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dennis sparks

I started my teaching career in the infancy of the Internet information age. At the time, information on how to improve one’s practice was scarce.  I relied heavily on books, monthly magazines, face-to-face professional development opportunities and the advice and mentorship of colleagues. Over the first several years of my career a few individuals became key influencers. I am sure it is similar in other professions, but I would look to several educational leaders with great awe and admiration — they were the “rock stars” of education in my books.  The list was quite short. There was Barrie Bennett (he is responsible for me using and overusing the place mat activity); Richard DuFour (Mr. Professional Learning Communities); Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton (when I stand away from the item I am talking about to separate myself from the data, they are responsible) and Dennis Sparks (his regular articles for the National Staff Development Council were a source of information and inspiration).  If I were building a Mount Rushmore for my education gurus, they would definitely be the leading candidates.

I have had the chance to interact with each of them in recent years, and it was with nervous anticipation when I responded to a recent interview request from Dennis Sparks.  In the Internet age, many education authors who have made their living off of books and presentations have struggled to figure out a new model. Why I love Dennis (and others like Bruce Wellman and Grant Wiggins) is they have embraced the blogosphere where they share information for free knowing that it will actually increase their credibility and ability to secure presentations, or sell books.

Dennis has a great blog here and he “gets” it; as on his blog and on Twitter he is fully engaged with his audience. I shared some of my thinking with Dennis, which he published in a recent post.  You can read the full post here.  Below, I have reprinted some of his questions and my answers:

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity. They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control. This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know of any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students. How will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves. They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often become distracted. That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller. I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents and the community.

Sometimes, teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger. As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy, we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.

My thanks to Dennis for inspiring me early on in my career and for continuing to be someone who pushes my thinking to this day. Having leaders like him engaged in professional learning in our digital world brings depth and credibility to it.

The Tweeting K’s

Photo Credit - Tara Zielinski
Photo Credit – Tara Zielinski

Really?  Twitter with Kindergarten students?  That was my first reaction.  While I think Twitter is a great way to connect and share ideas, I didn’t really see it as a tool for our youngest learners.

So, I have learned something.

I first learned about the project via Twitter (of course) last Friday. From the Hollyburn Elementary School Twitter account came:

First Tweet

This tweet is a great example of why all superintendents need to be on Twitter.  It is such a great way to see a sampling of the work going on in the district.  It is such a wonderful way to ‘drop in’ on the learning in various classrooms and schools across the district.  It was this tweet that led me to be in the class three days later — a great way to take advantage of our connected world.

So, back to my reservations.  When I first heard a kindergarten class was tweeting, my mind jumped to all that could go wrong instead of all that could go right. In a controlled environment, guided by the teacher, these young students are learning about digital literacy. Their parents, many who are also new to social media, engage with them in the class and the students can connect to the world!

When I visited the class earlier this week, I learned of parents that were now following the class, and a great home  / school connection.  It was wonderful to learn with the K students about their Happiness Project and how they were sharing it through Twitter with the world.  On day two of the project, the lessons were already very impressive.

why what

So, what do K students tweet about? They are tweeting because they are happy; to spread happiness around the world and to communicate and connect with people outside their classroom.  And, they have adopted a simple rule when deciding to tweet, one everyone can learn from: “if it is helpful, tweet it; if it is hurtful, don’t tweet it.”

The students were completely engaged in their Happiness Project, and the use of Twitter was part of the hook and a great introduction to social media.  If we want students to engage ethically with social tools, we need to teach and model and that is just what I saw happening in the classroom.

Makes Happy

 

I look forward to virtually following the Hollyburn Happiness Project and the many other classes and schools sharing their learning beyond the classroom walls through Twitter with a range of other social tools.

The Hollyburn story is another fine example of a teacher taking a risk and being a learner herself!

It is always great to see what is happening in our classrooms.

PowerRankings-1

It is with great excitement I announce the launch of our Student Power Rankings. This is an exciting time that will push education into the 22nd century.  You have already heard a lot about 21st century education.  Some have said, “Well yes, but the 21st century is already more than 10 per cent over.” There is strong evidence that we need to focus on preparing students for the next century.  And, the next century will not be about lowering the stakes, but raising them — that is why we are launching our Student Power Ranking System today.  We know there is nothing more important than knowing if your child is doing better than the child sitting next to them in class. Now, on a weekly basis, you will have that answer.

So, just what are Student Power Rankings?

Student Power Rankings will allow you to see exactly how your child is doing in comparison to every other child in the class, school, province, country and beyond. Key factors include:  IQ, recent test results, attendance reports and Body Mass Index; these numbers are then crunched into a numerical result accurate to 3 decimal places. Rankings will be updated each Monday morning (or next school day in the event of a holiday).

The rankings will be posted at each school and on each school website.  It is all about transparency so, once per term, results will be also posted in the newspaper including our “Top 20″ Team with the highest scores in each grade across the district. Rankings will also be employed to determine and assign students to classes and to assist them in making appropriate career choices. Also, based on the power rankings, the bottom 10 per cent of students at any grade level will be placed on probation and, of these, 50 per cent will be held back. It is important that the rankings have rigour.

The top 10 per cent will receive a T-shirt marked “I am better than 90 per cent of you”.

Why do we need Student Power Rankings?

We need to prepare students for a world that is more competitive.  We also know there has been no better way to improve schools than school rankings based on test scores. Since we know school rankings improve schools (no citation necessary), it is quite obvious ranking students will improve their results. If a child sees himself near the bottom of the rankings, they will work harder to raise their score. It is also not appropriate to think that all students can actually be “good students” — there are always some who must “be better than the others” reaffirming this important principle.

There is also a powerful focus on early learning right now, and we will be launching our Pre-K Power Rankings — allowing the community to celebrate their highest-ranked, three-year-olds.  If we can let three-year-old students (and their parents)  know they are behind (and losing) they can improve.

How are the Rankings Unique?

One might think anyone can do this, so how are our Student Power Rankings unique? While we have listed several factors that will go into the rankings, the actual algorithm is proprietary and we are not revealing all of the criteria that will be utilized. It is a bit like the Colonel’s secret chicken recipe, or the secret of the Caramilk Bar – one of the key elements in the ranking is an unknown.  If we revealed all of the criteria, students could then work toward meeting this criteria and have equal levels of success. Since this is not real life, not 22nd century education, this is not part of our program.

Are the Rankings accurate?

Simply put, it is all done by applying a mathematical formula accurate to 3 decimal places. Therefore, a student with an 86.435 will be better than a student with an 85.232 ranking.  Math doesn’t lie.

Many of you have heard me speak in the past, and I have often complained “With all due respect, If we can rate professional football quarterbacks for passing accuracy, surely we can rank Grade 2 students for the world to see.”  Starting today, we will do just that!

It is an incredibly exciting time for our district.  It almost seems like an annual event that we have this day to make big announcements.

24 months ago we announced The Flog.

12 months ago we announced Quadrennial Round Schooling.

And today, we announce our Student Power Rankings!

Hopefully, your first day of April is as much fun and exciting as mine!

West Van Image

Checking in on what our leaders are writing about gives a great sense of the current topics and issues percolating in our schools.  In the age of encouraging our students to be public digital writers, we are so  fortunate to have a number of our leaders modeling the way.  What is so interesting is that the ideas from our schools are influencing each other and one feels the diffusion of new ideas and practices.

Bowen Island Community School is one of many schools in our district looking at the shift to learning commons.  School parent, Tess McDonald, recently wrote a guest post on the shift that is taking place.  The parents are clear partners in the shift.

Libraries are turning into Learning Commons; places with flexible furniture that can be moved around to accommodate small or large groups. They have books on movable shelving that doesn’t block the natural light, areas for creating multimedia presentations, listening to guest speakers, using technology that may not be in every home, and yes, reading. There is a librarian but he or she isn’t wearing tweed, but an imaginary super suit! This person is an expert about books and writing, and finding information, and connecting people to the right source, and helping them see bias, and questioning ideas. This person is ready to help you create and question and connect too. (Here is where I admit that, after reading Seth Godin’s blog post on the future of the library, I wanted to become a librarian. It is here, if you are interested).

Another district-wide effort has been in the area of self regulation.  In classrooms and schools across the district the work on Stuart Shanker and others is coming to life.  Cypress Park Vice-Principal, Kimberley Grimwood, has been a leader with this work and recently described what it looks like in the classroom:

We have embraced a number of programs and practices to help teach our students about emotions, mindfulness, and social thinking. In addition, the IB program integrates many self-regulated learning components each and every day.  Specifically it helps to develop the cognitive domain and reinforces reflective practices to allow students to continue to develop their ability to be metacognitive (to think about their thinking). You may see students taking a moment to breathe along with our MindUp chime, or express which zone they are in according to the Zones of Regulation. Or, they may tell you how their engine is running thanks to the Alert Program.  While self-regulation is not a program or a lesson plan, it is a lens through which we are viewing students’ behavior and through which we are teaching them to view their own behavior.  No longer is a behaviour good or bad, but rather we want to understand why, and provide students with tools and strategies to make good choices and to be successful learners each and every day.​

Lions Bay Principal, Scott Wallace, used the blog of the primary school to describe the seemless transition that takes place for young learners between all the different offerings in the school.  It is a true community hub:

Lions Bay Community school is a shining example of quality early childhood education.  Nestled in the woods along Howe Sound, the outdoors provides a perfect backdrop for a child’s self-exploration.  In fact, all three facets of this learning environment; the Before/After School Program, facilitated by the North Shore Neighbourhood House (NSNH); the Preschool for 3 and 4 year olds, supported by a parent run Board; and the Primary school, part of the West Vancouver School District, are all interconnected.  Each unique program draws on the same philosophy that a child should learn to explore their natural environment and ignite their curiosity.  The adults that assist the children at each level are committed to fostering the child’s sense of wonder and provide opportunities and resources to investigate their questions.  For children and parents this seamless organization provides for optimal learning.

There is a lot of interesting work taking place with assessment and reporting in our district and around the province.  While student-led conferences are not new, they have definitely moved more mainstream over the last couple years.  Ridgeview Principal Val Brady makes the case for why they can be so valuable:

Students should be included and actively involved in the process of evaluating their own learning and sharing their perceptions of their progress with their teachers and parents. When students are meaningfully involved in this way, they deepen their understanding of the learning and evaluation process and they grow in their ability to take ownership of this process.  Student ownership of learning results in student empowerment…a powerful motivating factor in the learning!

West Bay Elementary has been looking at assessment and reporting.  Principal, Judy Duncan, described the work of her staff in a recent post, outlining the different factors that they have considered as they have looked at drafting a new report card:

When the West Vancouver School District invited school learning teams to apply for innovation grants, a group of teachers jumped at the opportunity to explore a more comprehensive way of communicating student learning.

What did our team consider while drafting a new report card?

·     The shifts in the province and how other districts are responding

·      The IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization) requirements to report on the five essential elements (knowledge, concepts, transdisciplinary skills, Learner Profile traits/attitudes, and action)

·      Recently released B.C. Draft Curriculum documents

·      What was missing in the current report card

·      How to report on the breadth and depth of the learning in a clear, comprehensive manner

The full post explores the comprehensive and inclusive approach the school has taken to looking at the reporting issue.

West Van Secondary Principal Steve Rauh recently described how students are using technology in powerful ways to stay connected, even as they travel the globe.  We can all be a “digital fly on the wall” as students are engaged in learning around the world.  Rauh, in citing several examples of students on trips using blogs and other digital tools to stay connected compares it to his experiences as a high school student:

I also remember being fortunate enough in my grade 12 year to participate on a school athletic trip to Europe. A privileged experience for many youth both then and now, and quite often one of the most memorable experiences of their high school journey. I also remember on that same trip diligently selecting and purchasing several postcards along the way to mail home to my family to show my appreciation for their support, as well as to update them on our travels. The final memory I have of this tale is of leaving that stack of postcards, duly filled out, addressed, and stamped, on the overhead luggage rack of a train somewhere between Munich and Berlin; they were never seen again, and their existence questioned when I returned home.

It is not just school leaders that are using their blogs to share what they are seeing and learning.  West Vancouver School District Secretary Treasurer Julia Leiterman focused on aboriginal education recently with her blog and the power she has seen with First Nations learning in our district and how it has had an impact on her:

I can’t fix the old wrongs, and I don’t know whether our work in the schools will inspire our First Nations students, or whether they need inspiration in the first place.  I hope I’ve been using the right words, but I don’t even know enough to be sure I’ve been politically correct here. What I do know though is that I’m grateful that our First Nations neighbours have agreed to partner with us, because thanks to their willingness to share, what I finally, truly feel in my heart is respect.  And that’s a good start.

Huy chewx aa.

So the quick scan of the district – some themes emerge – ones reflected in these blog posts, but ones I see alive in so many of our classrooms and schools.  This sampling nicely summarizes the new work that is taking place.  I am seeing a shift to learning commons, self-regulation, strong early learning connections, powerful efforts around assessment and reporting, new ways of using technology to stay connected and a commitment to aboriginal education and our partnership with the Squamish Nation.

It is an exciting place to work!

Google

Thomas Friedman recently wrote a piece in the New York Times on “How to Get a Job at Google.”  As I read the comments of Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, the more I found that Google is looking for many of the same attributes in its employees that we are looking for in West Vancouver, when we hire principals and vice-principals.

One of the more common questions I am asked is just what does someone need to do to secure a school principal or vice-principal job?  The truth is there is no one thing or an exact path.  In West Vancouver we do receive dozens of applications for any job opening, and many of these candidates have all the required boxes checked for what is needed in these leadership positions.  Many who apply believe there is a certain ‘formula’ in getting a job as a principal or vice-principal, but I haven’t seen it yet. I have heard,  “you need to be on district committees,” or “you need to have experience in multiple schools; to have experience in different subjects and at different grades.” And the list goes on.  In the end, our view is similar to that of Bock, “Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many non-traditional ways today.”

Bock identifies five key attributes in hiring:

  • learning ability — the ability to pull together disparate bits of information and process on the fly
  • leadership — when faced with a problem at the appropriate time you step in and lead
  • ownership — the feeling of responsibility
  • humility — the ability to step back and embrace the better ideas of others
  • expertise — it is important, but less important than the other four

The list really speaks to the skills we are looking for with our school administrators and the kind of attributes we are seeking in our leaders. We want them to be able to be smart and make decisions on the fly; to lead — not only from the front, but to feel like their school is theirs; to step back and allow others to share in the success and, finally, to have the expertise in many of the learning and management areas that are regular parts of the job.  Friedman is right, “In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavour, it also cares about a lot of soft skills – leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn.”  This is why we almost always ask candidates about who is in their network and how they learn with their colleagues. We want our buildings to be about learning, and that includes our leaders being model learners themselves.

And, really, this entire list and conversation extends to the qualities we are looking for in our teachers. We want our teachers to be innovators, leaders, and owners of their classroom. We do want them to be humble and, yes, we want expertise — but I will take someone with the other four qualities and lacking in expertise rather than the reverse, any day. Good grades don’t hurt, but we are looking for more than that with our teachers and educational leaders.  I agree with the notion Friedman shares, “Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job.  The world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know.”

Of course, the teaching, principal and vice-principal jobs in West Vancouver involves different perks than Google (sorry about that) but it looks like we are looking for many of the same qualities.

Fencing 1

Whether by phone, email, or in person, I get a lot pitches about just what it is we need in our schools. Actually, it can be quite overwhelming at times. So, when our District Principal of our Sports Academies said “I had to meet the fencing guys,” well, you can understand my skepticism.

Then, I met Igor Gantsevich, National Fencing Champion, World Cup & Pam American medalist. Now, several months later, there is something amazing happening in our district.  We have had well over 2,000 students exposed to fencing through their PE classes, and in six of our schools out-of-school fencing clubs have started up, with more clubs possible and a district-wide showcase envisioned. And, this may just be the beginning, as Diane Nelson, District Principal of Academy Programs said in a recent North Shore News story, “Our vision is an international academy on the North Shore where students from all over the world would come to train. We hope that students from West Vancouver would funnel into this academy and receive scholarships for Ivy League schools.”

I have never tried fencing.  My total exposure to it, until a few months ago, was watching some of it in Olympic coverage every four years, usually waiting for some other sports coverage, because despite it being part of the Olympic games since 1896, it is not a sport with a rich history in Canada. But Igor, the BC Fencing Association, and former World Champion Vitaly Logvin, and the current President of the international charity For Future of Fencing, are planning to change this.

sidebar-fencingInitially, we envisioned exposing students to fencing through PE classes this year, then looking at club programs next year and maybe an academy in the future.  The timeline is speeding up — with club teams this year and interest from families for academy programming in the near future.  As someone who grew up on hockey and ball sports, it is all quite amazing to see.   When we featured a story on fencing for our district e-news publication Learning Curve, the ‘click rate’ dwarfed everything else in the edition.  So what is going on?  I have some thoughts on this:

  • The fencing instructors are first class. Igor has a wonderful way with students and he has brought in former Olympic medalists to support him with the teaching. Teachers and instructors for these types of programs make the difference.
  • There is a fair bit of equipment involved and the providers have taken care of all of the first class modern equipment for students to use.
  • Although most students had previously never tried fencing, they had seen it at the Olympics or elsewhere, and there is a ‘cool factor’ to try it out.
  • Fencing is a multi-age sport that can be done together with girls and boys; so, it is very inclusive.
  • Since nobody has really practised fencing before, the skill levels are quite similar; when we divide up for soccer or basketball, even at the elementary school level, there can be a massive difference in skill levels which can be discouraging for some students.
  • Fencing attracts a different type of student than would be playing ball sports. As École Cedardale Principal, Michelle LaBounty, pointed out in the North Shore News article – fencing sparks student imagination.  “For students who do a lot of reading, fencing attaches an element of reality to their books,” she said. “It takes them to another time.”
  • The number of young people participating is relatively small in Canada, so the opportunity to compete provincially, nationally or internationally, is a real possibility.
  • While the sport does not have a rich history in Canada, it does in many other places around the world, and our community is very diverse. Many of our families grew up in countries where fencing is part of the culture,

It will be exciting to see what happens next. We want students to be more active and it is exciting how passionate so many of our students have become in such a short time about fencing. When I speak with Igor, he talks about the future Olympians he envisions from our partnership. It is quite incredible.

fitbit_2776467b

As I walked into our Soccer Academy class, the students were getting ready for their workout and part of that process is to adjust their heart-rate monitors.  The teacher, Jesse Symons, had an iPad to monitor the heart rates of all students in the class.  As he reviewed the live data, it was interesting to see what he was looking for.  As the intensity of the workout increased, he was looking for students who were raising their heart rate to a place where they were pushing themselves.  He could review the data of the entire class and see how much time each student spent in each “zone”.  Based on a colour scheme, red was the optimal zone for high intensity workouts. Also interesting to see was how quickly students’ heart rates would recover to a resting heart rate during breaks. This, as he pointed out, was usually a sign of strong athleticism, of an athlete who could quickly raise and lower their heart rate. Students who struggle to lower their heart rate (as activities slow down) are often not in as strong a condition.

Jesse Symonds reviews the live data

Jesse Symons reviews the live data

Of course, the next step is for students to understand the data.  Students are able to login to see their specific data and, as Jesse joked, the data doesn’t lie. It is early days yet, but there has already been some interesting findings.  For example, with Grade 8, high-level soccer players, there was a gender difference with many of the top female athletes not seeing their heart rates push to optimal levels for extended periods of time.  The fitness monitoring in the soccer academies is part of an Innovation Grant Program through the West Vancouver School District, with similar efforts also being made with Hockey Academy students.

Jesse talks about how heart rate monitors are being sourced with the Vancouver Whitecaps and the National Team. Combined with a GPS, the monitors give a full picture of their activity levels.  It is clearly a growing area in the science of sports and physical activity.

Personally, I’ve become convinced of the power of digital health tracking over the past few months since I started wearing my Fitbit. Actually, four of us have similar devices in our house — my wife and two older kids (ages 12 and 10) are also wearing these devices.  My Fitbit Force tracks my steps, distance, calories burned, minutes of vigorous activity and even my quality of sleep. There are dozens of these type of devices on the market with many more being promised this year. A report last week on wearable tech devices suggests these devices may see a 350 per cent growth in sales in 2014. I also think they have a huge potential to benefit students. For decades we have been encouraging students to keep logs and diaries of their physical activity.

Currently, in BC, through the Daily Physical Activity mandate, students track vigorous and sustained activity.  Anyone who has tried to keep an activity log is aware of its challenges. Logging the physical activity in a log book, or a computer is difficult to do (if not time-consuming) on a regular basis.  On the other hand, if all this data could be automatically collected, synced to our computers, iPhones, etc., we would be able to spend more time analyzing the data, rather than entering it.

In our house, we have become much more aware of our physical activity, how much of it is really vigorous and the role that sleep (or lack of it) is playing in our lives.  These are great conversations to have in our PE classes. Just as we want students to take greater ownership of their learning in Science and English and we see that technology as part of this overall plan, the same should be true for health education and physical activity.  We want students to own their own data, set goals, not in efforts to compete with others, but to better themselves.

There are concerns about wearable technology – that these type of devices, as well as others like Google Glasses and Samsung Smart Watches, are once again pushing technology into all aspects of our life.  I am always interested in technology when it can help do something we have always wanted to do but have not been able to without it.  I see the tracking of our health and physical activity in this category.  We want students to own their own learning and education and this includes owning their own physical activity and health. So, we need to find ways to integrate this emerging technology into our schools.

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