Friday, October 2, 2015

Technology: No longer optional

The scene: A room crammed with 40 eight-year-old desktops, and an equal number of cramped 8th graders, literally elbow-to-elbow as they begin taking the AzMERIT test, the first fully online, standardized test they've ever taken. It's late April and they are beginning the first section of the test, the writing section. Their classroom teacher has just left the room, and I, the special area teacher, am covering while the teacher takes her prep. 

The comment that reminded me why tech can't just be a shiny, fancy thing we use as a reward: 
The students have just started, and a girl raises her hand, points to the text box on the screen, and asks, "Is this where we write our rough draft, do our proofreading, or our final draft?" I was dumbstruck, but slowly responded, "That's where you do all of it, all in that box."

Folks, that moment right there, communicated to me that we have done our students a massive disservice by allowing teachers to use technology as an option. The world our students live in is saturated by technology. It's not optional, it's simply the way the world works. When we exclude technology from school, not only do we not move students ahead, we are crippling them. 

In terms of writing, we need to teach students to write digitally, because it is fundamentally different. Would you write differently if you literally had to hand-write every word? For me, absolutely yes. (This blog post would be much shorter!) Would you edit differently? Yes. For students, it means, they correct 1 misspelled word, and put a comma in somewhere and call it a day. Then they start the arduous process of either re-hand-writing it, or the painstaking process of looking up and down after every word as they type it out, one letter at a time. We need to teach students how to write with their keyboards and with some speed. Typing quickly is exactly the same thing as one's reading fluency. It allows your brain to keep up with your comprehension. 

But that is not the only basic skill that kids don't have. Knowing how to locate and attach a file is essential to knowing how to fill out a job application. Saving things in different file formats is a critical skill as well, if a company requires a pdf resume and not a document, and the list of imperative skills goes on. That doesn't even begin to touch on the necessity of being able to evaluate online information. 

In our world, technology literally touches everyone. You can't apply for a job anymore without knowing how to use a computer. You can't participate in college without knowing basic technology skills. You can't be a citizen of the world, unless you interact with technology. You may say, "Oh, but students these days know so much about technology already. Do I really need to teach them basic things?" Yes!! 

Students are just like adults. They are really good at getting to the 3 things they use every day (in my students' cases, Snapchat, Youtube, and Minecraft) and that's it. I literally have 13 year olds ask me every single day, "How do I get to the next line in my document?" (hit enter) or who don't know why they don't need to google Google. They have next to no understanding of fundamental concepts of technology, because we think it's just a nice thing to do once in a while to use a bit of technology to let kids play games or type a paper.

By failing to teach kids even fundamental technology skills, we are truly hurting them in both the short and long term. Technology is how our society functions, and we do our students more than just a disservice to treat it like a cool extra when you have time. Technology is Not. An. Option. It is a life skill.

photo credit:

Friday, September 25, 2015

The benefits of reinventing the wheel

"I can't do that. I don't know...this is scary. Really scary! How do you do it?" These are words of productive struggle. From teachers. 

Productive struggle has become the new phrasing of choice for the point where kids have to learn something new, based on something they've already learned. It's when they get pushed farther than what they already know. Other variations on this theme include teaching with scaffolding, and getting students in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. As teachers, we specialize in getting students to this point, and helping students realizing they really can do what we're helping them accomplish. 

However, as teachers, we're really good at NOT reinventing the wheel. Sometimes the wheel needs to be reinvented though. (In case you haven't noticed, wheels have changed greatly since the stone age. I imagine folks in the tire industry could verify this!) In education, we find something that works, and we stick with it. We save it, file it away for next year, and laminate it. This saves us work and brain power, so it's a good thing, right? Not always. 

I'm in my 6th year of teaching technology, which for 8th grade meant photojournalism. This year, 8th grade has been changed to a STEM course. They already have science and math, so we're working heavily with the robotics/engineering side of STEM. As a technology teacher, who really prefers educational technology in the regular classroom, the technical side of my job is not my forte (i.e., "Why isn't it printing?" ".... I don't know.") but I've muddled my way through. Now, teaching programming with robots, I've been given a significant push out of my comfort zone. However, when push comes to shove, you make it work. So, I've been learning about robots and programming right along with the students. And I tell students this is as new to me as it is to them, and I won't have all the answers for this. 

Every day, I truly feel the productive struggle. As out of my element as it makes me feel, it reminds me that we ask students to do this every day. This empathy reminds me to be patient and as explicit as I can with directions, because it's all they have at the moment. The productive struggle is meaningful for us as teachers because of the empathy it creates, but also because it means we are becoming the lifelong learners we encourage our students to be. By expanding our horizons to something new, even if it's hard, we're gaining valuable knowledge and experience to help us with other things we might attempt. Most importantly, when we admit this learning to students, they witness us modeling trying new things, occasionally failing, and getting back up and trying again. They have to see this if we ever want them to venture out, imagine, and do great things. 

The words at the top of this post are from teachers at a professional development session I taught this week about using social media in the classroom. For some folks, it was an easy transition to say, "I have my own Facebook account, but I'd like to make one for my class to share with parents what we're doing." For others, it was literally scary. But they were willing to take that leap, knowing that there were baby steps they could take and they had a support structure to help them when it was needed. This is what a true productive struggle looks like. 

So as you go through your school year, try something new. It could be something little or something big, but try something that is a little out of your comfort zone; something you're not sure if it'll work yet. You'll understand your students a bit more, learn something new, and model the productive struggle for our students, that they may be inspired to learn as well. 

So go out and reinvent that wheel! :-) 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Are you an innovative educator? This question was posed to me recently, and of course, my first honest answer was no. But then I thought about it and realized it was a leading question. The answer that a person SHOULD give is yes. Too often as teachers, we assume we have nothing to share with others in education, and that all of our learning should come from administrators, specialists, and consultants. Please don't believe this. It is categorically untrue.

Every teacher, no matter their experience level, has something they can share with others. It may be something little, like a trick they've used to get students back into a lesson after lunch, or something big like using Genius Hour projects to change the world. I have become so passionate about encouraging teachers to share what they know because it so rarely happens, and we are so rarely given forums in which to do this. 

So, I encourage you to find some way to share what you know. Obviously, it will benefit others, but it will benefit you even more. When teachers teach teachers, they gain confidence in what they are sharing and doing in the classroom, which in turn, encourages them to try more new things, and share more. Sharing leads to more sharing. Some ways that teachers can share their knowledge include sharing ideas and links on Twitter, offering to present on a subject for a professional development session at their own school or district, submitting an article to a journal for inclusion, or proposing a session at a workshop or conference. You'll be surprised what you'll be able to do when you ask. 

Another way that I highly recommend is going to an Edcamp unconference. No matter where you are located, there is likely an Edcamp somewhere near you. (I coordinate our local EdcampPHX event, though there are hundreds of Edcamps around the world.) These unique gatherings feature teachers as the sole content source. There is no sponsorship and no presenters determined in advance. When participants show up in the morning, they gather together and make a list of sessions they would like to participate in that day. From there, those sessions become the schedule for the day. Anyone who suggested a session simply agrees to get the discussion going on the chosen topic, and everyone in the circle is encouraged to share their expertise. No consultants, just teachers talking to teachers. At every Edcamp I've been a part of, teachers are floored at how good it feels to be validated for the knowledge that they do have, and to learn from other educators. 

One of the first lessons I learned in teaching is, "Close your door and do what's right for kids." Please do what's right for kids, but the best way to get better at what your doing is NOT to close your door. Share your hard-earned knowledge with others, to save them the sweat and tears. Then listen to them, and learn from their wisdom as well. I want to say, "Next time someone asks you what you can share with other teachers, I hope you have a positive reply." However, unfortunately, our system doesn't often encourage teachers to share with others publicly, so you'll likely have to speak for yourself. So instead, I say, be bold. Your knowledge and insight could change another teacher's (and student's) world. 

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.