Friday, July 29, 2016

Chrome Extensions and Add-Ons I Like or Why Chromebooks Rock

Back when the Chromebook was just coming out, many people thought the google apps for school were just not robust enough in comparison to the Apple operating system and Windows. I remember teachers and parents complaining that Microsoft's Office Suite was far superior to its Google counterparts. In the face of some of these complaints and concerns,  my school eventually chose the iPad over the Chromebook.  At the time, a solid case could be made. However, in the four years since that decision , many of the arguments against Chromebooks no longer can be made. I am not alone in feeling this way. 

Google has made vast improvements. One of the ways they have made these improvements is an ever increasing array of extensions and add-ons. This mass array of free software (not so on iPad) in my mind gives Chromebooks the edge in addition to the reasons cited above in the article. I use these free apps and extensions all the time.

Here are some of the extensions I use the most:

  •  EdPuzzle. EdPuzzle lets me quickly edit YouTube videos for class. I can even embed questions for students to answer.
  • Snagit. A simple screenshot capture tool. I use this so often.
  •  Draftback. This one is a game changer. This basically takes a movie of a paper being in written. Imagine meeting with a students and replaying at a slightly faster speed them writing their papers? There are powerful learning and teaching moments in doing that. Its very viewing promotes metacognition in the student.
  •  Flip It. Works in conjunction with Flipboard. I can easy and quickly add articles I like into any Flipboard magazine.
  •  The QR Code Extension. It instantly lets me make a QR code of any webpage I'm on.

Google "best chrome extensions" and you'll be amazed at the seemingly endless amount of functionality you can add to your Chrome experience.

     Add-ons, on the other hand, add functionality within a particular google app such as sheets or docs. Below is a screenshot of my add-ons in google docs. Admittedly, it is blurry, but you can see how to access add-ons. It is right there in the menu bar.
  Within docs,  I really like Mindmeister. It is a great mapping tool for writing.  My list also includes EasyBib, Easy Accents (great when trying to type in a different language) and ProWriting Aid. 
   Within sheets, Doctopus is a great tool for editing student work. I've also used the SiteMaestro add-on to share google site a common but individualized google site with students. 

   I've shifted from being slightly in favor of iPads as the best tool for students to overwhelmingly feeling that Chromebooks are the best tool. Add-ons and Extensions are a significant reason why I feel that way.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


TedTalks have become clich├ęd. But I still watch them because once in a while, I come across one that profoundly moves me.  Dr, Zimbardo's talk on the psychology of evil was one such talk. Watch it if you have the time. He explains what a powerful class experiment taught him about the nature of evil.

Recently, I've run across another. Michael Wesch, like Zimbardo, is a college professor. He posits that in a world in which there ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous communication about everything from everywhere at unlimited speed on all kinds of devices we need to shift our education goals from making students "knowledgeable" to "knowledge-able". That might seem too cute a first glance. But it really struck me. I had a light bulb moment. I've articulated thoughts like this in this blog more than a few times. But I've not heard it put so perfectly or pithily. Anyway, watch and enjoy.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Are There Always Two Sides to Every Story?

This post is about when teaching bumps into politics and isn't about technology. Stop reading if you don't wish to read about politics.

I'm a Democrat. I'm 47 and haven't voted for a Republican at the state or national level since I was 26. (I routinely vote Republican for local school board but that's a different story). I loathed Bush as a president. But he's a decent human being and a patriot. Mitt Romney, I actually liked. He too is a fine human being. So were Bob Dole and Pappy Bush. I've been a teacher through every election since 1992. Early in my career, I told kids who I was voting for. More recently, especially in 2008 and 2012, I consciously and deliberately avoided tipping my hand in any discussion about politics. I've come to think of taking sides is an abuse of power.

My school is rightly struggling with how to talk about Donald Trump. My school's student population votes overwhelmingly democratic in every mock election. The parent body is very liberal. If anything, the faculty is even more liberal. Over the years, I've thought that some teachers have been far too partisan. Republicans aren't idiots  Republican students have been made to feel that way.  We shouldn't have waded into debates about Obama vs. Romney and Bush vs. Gore. The institution itself practically celebrated after Obama won in 2008. That was wrong. 

As a reaction to this, our administration had us talk about the 2016 election at the end of year faculty in-service meetings and specifically what to say about Donald Trump upon our return to school in the fall. Passions will be high. Our students are engaged in politics. It isn't easy running a school. I'm sure administrators have received loud and clear feedback from our few conservative parents over the years. 

Right message. Wrong year for it. 

Trump is different. He dabbles dangerously with the racist right (don't think I am accusing the right as racist- I'm talking specifically about the so-called alt-right.) He wouldn't even disavow David Duke, the KKK leader.  He has posted anti-Semitic images. His anti-Latino and anti-Muslim views are toxic. 

Are there two sides to every story? I know and like some Trump voters. Some are in my family. They feel he doesn't really mean all he says and they feel he is a breath of fresh air and that he will disrupt politics as normal in DC. On the other hand, I fear this is what fascism looks like when it comes to America and I'm scared. 

I am in conflict. I will abuse my authority in speaking out. I will be complicit with racism in staying silent. What will you do reader? 

Forgive my foray into politics. I promise I'll go back to tech posts. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016


I came across this today.  I found it, here. Unfortunately, the original source for this image can't be found.

What are my motivations for embracing digital tech? To be candid, I don't consciously think of them. But in reading these descriptions, I believe that Teacher 2.0, Motivator and Activist drive my interest in digital tech for the classroom. I also have a touch of ALT in me.

I'm not a techie. I don't use much tech outside of my iPad in my personal life. I don't play video games, I don't have the newest and coolest phones, gadgets and devices at home. I'm a relative latecomer to teaching with tech so I'm hardly a trendsetter, either.

What are your motivations for using tech?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Risk and Failure

We say we admire risk-takers. Maybe that's true, but we do little to cultivate them in schools because we punish failure.  AJ Juliani, one of my favorite bloggers and ed-tech writers, has written some posts celebrating failure. I love, love the idea of doing this. His class mantra is, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn." (I'm stealing that one for my class.)
There are so many sayings, cliches, and truisms about learning from failure. A quick google search finds gems such as:
  • “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”                                                                                                                         - Coco Chanel   
  • “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”                                                                                                           -Robert F. Kennedy                                and this wouldn't be an ed-tech blog without a  Ken Robinson quote: 
  • “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” 

Any honest self-assessment of schooling must lead us to the conclusion that we do not encourage risk-taking in schools. Failure is uniformly seen as bad. We either equate failure with lack of effort or we refuse to acknowledge the difference between them. A great teacher of mine, +Russ Walsh, used to talk about this in relation to the downsides of grading student writing. He posited that if we were going to punish kids (take away points/ give lower grades) for misspellings and grammar mistakes then our students were going to write a lot more safe (and boring) stories about big dogs than riskier stories about enormous pterodactyls. By punishing risk-taking and rewarding playing it safe we create kids who are risk-averse. I'd extend this argument to suggest that most school practices create kids who are risk averse. As long as we punish kids for mistakes (and don't say we aren't punishing them) this will remain true. Go ahead, take a risk! But risk a poor grade. It's a game only a rebel or sucker would play.

Next year, I will be teaching 12th graders, most of whom are very used to and very good at the traditional rules of the game and who have been trained to be risk averse and who are desperately worried about getting into college. I plan to incorporate some genius hour/ 20% time in the course. I will want to celebrate spectacular failure. I will want kids to aim high and think big. And when it doesn't work out, I will want them consider how to do it better next time. I hope I can pull it off, but if not I will remind myself that sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. 

In the spirit of solidarity, I will also acknowledge and reflect upon my failures publicly with the students. This is going to be a very different kind of high school history course. It is my first time teaching it. 

This will be a big paradigm shift for me as well. I like being successful. I'll let you know how it goes. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

To Code or Not to Code, That is the Question. aka Worrying about the Future.

I'm being provocative in my title.  Douglas Rushkoff, the author of
Learning to Code Yields Diminishing Returns doesn't actually argue that we shouldn't learn to code.

Instead, he argues that our post-industrial world has a problem to figure out, even formally bullish economists realize that we need to give something to workers to do. There are just not going to be enough jobs and education can't solve the problem. President Obama pointed out just the other day that we produce just as much steel in the USA as we ever did. The problem is that because of automation and technology, only a tenth of the workers are needed to produce just as much steel. For most of my lifetime, I'm 47, this phenomenon has been largely relegated to blue collar work and industry. For instance:

Jobs that I remember people having that my kids haven't seen:
  • Elevator Operators (I remember when people use to control the elevator)
  • Milkmen (and bread)
  • Couriers
  • Gas Station Attendents
  • Travel Agents
Jobs that are quickly disappearing that my grandkids won't see:
  • Mailcarriers
  • Toll Both Collectors
  • Supermarket Cashiers
  • Drivers- Taxi, Trucks, Delivery, Etc.. 
Jobs like these helped produce a solid middle class which is being hollowed out. Our leadership class and those holding white collar jobs have yet to be massively affected and thus haven't really developed policies to address this problem. But they're next. I have a colleague who just left to form his own business. If he is successful, he will have basically developed technology that will put paralegals out of work. At Google Training, +Rich Kiker boldly predicted that much of what lawyers do will be replaced by digital technology. Though my teaching profession has been remarkably resilient to change, I fear that if schooling continues to primarily be about fact acquisition, I'm sure there will be fewer teachers as well. 

The Trump phenomenon and the Brexit are both manifestations of the insecurity this transition has created. Rushkoff's point is that everyone learning to code will not make a difference. There will be only so many of these new jobs to go around. We need a new model. Rushkoff points to one in his new book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.

We really do need to figure this out. Otherwise, we are headed to leading meaningless lives as portrayed in WALL-E or we will be like the Roman mob in ancient Rome, hoards of displaced workers who were kept under control by bread and circuses. 

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