Celebration of Teaching and Learning Live Blog

March 18th, 2011

The following is an archive of the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Live Blog, published during the conference March 18th and 19th, 2011.

Some photos from the introductory speeches and opening plenary:

Elmo addresses the crowd during Gary Knell's opening plenary speech

Following an opening address from Neal Shapiro and Jane Stoddard Williams, Dennis White, President and CEO of the MetLife Foundation, followed by Ralph Smith, Executive Vice-President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation spoke of their work with educators across the country.

Smith reminded the audience of teachers and educators that, among other things, a commitment from parents to ensure that children are making it to school is essential in a country where too many kids are simply not making it to their classes. This hit a resounding note with the crowd.

Following this, Leymah Gbowee, a heroic figure in Africa’s peace movement moved the audience with her speech detailing her efforts not only to create peace, but to challenge the media’s image of African women and women in conflicts around the world.

Finally, Gary Knell reinforced the idea that television can make a difference in the lives of children, and on a global scale. Speaking with Elmo, whose heartwarming thanks to all of the teachers in the room were met with much laughter, Gary spoke of the innovations coming to Sesamestreet.org, which serves as a go-to resource to help teachers bring the world into the classroom. Of important note, he closed by asking teachers to share their thoughts with Sesame Workshop.

Attendees arrive for the opening plenary address

1:00 pm plenary session:

Proof that kids make films with the ease they used to write essays, the montage of Adobe Youth Voices student-made videos featured some first-rate work: The story of a young student in Argentina, struggling to get an education, professional-grade computer animation with original music, a PSA about recycling, and a soulful music video created to raise awareness about the plight of the people of Haiti. I am consistently amazed by how the tools and basic vocabulary of film and TV storytelling have become the shared vocabulary of kids these days. They don’t need to be taught visual storytelling, they just know it. It’s the ocean they swim in.

Brian Williams dropped by to introduce Rehema Ellis, who took the place of Soledad O'Brien at the Celebration's second plenary presentation

Brian Williams–not to be outdone by the Celebration speaker who introduced him as Brian Adams– introduced himself to the crowd as Diane Sawyer. Popping in at the last second from NBC a few blocks away to fill in for Japan-bound Soledad O’Brian, he had the crowd laughing, joking that he would turn in the names of a few conference attendees that he saw lolling out on 6th Avenue. He assured everybody that even though Soledad couldn’t make it, they had an amazing moderator in Rehema Ellis, NBC’s chief education correspondent.

Students discuss their perspectives on teachers and education with Rehema Ellis

During the panel, one of the students involved noted that one thing that might benefit schools would be more talkbacks like the one going on today. Meanwhile, a theme of the conversation about what the students appreciated most about their favorite teachers were teachers’ abilities to integrate the context of students’ lives into their coursework.

Students discuss their perspectives on teachers and education with Rehema Ellis

Abigail Disney speaks about WNET project Women, War and Peace

2:30 P.M. Session – Women, War and Peace

Panel discussion with Abigail Disney, Leymah Gbowee and Colm MacMahon

Abigail Disney, an acclaimed filmmaker and producer, discussed her journey touring her film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She emphasized the global relevance of the film, and how it led to the WNET project Women, War and Peace. The project is aimed at challenging the aesthetics of war by realizing the landscape surrounding war and conflict, in particular the women who play a pivotal role through their heroic actions.

Projects like this one serve as a perfect example of new media’s fragmentation of established perspectives on both global and local issues, all undeniably shifting – from films like Pray the Devil to flashier productions like Kevin Smith and Ridley Scott’s Life in a Day film (generated from a compendium of user created Youtube videos following days in the lives of people from around the world) – all of them benefiting from new online distribution platforms which in turn generate forums and financial support for an ever-growing number of documentary films. Even the fact that there are roughly two billion artificial eyes now on the planet (cameras, cell phones) represents limitless potential for communication of under-reported issues.

Regional education through film and video is nothing new, but technological growth has enhanced its effectiveness and empowered underrepresented communities. Films like Disney’s truly are the ‘lightning in a bottle’ that the filmmaker spoke of in her introduction – they provide a bridge between communities across continents and around the globe.

Colm MacMahon mentioned the ‘bubble over New York City’ which he aims to pop through his school’s curriculum – “if we turned on the tv right now, we’d find 47 different reality shows, and none of them are reality”, he said, describing the bottle. MacMahon emphasized how documentaries can engage students in “ways you cannot even imagine.”

More on the WNET project @ womenwarandpeace.org

The "Elephant Clock" in the exhibition hall


Sunk below the desert floor of the American Southwest are kivas, ancient ceremonial meeting places where tribal elders met in the round to discuss the needs of current and future generations, in a sacred space far away from the distractions of the present moment. William Moreno and Luis Gustavo Martinez from the National Educational Association use the “Kiva” format to discuss the past, present, and future needs of English Language Learners (ELL), American students who don’t speak English as their first language at home. Today’s presentation asks what is, what isn’t, and what could work to meet the needs of ELL students nationwide. ELL students, say the presenters, are the fastest growing group of students nationwide: the percentage of American students ages 5-17 who speak Spanish as their first language has grown from five to twenty-five percent since 1979.

I actually took part in one of the discussions, sharing my experiences teaching ELL kids at an enrichment program for at-risk kids in Brooklyn. Having novice teachers share their wisdom in blog and wiki formats, starting teaching mentorships, and approaching ELL students on the pattern of special education programs were among the great ideas shared.

Stop by and join the kiva!

post by E. Leatherwood


“So what’s keeping the alligator’s mouth shut?” “Gravity,” came the reply from Erik of “Erik’s Reptile Adventures.” I took a few steps back before snapping the photo above. As he cradled the placid, blinking predator in his arms, Erik explained that he rescued the orphaned alligator and raised her in captivity. “In the wild,” he said with a toothy grin, “she’d already weigh about two hundred pounds by now. And even at this size, she’s pretty fast.” I didn’t ask where in Middle Island, NY one could go about raising an alligator, or the iguana that I noticed creeping slowly toward us over a plastic display bin just to my left, or the tortoise in a Tupperware container on the floor that I narrowly avoided kicking. Erik’s company specializes in teaching kids about the wonders of nature firsthand, brining exotic animals the classroom for students to see and touch. I was happy to step aside and let the eager line of teachers behind me move in for a closer look. See more at www.edventureshow.com.

post by E. Leatherwood

“We give the best education in the world to some of our students, but we don’t do it for all.” –Dennis Van Roekel

A summary of Friday’s final plenary session:

Moderator Cynthia McFadden of ABC news was not afraid to name her least favorite teacher, by name and grade, as a way to stress just how large teachers loom in our lives. She also named her most beloved teacher, and said she wouldn’t have made it as far in life without his influence.

Before leaving the stage to get on a helicopter bound for JFK and a plane to his native Australia, Tony McKay praised the lead of the US in educational innovation.

McFadden asked Joanne Weiss, point blank, why our kids score so poorly on international tests. Weiss replied that finding quality teachers isn’t the problem, but that teaching practices have stagnated, and support from the Federal government is not what it could be. In response to the same question, Gene Wilhoit said that while the US is full of good ideas, other countries like Singapore are more persistent in implementing them.

Randi Weingarten spoke on the status of teachers in America, and talked about how our schools are still set up to prepare kids for the challenges not of the 21st century, but the 20th and even the 19th.

Dennis Van Roekel stressed the moral imperative to provide the same education for all our students, not just those who live in privileged areas. US educational funding structure is rigged to set up underserved areas for failure, he said. His remarks were met with loud assent from the audience.

Linda Darling-Hammond compared Singapore, where everybody in society gets a 1st class education no matter their neighborhood, to the US, the only industrialized nation where the top ten percent of schools spend ten times more than the bottom ten percent.

Randi Weingarten chimed in to say that teacher salaries, set during a time when teaching was one of the few professions open to women, are still too low. When schools did not have to worry about low salaries driving their primarily female workforce into other professions, they didn’t have to provide fair market-rate pay. But now, to keep the best and brightest, we just have to pay more, period.

Alarming statistics: Teachers make 60% of what other college graduates make. Teachers in poor districts make a third less of that amount. 25-30% of teachers leave the profession in their first three years, and the US spends $7 billion per year on just hiring and firing teachers each year, rather than building a sustainable, well-trained workforce.

The consensus of the panel was that economic inequality, perpetuated by the funding structure of the US educational system, is a major barrier to real progress.

The audience joined the panel, at moments raucously, in agreeing that “model” schools, where the faculty may work 60-70 weeks, are commendable but not sustainable. Without a commitment to a long term increase in resource allocation, without higher teacher salaries, progress will always be stymied.

Some of the problems with US education are rooted in American psychology, the panelists agreed, with loud acclimation from the audience. The US doesn’t truly believe that our national future is based on how well educated our children are. “If we truly did,” said Darling-Hammond, “we would take two aircraft carriers and turn them into enough money to fund our public schools.”

Welcome to day 2 of the Celebration!

Following the morning workshops, Walter Dean Myers and John Mitchum filled in for Oliver Sacks at today’s opening plenary. Myers began by describing his indirect path to becoming an author.

Walter Dean Meyers shares his views on the state of literacy education with John Mitchum

Myers described the experience of discovering that his writing could “inhabit someone’s mind” and the responsibility that comes along with it. He also noted his personal search for how he might serve others.

Noting that he was a high school dropout, Myers focused on his belief that literacy can help solve social problems, and called upon leaders to make promoting literacy a priority. Later in the conversation he stated that “In any city in the country…in an African-American community you’ll find young men who are jobless,” emphasizing that this is in part due to low graduation numbers, and compared the money spent on incarceration with the amount spent on education. This seconded one of the Adobe-sponsored videos which mentioned that nearly twice the amount spent on incarceration is spent on education (per person).

11:15 Workshops

"Lighting Fires in the Mind: What Students Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery Proved at Hit During the 11:15 Panel Period

I dropped into the Adobe Youth Voices workshop to see how they were going about enhancing media literacy using their products.

A 'Media Mentor' opened the workshop by describing Youth Voices' goal: To prepare students for a major component of 21st century-style literacy - media editing

Adobe’s program is focused on the 21st century definition of literacy. Visual literacy is much more complex than we perhaps understand – by increasing students’ abilities to edit multimedia, we can augment their critical thinking skills. This prompted a participant to speak out about the lag in our educational system’s technological adoption process. This was a small workshop, but represents the absolute necessity for educators to get up-to-speed on the technological developments with which their students are engaged from the moment they wake up in the morning.

Post by E. Hurtig

Dr. Vincent Alfonso of Fordham University's Graduate School of Education introduces the panelists at a morning session: "Perspectives on the Early Learning Workforce

1:00PM Plenary

A huge crowd arrives to hear Dr. Oz speak at the 1pm plenary

An eager audience awaits the beginning of the 1pm plenary


After a round of applause for WNET education chair Ron Thorpe, National Education Association chair John Wilson had an unexpected chat with “God,” whose voice boomed out of the auditorium speakers, thanking John for his service to education and congratulating him on his retirement. Wilson then introduced Andrew Bethel, teacher and filmmaker, who took up the microphone and inspired the audience with a clip from the UK Teaching Channel, which he founded.

Bethel’s plan for the US version is to launch a Web site, which will have hundreds of videos profiling real teachers and classrooms across America, an unparalelled resource for teachers, and an inspiration for all. Bethel also announced that WNET-Thirteen will be the US anchor partner for the launch of the US Teaching Channel.

Watch a great video on teacher.tv here:


Bethal proclaimed that the Teaching Channel won’t work without the help of teachers, starting with the audience.

Go to teachingchannel.org to get involved today.

Dr. Mehmet Oz speaks to a packed ballroom at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning on March 19th

Dr. Mehmet Oz speaks to a packed ballroom at the Celebration of Teaching on March 19th


Dr. Oz wasted no time, and got right to the topic of childhood obesity. He told a story about performing bypass surgery on a Hispanic woman in her 20s, a very young age to need bypass surgery, as an example of the true costs of childhood obesity, which America is just beginning to see.

“Prevention is making it easy to the right thing,” said Dr. Oz, “and here’s what I learned from Oprah about how to make that happen: 1) listen before fixing problems 2) feelings can change minds 3) ancient solutions work 4) show up! 5) make it easy to do the right thing.

“Facing reality is a big challenge for a lot of people, kids and grown-ups.” Dr. Oz applied this insight to reducing smoking. “Long ago, I stopped telling people not to smoke, they don’t need me for that.” Instead, said Oz, he showed them a picture of a healthy lung, plump and pink like thriving coral, and a diseased lung, black and shriveled like coal. Emotions, he said, change minds.

Dr. Oz describes the need for public medical education


Dr. Oz played a clip about a free clinic he established in Houston, TX, where a whopping 1 out of 3 residents do not have health insurance. Oz said that the experience of helping the diverse population bereft of health care gave him two insights: that the integration of healing into daily life is a way that humans have always lived, but that we’ve moved away from in the modern world. And also that more people than he’d realized were using his show as a primary way of getting health care.


We’re too fat, says Dr. Oz, and it’s costing America hundreds of billions every year, and it’s only going to get worse. Dr. Oz showed a clip from his show where he diagnosed a man with diabetes on the air. 80 million Americans, said Dr. Oz, are diabetic or pre-diabetic. And here’s what to do about it.

1) Realize that biology will always beat willpower. Starving yourself is like trying to hold your breath forever.
2) Know that it’s not about weight, it’s about waist size, which should be your height in inches divided by 2.
3) Eat high fiber, and eat it for breakfast. It keeps you going throughout the deal, and puts the brakes on hunger throughout the day.
4) Elevate leptin, which tells your body that it’s full. Where’s leptin, diet soda for starters.
5) Watch out for Grelin, which makes your stomach growl. Eat a healthy snack ½ hour before a meal, and your chances of overeating go way down.
6) Pile on the muscle. Muscle burns through the excess calories, and keeps you strong into old age.

Throughout the presentation, Dr. Oz had the audience in the palm of his hand!

2:30 Panels and Workshops

A panel on 'El Sistema', a movement centered on creating musical communities and training for youth

The El Sistema Movement in the United States and its Message to U.S. Education

A discussion of the El Sistema Movement, which began 33 years ago. In her effort to bring classical music to the inner city through the Harmony Program, Anne Fitzgibbon recruits teachers who appreciate the potential of music to change students’ lives. After asking herself the question – how can New York pride itself as a cultural capital of the world if it can’t teach its children music – she traveled to Venezuela, where she learned about El Sistema. Now, she helps to make music a part of the every day lives of children. Something as simple as putting a child in an orchestra to play a ‘two note charanga’ – literally a piece with two notes – she said, can create a sense of accomplishment and passion for them.

Jaime Bernstein described how a video of The Mambo from her father’s musical, West Side Story, performed by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, spoke to her and her father’s beliefs about music. The community of a working orchestra, she said, provides a miraculous experience for youth.

Stanford Thompson, an accomplished trumpet player and the Director of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s El Sistema-inspired program, Tune Up Philly, spoke of the need for a program which can coordinate all of Philadelphia’s music education resources.

Finally, Mark Churchill, Director of El Sistema USA, said that one message he could pick out to frame the program is its instance as a communal context, a social context in which everyone is included. Competition can be good, he said, but El Sistema engages competition (increasing musical skill and advancing to new orchestras in this instance) as a communal experience, and the children who achieve have a strong understanding of the community which enabled their advancement and success.

You can watch a video of Dr. Jose Antonio Andreu speaking about El Sistema on TED

Chris Morgan, conservationist and adventurer's, presentation 'The Bears and I'


Chris Morgan, conservationist and adventurer, starts out his presentation with a clip from his upcoming PBS show, BEARS OF THE LAST FRONTIER, airing on NATURE this May. We see him sitting just a few feet from a mother grizzly and her two cubs. The closer the cubs get, the likelier it is that Chris will be torn limb from limb. The cubs get close, but not too close, and Chris lives another day, to travel the world on his motorcycle, and study the world’s 8 bear species, rulers of the Earth’s last wild places. Check out Morgan’s blog here: http://web.me.com/chrismorgan4/IWM/Home.html, and take a look at the upcoming NATURE show on WNET here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/inside-nature/the-bear-blog-with-chris-morgan/introduction/5220/

Closing Plenary

Brian Williams searches for fellow alumni from his childhood schools in New York and New Jersey

Brian Williams speaks of his educational background during the closing plenary

Cory A. Booker is on the front lines in the fight not just for better education, but for the renewal of America’s cities. He took the privileges and achievements of a first class education (Stanford, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and a Yale law degree) not to Wall Street but to the heart of Newark, struggling against crime, poverty, and a crumbling infrastructure.

Cory A. Booker, the Mayor of Newark, NJ, jokes with Brian Williams that he got into Stanford with a 1600, adding that he means 1600 running yards as a football player

After covering the many issues facing New Jersey schools, Booker and Williams discussed the 100 million dollar matched donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Mayor Booker mentioned that beyond the practical uses of the money, the discussion which it created about education in communities across America is invaluable.

Booker also posed the question “What if our school system were to support our kids year round?”, and outlined his efforts to develop systems that provided a support system for students beyond the traditional school model. The major problem – public education is not a priority in the United States, clearly reflected in the country’s math ranking of 25th on the international stage.

When asked whether he would become the Secretary of Education if the position were offered to him, the Mayor responded that he would prefer to work at the local level in order to make a difference, by creating a model for urban education in Newark. His overarching message – a strong educational system is essential to America’s Democracy.