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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Teaching Technique: The 1 Minute Throwdown

History teachers know that lessons on exciting events are easy.  It's teaching the philosophies behind those events, the intangibles, that is tough.  I needed a quick engaging plan to help the kids learn the material without watching them glaze over before my eyes.

This time I was teaching the 19th century ideologies that influenced the European Revolutions of 1830 and 1848: conservatism, liberalism, nationalism.  My plan was for the kids to come up with their best 1 minute presentation and go head-to-head with one another to find out who could best explain their ideology while entertaining their audience. Classmates would vote for the winners.

Day 1

  1. Define the word ideology and give students resources that describe the three 19th century ideologies.
  2. There are 3 ideologies in this instance, so I divided the class up into 6 groups: 2 groups per ideology.
  3. Groups read the resources and come up with an accurate, teacher-approved answer to the essential question: What were the major political ideologies of 19th century Europe and how did they influence social and political action?

Day 2

  1. Groups review their notes from Day 1 and start planning their 1 minute presentation for the throwdown.
  2. Once a plan is in place, groups show me their scripts, images, props, and sketches so I can ensure that everything is historically accurate.  
  3. The 1 minute presentation must be recorded, saved, and ready for the throwdown before students leave class.

Day 3

  1. Throwdown Day!
  2. Groups perform/play their 1 minute project.
  3. The rest of the class tries to arrive at a definition of the ideology.  This definition is approved or edited by the performing groups.
  4. The class votes for the best 1 minute projects!
1 minute projects that resulted varied from Common Craft style videos, to live skits, to appsmashed projects that blew my socks off.  Here were our winners from today:






Click here to watch an appsmashed video made with ChatterPix and Videolicious.


My students demonstrate their learning by posting reflective and informative blog posts using Blogger.  Here is the assignment for posting on this lesson.

While this lesson might not be considered "fun" from a teenage perspective, it definitely had them laughing and trash-talking a bit. They had a stake in producing a high quality result because they knew they would show it to classmates and compete.  They also liked that they have a lot of choice over what the final product would be.  Over ten different apps were used by the groups, and some used no apps at all to put together their live skit performances.  This teaching method could be used to help kids learn about political parties, economic concepts, constitutional principles, and lots of other intangible but essential concepts that are part of history.  Give it a shot and have fun!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Student Connect -> Teacher Connect

Some educators from my amazing PLN from #BFC530 created an off-shoot group called Student Connect. We have a Voxer group that allows our students to leave messages for one another from across the country.  Lisa's 11th and 12th graders in Pennsylvania can talk to my 9th and 10th graders in Massachusetts can talk to Scott's 7th graders in New Jersey can talk to Sarah's 7th and 8th graders in Georgia can talk to Becca's K through 5 students in Texas.

We come up with the question for each day and the kids talk to each other about their answers.  They LOVE listening to voices of kids from all around the country thank to Voxer.  They laughed together when eating waffles was mentioned as a fun weekend activity.  They shook their heads together when the stress of the PSATs was mentioned.  One of my sophomores said, "It's nice to know they're the same as us."

Day 1 Question: What do all kids want every teacher to know?

Becca used a table as a surface for kids to write their answers. I decided to do the same after she gave me the idea!

Day 1 Responses:

Here are the responses from classrooms all around the country and from students as young as 5 and as old as 18.

Lack of sleep was a major theme.

Day 2 Question: Happy Friday! What are you looking forward to this weekend?

Day 2 Responses:

Sleep appears again! Boy, these kids are stressed.

In a post from earlier this school year I wrote about how my students have a common wish for all their teachers: Get to know us!

This message came through loud and clear once again.  They also want us to understand what part of their crazy schedules they value the most.  They are overbooked, overtaxed, and seriously lacking sleep.  At the same time, they want time to focus on the things they are passionate about.

In fact, in a one-on-one meeting with a 10th grader I had this afternoon, she vented about how stressed out she was and about how all the adults in her life expect a full commitment to school/sports/arts/etc.  Her statements was, "I get commitment but I don't get obsession."

That certainly made sense to me.

I don't want this new addition to my classes to be another project to pile on top. Instead I want it to be something that makes kids feel like there are others out there who understand how they feel.

I can't wait to hear more from my students and my friends' students from all around the country.  When they hear each other speaking they feel connected, and when I see them getting excited about this new unofficial project of ours, I feel more connected to them. One sophomore said to me. "I like walking into your room, seeing the question on your desk, and writing my ideas before we get started with class."  That sweet spot, where we all feel like someone is listening to our voice, that's where the learning happens.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Paperless Love

I was honored to be invited by Dr. Will Deyamport, III to write a post with my students about our experience with a paperless classroom.  The link is below.  Please read and comment! Thanks Dr. Will!