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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Students Connect to History with EdTech

Every history teacher I've ever worked with has espoused the pedagogical principle that it is essential to make historical events and lessons relevant to our students' lives.  I firmly believe that the integration of the technology that students are already using makes that easier than ever.  Here are a couple of examples from my classroom that could easily transfer to other topics and other classrooms:

The Power of Inspiration: Online Research


Transcendentalism is a social and literary movement that we've all studied in our high school days. My students sometimes moan when I announce this particular topic because often they've read the literature in the English classes and claim they already know it.  Historically, the movement has it's own significance beyond the literature.  In fact, the influence of transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau on some of the greatest social movers and shakers in the past few decades is almost tangible.  Rather than just tell my students, I had them investigate for themselves. During the first week of school we spent significant time on research skills using in part a Google a Day for search strategies and SHEG for source evaluation, so I know they had the ability to find reliable sources and compelling images to represent their ideas.



I had students look up reformers they are familiar with from their own lives and experiences: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela,  and Mahatma Gandhi for example.  They had to find images and examples of choices and actions taken by these incredible reformers of our time and find out how they were influenced by the ideas of Transcendentalists.  As a reference they primarily used Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government".

The results were powerful. Students were holding up iPad screens with inspirational quotes and photos of each of these men.  They had passion in their voices as they explained the major change that was inspired by the reformers' words and actions and how the philosophy of Thoreau, a man who lived more than 100 years before, influenced them.  I could have lectured or showed them images and videos at the front of the room.  But, because they discovered it for themselves in the form of online articles, rich images, and even video footage they felt more connected to the ideas. They also told me they had a realization that mere words can cause great change. I am confident my students' words will cause great change someday as well.

The Power of Community: Socrative


Our local history includes a study of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. A determined and dedicated bunch, they made a great trek across the Atlantic in search of religious freedom and an ideal community.  Perhaps their values are best represented in John Winthrop's City Upon a Hill sermon. After we read and analyzed the text together, I asked my 9th graders to consider their own community. How realistic were Winthrop's goals? With enough determination, were they possible for the Puritans to achieve?  Now these are deep questions that ask students to think about their own faith in human beings. I was asking them how much they trust themselves and their friends to be selfless for the good of all.  When we ask these tough questions, we want our students to be honest, but we need to make them feel safe to express themselves.


Socrative was a perfect solution. Students were able to answer the questions anonymously and therefore honestly. But then I could display all answers on screen at the front of the room to stimulate discussion. Some were idealistic and believed that a perpetually fraternal society was possible.  Others were more skeptical and had doubts that such ideals could be maintained in the real world.  The mix of anonymity and honesty that Socrative provided led to a great discussion about how our own school community functions and how the educators and students could work together to improve it.


In both of these cases that occurred recently in my history classroom, technology provided a gateway for students to connect history to their lives.  Without the technology, the learning would not have been as deep.  I know there are more examples out there. Share yours.

Monday, January 5, 2015

How to Get Organized for the New Year

Check out my latest post with the Smarter Schools Project.  It highlights great tech tools my students use all the time to keep everything at school organized and accessible.
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Click here to read the post.

Tech tools and strategies included in the post are:

1. Remind for School-Home Communication

2. MyHomework for Tracking Assignments

3. Evernote for Keeping Notes Organized

4. Quizlet for Studying Anywhere


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!"


  • Jamie's group made a Prezi about Andrew Jackson's Bank War that includes document analysis, primary source images, and even an embedded video clip.

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.