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 :-)]

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Is this real?

One of my groups of 7th graders has been blogging with a group of students from Iowa after their teacher and I connected via Twitter (one of my favorite methods of professional development). I explained to the kids what we were doing and what the other class was doing. (They're a writing class, and mine is a technology class. The IA class was doing some interview practice and were asking questions of my students. Mine were learning to blog and comment.) I was floored when, after reading questions from the other students, my kids kept asking if the other students were real. What?? Of course they're real!

As I reflected on how ridiculous I thought this question was, I realized that it wasn't ridiculous at all. Why WOULD they think this was an interaction with real students? Everything we do with students tends to be a copy of real life. Pretend you're writing a letter to the mayor. Imagine you are a soldier in the Civil War and explain their thoughts. Create a fake newsletter for animals about to hibernate. Play this simulation game showing what happens when rabbit populations explode. Why would students even consider that what they're doing is something actually real with other people in the world?

I've started to be more and more aware of the "unreal" things I ask students to do; things that have no real value in the world. As I see myself giving these assignments, the question of "Why" keeps wriggling in the back of my head. In high school, I was always the one asking "Why do we have to do this?" If I had a good reason, no problem. If the teacher had no good reason, I had a very difficult time motivating myself to finish. Today, I think that I (and many in education), have forgotten how to create authentic tasks that matter for students.

I was reminded about this today, when I saw the tool iFakeText come across my Twitter feed, as a new and exciting tool for kids to create fake text exchanges between people, i.e., book characters, historical figures, etc. (Another example: Fake Facebook pages.) I understand the purpose this is trying to serve, helping students put themselves in the place of others. However, as a student, I would have hated this. There has to be more authentic assignments out there than creating unreal versions of real life. Wouldn't it be better for students to actually find primary sources from the Library of Congress or other sources showing what Franklin Roosevelt's writings said? Or to create another ending to a story and then send them to the book's author?

If the work that kids are doing matters, we should treat it as such. If the technology how-to videos my 7th graders are making are important, than I should post them on a site for teachers to use (because let's face it, my 7th graders could teach many teachers a thing or two about technology). If students are learning about the periodic table, contact a scientist online and see if they can Skype with students and answer questions about how it impacts their job. If my students need to make a presentation about something, maybe I should have them create a Powerpoint or Keynote about about something they're trying to convince their parents of (what they want for Christmas?) and then use appropriate information (graphs showing allowance vs cost, images demonstrating the benefits to both, etc.) Or even presentations showing something that needs to be changed about the city and then pass them on to the mayor's office!

We have to show kids that they are learning things that matter to important people and that help our society function. Again, if the work that kids are doing matters, we should treat it like it does.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rubber Meets the Road: Ed Tech for Everyone

Just like many other areas of life, we in the education world (and often the educational technology world) are guilty of using acronyms and jargon. ELL, CCSS, scaffolding, personal learning network, and the one I'm addressing today: Web 2.0. What does that even mean? To people who only have vague aspirations of using technology, it's a scary techie word that sounds complicated.

Good news folks! It's not nearly as complicated as it sounds! That's why I developed the online class that I'll be teaching again this spring called Rubber Meets the Road: Web 2.0 For Real. What does it actually mean? This course explains to participants what Web 2.0 is (the participatory, creative internet), gives participants a chance to test out 3 parts of the 2.0 internet (blogs, wikis, and videos), and then the opportunity to actually implement one of the three in the classroom. If this sounds like something that'd be of interest to you, please register below. Details are as follows:

Rubber Meets the Road: Web 2.0 For Real

  • April 22-May 19, 2013
  • 4 week online course 
  • Completely asynchronous (no deadlines, except the last day of class)
  • $20 (pay below registration form) [malfunctioning button has been fixed] 
  • 12 hours of continuing education available
  • Registration is available up through April 25. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

When life gives you lemons...Take pictures!

On Tuesday, I was informed that my computer lab was going to be used for testing, and that I could use a newer lab instead for the day. This would be great if there was a server my kids could save information to, so they could get it from any computer. But we don't. This would also be great if the kids could get over the novelty of new computers that aren't "theirs" for one day. But they can't. The one other time we did this, virtually no learning occurred because they were so excited with the new computers. So, when I was told that I could use this lab again, I decided it wasn't worth it, and we went outside.

When I was a classroom teacher, I used to take kids outside on gorgeous Arizona spring 85 degree days. I forgot how much more I loved my classes when they were spread out over a football field. So much more tolerable!! Of course, I couldn't just let them play, we had to be doing something curriculum -related. So, we implemented our own BYOD-type activities :-)

My 8th graders worked in groups of 3 or 4 (they had more devices) and chose a vocabulary word from class. They then looked for each letter in the environment and took a picture with a phone or ipod. Below is my example (ACE--not a vocabulary word, but the quickest example I could find). The rules were that it had to 4 letters or more, couldn't be printed letters, and had to have at least part of it that was in the existing landscape (i.e., you can't make an O with your arms). They had a great time :-)

My 7th graders had an even better time :-) Their assignment was to work in groups of 5 or 6 (they had fewer devices among them) and choose a fairy tale. They were then to identify the 5 plot points (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), re-enact a scene for each plot point, and photograph it. First I had each group identify their fairy tale (following brief, but intense debate over what a fairy tale was: Jack and the Bean Stalk? Yes. Tangled/Rapunzel? Yes. The Avengers? No. Harry Potter? No. The Wizard of Oz? No. The Lord of the Rings? No.--The goal was SHORT, since we only had 45 minutes.) Then they retold it to each other to make sure they knew the ending. (Also, brief, but intense debate over the endings of Jack & the Beanstalk and Beauty and the Beast.) Then, they went out to take their pictures. Here's one of my favorite versions of Cinderella I saw acted out. (Captions below photos.) The kids had such a ball, and asked if we could do it again :-) Must have been a success! (Minus my intense sunburn.)

 1. Cinderella. 

2. Gus the mouse :-) 

3. Cinderella cleaning. 

 4. Enter the evil step-mother. 

5. Prince invites Cinderella to the ball. 

6. Smooth carriage ride for the prince!

7. Cinderella loves the ball. (Turns out the top of the jungle gym is a great place for a ball :-)) 

8. Cinderella loses her slipper. (top of the stairs in the shadow)

9. Prince findes the shoe. 

10. Prince (and Gus) deliver the shoe. 

11. (Drumroll) Will it fit? 

 12. It fits!

13. Cast photo :-) 

Online Reliability

For several years, I've taught students about how to decide if something is reliable online, a skill that I think is beyond essential in the world of higher-education and the general job market. It has taken many times of teaching this to refine what actually makes something trustworthy or not, and much examination of how I make these decisions myself. (Try it. Next time you Google something, analyze how you decide what to click on, and once you get there, how you decide if it's something you should trust.) I finally decided to compile all this information into a Google Doc and would love anyone else to add in their own input!

Please note: I don't use websites like the tree octopus to teach students about reliability. The vast majority of websites are NOT trying to trick people. However, they are trying to persuade them, from various perspectives, and it's critical for students to know how to identify those perspectives.

(Can also be accessed here.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Become a Better Teacher at Edcamp

An unconference. No speakers brought in, no sessions planned in advance. Planning an Edcamp can’t be that hard, right? Ha! It turns out there are a lot more logistics than one might think.

However, when all the logistics were set up, and people began arriving on Saturday, February 23, for the first ever Edcamp Phoenix West, some might say magic happened. I however, would not call it magic. What happened is exactly what one should expect when teachers get together on their own time in their own way.

They became better teachers.

They shared ideas, successes, and perplexing issues. They wrote down others’ great ideas, websites, and names. They exchanged contact information so they can keep working together. This is what professional development should look like. We don’t have to force teachers to do this. We don’t have to pay them to do this. We don’t have to bring in an expert. They’re already here.

What did we do to encourage this kind of a gathering? We supplied a location, coffee, pizza, and prizes. That’s it. Yes, the details of coordinating all of this involved more than one meeting. But witnessing the energy, excitement, and passion for education in the building made it all worth it.

So. Do you want to be a better teacher? Do you want to engage with others passionate about their craft? Come to Edcamp Phoenix 2014. (Dates to be announced soon.)

photo credit: a.e.ray via photopin cc