Thursday, December 31, 2015

Technology Free Schools

I have a boss +Dan Crowley, who sometimes in his more exasperated moments proposes to go totally retro and put a copy machine in every classroom. It'd be the ultimate 1990 school. I thought of him as I read about a tech free school in London which has recently been prominently portrayed in newspapers such as The Guardian. It boasts no screens, no smartphones, no tablets, no computers, nor does it even have TVs. Y'know, one might think that this technology teacher would feel threatened or be aghast at such an idea. I think it's terrific. Why? Here's a school being intentional about what it values. 

What would I say to my children's teachers if they decried screen time and tech use? I will forever and always distinguish between active and passive use. In fact, I feel that having students actively use technology to share ideas, work collaboratively, and publish beyond the classroom is as "organic" as any cardboard or woodworking project that students will do in this tech free school.

I do take issue with the final quote from the article. It states, "Children will encounter tech whatever schools do, particularly as it becomes cheaper and more pervasive. Most children – or adults – can become fluent with tech quite quickly, and schools shouldn’t feel that they have to plug an imagined skills gap that often doesn’t exist.”

In my experience most children and adults aren't all that fluent. Yes, they know how to be passive viewers and can navigate social media. But I find my high schoolers are less adept than my 5th graders were. Because I had my 5th graders for most of the day and tech skills were embedded in many assignments. I have my high schoolers one period a day. They are smart, motivated kids. But to say that they are fluent with tech is just untrue. It doesn't just happen.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Twitter in the Academy- One Professor's Shift- Fascinating

I'm trying a twitter feed for my class. I ask students to review my teaching and my class. In one review, a student called my use of twitter, "useless" and wondered why we were trying it. Before giving up, I want to think about it some more. In my research, I came across this link out of Stanford's ed. program. While this doesn't help me with my more immediate problem, it is a fascinating glimpse into the beginnings of change within academia. I'm a history teacher by training. I taught history for two decades. Though I taught history with a progressive pedagogy, only in recent years has my interest shifted to technology.

I've felt for a while that colleges will have to shift before high schools will. "Colleges expect it," often trumps any suggestion I make for change. It is starting to seem that college is starting not to expect it. Maybe? Hopefully?

Without a doubt, the view this professor proposes is still a minority view. But his Stanford credentials are weighty.

Take a look.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Death by Powerpoint

Keep the crowd engaged!
I've spent a lot of time recently making presentations on how to make presentations in different classrooms around my school. It helps, of course, to model what a good presentation is and is not. The first decision I want a presenter to make when they are using technology to make a presentation is to consider if the presentation will be given in real time. If given in real time, the digital presentation needs far less text material.

A powerpoint/ keynote/ slides presentation in which the presenter reads all of the information contained upon a slide is a recipe for BORING. It insults the audience's intelligence, it wastes time and it makes it look like the presenter is ill-informed. Finally, it ensures that the presentation is devoid of spontaneity.

Even more dynamic presentation tools such as emazeprezi and magisto will quickly lose audience attention once the "wow" factor wears off if the presenter falls into reading all that's written on the screen to the audience.

The digital tool should capture main ideas. It should incorporate images and graphic organizers. But more importantly, have a story to tell. It should have arc and direction. Be engaging. Maybe you don't need a presentation tool at all.

Powerpoint is seen as cliche in some tech circles. The problem isn't the tool, though it never would be my first choice. It is how we use that tool. Do we teach kids how to make oral presentations? For more, click here.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Yes, Yes, Yes!!

Jordan Shapiro writes for Forbes. I read carefully all blog posts and follow his twitter feed. He totally gets it that one can fully embed technology into one's class but change nothing at all. It's cliche but true, "It's not about the tools." In this post, Shapiro points out that most best- selling apps are simply recall tests with flashy graphics and animations. He writes,

Digital tablets let educators and developers pat themselves on the back for embracing “new innovative technologies” without actually having to turn toward anything too unfamiliar.

If our model remains teacher-centric, then there will be no tech-led revolution in education. If we fail to leverage the interactivity that tech affords us, if we fail to grasp the essential fact that all the world's information is only a few clicks away, if we use tech and tablets to only replace pencil and paper, we will have failed altogether.
How differently do we use tablets than did the Sumerians?
According to Shapiro, we won't if we are not intentional about change. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

I'm bluer than I am usually as I write this post. Last night, I saw Beyond Measure, a challenging call for change. The film highlights the amazing stuff done at High Tech High in San Diego. It included the ubiquitous Sir Ken Robinson making his usual sardonic witticisms about the troubling practices in current education methods. And follows a school district in rural Kentucky trying to transition from a traditional approach to a project-based, Contructivist approach.

The movie left me frustrated. I don't know where or how to start. I'm only an ed-tech coordinator. I can't make change happen if people feel they have nothing left to learn. Traditional education works for some people. It usually worked for the teachers who fill the buildings. I worry that there will always be outliers like High Tech High. But mostly, I fear the education establishment will long continue to sort kids by age, send them to a different class every 40 minutes with a totally new group of people, and only test kids for recall and comprehension.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

At Google Training Today

Google. Mixed Feelings.

Google seems awesome in so many ways.
Corporate offices have nap pods
Free food- seared bluefish and sushi
can't have a seat more than 150 ft. from food.
razor scooters
Child Care
Point is that culture is important.

Also, all the stuff they provide to schools are free. It gives away for free unlimited storage! Google makes no profit off of Chromebooks.

What's in it for Google?

Future Customers! Of course. What's in it for Google? Brand loyalty. Coke is the most powerful brand in the world. Google is the 2nd. Google is already a verb. 97% of its revenue comes from web advertizing. So doing the right thing for google will gain it future customers and money... lots and lots of money. Google has over 65 million is cash reserves. Staggering wealth.

I don't like being a pawn in this game... but no real way to escape it and the pull is so seductive and alluring.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Gratitude is not an attitude, it is an action.

All of my problems are little problems or luxury problems. Yep, I'm broke. But I'm broke because I have 5 kids getting great educations. And I'm broke because we decided we needed our AC fixed this summer. How can I really complain?

I wish I had a higher trajectory career path. But I find my job very interesting and I enjoy going to work every single day. How can I really complain?

And my job frustrates me sometimes with our glacial pace or change or outright resistance to the changes technology allows us to make. But what great teachers we have where I work. The connections these folks make with children continually amaze me. I continue to work where I work because I want my kids to receive the moral, ethical, athletic and intellectual educations my school provides to them. How can I really complain?

Last night I was cranky with my spouse. No good reason. I just was. How can I really complain?

So what am I going to do about it? Remember, Alex, gratitude is an action.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Make Thinking Visual

Under the column of "things I should use more in my teaching" would be my use of graphic organizers in reading, note-taking, and writing. I don't learn visually and I don't really think spatially, so they've never been a tool I've used. I recognize that some of my students ARE visual learners and thus I should incorporate graphic organizers into my teaching. I've come across a few that I like. The Mindly App is one tool I've come across. Another that I like a lot is the Lucidchart Add-on in google docs. It's a great tool, super easy to use, and immediately embeddable into any google document.

My favorite as of this writing is the elegant Coggle. Coggle creates visually beautiful org charts. It only does one thing, but in a remarkably straightforward way. The organizers it creates all more or less will look the same. Yet, its ease of use and graceful layout make it a powerful tool for the classroom.

Family trees, language derivatives, essay mapping, biology nomenclature hierarchies, history timelines immediately spring to mind as ways a teacher could use this tool.

On the tech side, Coggle lets one embed links and pictures. It allows for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. One can also share a finished Coggle with others both privately and publicly. Students from elementary grades through college age will find this a useful tool.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Skills vs. Content, Brain Rules

I loathe this debate. In many respects, it is false. However, in secondary schools and in prep schools I fear we skew too heavily on the side of content. We teach kids to know large chunks of information, but what do we teach them to do? This debate is an ongoing debate at my school. Good people who care about kids and learning come down on different sides of this debate. To the skills first crowd, I point out that there are ways of knowing that teaching for content promotes. This way of knowing is a skill. It isn't perhaps tangible, but it is real. To proponents of content first, I'd point out that much of what is taught is forgotten.  And if it is not reinforced as John Medina of Brain Rules teaches us, it is forgotten.

We have to teach kids to do things and not just know things. One should manipulate content when doing which is why this is should be a false debate. Sadly, sometimes it isn't.

How does technology fit into this? I see several ways, tech literacy is a skillset that many schools do not teach. Tech literacy should be embedded into instruction. Take a look at the ISTE student standards . One can see these skills can't exist outside content. Content is the vehicle through which one will learn the tech skills. You can't separate them. But we do. On both sides of the debate.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Technology and Whistling Vivaldi

I've long been interested in the work Josh Aronson and Claude Steele published on Stereotype Threat. I've also become increasingly interested in incorporating technology into teaching, so much so that it has become my job. Diversity work has been a passion. So has tech 2.0. I've never really combined these interests or thought about them at the same time.

Central to Steele's thesis and data supports it is the idea at some level everyone is susceptible to apprehension stemming from an awareness of a negative stereotype about one's group. I am fortunate to be a straight, cis, white male of some means in the USA and even I am in situations where my status as a white man leads to apprehension. Steele's point is that one does not even need to be consciously aware in the moment of the difference for it to have a caustic effect. Check out his most famous work, Whistling Vivaldi.

What interests me here is does it have a connection to technology? How many slow adapters to technology are victims of stereotype threat.? Do people simply think they can't do it? Again, the most insidious part of stereotype threat is that one doesn't have to be aware of one's own thinking at a conscious level. The thinking is internalized. The way one manages stereotype threat is to emphasize effort not innate talent- a growth mindset, provide for role models, and to reframe the task to minimize situations in which task descriptions trigger self-defeating stereotypes. Thus, how do I reframe my teaching of technology to folks hesitant to embrace it if stereotype threat plays a role in their reticence?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Thinking Big, using Skype and Getting Out of the Way

Sometimes when you put kids in charge of their learning and get out of the way, amazing things can happen. Recently. my colleague Gary Nicolai who teaches an International Relations class is studying the growing conflict in the South China Sea, which Gary feels will become the site of the most international tension in the near future and extended future.

One of Gary's students talked to his mother about the project. The Pacific Command, based in Honolulu, is headed by Admiral Harry Harris, four-star admiral. It so happens that this student's uncle is a very close friend of Admiral Harris. The student emailed Admiral Harris who responded immediately and offered information via links and documents and then offered a Skype session with the students.

Learning can't get any richer. Gary didn't have to do a thing except get them started. No, we all won't have links to Admiral Harris. But Gary's student didn't even know he had a link to Admiral Harris. Nor would he have known if Gary didn't let the kids lead.

Friday, November 13, 2015 as portfolio builder

    An ongoing task of mine is to implement  portfolios into the 7th grade at my school. I've recently discovered


    1. Visually crisp and pleasing
    2. Easy to navigate
    3. Even easier to use.
    4. Free
    1. Doesn't work well with Google (this is a minus for me as I work at a GAFE school.)
    2. Thus, it doesn't let one insert, as does google sites, all sorts of things from google drive.
    1. When the year ends - and the students want to move their portfolio content out of bulb - how do they do this?
    2. Can people download my content that I place on bulbapp?
If any of my couple dozen regular readers know, give me a response. Also, let me know if you have used bulbapp.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Listening

“There's a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”
― G.K. Chesterton

This resonates with me today.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Epic Citadel Project

This assignment really showed me technology's potential for making my classroom a more dynamic place. Yet, though this project had "bells and whistles", a real "wow" factor, it also had the fundamentals of good Language Arts teaching. Students were immersed in this large, final creative writing project. We used the app, Epic Citadel as a focus. This frankly beautiful app allowed the children to roam an amazingly detailed and rich fantasy setting. What I liked about this app is that there are no characters, challenges or distractions; it is purely just a world waiting to be explored. The potential this left for creative thinking was significant. Plot and character development became central to the teaching in the unit. Students used BookCreator to publish their finished stories. They used iMovie to make introductions for their stories. 
Click the link to see some of the finished work. Below is one of the many fine finished projects. Folks at +St George  seem to have discovered this about the same time I did last year. I give full credit for the idea to Tim Parkinson's Blog

Monday, November 9, 2015

On Presentation Tools #3- 3 important points.

I may or may not take a hiatus before continuing this thread of web-based presentation tools.
Before I do, I want to mention Prezi- this is likely the most common of the tools I will share.

More importantly, I want to highlight three important points about these tools.

  1. There is nothing to download. (Though on an iPad, Magisto is an app)
  2. They are accessible to view on any device that accesses the web.
  3. Did I say, free?  (Mostly true. Sometimes there will be pro and premium versions that do cost somy money.

Free Presentation Tools Post #2. Magisto

Magisto lets one make short (or longer with pro and premium versions) of videos and pictures. It is a quick and easy tool to use with real professional looking results. Below are some highlights of a trip to Ireland 9 years ago. It looks pretty good. And my goodness, my kids have grown. 

Say No to PowerPoint !

Too harsh? Okay, okay, I'll concede that a PowerPoint once in awhile does no great harm. Yet, there are so many ways to make more engaging presentations using free, cloud-based tools. Access to the Microsoft office suite is no longer a given with students today.

Over the next few blogposts, I'm going to highlight cloud-based presentation tools. Today, I share with you Check out the one I made below for my history class. It is visually impressive, super easy to make, cloud-based and FREE! You can easily embed it in a blog and/or share a link to via email. I can see this being a powerful tool for teachers of younger students who have to give frequent classroom updates. While content ultimately is what matters, a Wow Factor, always creates a good first impression.

For teachers of older students, this tool and the tools like it I will blog about it the upcoming days should replace the NOT FREE and more mundane PowerPoint.
Powered by emaze

Friday, November 6, 2015

On Asking the Right Questions/ Take an Inventory of Your Tests

Most teachers agree that higher order thinking skills are more important than just recall and comprehension. Do you agree that historical thinking is more important than remembering facts? Do you think mathmatical thinking is more important than simply memorizing formulae? If so, I encourage you to take an inventory of the tests you give your students. What are your questions? If your questions are of the  "What did, when did, who did" variety, then you are targeting recall. Wiggins tells us what we assess is what we value. If we primarily assess for recall, then that is what we value. The questions on the posters below made by the Historical Thinking Project are getting at a different kind of knowing.

Many teachers have test banks of assessments given over the years. Go through those questions. It might be a sobering but very useful process.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Using iMovie Instead of a Newsletter.

   I made this movie last year to explain to parents what was going on in class. Sometimes, actually letting parents see what we are doing is so much more powerful than writing about it.
   It took a little extra effort to make this than to compose a letter, but not too much more. Give it a try! Jump in, the water's warm.
    Also, the video explains the powerful learning practice of Literature Circles, first invented in the early 80's, but became more well known by the mid-90's. If you want to promote active learning in a lower or middle school reading or social studies program, give literature circles a try.
   For more information about Lit Circles, click here to see the book I used to help set them up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Writing in Math Class

Great teaching isn't always tech dependent. Good thoughtful teaching asks kids to reflect on their learning. Master teacher, Ryan Tozer presented today to our faculty on having his students write in math class. He has discovered that it allows kids to deepen understanding. It also gives him, the teacher, a window into kids thinking for their teachers,

Ryan also reminded us about the power and importance of anticipatory sets and the role of writing in them.

He shared a lesson that included Rene Descartes and his invention of the coordinate grid system. The students write for reflection and understanding before and after the "math" part of the lesson.

Ryan also shared with us the four step plan via the four square plan. 

  1. Read
  2. think
  3. Solve 
  4. Justify

An aside. Ryan introduced us to the book, Math Curse... The horror for the kids is that they see math everywhere! Sounds subversively brilliant.

I also learned from Ryan that only Myanmar and Liberia join the USA in refraining from using the metric system. Who knew?

Though I said that great teaching isn't always tech dependent, I'm going to get Ryan to use class blogs to further their writing. He's already on board. Exciting things are ahead. 

Cultural Appropriation

So, I'm taking off my tech hat and putting on my social studies teacher's hat. For years, I've been interested in diversity work and for many years was a board member of the Philadelphia MCRC. In preparation for Halloween and to keep children from wearing costumes which might offend, we had a lesson by two colleagues who are expert in diversity work and then a discussion on cultural appropriation.

Sometimes it is very clear what is offensive. Sometimes it can be fuzzy. This article discusses and shows some recent controversy, Popmatters 7/20/14  Perhaps you've seen this I'm a Culture, Not a Costume campaign. The photo on top is one of many posters the campaign has created.
Of course, dominant culture can't see the problem in appropriation, mistaking "same" as fair. Thus, there's been a counter- campaign. See an example below left. At a certain level, I get the point. Yes, I actually do think we can be too sensitive. But there's a lot of offensive ground one has to first cover before we get into "too sensitive" territory.

I have a student who perfectly explained what's offensive about cultural appropriation in a recent post in her class blog. The majority culture doesn't carry the baggage. This young woman wrote, "People are willing to take everything except our oppression. They'll take the Native American headdress but leave behind the reservations. They'll take the hijabs and leave behind the stares and constant surveillance and suspicions. The thing about them and black face is that they can choose to take it off. They can wipe off the distasteful makeup and still go about with their lives with privilege and respect still intact."

Monday, October 19, 2015

Tagul, Phoetic, Word Clouds

    I was working with a close colleague this morning. This man and I have taught Middle, Lower and now Upper School together. For his class, he was hoping to use Phoetic, a word cloud app. He remembered me using Phoetic last year in class as a summary activity to my Maniac Magee unit. Phoetic takes an image and replaces the image itself with text. Below you can see Phoetic in effect.
I liked Phoetic more than a regular word cloud but until today I hadn't seen something web-based that does this same thing. Hesitant to make students buy an additional app midstream, we discovered Here's Tagul in action:
It does the much the same thing as Phoetic and it's free. I've used WordClouds and Phoetic in teaching for several years. I've used it as an anticipatory set, I've used it to teach metaphor, and I've used it as a part of a larger project  To see other ways to use word clouds in the classroom, check out this post from edudemic. If you want to go the word cloud route there is Wordle- though it won't work on an iPad. This morning, we also discovered

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Padlet, Exploration and Blogging

I had a good class today. I got out of the way and good stuff happened. The unit of study in class right now is Buddhism. We have rich, though difficult (maybe too difficult) texts for the students to read about the origins and beliefs of Buddhism. I wanted to give the kids a chance for some exploration and discovery. On my Class Blog, I posted websites containing many links about traditional and contemporary Buddhist practices and principles. Students shared their findings via this Padlet wall. (Padlet is a virtual wall/ whiteboard that lets students share thoughts, videos, documents easily. People can put this content anywhere, work with anyone, from any device.)

Students then had to comment via the blog on the padlet post of another student. I don't have to lead a class to lead a class. The whole time, kids were engaged and on task. They learned. Their commentary was rich. This was no great shakes of a class. But, it was a good one and I should teach like this more often. It's hard though to do in a class which emphasizes the coverage of curriculum, "But we have to get to _______". Coverage is the bane of history teachers if and when we let it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Creative Writing via Inklewriter


Students don't do a whole lot of story writing in school past elementary school. This, though, is a terrific tool to use in 6-12 social studies, history and language arts classes. It is a choose your own adventure template website. It does the tech work. The student only needs to write the story. As a MS social studies and 5th LA teacher, I have ideas on how I could have applied this to past projects.

Two ideas for how to use this going forward include:

  1. Students could write a story where readers are characters in a story or witnesses to a historical event. Imagine the story of the civil war, slavery, revolution, holocaust, Romeo and Juliet, Maus told from different perspectives!
  2. Perhaps High School teachers could consider a story in which the reader talks back to the protagonist who speaks in first person. Maybe one could write back to Pi? This idea is the germ of this amazing (and over the top) Frankenstein work. (I'm not expecting kids to make this!)

Friday, October 9, 2015

Leveraging Google Earth

So, tagging Google Earth isn't a new idea. A half dozen years ago, I had students map the travels of Art Spiegelman, the protagonist of Maus using Google Earth. This project/ site takes the idea a bit further. It is a repository of created Google Earth Lit Trips. Its relevance to the classroom is self evident. This isn't one of those tech tools which needs its relevance explained. If you teach Literature, Language Arts,nHumanities, Classics, Social Studies or History, you should find this useful. Take a look. Google Lit Trips

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Using Slides to Create a Presentation

My students are studying the rather archaic and difficult to understand Ancient Chinese Philosophies. To make them more accessible, I asked them to find movie lines and song lyrics that best capture the philosophies on Confucius, the Legalists and the Taoists. I feel that being able to put find connections across centuries and being able to put these philosophies into contemporary language helps make meaning. Take a look. I thought it well done.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Using Autorap App

How could you use this in your classroom?
Poetry Slam?
Rap a history project?

Lucidpress Review.

I used Lucidpress for the first time to create the above report on Hinduism. It is a versatile tool. I wish I could embed my own audio. That would be the one addition I would make to the tool.

Someone needs to hybridize this with the app, bookcreator. It would be a close to perfect report tool.

Lucidpress is web based. I needed a computer to make it. Using the iPad to create it was too cumbersome. I can't say if it wouldn't work, but it was rather cumbersome.

I'd think this could be a very powerful way for students to augment a traditional writing assignment. Imagine a report with video, charts, and live links embedded.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Chasing the New

As tech 2.0 races into 3.0 and onward, we can't risk moving so quickly that some people can't grab a toehold. Or, at least, we have to slow down and provide places for people to jump on. Last week, my school had a day where all classes were held electronically and from home. Kids didn't come to school for classes.

The day forced many to think about using technology in ways they hadn't previously. Though new in my role as tech integration specialist, I've been a serious user in my teaching for about the last 4-5 years. Things that are old hat for me- almost "old-fashioned" in their use- are new and exciting, even game-changing- ideas. I'm not patting myself on the back. I'm actually being critical of myself because I find myself dismissive of these small and large victories.

Someone gets excited about Kahoot! and I roll my eyes. I share TodaysMeet with colleagues and teach them how to use it and am disappointed with myself. I have to remember that this is big stuff for people. Teachers are busy. There's a ton to juggle. I understand that people have a hard time seeing the value of technology in school.

As tech improves at an exponential pace, I find myself wanting to race ahead. I'm afraid of being left behind. Yet, if I don't give teachers an easy way to get on board this racing train of technology, they'll never grasp it.

Be patient, self.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Using QR Codes

Librarian Gwyneth Jones has created this now widely copied graphic for QR codes. QR codes allow for interactivity which previously was quite difficult to create in class. Imagine any poster project or paper you have kids produce. Teachers often display that work in hallways or within the classroom. Imagine that poster interactive! With a simple wave of the iPad over the qr code, one can see a video of a student explaining his or her work. A student can explain motivations for a story. Imagine an interactive periodic table in science class. Indeed, here is one by teacher, Brady Haren, who encourages folks to print it out and hang in a prominent place.  

Here is a video of my student explaining how he uses Aurasma, a virtual reality app, to enhance the reader's experience. He uses this in the way I suggest above to make a paper interactive.

Friday, September 11, 2015


SAMR Model
   Transformations don't have to be big things. This chart shows Puentedura's already famous SAMR model. It is a helpful model when thinking about change. A tech newbie teacher at my school came to see me about an intro activity for the start of school. She wants to learn names quickly. Unfortunately, pictures of new kids don't show up for several weeks in our online grade books. Last year, she created a google doc but passed her iPad around and kids took turns creating posting their pictures on successive pages on the same google doc via the same machine. With only a little tweak- we created a slides presentation for this year. She created a page for each child. Using their camera, kids posted a selfie and wrote an introduction of themselves on their assigned pages.
   Yesterday, I showed her how to make a QR code of the finished presentation to hang in her classroom- making the presentation immediately accessible to parents and more importantly other students.
    We are getting into redefinition territory. More importantly, the teacher reports the kids really liked the activity. She had the germ of a good idea last year but didn't know what to do with it or how to implement it. What we did really isn't great shakes. It isn't profound stuff. Still, at a certain level, the tech was a game changer here. She had a good lesson, it was effectively implemented, the kids liked it. The technology allowed her to change the lesson to make it more interactive, quicker, easier, and useful. We reached the level of modification and approached redefinition with the QR code.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On Being Rigorous


1a (1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: severity (2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible: strictness (3): severity of life: austerityb: an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
As teachers, it is too easy to operate from a paradigm of worry and fear. Teachers, along with athletes and politicians, share the unlucky burden that everyone in society has an opinion on the best way to do our job. In addition to having an opinion about how well we do our work, many also think they could do our job better than we could (this additional burden most athletes don't share with teachers). Indeed, it is rare to question a doctor's expertise. We give our stock broker (I'm a teacher, I don't have a stock broker) our full confidence, we don't tell him how to work his job. Nor do we tell our mechanic, doctor, and accountant the best way to practice their progression. However, people think they know how to teach. Because of that, folks are quite free with sharing their opinions with teachers. They think they know better.

In my career, the overwhelming majority of the parents of students I have taught have been fully supportive and appreciative. For those who have criticized me, sometimes it's been deserved or a legitimate difference of opinion. Other criticisms are wildly off the mark. In the category of wildly off the mark criticisms, the most common one is that I'm not hard enough or that my class is too easy. For instance, two years ago I taught 5th grade. The books I taught were at a 5th grade reading level. Some parents found these books too easy and urged me to teach more difficult books, which happened to be considered "classics" and likely books they themselves read in school. It will "stretch them" I was told. I sit here searching for a metaphor or comparison in another profession. Perhaps it's akin to asking a JV basketball coach why she isn't teaching her players to dunk. One can't learn if material is too hard. It isn't a matter of wanting it or trying hard enough to get it. There are such things as reading levels and one truly cannot fully comprehend text beyond one's own instructional reading level- no matter how hard one tries.

We teachers are told to be harder graders, to give more homework, to have higher standards. I've received criticism from parents of 6th graders worried that their child was doing no more than an hour a night, worried because in comparison with their child in a different school, my school gave far less homework. Research on the efficacy of homework is mixed. However, the broad majority of researchers at least agree that an hour is an appropriate amount for an 11-year-old child. As a teacher, I'm more likely to be criticized as being too easy than too hard, though for full disclosure's sake that has happened too.

When government wants to fix the "school crisis" it puts together blue ribbon commissions on how to improve education. These commissions are usually stocked with business people, not teachers. Wouldn't it have been great if a group of teachers was assembled after the stock market crash of 2008 to fix business?

We are constantly bombarded with stories blaring headlines bemoaning the sorry state of American education. Last week, we were told SAT scores continue to drop. Buried in these stories is the explanation, even though the stories themselves don't ascribe the drop to this cause. A larger percentage of students are taking the tests! Rich kids have always taken the test. Middle-class kids have always taken the test. More poor kids are taking the tests. Social class replicates itself. The best school districts are the best not because they have the best teachers, the best school districts are the richest school districts. Still, I'm sure business leaders and politicians will soon call for higher standards, greater rigor and more testing so these troubling SAT scores can improve.

My point is that teachers are always being told to be harder, test harder, "raise expectations" (my favorite..., what teacher worth her salt has low expectations?), and increase rigor. If a teacher makes sure the work is appropriate for children of a given age, we risk being seen as being too easy. That's why I believe many teachers err on the side of being too hard. The proximal zone, of course, is to pick concepts, reading, and material just beyond what they are currently able to do themselves and then help them do it. That's how one really teaches a child.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Okay, this app costs a couple of bucks qnd only seems to do one interesting thing. But it is a cool looking one thing. Art teachers at my school are looking at it and hope to use it during our upcoming cyber day. I'd love to know what other teachers have done with the app.

Here's a picture of my students from last year after being "flipped".

Day Two

I borrowed and modified an activity that Peter Pappas posted to his website. The purpose and premise of the activity is to promote discussion and foster collaboration. Kids played detective and after given different clues were able to find solutions. I stressed the point that we all bring different pieces of the truth to a discussion. The solution to a problem requires multiple truths being heard. I really want to get the kids to work with each other. Hat tip to Peter Pappas for a good activity.

Starting Anew

I love the excitement that the start of school bring, but dislike the getting started aspect of schooling. The kids are awkward and nervous. The class has such a different vibe and energy, and I don't like it. It will go away in a few days, but in the meantime; I think I just need to grin and bear it. At the start of the year, we also work out tech glitches. I'm a heavy user of technology in instruction. Invariably, some kids just can't seem to get whatever we are doing to work. Sometimes the child didn't carefully listen to directions, sometimes the iPad is glitchy, most often the problem is because of forgotten passwords. I suspect my start is more awkward and halting that most because so much time is spent on ironing out the kinks of tech. I'm looking forward to week 3.

Friday, August 28, 2015

One More Day...

Hitting the Ground Running

So, I've hit the ground running (ahem walking?) in my new role as a tech integration specialist. It's hard, y'know. I'm struggling a little with confusion. A friend shared with me the chart below;
It seems to me that I have the skills, incentives, and resources. I'm less clear about an action plan and vision. Well, I know my vision.... but it isn't easy to articulate. Anyhow, the chart explains why complex change is difficult to manage. Take a good look at it. I find it quite convincing. Anyhow, I shared a letter with my colleagues explaining my new role. I tried to explain that technology isn't about some Skinnerian-style learning box. It can be an almost organic tool- organic in the sense that it is a natural extension of our brain. Here's what I wrote. Feel free to borrow from it if you are in a position like me, a new tech integration specialist.

I’m excited to join you in Upper School and equally excited to rejoin my friends in Middle School in my new position as Technology Integration Specialist. My job description tasks me with improving teaching and learning through the use of technology. This means I have to stay on top of the tools available to enhance the learning process and stay educated about best practices in pedagogy. I view my job as being a gentle nudge who makes you think a little bit differently about teaching and learning. I hope you let me nudge you. I write to offer my services to all of you. Some of you may be beginners at this technology stuff. Others of you may see little need for technology, learning 2.0, etc.. and feel it an imposition; still others of you are nervous and a little intimidated but also excited, and perhaps even a few of you feel quite comfortable and adept at using technology. My job is to help you at whatever stage at which you are. Don’t be shy to ask for help. I may not have an answer for you immediately, but I will work on it and come back to you with suggestions on how to implement your idea. I know it’s easy to complain about the iPad. I piloted chromebooks three years ago and for workflow it really does work better. I complained about the transition when I started with iPads two years ago in the 5th-grade pilot program. Yet, this bemoaning, this type of thinking, helped lead to the fiasco in Los Angeles in which the school district gave and then removed iPads from every student only a half year into its district wide launch. So, I encourage you to flip your thinking a little and consider what the iPads do well. They are fantastic presentation devices and a superb platforms for fostering creativity. Someday soon, we surely will get an integrated device that combines the best features of the iPad while allowing for great work flow and compatibility with Google. In the meantime, though, could you think of one unit or two that you could revise and incorporate technology? (For those just starting out, I encourage you to commit to incorporating technology into two units this year.) Does every assessment need to be a test or paper? Can you leverage the iPad and technology to make your classroom a richer place for students? I really want to be in your classrooms to help you think and plan. I’ll invite myself in (with ample notice of course). I hope you say yes to me. Monday morning, we enjoyed a session of appreciative inquiry. Many spoke of the “feel” of this place and the kind of student we produce. I feel strongly that technology if utilized properly, will let us be more ourselves; it will allow us deliver what FCS is even more effectively. Tech can help us be a better us. Forgive me for my minor rant, but sometimes technology is portrayed as cold, sterile, and bereft of the rich, meaningful and interactive “stuff” of the classroom. I’ve used iPads to make my class a more dynamic and collaborative place, furthering and deepening what already works so well in an FCS education. These devices don’t isolate kids, they bring them together. I’ll be easy to find. I’ll have a table on the 2nd floor of the library. I also have an office in the language building. If you need to find me in the morning, I will have a homeroom in room 6 of the language building. I look forward to working with you. Alex

Friday, August 7, 2015

Baiboard vs. Talkboard

The art teacher and my school and I are talking about finding an interactive whiteboard app that he can use on Pope Day. (All Schools in and around Philadelphia will be closed for a day or two in September when Pope Francis visits).  This art teacher wants to have students collaborate on a same project on the same screen from different locations. Two apps the technology director has suggested are baiboard and talkboard. Both work as advertized. It actually is quite cool to work remotely on the same activity in real time.

Baiboard is a little more complicated to use but it does more. Talkboard is simple to use, but also simpler in its functionality. I like both. As a history teacher, I see both apps useful in the classroom for map activities and group brainstorms similar to padlet (on Baiboard).

Using Word Clouds and Phoetic

Here are some cool ideas on how to use word clouds. So, I'd add to this idea a couple of things. I'm teaching a world religions unit. I think it could be powerful for kids to use phoetic, a word cloud app that builds upon a picture, to create word clouds capturing a visual image and main concepts of a religion. For instance+, here is a phonetic word cloud created by a 5th grader using the cover of Maniac Magee.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Thing Link Video

I think thinglink video has the potential to be very powerful. Most teachers have had kids watch videos in class or for HW. Using thinglink, you can embed your questions or other links of pertinent information right in the video itself. I can think of many classroom applications. In this goofy video, I added a google form, a quiz using online quiz creator, a wikipedia entry and a link to an NPR interview. It took all of 20 minutes. As a teacher, I'd feel this is time well spent.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Portfolios?

One way I know I will have done a good job in my role as a tech integration specialist is if I can help my school adopt electronic portfolios. Electronic (or digital) Portfolios are today's versions of a traditional artist's portfolio. Fundamentally, an electronic portfolio is a digital platform upon which students can place text, video, and audio.  It is important to note that all student work does not go into a portfolio. It is important that students curate their own work. Thus, it is up to a student to decide which assignments to showcase.

Portfolios are particularly effective tool for fostering metacognitive reflection. To curate their own work, students have to think about what makes it good work. Now, if too dependent upon grading and others' evaluation of their work, students might simply place in their portfolio their work with the highest grades. At one level, this is natural and appropriate. But at a deeper level, if we want students to reflect upon what is quality and what is the fundamental purpose of learning, perhaps portfolios can begin to move us away from the way we currently assess students. However, even if portfolios do nothing to change the way we grade students, we would still foster metacognitive thinking when we ask students to curate their own work. By my way of thinking, schools don't do enough to foster this type of thinking.

What's in it for the teacher?
It would be so powerful to see the arc of a student's growth over a year and, more importantly, over several years.  A portfolios utility in this area is almost self-evident. When looking at the work of a student we haven't taught before, we are "flying blind" to a certain extent. We wonder about a student's effort, ability, and understanding.  However, a portfolio would allow us to place a student's work in a broader context. We could know if it is a strong effort. We'd have a better understanding of a student's ability.  

Imagine the powerful conversations one could have with a student after you asked them to curate their work for a trimester, term,  or month. Think about the conversation an advisor could have with an advisee. Ideally, this teacher thinks it would be awesome to have a portfolio conference in which a student shares a portfolio with parents- talk about taking ownership of learning!

Now, I have an agenda here (don't we all?). Discussions at this level could and would challenge the whole enterprise of assessment — and specifically why we are evaluating students as opposed to how we are doing so. I strongly feel we have to move past William Farish's factory model of assessment.
For all of human history until the Industrial Revolution, human beings learned without being graded. In this post-industrial era, shouldn't we rethink what it means to assess students?

I am excited that some 6th-grade teachers will use the portfolios my students created last year. I also excited that my colleagues teaching 9th-grade history with me are also excited by the possibilities of portfolios. Evernote and Google sites are two possible platforms for portfolios. Of course, there are many others. Since we are a google drive school, we are going to first try google sites for portfolios here at our school.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Search Google Using an Image- aka reverse searching

So, sometimes I come across stuff that I bet all my students know and I just figured out.
Do this:
1. Go to google images and search "Paris"
2. Drag an image of the Eiffel Tower up into the search bar and drop it there.
3. Viola!

be amazed like me.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Connect Using Twitter

Do you have a blog or website that you'd like to promote via twitter? I'm really new to appreciating Twitter. I've long thought it silly. Who wants to follow some silly celebrity and who cares what they think anyway!?! But I've recently started using it as a PLN (professional learning network) and who I follow and am starting to engage with enriches my learning and will in turn enrich my teaching. Here's how to add tweet buttons to your website so your readers can spread what you're writing. Think of how powerful this could be. How to: see, here I'm doing it too. (Of course, if using blogger, one has a twitter share icon at the bottom of each post.


Sometimes the best tools are the simplest ones. Talkboard is one such tool. Check it out!
So, this is an IOS device only. It isn't going to work on a windows or android tablet, laptop, or desktop. It WILL, however, work with your iPad.

Talkboard is free, extremely easy to use. Essentially, Talkboard lets one create a collaborative whiteboard.
How could I use it in my classroom?
-Let's say in history class we were looking at a map. I could copy a map and draw a trade route. Anyone with an iPad could draw on top of that picture adding questions, notes, details, etc.

- Or, while I'm not an art teacher, it could be cool to have students simultaneously creating on the same "canvas" while on different screens either in the same room at the same time or at different locations.

In a Lit. class, kids could document and diagram characters in a book they are reading.

On "Pope Day", many teachers might be figuring out how to share information with kids in real time. Keeping this app open along with a backchannel tool (padlet, drive, todaysmeet) would let you post a math problem, map, picture that kids could actually see, talk about, solve in real time all while being able to ask questions and talk. There is an audio feature in Talkboard. So, while looking at the same screen from separate locations- students can talk to each other and to their teacher.

Did I say it's easy to use?

Thanks to Dan Crowley for sharing this app with me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Fire Hydrant

In preparation for my new position which will call on me to advocate for the use of technology, I've really tried immersing myself in technology. I'm learning, or re-learning, that learning doesn't happen in a linear progression. Instead, I bumble around barely figuring things out and then a bunch of things fall into place at once and I get it. Also, the more I know, I realize the less I know. The metaphor of drinking from a fire hydrant has been used to describe what it's like keeping pace with the tech revolution happening around us. It is an apt description.

I'm also appreciating all things google more and more. Sometimes, I view google as an evil empire of sorts. I get leery of how much info they've accumulated and monetized. But for ease of use, google rocks.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

PBL and Rubrics

What about PBL and tech? I've long been a proponent of good PBL (project based learning). I've come to realize a few things about choice and assessment. First, regarding choice. we have to give the students real freedom of choice in design and execution of a project. Better yet, we should give multiple choices of projects for students to choose from so they feel and have real control in their education. This, of course, naturally relates to assessment. I'm a fan of rubrics- however, with rubrics we run the risk of a tyranny of the checkbox, in which the students simply views the project as little more than checking boxes. What if a project is brilliant but doesn't fulfill all of the requirements? Is that a flaw of the project or are we guilty of making all students jump through the same hoops. My rubrics have become very open ended. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Explain Everything: Task 8

So, I find Explain Everything cumbersome in parts, but also really powerful. I played around with it to come up with this less than polished example you see below. However, while I find it cumbersome, I also see some obvious ways to use it. It won't for me ever be a presentation tool I think it could be a great formative assessment tool. Heck, one could easily use it for summative assessment as well. I've put a link below in case the video itself does not play. I shared this to google docs and then had to download to my thinkpad. If solely using my iPad, I'd have to share to youtube or vimeo.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Task iMovie

Is this cheating? Or should I make a new one from scratch? I don't really know about next year. This is something I did this past year.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Task VI- Google Form

I note that the batter moves his bat in google forms, but is static here. I also notice that I should also embed a see results.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Embedding a Calendar: Task V

Well, this is a first time. Are we to embed it as a post or in a calendar widget. Anyway, believe it or not, I still have this calendar active. How do I make it smaller?

Who Likes Baseball? Task IV

This is a movie I made last year when my son played a baseball game for his travel team at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. What was cool about the field is that it is a mini-Camden Yards. It isn't an awesome movie... but I thought it fun.

Task 3- PLN

So, I'm going to make a point of using twitter more. It's never been something I've used very much. I really don't tweet at all. I have used Google+ a little bit more. I have a youtube channell, but it was for kid's schoolwork.

This will be an ongoing goal.

I am/ was a member of Ning (does anyone Ning anymore?) of Making Curriculum Pop. It was really useful when I taught history in Middle School. I used it all the time. As a Lower School teacher, I found it less useful.

I do follow some ed heavyweights on twitter, like Deborah Meier and Will Richardson. I confess to finding the feed a bit of a torrent.

Have updated the look

I had a hard time with the dynamic views. I can't seem to make them work as well as the more traditional views.   Do you like the look?

I also tried and tried to load my google+ badge gadget. But I couldn't make it work.

task 2- giving the blog some "pop"

This is what my blog looked like before making it snazzier.

Task 1

Hi Folks,
   I'm taking the FCS summer technology "camp" and I've set up this blog to work on the tasks laid out for us. I look forward to trying some new things out.

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