Friday, December 12, 2014

Real Teaching (and Learning) from Afar

I had the amazing opportunity to attend and present at the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence National Institute in Walt Disney World last week.  The thing is, I'm still a teacher and my students were still going to be in my classroom.  They also still need to be having valuable collaborative experiences, even in the absence of their teacher.

I wasn't willing to cook up filler activities.  So I asked myself, "How can I teach without being present?"

Step 1: 

I set up the necessary resources online so that all students could access them.  Students were going to study the rise of democracy in early 19th century America and the controversial presidency of Andrew Jackson.  I also made sure to post QR codes that bring kids to those resources throughout the classroom.

Step 2: 

Of course, while I'm being inspired by other educators and experience the Disney Magic, I don't want my students to have a miserable week.  It made sense to let them decide how they wanted to learn.  We spent a whole class period reviewing the lesson goals, essential questions, and multimedia resources.  I let the kids decide how they wanted to learn the materials and how they wanted to demonstrate that learning.  We recorded our plan on a Google Doc on which they were all editors.  This meant they had real control over how the week would go.

Click here to view the full week's plan on the Google Doc.

Step 3: 

Communicate, communicate, communicate! I shared our plan with parents, my department chair, and the teacher who was filling in for my while I was away.  Everyone knew the plan and everyone knew how to get in touch with the stakeholders.

I also formatted the shared Google Doc with spaces for the kids to update me on their progress and ask questions if they needed guidance. If you look at the document linked above, their contributions are in blue and my responses are in purple.

Step 4:

Off I went! I was excited and nervous, but I knew I would be in contact with the kids all along.  They let me know how things went and asked questions.  I responded with encouragement and suggestions to help things go more smoothly.  By the end of the experience, I knew exactly where each of my classes was going to be when I walked back into school on Monday morning after missing an entire week.

Step 5:
Now it was time to assess their work.  Truthfully, I was blown away and they were so proud to show me.  Here are a few samples:

  • Katie talked about the way we communicated and how she showed her learning about the limits of democracy on a Glog.

  • Niles and his friends made an awesome movie trailor about Andrew Jackson and the Spoils System.

  • Thomas and his group chose to make a Common Craft style video about suffrage in the early 1800s. While the video is short, the information is accurate and indicates they properly analyzed the provided resources.

  • Kate's group went a more traditional route, but they get creative and demonstrated voting rights with a concept web that was a well-developed pun. Even the little spiders were holding signs that read, "Vote for Charlotte!"

The lesson for educators to be learned here is that students are more creative and engaged when they're allowed to determine how they want to challenge themselves in their learning. I was still able to assess whether they properly analyzed the resources and learned the content, but they had a lot more fun than they would have in a traditionally teacher-structured class.  I could tell they also felt like their ideas mattered based on what some of them wrote in their posts.  Click on Katie or Niles to read their reflections first hand.  The proof of learning and engagement is in their work, and in the question they asked me when all was said and done:

Can we do something like this again?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tech Tips for Developing Real Relationships With Students

The reason I believe so much in the importance of tech integration in education has little to do with the tech itself. Instead, it has everything to do with the communication and relationship-building that tech makes possible. Recently I wrote a post for Smarter Schools Project on this topic. Click here to read it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why Student Voice is Essential at EdTech Conferences

Four of my current and former students helped me write an article about the importance of student voice at EdTech conferences.  In their portions they went even further and called for student input into lesson plans, app designs, and professional decision-making.

Click the image below to read their words.  Thanks for sharing!
Click this images to read the article.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Traversing the EdTech Slopes

I love to ski. It is part of my identity. I don't remember learning how to ski. My parents taught me themselves when I was 3 years old.  For me, skiing is as natural as walking or breathing.  Want to see how much I love it?  This is a cliff in Steamboat, Colorado.

Our students are like that with smartphones, iPads, and laptops.  They have always lived in a world of YouTube, apps, tweets, and snapchats.  They thrive on the relationships they build partly through tech integration.  But many of them go to schools run by adults who are intimidated by the complexity of these tools.

I tried snowboarding when I was about 15.  I'd already been skiing for 12 years. I thought I'd be a quick study. I wasn't. It was hard. I fell a lot. It hurt.  Many long time teachers have become comfortable with more traditional methods.  They're good solid methods.  They're used by good solid teachers.  The thing is, these teachers are still skiing while their students live to snowboard.  These teachers are using time-tested methods, but there are new methods worth learning and adding order to incorporate the skills needed in a tech saturated world.  Skiing is a solid foundation, but the future is snowboarding.

Earlier this evening I was chatting with Andrew Marcinek about the importance of leveraging some students' innate tech integration skills to help move schools in the right direction.  Administrators, teachers, and tech staff are often weighed down with standards and initiatives.  The idea of finding the time to learn a new unfamiliar method can feel overwhelming and scary.  Why not let students have a voice in how and where tech can be integrated so that it truly engages them in their own learning?

Student Tech Teams might be one way to help bring these ideas together.  Andrew wrote an article for Edutopia recently about how tech teams work and how they have started to pop up in schools all over the country.  Teachers certainly provide the guidance and expertise that students need in schools, but why not allow students to have a voice in how that expertise can be combined with powerful tech tools to create something neither of them ever imagined?

I've been rolling out the pilot of Rockets Help Desk at my own high school, and already I've seen my students have a real impact on teachers in our school and district.  A science teacher reported using the Prezi tutorial to give students a choice for more animated presentations.  The school nurse stopped by for a quick face to face lesson on sharing Google Docs so she could collaborate with her counterparts in 7 other schools on a new district wide policy.  An elementary math teacher invited Rockets Help Desk to show her 5th graders how to use Google Forms to collect survey data.  There are many more examples.

Our logo.

Rockets Help Desk launched September 6, 2014.  To date, only 10 weeks later, there are 17 formal requests the students have filled for teachers, and many more informal ones that haven't been tracked or recorded.  In each case, teenagers filled a real need for the adults in their school. The teachers provided the education vision and the students provided the tech tools to amplify the learning.

So if you've never tried to ski or snowboard, here's my advice. Take a quick lesson from a coach.  The coach will likely be younger than you, but don't let that stop you. You will fall and it will hurt, but don't let that stop you.  The satisfaction you'll feel and the fun you'll have when you finish that first run on your own will be well worth the frustration.

We need to remember that trying something new is hard.  We might fail a few times before we succeed.  The success will be well worth the struggle.  We, educators and students, can work together to make it happen.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"So What?" - The Power of Twitter, Voxer, and Great Questions

My good friend Tammy Neil, a math and tech integration teacher from Florida, challenged a few of us in the Breakfast Club, a daily educator chat on Twitter (see #BFC530) and active group on Voxer, recently with a great question:

"So what?"

The context of the discussion surrounded the power of social media and how our students use it.  Alex from Target has gained nearly a million Twitter followers merely because a teenage girl shopping one day snapped a picture of a cute guy working the Target register and posted it.  Tammy asked us, "So what?"  What will this young man do with his now widely heard voice? Will he use it for personal gain, or will he use it to do something important? To make a difference?

This prompted me to think about my own history classes and what it is like to be a student in one of those classes.  Why should they learn about history? So what? How will students' time spent in my class make a difference? I have been working hard to ensure my classes are learning history in order to gain enduring understandings, rather than to merely learn the facts.  Here's how I responded on the Voxer discussion.

Click here to listen to my Vox on "So What?" in the history classroom.
Little did I know, Christina Carrion, a tech integrator from Texas, heard my Vox and thought it was a decent example to share with a colleague.  Her colleague was interested in how Twitter and Voxer can be a part of educator growth.  Here's how she explained it a couple of days later.
Click here to listen to Christina's Vox on how she shared my Vox with a colleague.

I was thrilled, but also felt woefully under-qualified to serve as an example to others.  Although I am striving to make sure the students' experience day-to-day in my classroom makes a difference in their lives, it is still something I am working on every day.  It is certainly not something I've mastered.  I wanted to give her another example of how I craft the essential questions that are meant to help students arrive at their enduring understandings.
Click here to listen to my response to Christina.
Turns out, Christina's share went further than I thought. Here's how she used it in a training on Twitter for teachers in her district.
Click here to listen to how Christina introduced Voxer at a training.
Of course, this made my day.  But that is not why I share it. I share it because it demonstrates a few things about the power that a community of educators can have:

  1. Together We Can Do More: Educators work largely alone in classrooms with closed doors.  But when we have the inspiration and opportunity to work together, we can come up with valuable ideas that really impact student learning.  In this case, a conversation in an organized PLN setting caused educators from all over the country to think about 2 key goals: teaching children to spread a meaningful message via social media, and how we engage our students in the classroom so that their learning really matters.
  2. History is MUCH More than Events and People: I have often felt, as a history educator, that our content area is ignored by policy-makers and education big-wigs.  Look at the evidence: STEM and STEAM dominate the education grant landscape, standardized testing focuses on math, science, and language arts (not that I want a history standard test implemented - not a fan of those at all), and CCSS doesn't even give history it's own category.  But as history educators we play a crucial role in helping an entire generation learn the civic lessons that will shape their decisions as adult citizens.  Our lessons must tie together a mix of law, morality, and critical investigation skills.  It is essential that we make our students' time in our classrooms valuable and relevant to their lives today and their decisions as leaders of the future.  This is what essential questions and enduring understandings can do.
  3. We All Need Inspiration: It turns out, I was inspired just as much as, or perhaps more than, Chirstina Carrion by that Voxer conversation.  She was inspired to research more about her teaching practice and the role of essential questions. She used that idea in an attempt to inspire other educators to get connected on Twitter and Voxer.  My inspiration goes deep too, though.  She inspired me to believe that my teaching practice really is worthwhile and that my urge to keep growing is one that I should follow.  She inspired me to believe that I should keep sharing my ideas with others publicly.  Not all of them will be popular or inspirational, but if one idea can inspire one other teacher on one particular day, it is all worthwhile.
So, thanks Tammy, for asking us a great question: "So what?"

Thanks Christina, for letting me know that my ideas are valid and worth expanding and sharing.

Thanks BFC, for connecting me to these thoughtful compassionate educators.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pedagogy Behind the Paperless Classroom

I have been co-presenting with 6 of my students over the past few months at various conferences on the paperless classroom.  There are a few questions that are consistently brought up either with raised hands, on the backchannel during the session, or afterwards when attendees want to ask me face to face.  Most of them are clarifying questions around how a paperless classroom fits into teaching and learning pedagogy.  After our most recent workshop at MassCUE, I thought that these questions are asked so often it would be worth publishing

1. Why do you hate paper so much?

Ok, so no one has asked me this to my face at a conference.  But my colleagues and a few students have.  I've made an effort to preempt this question when I share at professional conferences by using this comical advertisement.

Funny, right?  No, I don't hate paper. It has an important place in our lives and in our education system.  In fact, although students don't have to keep any paper and I do not hand out paper as part of my class, I do post QR codes that are printed on paper throughout the room so students can scan them and quickly get access to resources.  We are paperless in the sense that nothing is distributed or recorded on paper, but I suppose we use a few sheets a week for QR codes.

My five-year-old comes home with drawings she has poured her little heart and soul into from kindergarten every day. I adore them.  They are on paper.  I do not hate paper.

2. What about the kids who are texting/tweeting/gaming while they're on their devices in your class? Are you worried they are missing out?

Here is how students responded on the backchannel:

In reality, sure, there are kids texting here and there in class.  I even see it happening.  But I don't call kids on it unless it is excessive and it is getting in the way of their learning.  As the students said in the backchannel, these instances are rare.  We have a human need to connect with others while we learn.  Instead of discouraging them from texting, I focus on encouraging them to collaborate constantly on the topic of the class.  As quoted by educators who were present and were tweeting, here is how I framed it when speaking with the educators at our workshop:

3.  Does a paperless environment really help students learn better?

It isn't that the learning is better or worse, I just see it as different.  There is little or no memorization required, although students learn facts through the process of analyzing information and creating something from it.  Instead, my focus is on building their capacity to learn rather than telling them how to learn.

Here's an example from the backchannel at our workshop last week.  The first message is a question from a teacher and the response that follows is from a student.

A workshop attendee even quoted Tessa and tweeted it out:

So, rather than tell them how they must use their devices to learn, I give them a historical essential question -- I am a history teacher after all -- and the resources they need to find the answer.  I suggest a way they can investigate, analyze, and create something that demonstrates their learning.  I also suggest the apps that might make that possible.  But if they have different ideas and different apps, I'm open to them and I usually say, "Yes!"  As long as they are learning the content in their own way, they are building their personal capacity to learn.

Another tweet from a workshop attendee:

4. My students are already "digital natives" and know more than I do.  What could I possibly teach them about tech that they don't already know?

Our students have never lived in a time when the Internet and cell phones did not exist.  They have always had access to each other and to information instantly.  The only phone booth-like stucture they're familiar with is the Tardis.  We may have to put in a bit more effort to integrate tech as naturally as they do in our own lives, but that doesn't mean that we don't have a LOT to teach them about the power of the devices they carry in their pockets everywhere they go.  An educator tweeting during my session at MassCUE quoted me:

They need to learn to find resources that are authentic and reliable from the plethora of high and low quality information available.  They need to learn how to use social media to make contact with people outside their community who are experts in the field.  There are countless other ways technology can be leveraged to learn in new ways, and they need teachers and parents to help them realize the possibilities.

5. You must be a 1:1 school.  How could I possibly do this when my school isn't 1:1?

Actually, we are a BYOD school.  This means students have secure access to wifi in our building.  They bring and use their own devices in school.  I happen to believe in this model more than 1:1 where schools choose the tool for the students.  My students are teenagers and, in conjunction with their parents, have a right to choose how and what they use to access the world.  No one device fits all.  I do think every students should have some kind of device, so I'm on board with 1:1 in that sense, but not when this means the device choice is made for the student.

There are several students in each of my classes who do not arrive with a smartphone, tablet, or netbook of their own.  But our school has laptop carts and iPads.  With planning, I can ensure that the students who need them can access them every day.

In the backchannel, my students explained how we make it work:

What about the paperless homework?

Most assignments are not due until 4-5 days after they are
assigned, so students have time to plan ahead for access.

Of course, nothing is flawless.  For my students and I the paperless model works and I have watched their enthusiasm for history grow as a result of the possibilities a paperless environment creates.  Going completely paperless is not necessary, but if educators teach their students to leverage the power of connecting ideas and people through technology I truly believe they will see a positive shift in their classrooms.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why Attending an Edu Conference With my Students Changed Everything

Tessa and Melanie talk about how apps
like Evernote and Google Drive make
organization and collaboration so
much easier for them.
Our students make us laugh, drive us crazy, and inspire us to better ourselves.  They shouldn't just be the reason we teach, they should be a part of the teaching.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to present at MassCUE with 6 of my current and former students.  Watching them present was a proud moment, but it wasn't my favorite moment of the conference.  I knew they would blow the presentation out of the water. I knew they had prepared well and that their session attendees would learn something.  The BEST part of my day was watching them experience, learn, and network because of the unofficial opportunities the conference creates.


My students had met members of the Burlington High School Help Desk via Google Hangout a couple of times thanks to the vision and urging of Jennifer Scheffer.  Meeting face to face, talking tech, and planning for future brilliance took their networking experience to a whole new level.  They were buzzing with excitement as they shared hot chocolate and ideas.


When the Rockets Help Desk crew decided to go to Reshan Richards' session on his vision and creation of Explain Everything, they didn't find seats and sit politely to listen. The found some carpet on the back wall and played around with the app as they listened to his ideas about learning and creating.  For them, experiencing a workshop as an edtech conference is about more than receiving information.  They needed to create their own understanding as it was happening.

Connecting with the Experts

After listening to Reshan Richards and trying out his tool, the girls were excited and ready to build something new.  They wanted to talk with him and arrange for more time to pick his brain.  I encouraged them to walk from the back wall up to the front.  They introduced themselves, told him why they love Explain Everything, and asked if he would be willing to do a Google Hangout so they could carry on the conversation. He said, "Yes!" and even gave them Explain Everything t-shirts.  They are so eager to build a relationship with this influential and visionary educator in a real and authentic way.  I can't imagine how far this will take them.

The kids are chomping at the bit to go to another conference.  So my new mission is to connect them with conferences and opportunities to share their ideas and create new ideas with educators and experts.

I can't wait to see what they do.