Thursday, April 16, 2015

EdTech: A Recipe for Success

Have you ever had a colleague suggest a website, digital tool, or app that has worked wonders for them? And then you try it and its a total disaster? And you try it again to give it another chance and it feels like pulling teeth? If so, don’t feel bad. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong, and it definitely doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Using technology in the classroom is a bit like cooking. A flopped recipe doesn’t mean you can’t cook or that you should never make that food again.

A cookbook has many recipes, and we all gravitate toward different things. Naturally, what tastes good to some people won’t necessarily taste good to others.  Some of us like Indian food, but stay away from Korean. Some people prefer Mexican food but run from African foods. Not only that, some recipes are more complex, and others more basic. We tend toward those that match our current skill level best. Additionally, some foods are much easier to “throw things into” rather than meticulously following every step of the recipe. If we all opened the same cookbook, we’d likely all choose a different recipe. And that’s ok.

This is sort of how users of classroom technology are as well. Not every tool is suited for every person. Some people find and stick with one particular app that has worked well for them that is simple and basic. Some people like to try lots of different tools, until they find a handful that work best. Others are more drawn toward full-featured, extensive pieces of software that allow them to do many different things. When we’re allowed to choose our tech tool, we’ll likely all choose a different tool. And that’s ok.

Even though we all have different preferences for digital tools, this isn’t an excuse to just give up and use the same thing you’ve always used. If and when tools don’t work the way we want them to, the activity becomes a waste of time, until we reflect on the experience and assess what didn’t work, why it didn’t work, and whether or not the issues were related to the tool itself. Here are some questions to ask after trying a new tool:

Digital Tool Reflection Questions
  • Key: Was the learning objective met? (or at least on the way to being met)
  • What worked well?
  • What didn’t work well?
If there were problems,
  • Was it because the tool was difficult?
  • Was it because of inexperience with the tool?
  • Will more experience with it make things go more smoothly?
If you use it again,
  • What pieces of information should students have/know BEFORE the tool is in use?
  • What classroom management pieces should be put in place for future uses?
  • What questions do you need answered from someone who has used the tool before?

So when you try a tool that has been successful for someone else, but it doesn’t work for you, try again. And if still seems like it doesn’t fit your purpose and skills, remember, what your mom made well isn’t always going to be the dish you excel at. If that tool doesn’t work, try something else. You never know what tool will spark creativity and critical thinking in your students!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Taming the Flood

Ever heard this one? “I hope I die during an inservice session, because the transition between life and death would be so subtle.” While many people understand professional development to be drudgery at best, many others have discovered a spring of excellent PD, to the degree that it can feel like one is drowning in a flood of options.

Educators around the world are using online resources to connect with others like them (or not like them!) With this ongoing source of personalized, 24/7, usually free professional development at everyone’s fingertips, the broader issue has become how to manage all that information continually springing up anew on a daily basis. Exhibit A recently seen on Twitter:
Try these strategies to help transform the flood into the most useful information for YOU!

1-Choose ONE topic that is giving you the biggest headache right now or a type of teaching/project you’re dying to try. Maybe it’s project-based learning, how to deal with unruly kiddos, the flipped classroom, or a good app for making digital posters.

2. Search on Google, Twitter, Youtube, and sources of free webinars, like is an awesome source for free, hour-long webinars on various educational topics, but even with great sources like these, it can be an overwhelming amount of information, only to be forgotten when the next class walks in the door. You’ve reached the flood. Time to narrow down the river of results.

3. Set limits through curation. There is plenty of useful information out there, but it’s hard to organize and make sense of it. Do this by choosing a tool that you can save good ideas through. I always think I’ll somehow miraculously remember that awesome resource for teaching about technology without any computers exactly when I need it, but even if I do, I don’t remember how to find it. That is when content curation tools help. There are a plethora of options, but here are three:
  • - installs a bookmarklet on your browser that let’s you save sites with descriptions and tags, for easy reference and search later on (my favorite)
  • Symbaloo - saves web content into a tile format on a specific topic
  • LiveBinders - save web content into an old-school binder format with tabs for different topics

Now, save the best sources you come across to that tool. Notice the sites above are not simple “bookmark” tools, that add everything to one gigantic list. They let you categorize and organize where each item is saved, so you can actually find and use it later, (i.e., when you come around to teaching fractions again next year and have run out of ideas.)

4. Set a time limit of 30 min, 60 min, etc. to look for resources on your chosen topic, so you aren't swamped in the possibilities. Another option is to set a target number of resources to find; e.g., “I’ll stop when I’ve bookmarked 10 things regarding flipping the classroom.”

5. Analyze your findings.
Do not skip this piece! Otherwise, its just a waste of time. By actually sitting down and determining how you can (or can’t) use the information you just found, you’re getting a refreshing drink of spring water, instead of just dipping your hand in the flood of information, drying it off, and forgetting about it. We all reflect and analyze information differently. Maybe you blog about it, talk with a friend, list possibilities, etc. But either way, decide if and how you could adapt that strategy to fit your setting, and try it soon.

How often does a PD meeting actually make a beneficial improvement to your teaching tomorrow? By using the tools already available, you can pull ideas out of the flood of information, organize, and implement them to become a better educator. Isn’t that what sound professional development should be?

photo credit: onesevenone via photopin cc

Monday, March 24, 2014

Critical Thinking is Critical!

Last week, I taught my students about Facebook. Not how to use it, they know that already. Not how to be safe and smart, we're getting to that. I taught them a few basic etiquette guidelines for using social media. The biggest revelation for the kids was not that we were talking about Facebook in school (which is generally not done), but that we could have a (relatively) intelligent conversation about how we use social media, and how to be interesting people to digitally be around. We talked about the most annoying things people do on social media, we talked about how often to post to be polite, and how not to be boring. But my point is not the social media. It's thinking critically about the world around us.

For most students, they'd never sat down and thought about HOW they used social media. They just do it and don't ask questions.  It is our job as educators to teach students how to think critically about how they interact with the world. It is one of those 21st century skills that gets lip service all over the internet, but for good cause. Critical thinking and metacognition (thinking about your thinking process) help kids develop a more analytical eye to the world. Without this skill, they just get carried along by the waves of the most popular idea in the room at the time.

Today, I began a project with my 8th grade photojournalism students regarding identity. We talked briefly about how part of growing up is figuring out who you really are, behind the identity you project (particularly as it relates to social media. Then, we watched these two videos depicting how people hide behind masks, and what types of identities we hide. If we don't provide opportunities like this for kids to examine and question their assumptions, many will not choose to do that on their own. As educators, we must foster the type of environment that welcomes questions and critical thinking. Not all of our lessons have to be based around the obvious. We don't just have to limit them to critical thinking about Shakespeare through close reading. We can incorporate the world they live in, and help them begin to analyze why things are the way they are. This is imperative for all of us. Without this skill, how will they be able to envision and create a better world?


Monday, March 17, 2014

Common Core & Technology: Does it taste good?

I keep seeing bits of the new Common Core Standards (CCSS) showing how much they incorporate
digital media. This is very true.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge, Writing Standards Grade 7 
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation. 
If that isn't the definition of teaching kids how to do online research, I don't know what is. I've spent much of my last 4 years trying to teach this skill to 7th graders (some more effectively than others). Like any good tech teacher, I didn't read every word of the standards, but did a keyword search for a few important terms to see how prevalent technology really is in these new standards. These are what I came up with (in the ELA standards): [The number in parentheses is the number of times it appeared in the document.]

Media (55)
Audio (9)
Digital (46)
Technology (24)

It turns out they're pretty important. Upon perusing how each of these terms was used, it describes exactly what many educators have referred to as 21st Century Skills for several years now.

  • Publish writing online
  • Collaborate and interact with others online
  • Link to other information
  • Gather information from multiple sources
  • Tailor online searches
  • Identify strengths and limitations of online media
As I reflected on these skills that truly are crucial for how we interact, and how we go about teaching them to kids, it kept reminding me of my son. He is 15 months old. Like any good toddler, he learns about his world by putting everything in his mouth. Speck of paper on the floor? In the mouth. Graham cracker from mom? In the mouth. Dog food? In the mouth. Egg shell? In the mouth. Book? In the mouth. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), he'll start to discriminate what tastes good and what doesn't. 

Students learning to use the internet are the same way. At first, everything goes down the hatch. If it's on the internet, it must be true. But then, as they learn more about HOW it works, they start to identify signs that a site might not be beneficial to them and focus on others.

I hope that teachers don't brush off the digital aspect of these standards. Teachers need to stop and evaluate how they use technology in their own lives, personally and professionally, and realize that students do and will use technology even more than that. We must teach them how to use it wisely and to their own benefit, and not just shove everything they find online into their mouth. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

[Note: Much of the following is more directed at the upper elementary grades.]

I've written on more than one occasion about why teaching kids to use real world tools (like how to search online) is critical, and I keep becoming more and more convinced of this. Too often, I think the problem is that we don't give our students enough credit. We assume they 1) won't be interested in the same things we are, and 2) aren't capable of understanding things like adults. While these things are both true, particularly at the early ages, I think there are definitely times when students have to be given a chance to understand what it looks like to be a cool adult who likes learning about new things they are passionate about.

Like I said, this is a topic I've been passionate about for a while, but I was reminded of it in another iteration today. Instead of teaching my photojournalism class, I went and watched my students take a grammar benchmark test, while their teacher was on prep. Basically, this meant lots of pointed looks at shifty-eyed students, while reading from Pocket on my phone. (I had already cleared out my junk email box and played on Pinterest for quite a while yesterday while in other classes. Good solid teaching here.) 

Pocket is one of my favorite apps for storing longer articles that I want to read later, particularly in times when I don't have an internet connection. Either way, the articles I read today were about how sports have impacted American education in positive and negative ways, and the science behind how addicts are still capable of making choices about their addiction, despite society (and most science), assuming that they can't. Both of these articles were absolutely fascinating. 

The other thing I do when I'm in classrooms is to look around at the walls and assignments sitting around to see what students are doing during regular classtime. Many times, it includes basal readers and accompanying information, Weekly Readers (with provocative articles like "Why This Adorable Dog is Doomed" and so on) or "informative texts" about things like a page of random facts about the brain. While these things are ok, there is just SO much more interesting information out there (or at least more interesting angles to take on the same topics)! I'm fairly certain that my 8th graders would have found just as much interest in sections of what I was reading, as well as many other things I read about. 

Why don't we give them a chance to do this? Immersing kids in actual texts that are meant to be interesting to the general population has all kinds of benefits. I have no data on this, but it seems like giving them something interesting, but slightly above their reading level would encourage them to make sense of what they're reading, even if they don't know every word. This would, in turn, breed confidence in students to try more in-depth writing. 

We need to give kids permission to not feel out of place looking in the "grown up" section of the library. They need to know that there are plenty of fascinating things to read about. Why aren't we bringing TIME magazine (not Time for Kids) or the like into the classroom, instead of specially-designed, millions of dollars worth of 4 page excerpts of stories written for the basal? There are experts out there writing about everything they are interested in. They just have to learn to look for it! Teach them about Twitter and curating their own list of experts to track. For example, show them the articles that National Geographic is writing about that endangered species their interested in, and petitions that have been started on it's behalf. Help them know that there are tons of sports analysts writing about their favorite team. And so on. 

That is our job as educators in the older grades. We have to teach them how to use their reading skills to become a more knowledgeable, fascinating human being, and not just only read what they are told to read. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Why Webinar? They're a great snack!

Last year, before our professional development hours were due, I was short. I had been at plenty of PD sessions, I was just teaching them all, and you don't get credit for that. (Strangely enough.) So, I scrambled and found a few cheap workshops in the area that I could attend, though I did end up having to take a personal day to attend one. I knew there had to be a better way.

Then, many thanks to my favorite source for professional knowledge, my Twitter feed brought up a tweet from someone referencing I clicked the link, and discovered that EdWeb is a relatively new website with many burgeoning teacher communities all putting on free webinars (with the help of generous sponsors of course, like Follett and ePals). You just have to log in and view the webinar (live, or to the archived version) and then you get an emailed PDF with the hours certificate. Not only that, but the topics were very up-to-date, relevant, and led by people in the know (classroom teachers, working administrators, well-respected librarians, content specialists, etc.) As a sample, some of this week's topics include: Shakespeare from PBS, 21st Century Skills with 1:1 iPads, How Exercise Can Transform Skills, Expanding Fraction Understanding, Twitter in the Classroom, Flipped Learning Primer, etc.) `

The more I participated in these webinars, live or archived, the more I realized that for a certain part of of teachers' professional development needs, it is exactly what we need. Short, on-demand content, directly related to what we know we need (as opposed to whoever shows up in our weekly school PD session). I also love that the live webinars have a chat feature that allow teachers to discuss the topic, their own experiences with it, and questions and comments that benefit others. Not only that, it's free and accessible anytime, anywhere. This alone is huge. Teachers don't have the time or money to be paying for expensive workshops and conferences around the country. These fit the bill :-)

Professional development is an active, dynamic process that can take place anywhere, anytime through the Internet. With the Internet, we are no longer bound to four walls and a guest speaker in front of us to tell us what we should learn. In fact, the more actively you take part in designing your own PD, the more evident the results will be in your teaching practice. --Isaac Pineda

While I am a huge proponent of higher-quality, teacher-chosen, job-embedded professional development, I also believe that there are times for different kinds of PD. (My colleague John Spencer has written about this very eloquently.) One of those is the unconference model, or as it relates to education, Edcamp, which I can (and have) talked about this ad nauseum as the planner for the first Edcamp Phoenix. These annual meeting of the minds are a fantastic tool for sparking new innovation and collaboration. However, sometimes teachers need a little snack of PD, just enough to help them refine a particular practice, give them a boost of energy in a particular area, and keep their minds thinking about professional matters, not just the day to day craziness of being a teacher (gotta call his mom after I enter these grades, I forgot to turn in that form, what? an assembly today??) Generally, these little snacks help me stay focused on why I teach, and how to do it best.

As it turns out there are quite a few resources for free, online, on-demand PD. One of my Edcamp Phoenix co-planners, the venerable Dr. Peggy George, even put together an excellent Live Binder (collection of links) documenting these options. So I would highly encourage you all to go get a PD snack! Just open the proverbial fridge and look!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Edcamp Do's & Don'ts for Organizers

It can’t be that hard, right? I knew that wasn’t going to be the case, but I was still amazed at how much time all the details took. In retrospect, these are a few things that I loved, and wasn’t so in love with, about the route we took to arrive at Edcamp Phoenix 2013. 


  • Sponsors that contacted US! (Thanks to the page!) Make sure you make a page on the wiki for your Edcamp, since this is Grand Central Station for all things Edcamp.  Many sponsors look through these pages looking for Edcamps to sponsor (6 groups contacted us) as well as potential attendees looking to see if there is an upcoming edcamp in the area.
  • Using Google for planning. We used Google’s FREE services for everything.
    • Google+ Hangouts for meetings at home
    • Google Drive for TONS of shared documents and collaboration (specifically one massive spreadsheet with a bunch of tabs covering every aspect of Edcamp)
    • Google Docs for note-taking in sessions on the day of Edcamp. They were open for anyone to contribute. Here’s one great example. Go to for Google Doc notes, under the session tabs.
    • Google Sites for our website,
  • Having multiple intelligences on the planning team. By including people in different fields, locations, and with different skills, we were all able to focus on areas of specialty. One person used his technical skills to create and maintain our fantastic website, develop a cool logo, and a pretty spectacular promo video called The Most Interesting Teacher in the World. Another member, a retired principal, was able to call on many of her professional contacts to help us promote the event, as well as keeping an eye toward the details of the event. A third person made it his mission to get a bank account set up, which meant setting up a non-profit. And another person ran clean up, filling in many other gaps, always volunteering for all the little things that needed doing: posters that needed to be made, organizing the registration table, etc.
  • Picking the brains of other Edcamp organizers. Twitter was a lifesaver as we debated many Edcamp issues, particularly how to go about doing the session suggestion time. When we had questions about contacting sponsors, @dancallahan was immensely helpful. Many other organizers were quick to jump in with suggestions as well, since many follow the hashtag #edcamp. (Hence, definitely tag any Edcamp twitter posts with that tag.) Blog posts about organizing the event were also immensely helpful, such as this one that nearly gave me a heartattack with all the things I needed to be doing when I found it 3 weeks before the day!
  • Unexpected sponsors. Do not assume that certain groups will sponsor and certain ones won’t. Assume nothing. The ones that seemed like a perfect fit for sponsorship, I never heard back from. The ones that seemed like a total shot in the dark, ended up being very committed sponsors, and can lead to lasting connections. My best sponsors were the ones I could explain how I used their product in my classroom or in the district, education-related or not. So contact anyone you can think of. You’ll be surprised who says yes!

Did NOT love:

  • Not enough organizers: The 5ish people who worked on our team were amazing, but we could only do so much. Next time, I’ll aim for about 8 people, who can focus on specific tasks and run with them.
  • Attrition Rate: My initial goal was 150-200 people. (I always aim high :-)) That was a bit much for the first time around, but I had no idea what to estimate, and am generally a terrible estimator. We ended up having about 125 people register, which I felt pretty good about. Either way, as I did my research, I read in multiple places to anticipate an attrition rate of 40-50%. This was very true. We ended up having about 75 attendees, which equals exactly 40% attrition. I just don’t understand how people can plan to attend something and not go. I know a few people will have things come up, but the number always boggles my mind. One tip I read online suggested emailing attendees 1-2 weeks in advance asking for any advance cancellations. This did help, as I had about 10 people cancel in advance, which helped me to give better projections for the food.
  • Session Creation time: Since I was apparently not crystal clear enough in my description of the session creation time, our people that helped consolidate session ideas into the allotted slots had a difficult time. We had a number of suggestions of things like, “Virtual classrooms” or “Retirement” that were 1) unclear/vague, and 2) had no name attached so we couldn’t ask the person what they were referring to. In retrospect, we definitely want to make 100% sure names are listed, as well as encourage people to write a 1 sentence explanation of their topic.
  • Participant misunderstanding of the purpose of Edcamp: Upon reading the evaluations, I was disappointed to see a number of people comment on the fact that there wasn’t necessarily an expert in the room on every topic. I can see how this might be frustrating, but that’s also part of the purpose of Edcamp, is that everyone can choose topics on that day, anyone can lead a session on anything, and anyone can suggest a session. Part of me wanted to respond with, “Then try a regular conference,” but at the same time, there may be ways to massage the system to help make sure the purpose is well-understood, and provide for ideas in this case. As we talked through some of this as a planning team afterwards, we decided that these were some possible suggestions for that situation:
    • Make a major point of encouraging teachers to come prepared to share on a topic
    • Use the registration form to indicate interest in topics and presenting
      Make the registration form public on website, which allows other participants to see who’s coming and what topics are of interest to people
    • Use the session time to do research together and report back your findings in 30 minutes (become experts!)
    • Have a number of people on hand who might be able to share on a wide variety of topics (specialists, etc.) who you can send out to sessions that may be big (Common Core, iPad use, etc.)

Overall though, Edcamp Phoenix was a fantastic experience. Now that it’s over, I realize how much time it was taking up, but it was 100% worth it. The enthusiasm that people had for the event was stunning to me :-) I have no doubt that next year will be even better! 

[The posters were made by our awesome, slightly bored during sessions, student volunteers :-)]