is absolute torture for them.  However, it doesn’t mean that they should not be able to explain their thinking and also have any mistakes corrected along the way, to prevent issues later on down the road when algebra and calculus come along, and mere calculation may not be enough.

So let’s examine a standard up close. The math standards for Fourth grade say:

Use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems.

Interpret a multiplication equation as a comparison, e.g., interpret 35 = 5 × 7 as a statement that 35 is 5 times as many as 7 and 7 times as many as 5. Represent verbal statements of multiplicative comparisons as multiplication equations.
Multiply or divide to solve word problems involving multiplicative comparison, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem, distinguishing multiplicative comparison from additive comparison.1
Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

This means there’s a lot more language and word problems in math.  I would love it if we actually connected this up by doing real world projects that required using math skills, such as designing and then building something like a birdhouse.  It would start by calculating dimensions on paper and then actually building it according to the plans, to see whether the math “checked out” in the real world.  Even learning where the math did or did not work would be a valuable lesson in translating paper instructions and logic into real life.  This would help teach kids to look over a set of instructions, or even a recipe, and decide on whether the proportions seemed right before making it.

The point of all of this is that when we make any changes in a curriculum or in the way a subject is taught and learned, it’s going to confuse folks who learned it another way.  Each way may not be inherently wrong or right, and they each have their plusses and minuses.  But if we understand why changes are being made and what their long term benefits might be, maybe we could stop making teaching of courses in school such a political football, and get back to the important stuff, teaching kids the skills they are going to need to navigate an increasingly complicated world.

I love the idea of much of common core, especially where it focuses on building skill sets rather than rote memorization.  I think there’s great potential to do cross curricular inquiry-driven projects that will help learning come alive to kids, and put it in context, so it doesn’t always seem so abstract and pointless.  That’s exciting.  But when I see or hear of implementation that is essentially just reading a new script out of a new teacher’s guide, I go cold.  At that point, all we are doing is swapping one one-size-fits-all program for another, and the chance that teachers might actually start to customize the learning to the kids they have in their classroom goes right out the window.

Many folks have gotten upset because as the new “accountability” tests have rolled out, it’s become clear many kids were relying on recognizing the right answer rather than understanding why it was right, and that’s something that becomes apparent with the Common Core.  We’re now asking both teachers and students to work harder than before, be more engaged with their learning, and tackle harder problems.  It’s the right thing to do.  But it won’t be an easy transition for anyone, and we might find out, as many college professors will already tell you, students haven’t been as prepared for the rigors of college as they once were, and these changes are necessary to make sure kids are ready for college and career.

Yes, seeing test scores go down causes panic and worry.  But making a test easier so we can brag everyone got all A’s doesn’t automatically make them smarter and more successful- that’s just grade inflation.  Common Core is essentially asking more of everyone, and there will be some grade deflation until everyone is comfortable with the increased expectations.  Harder tests will mean having to work harder to achieve, and that’s not a bad thing.  Letting people skate by with minimal skills and a false sense of achievement is far more dangerous and damaging.

In the end, I think the essence and goals of common core are great.  I think their implementation and explanation to parents, kids and teachers alike has been, at best, ham handed and poorly communicated.  I don’t think we need to give up on Common Core, but much like the issues with the website around the Affordable Care Act, we have to retool and make sure everyone sees the map we’re using and where it’s headed so they can be more patient during the trip itself.  But until that happens, everyone will be sitting in the proverbial backseat, second guessing the driver and asking for the 400th time, “Are we there yet?  When are we going to get there?”

If we decide it’s too hard and turn the car around, we’ll never get to the destination. And that destination just might be the preparation of our kids for a more complex future where critical thinking and flexibility in approaches to problem solving will be key skills.  I want our kids prepared for that future.

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The Media and the Campaign

There’s a lot that goes on with a political campaign that mirrors marketing for a traditional business.  In many ways, a political campaign is an eight month marketing and branding campaign- just like for any product or brand.  You are either introducing a new Candidate, like launching a new brand, or you are trying to refresh an old favorite, and encourage people to stay the course.

As part of the campaign, using a variety of media is important.  We chose to use some traditional media sources, including radio and direct mail.  You can listen to our

radio ad by clicking on the player.  (Many thanks to Ken Grant for voice over services, and the fine folks at WJBR for their production expertise.)

We did some small video projects, one specific to my opponent’s support of the Voter ID bill.  He is very proud of having spent time for years to get this bill passed, even though there has been no evidence presented of in person voter fraud in PA, and the bill was eventually declared unconstitutional in the Courts and the sitting Governor decided not to appeal.  (Although recently in debates, he said if re-elected, Gov. Corbett would welcome a re-introduction of such a bill.  You can draw your own conclusions about election year politics.)

Here’s that video:

Our mailers were kept simple and graphic, presenting one idea each.

You can take a look at two of them below (uploaded as PDF’s)

17454254 Whitney Hoffman Post Card 0918-3

17454254 Whitney Hoffman Post Card-Gridlock 1008-2

We’ve been active of Twitter and Facebook, and we set up a separate campaign website, while also posting and blogging here as well.  We have a few new Facebook “posters” to share this week as well.

I have no idea what will happen November 4th at this point.  I am proud of the media we created, and I think it stands out as different from most of the mailers I’ve gotten from other candidates.  All of this may not  be a recipe for winning, but I do think it’s a campaign I can be proud of, both as a candidate and as a media/marketing person.

Many thanks to everyone who helped over the course of the campaign, including Paul Muller (one of the best graphic designers I know), Jenni Brand (for brainstorming and helping me pinpoint the great ideas out of the sea of possibilities), Nancy & Don Dibert of Epic Marketing  and their entire team for execution and giving me a huge education in direct mail; the folks at Dr. Don’s Buttons; and Matt at Paper Crane Press for helping us get off the ground early.

We’ll do another post publicly thanking everyone who helped in all other aspects of the Campaign, but I wanted to make sure you all got a chance to see the media work done all together, and what can be done when you assemble a great team.

Thanks Everyone!

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Digital Citizenship and an Online World

As many of the regular readers of my blog know, I have been interested in digital citizenship since I started podcasting back in 2005.  Anyone who chooses to can participate online these days, with the costs and technical barriers to entry for blogging, podcasting, or participating in social media dropping lower every day.  I see young kids playing on smartphones and tablets, and interacting with friends through basic age appropriate online games.  Teens play games through Xbox live with friends from across the County, Country and World, without ever being in the same room.  Adults reveal all sorts of things about themselves on Facebook- sometimes even things you might not say to your close friends if you were face to face.

When I was in school, we used to hear things like “Be Careful- if you do something wrong, it will end up on your permanent record.”  Google is now our permanent record, and like the Miranda Rights, anything you say you can expect can and will be used against you at some point in the future in the Court of Public Opinion.

This can be stressful for some folks.  When I was considering running for office, I had to decide whether or not everything I had ever put online (which is a lot) would be a benefit or burden.  I had to decide whether I was willing to stand behind anything or everything I have ever said.  Google is my permanent record.

Everything I write here on my blog is heartfelt.  You may not agree with everything I say, and I would love to hear your opinions and exchange ideas, but know that what I write is what I feel, and as a result, I am willing to stand behind it all- now and in the future.  I also maintain the belief that we can change our minds when we learn new things, and evolve over time- new data and information makes us more informed, not less.  I’m also ok with being wrong.  That’s being human.

From Edutopia

Our school district recently issued an alert about a new social networking app that is allowing anonymous messages passed around to others through near-field communications- and that it has led to incidents of cyberbullying.  I worry that we have to start teaching our kids at ever younger ages about the harm of bullying, but I think the more important lesson to impart is one of kindness.  We need to keep instilling the values posted here, taken from a Facebook image shared by Edutopia- we need to ask ourselves, and ask our kids to think- True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind.  So much of what we see these days may not measure up to these standards, and I’m willing to admit I make mistakes as well.  But I really do try to start with kind, even when I make a critique.

Our reputations are our most valuable asset, and it’s really difficult to help young kids understand that concept, when the future and adulthood seem to be forever away.  Heck, waiting for their favorite show to come on seems like a lifetime away, let alone college or becoming an adult.  That’s why teaching values about kindness, at home and at school are so important.  It’s why building communities is so important.  If we treat each other with kindness (and hopefully respect), a good portion of the work is already done.  The tone is less aggressive and more cooperative and that’s a great way to start any project or attempt to resolve a problem.

There’s nothing like running for office to emphasize how important reputation is, with everything you have done, and everything you choose to do.  Stepping up in front of my community shines a light on my actions, and I need to make sure I conduct myself in a way I can be proud of both during the competitive phase of running for office and afterwards.   While this is not the path that everyone chooses during the campaign season, and plenty of folks urge candidates to take harder shots at the opponent, or make the campaign a little more “dirty”, I hope I’m blending raising real issues, holding my opponent accountable, and being civil in our disagreements.

And if I’m not, I hope you will hold me accountable as well.  After all, it’s now all part of my permanent record.


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Dealing with Tough Problems

Yesterday, I attended a local hearing held on a State House Bill, HB 2427, that would allow emergency service providers to bill individuals for those services, up to $1,000 per incident.  The purpose of the bill, to make sure our local volunteer fire departments have additional sources of revenue and have to spend less time running fundraisers to support the needs of the community, is incredibly important.

To put this in perspective, I overheard a story about one fire department who had a hazardous materials call that required them to use around $14,000 worth of materials to clean up the spill.  This puts a huge dent in the budget of anyone, let alone a very necessary public service.  Since many Department’s fundraisers only raise a few hundred dollars at a shot, you can begin to see how one unusual emergency could easily sap a budget and lead fire departments into a constant fundraising mode.  This clearly takes away from their main mission of community service, and has lead many folks to quit, saying they got into volunteering to serve the community, not become professional fundraisers.

The bill as written has many problems, that were brought out from the State Fire Commissioner, Local Departments, and even someone from the organization that represents township supervisors.  Currently, as written, if you pay taxes in a municipality with a fire tax, or contribute to your local volunteer department, you would not be billed for emergency services provided by that Department.  That sounds fair, but we all know emergencies don’t always happen at home or within your township.  I live on the border between two townships and two counties- which fire companies should I make donations to?  Does one donation cover my whole family, or do we need a donation for every person in the house?  How much of a donation counts?  If a $25 donation per year covers me for what costs the Fire Department thousands in the event of a serious emergency, is that even reasonable or fair?

We have to find a better way to make sure we have adequate emergency services.  We probably need to pay an additional tax to make sure we all share the benefit and burden of emergency protection.  Leaving our fire companies to try to scrounge endlessly for additional pennies is unacceptable, but so is enacting a piecemeal system so that if I have an accident in another township, I need to worry about a big bill based on the fact I never anticipated having an accident in that area.  Then there are the inherent problems in figuring out what each type of emergency might cost, what fair and reasonable costs are, enacting rate sheets, dealing with whether they should be revised and how often, etc.  I certainly don’t want to get into a situation where my emergency responders worry about scanning bar codes attached to emergency equipment before using it, to ensure adequate billing later on.

Additioanlly, there is the problem caused by complicated emergencies.  Two years ago, on Election night, Stephen’s Greenhouse, across from where I live in Kennett Township, had a large fire and several gas tanks exploded, sending sparks and embers down on the homes in our neighborhood and requiring 9 fire companies to respond.   In such a situation, who would get to bill or be billed?  Would Stephen’s, a small business, need to pay at least $1,000 to each of the fire companies involved?  Who that bankrupt them if their insurance company decided not to pay, putting them out of business forever?  What about the homeowners in the surrounding area who benefitted from property protection?  Who gets to bill each of them, and how much?  Likewise, when a woman from Delaware had an accident after having a seizure and drove her vehicle into our yard, what is her responsibility? Do we bear any responsibility because we made the emergency phone call and the accident happened in our yard, because she is a resident of another State?

These are examples of emergencies that have happened to us within the past few years.  It’s also the reason why we always make a donation to our local fire company, and why I will probably extend that support to other fire companies in the area.  I have personally benefitted from the expertise and protection of our local services, but so have we all.  Apparently, only about 30% of the people asked make yearly donations to local fire companies, which also gives you a sense of how many people take our emergency services for granted.

The question becomes how do we ensure that our local volunteer, combination and even career fire companies are adequately funded and don’t have to do so many fundraisers, yet stay a central part of our community.  I look forward to the chicken BBQ and Bingo nights.  I want to make sure our fire halls don’t HAVE to do these events to fund public safety,but I also know I would miss them if they were gone as well.  We need some of these events to help celebrate our local volunteers and to honor them more than in a parade once a year.

What’s the answer to the problem?  There may not be one answer, but it will definitely require wider participation and/or taxation to fund emergency preparedness.  Perhaps a line item flat tax, like the one enacted for any sales tax you may not have paid in any one year from purchases out of state, on the State or Local tax forms would work, providing “insurance” for any emergency you might have within the State, regardless of locality.  Maybe not- I am sure there are other proposals that will be considered, including enacting a law that would require insurance companies to pay for emergency services provided by volunteer companies, which is not currently required by law.  What we do know is that the piecemeal, volunteer donation based system is inadequate, and needs to be addressed.

While I applaud the motivation behind this bill, it is also clear that it needs a lot of work.  We need to make sure the public doesn’t become worried about generating bills for themselves or their neighbors, so emergencies go under-reported.  What happens if folks who currently give their name and number when calling in an emergency are suddenly worried they will be on the hook for a bill if no actual service is needed?  That is the sort of chilling effect we want to avoid when looking at ways to ensure our emergency responders have the funds they need to do their jobs.

I would also like to thank to all the legislators and officials that came to the hearing yesterday in Kennett Square, and the information they shared with the community.  It’s about time we all stepped up a little more to help our local fire companies, and these events are necessary to make sure we all take notice.

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Podcasting for Beginners

This past week, I met a fantastic gentleman, Emmanuel Jenkins.  Emmanuel uses a motorized wheelchair, and we spoke about how people often don’t treat people with disabilities with the same courtesy and respect, and often times, they are really not aware of how much more difficult things can be for people who have mobility impairments.  Emmanuel is thinking about starting a podcast for people with disabilities, and we spoke about how helpful this would also be for families, to help lend a voice to people who are, at times, reluctant to speak for themselves.  These were the exact reasons I started the LD Podcast back in 2005.  So very many kids and families feel isolated, like they are the only ones dealing with specific challenges.  Well-meaning parents often struggle with their own conflicting emotions as they try to understand their children, deal with their own emotional issues of loss or regret, and try to help their children gain the skills they need to make their way through this world.

So for Emmanuel and other folks thinking of podcasting- whether it’s about your passions, your business, or as a way to reach out to your community, here is a list of resources and guides to help make the process a little easier.

General Advice

-Understand your audience (or Potential Audience)

Who do you want to listen to your podcast?  Where are they going to listen?  For how long?  Do you need to show them tools, tips or tricks that would require visuals?  Are they going to be listening through headphones, streamed on a mobile device, or streamed to a larger screen or TV?  By understanding the Who, where, when, and how questions, (at least from your point of view as the producer), you’ll be able to design your show to meet those metrics right up front.

-Know what your goals are up front.

Are you doing this as a hobby?  Is it a business project?  How much are you willing to invest in terms of time and money in setting up a “studio” of sorts?  By knowing your goals, and even writing them down up front will give you a better way to measure your success later on.

-Podcasting can also means Blogging- Finding Audio and Video on the web.

Do know that because search engines look for keywords and do not, as of yet, do a good job indexing or searching audio, you will need to have a website/blog and make sure you post your “show notes” along with appropriate tags and keywords to help your podcast (audio or video) find an audience online.

-Understand the difference between audio and video.  

Audio podcasts are more like radio shows, but because they are online, you aren’t limited, necessarily, to any particular length.  However, keep in mind most commutes in this Country are 20 to 30 minutes in length.  (This is probably true for the average length of time on a treadmill, etc.)  If you think your podcast is the kind of content people will listen to while working out, or getting from place to place, lining up your content with their attention span is a pretty good idea.  That said, I know several successful podcasts that are far longer than 30 minutes, but they are also often broken up into segments to allow them to be digested in more than one listen.

Video takes a lot longer to produce, and requires additional attention span and focus.  Most YouTube videos are three to five minutes long, and require both audio and visuals to keep people’s attention.

If you are thinking about doing an interview show, you might want to consider an audio podcast, because it is easier to produce and edit, and you don’t have to worry about issues like lighting, or having both parties in the same place at the same time. You may want people to focus on what folks are saying, and if there’s not a lot of “eye candy”  to keep people focused, ie. demonstrations, visuals, etc. audio could be a better choice.

That said, the exception to this is Google+ Hangouts On Air.  You can now do video conference calls and record them directly to YouTube, and stream them on your website at the same time.  While you lose the ability to edit before broadcast, I think this is an excellent way to do virtual  office hours, meetings, meetups and more, and should be something you think about using in your “podcast tool box.”

-How Frequently should I Podcast?

This is a question that has plagued content producers forever.  Once a week is a good rule of thumb, but that does require a lot of time, and you may find every two weeks or every month an easier production schedule to keep.    I know many podcasters, including myself, who have burned out trying to podcast once a week, and eventually give up all together.

It’s easier to build an audience if you are putting out shows on a regular schedule, just like professional broadcasters.  However, I think you can also take a “Netflix” approach and produce a ton of shows in a short period of time, and then either release it all at once and encourage “binge consumption”, or release it weekly over time, to make the production cycle easier.  Also, give yourself permission to have series or seasons, and give yourself a break after each one, to keep you  fresh, and your audience looking forward to the start of the next season, scheduled for a specific date and time.

Production Values

Anyone with a smartphone can record video these days, and frequently audio as well.  However, the quality can vary greatly.  For example, while I can take video at my kid’s school concert through Google Glass, the audio is horrible.  While this might be borderline acceptable to show grandparents, it won’t be acceptable to showcase any talents any farther than that.  Having video gear that also captures good to excellent audio would be much better, but that involves additional expense of course, and is not as easy as point and shoot video from a phone.  Likewise, video shot on most mobile devices can be shaky, and if shot in low light situations, downright unwatchable.   Spending a little money for things like tripods to stabilize cameras, and lighting kits can make your production seem infinitely better for a small investment.  (Lighting kits for photography and video, including green screen can be had for under $200 on Ebay.)

Similarly for audio, you can record audio on a mobile device, but you will get much, MUCH better quality if you use an external microphone, or a special digital audio recorder that is meant for capturing clear audio.  (I love my Zoom digital recorders, and I have gotten some great deals through B & H Photo and Video).

-Background noise from fans, air conditioning, computer fans and hard drives, and simple movement can be a distraction to listeners and difficult to remove in the editing process.  It’s much better, if you can, to get the best source audio possible rather than thinking you will be able to clean up any mistakes later on during editing.

You can do interviews by recording audio through conversations through Skype, Google Hangouts, or phone conversations.  There are several different software tools available to do this, including Audio HiJack Pro, as well as ways to route audio to external recorders (which often preserves the highest quality).    The books recommended can give you all the details on those systems at greater length than we have for this intro.

One more great tool to mention- The Levelator.  This is one of the easiest and most important little software tools around, that will adjust the levels of two people speaking, to make them sound at the same volume, while preserving sound quality.  It’s essential if you are doing an interview show, and is one of my all time favorite podcasting tools.

Books for help sorting out Podcasting Gear and Needs

Tricks of the Podcasting Masters- Rob Walch and Mur Lafferty

Podcast Solutions- A complete guide to Podcasting- Michael Geoghegan and Dan Klass

Podcasting Hacks- Tips and Tools for Blogging Out Loud – Jack Herrington

Podcasting Bible- Steve Mack & Mitch Ratcliffe


If you are editing video, the Mac does a great job with iMovie, of for those wanting to go the extra mile, Final Cut.   Adobe Premiere works across both PC’s and Macs. (Many TV outfits use Final Cut or Adobe Premiere for editing, so they are “prosumer” level products, letting you play with green screens and more.) For audio, Audacity is a free program that works on Macs or PC’s and is my audio editor of choice.  While there is a learning curve, once you are familiar with it, you can get a ton of editing done on a short amount of time.  Many people also love Garageband on the Mac, but I find it a little more cumbersome when I’m making a lot of edits, so I often will edit source files in Audacity and then transport them over to Garageband to put together the final Podcast, for easy upload to iTunes or the web.

This is just a starter’s list for podcasting, and is, of course, far from complete.  I hope it is helpful to you, and to folks like Emmanuel, who have a great vision, but need to know the tools they need up front before starting.  Of course, please feel free to ask questions below, or email me at LDpodcast@gmail.com with any questions, and I will be happy to help!


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