Wednesday, November 30, 2016

On PLNs and small victories

I like small victories. Today I had one because of my PLN (Professional Learning Network). One of my regular reads is Matt Bergman's Learn Lead Grow blog. I follow him through Google+. His post today was about a cool chrome extension to help those with dyslexia better read their chrome browser.

After reading his blog, I went right to the support services team at school and shared this chrome tool and then showed them how to access it themselves via chrome extensions. A cool side benefit is that I also showed these folks the cool world of Chrome add-ons and extensions. Because of Matt's blog and my PLN, the learning and reading specialist, the head of support services, and the ESL teacher all now can share with their students this effective tool. I was pleased to hear the reading specialist explain to me why she thinks the extension is a useful tool for those who have dyslexia.

Yesterday, AJ Juliani shared his reading list. Though my list is not as vast as his, here are some of the people and sites that I read almost daily.

  1. AJ Juliani - A great big-picture and inspirational tech though leader. For AJ, it is always about the bigger questions. It isn't really about the tech, it is about what tech allows us to do. 
  2. Learn, Lead, Grow - Matt Bergman is a thoughtful tech innovator. 
  3. Jordan Shapiro at Forbes magazine always offers provocative articles about education and education policy. 
  4. +Alice Keeler- a true Google guru. What doesn't she know how to do? I can't keep up with her output. But she is amazing. 
  5. Finally, I check out this Education Technology and Mobile Learning blog for its broad array of tips and tools.  
This list is not exhaustive. I also contribute to and read Google+ posts. +Kyle Beatty and +Dan Crowley are terrific aggregators of fascinating tech and ed-tech information. Their commentaries on are always interesting and well considered. I tweet and receive a steady stream of education and ed-tech tweets as well. These are crucial components of my PLN.
Important people who used to be part of my PLN

I don't read him too much anymore, but Will Richardson helped me connect technology to my already very progressive pedagogy. Before Will, I thought tech useful, but didn't really see its potential transformative power. His blog that I used to read no longer exists. Currently, I follow him on Medium and am happy when his work pops up on that aptly named medium. 

Lea Hansen was likely my first daily read. I don't check her out much anymore, but her classroom blog was a tremendous inspiration to me back when I was a social studies teacher five and six years ago. 

I also found Jennifer Ward's work to be amazing. She barely posts anymore, but thanks Jennifer. You taught me a lot. 

I also read quite a few history teaching sites that I don't list here. Though they are tech related, they are less germane to this general ed-tech blog. Unlike the folks I list above, I don't read them daily. They are bookmarked sites I visit frequently, but they aren't part of my PLN.

To my about 50 or so daily readers (and thanks so much to all of you!) I am sure that I am preaching to the choir in saying get a PLN. If you somehow have come across me, surely some of the names I mention above are already very familiar to you. If not, I hope you find them as interesting as I do. 

I love my PLN. I almost wish the unwieldy immersion into learning it offers could be accredited because I've learned more from it than I did through my Master's degree. I learned something today that wasn't earth-shattering. But I made three teachers very excited today and their new knowledge will directly benefit students right away. Without my PLN, this small victory would not have happened.

Please retweet this along with your favorite reads.

Tech Tip of the Day... actually a complaint and then a solution.

The Google graveyard is littered with some of my favorite tools. Sigh, I miss you Google Research Tool. And double sigh, I really really miss you Google Hangouts on Air. Today, I found its replacement. Ultimately, it did work. really, it isn't too different from the way it use to work. One use to access it from Google+. Now you get to it through YouTube.

From Google, here is how
"Follow these steps to set up Hangouts On Air with YouTube Live:
  1. Go to Live Streaming Events in Creator Studio.
  1. Click New live event.
  1. Select Quick (using Google Hangouts On Air).
  1. Give your live stream a title.
  1. Click Go live now or enter in details to schedule your event for later.
  1. Use Hangouts to broadcast live."

It works. It isn't as easy as it used to be. I don't know why they changed it. Sadly, for my 121 iPad school, it doesn't work on an iPad. One can't create a recorded hangout or join one either. Also, kudos and thanks to my colleague at FCIT, +Victoria Schwoebel. I needed her help figuring it out. Which shows two things:
    1) It isn't that easy to figure out because I am not a tech neophyte.
     2) Vicki is very smart.

I want my students to record interviews on their iPads. Sadly, this isn't going to be the tool.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

20% Time

Thanks to +A.J. Juliani for his weekly newsletter and insights into 20% time. I am well underway into 20% time with my class of 11th and 12th graders. 20% time was inspired by Sergey Brin's time in Montessori school. It no longer quite exists at Google, but the idea is/ was that Google's workers would spend 1/5th of their time working on their own projects, not the projects assigned to them. In Google's earlier days (according to this infographic) half of Google's products came from 20% time.

It has taken a lot of prep work to get ready. I've brought in 4 speakers to prime the idea pump. I have told the students loudly and clearly that for 20% time they are only responsible for the effort, not the results. Failure is an option because if they don't risk failure they won't aim high. I conferenced with every student after they wrote me their project proposals to help give their ideas some focus.

So that I stay abreast of their work and their successes and pitfalls, I created this log for the project (which I stole from +Colin Angevine's comp sci class.) I will also have the students journal weekly in addition to the nightly log posts.

So far so good, I like very much that I am modeling risk-taking. I like that I've already convinced a few skeptics that this could be really cool and powerful way of thinking about learning. As I told the students, failure is an option. This really might not work. But I'm pleased with the start. We will work on it in earnest for the next three weeks of school. All  students seem to have a good kernel of an idea
and most seem off to a good start.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Blended Learning Resources

Blended learning and flipped learning are commonly heard terms these days. Khan Academy is likely the most famous of the blended learning sites. Some blended learning programs are so tech centered that individual student work is assigned by a computer program which customizes work based on student performance.

For most of us, blended learning means we combine the internet and digital media with traditional classroom methods. Flipped learning is closely related. In flipped learning, direct instruction is provided at home via videos, tutorials and other digital media and the practice and individualized instruction is provided at school by the teacher.

Its promise is oversold. I like it for what it is. But it is less transformative than appears at first glance. I like that teachers can customize lessons. Yet, it is labor intensive and takes a lot more work than traditional instructional methods. I do like that students can rewatch the lecture or video. I also like that students can see and practice the problem set again and again. Blended learning still posits the teacher as expert and leaves little room for problem and project based learning.

Though its promise is oversold, it still should absolutely be in the "toolbox" of a tech savvy teacher. Blended learning has a purpose and is effective by its own terms. Take a look at some of the blended learning ideas I shared with faculty members today. Not on the padlet presentation is the chrome extension edPuzzle. It is a must get for YouTube.

Made with Padlet

Friday, November 18, 2016

Visual Essay Assignment Example/ ISTE standards

I recently assigned a project I called a "visual essay" in my International Relations course. I asked students to create a four to five minute long visual essay that considered at least two important works related to Samuel Huntington's, Clash of Civilizations thesis. Half of the presentation was to be a review his idea and two responses to it. The second half of the presentation was to consider how well his 25 year-old thesis is holding up in 2016. Looking at the world today, students were to consider if Huntington or his critics are correct. I asked them to give real world examples to support their arguments. .

I showed students three new (to them) tech tools:  adobe spark and these two RSA tools. In perhaps my favorite presentation, these two boys used the old standby iMovie to make a very effective visual essay.

I very much like this open note, open tool, open everything assignment. It requires students to analyze, apply, evaluate and synthesize information. I also like that students have a choice in digital tools. Not all my ideas are base hits. Sometimes I strike out. Sometimes I hit a weak grounder to second base. This one is at least a solid hit for extra bases. What I like best about it is that I am not giving a test asking "what" questions. This assignment gets to the same type of thinking that a good essay promotes.

What's the value add in using tech?  I believe, or I agree with ISTE, that students should: "a. interact, collaborate and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media" and "b. communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formula."  At some point, being "educated" will include the expectation that one is facile with multi-media presentation tools. We are very close to that point. Some say we have already reached it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Success and 20% Time

I was cautioned (rightly so) by my boss to be careful of social media use. I made a boneheaded mistake and retweeted without checking the hashtag. So, I write very carefully here even though what I'll say has political overtones and implications.

For many reasons, we need to redefine what it means to be "successful" in this post-modern, post-industrial society. One can be a failure at many things yet deemed successful if one has made enough money. That's sick for society. Its effects are all around us. It is also toxic to individuals. If one seeks money and power to define success, one will likely never have enough.

I teach in a high-powered prep school. We promise a "both-and" for our students and their parents. We promise a path to prestigious colleges paving the way to "success" while also promising to nurture the social, emotional and spiritual welfare of our students. I'm a proud parent of 5 kids who go to my school. I think we do a very good job. I also know that if we didn't promise a path to "success" as traditionally defined, we'd go out of business. Besides,  nothing is wrong with money. I'd certainly like to have more of it.

But here is my fear.
How many of my teenaged students will, when they reach my age, wake up wondering if they've wasted half their lives chasing a phantom. Many will have done well enough in high school to get into a very good college, have done well enough  in college to get that plum internship that in turn will have led to law-school, med school, business school, etc... eventually landing some of them in prestigious firms, hospitals, and businesses.

I suspect many will wake up and wonder if it has all been worth it, "Is this all there is?" Most of them will not the top in their fields. Only a few will land the "best" positions.

I think a mid-life crisis is a very real thing to many people. One reason they occur is because people define success too narrowly and they are disappointed after spending decades working for something to only find it an empty promise.

In an increasingly atomized, individualized, and automated society, fewer and fewer people will be able to meet success. Much of the anger Donald Trump successfully channelled was of people who have had the rules changed on them. The old paths to success aren't working. I fear they will work even less in the future. We can't afford a permanently angry group of older middle aged folks and I fear we are stuck with several generations of folks who are going to stay angry. Additionally, generations before us had family structures to support them. This is far less true today, as conservative author Ross Douthat explains.

"Be a success." "Work hard and get ahead." This is a seductive and powerful narrative. I'm a teacher. I chose a career where I knew my earning power was limited, yet I too have sometimes thought of myself as less successful than schoolmates who've earned far more than me. I reject that notion intellectually, but I still feel it even though I know better. How does the person feel who doesn't know better?

We need a better way. Desperately.

In my own small way, I am hoping my students see that they can define success differently through their work on my 20% project (which I learned about through +A.J. Juliani) I've had a series of activists come through and talk to my students about issues about which they passionately care. These activists have chosen less than lucrative career paths. Yet, they live fulfilled, meaningful and, dare I say it, successful lives. I thank +Phyllis Hanson+Harvey Zendt and +Paul Paz y Mino for demonstrating this to my students.

SAMR and Potential Problems with Redefinition.

I've written more than a little bit about SAMR. It is a great model. I see a potential problem with it, if we aren't careful. Redefinition is the 4th and highest level in the SAMR model. However, one could redefine a task with technology and do something really cool and relatively meaningless when it comes to learning. Recently, inspired by a blog post by Jennifer Gonzalez, I wrote about Grecian Urns. Some of these "urns" may be redefinitions of tasks already low on the DOK scale. Just because you couldn't do it before doesn't automatically make a new, redefined assignment a good one. I get excited by tech tools. Sometimes it is worth remembering that new and shiny isn't any better.

Don't take this to think that I am in any way dismissing the transformative potential of edtech. Just be careful when extolling the potential of new tools.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Using MyMaps.

Check out this most amazing padlet by Karly Moura about using MyMaps by Google. Great use of Padlet too. So impressive. I really, really like everything from Matt Miller's Ditch That Textbook and Alice Keeler who seems to know more about GAFE than anyone. These are awesome resources.
Made with Padlet


I have mixed feelings about rubrics.

  • They delineate what is poor, fair, good, and great by giving (somewhat) objective standards.
  • They can help clarify student thinking and guide student work if you share the rubric with the students in advance. (Hint: you should)
  • They are efficient and easy to use.
  • There is such a thing as rubricitis. If not careful, we can splinter instruction into too many pieces. 
  • Customarily, a rubric breaks the learning down into co-equal pieces. Thus in a project, content and neatness may get the same score. Understanding of content should always be the primary focus. This is easily fixed by weighting each section of the rubric differently. 
Single point rubrics.

I've come to appreciate single point rubrics. One doesn't have to get as "granular". And it leaves space for real teacher feedback. Below is one I made last year for a podcast project. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

It is always about the Learning (or On Grecian Urns)

Don't Use Tech for Its Own Sake.... just as you wouldn't do pretty much anything else for its own sake. Jennifer Gonzalez totally nails it in this recent post entitled Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?. She points out that some seemingly good lessons are actually quite devoid of learning. 

I was reminded of the dioramas of my childhood while reading her blog post. I was so proud of them. Yet, all that they demanded was that I know some of the main characters of the book. How many projects using tech or the art supplies advance learning? What are the 21st century equivalents of diorama making?

Quoting Jay McTigue, she writes:
“The activities, though fun and engaging, do not lead anywhere intellectually. (They) lack an explicit focus on important ideas and appropriate evidence of learning.”
It is easy to fool oneself into thinking one is doing a good job. The kids are busy and having fun. Tech is integrated. Multi-disciplinary teaching is going on. But what is learned? It's a great post. Seriously. Go read it.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

I Hate Elections.

In my 40's, I've finally learned some ways to check my thoughts. I could and can get totally caught up by my own thinking. I also have the ability to catastrophize. A wise old women I knew put it best when she said, "I worried about 100 things. 99 of them didn't happen and one almost did." Like my friend Marian, I did this all the time.  Election season bring back some of these bad habits. I can be a politics junkie if I am not careful.

Prayer, breathing, meditation, mindfulness and self-awareness have give me a tool-kit to get out of my own head and out of my own way. This election season in particular has tested this ability. I checked Nate Silver's 538 about 8 times a day until about a week ago when I just had to stop making myself worried.

I canvassed today for my preferred candidate. I'll vote. But I have to realize that I can do very little to change the outcome. My vote is statistically insignificant.  One of millions. I convinced one unlikely voter to vote today while canvassing. Or maybe this woman was just being polite.

My son failed his first 4 driving tests. (In his defense, I blame his second failure fully on the test-giver) With each failure, future failure become more likely. His anxiety rose. On the sad car ride back from the testing site after the 4th failure, I talked to him about some of the tools I now use to calm myself and relax. Maybe this helped him as he took his 5th test, because he passed it. I asked him if he used some of the tools. He said they really helped.

For me, these tools are spiritual in nature because that's the vocabulary that makes the most sense to me. These tools can have a secular vocabulary. I convinced the mindfulness movement is getting at some of the same things  Buddhists have been doing for millennia. Many Recovery programs are also based on teaching this self-awareness and teach "letting go". As someone raised in the Catholic tradition, I am most comfortable using Christian language to do this.

I teach 12th graders who are freaking out about college. Wouldn't it be great if they had a toolkit to help them navigate this year?  These aren't intellectual tools; they are self-awareness tools.

I took a step in this direction this week by playing for my students David Foster Wallace's This is Water speech to help them understand that they construct their own realities and can control how they perceive and react to the world. (I embedded the lesson in a broader International Relations lesson on how nations and peoples can construct collective realities. Germans have a word for this spirit of an age, zeitgeist. )

Teaching always calls me to my best self. I am my least petty, most generous, most understanding and most open when I am working with students. I expect most good teachers are. I think this lesson for the students was at some level really a reminder to myself to get out of my own head. When I'm not self-absorbed and wrapped up in my own head, I'm clearly a better, happier person.

While writing the paragraph above, I realized something that should be so obvious but hitherto I have never thought of- while teaching, I go outside of myself thereby letting me be my best self. That's probably why teaching has always made me so happy.

I still hate elections.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What is the point of a grade?

I return to this topic again and again. It is report card time at my school. So grades are on my mind.

I loathe grades. Too often, they get in the way of learning and they don't give much in the way of information. They imply an objectivity that rarely and perhaps can never  exist. Some suggest that grades serve to motivate students. In some cases that is true. However, I taught for 23 years without giving grades and my students were motivated. In the video below, Alfie Kohn explains far more eloquently than me why grades don't work.

Yet in most schools...


we are stuck with grades. And so, I find myself keenly attuned to grading and testing practices. If we agreed that grades should be no more and no less than a shorthand "snapshot" of a student's learning, then I'd be okay with them. I wouldn't like them, but I would tolerate them. But we don't use grades that way, even if though we say we do.

For instance, I have had advisees, who not knowing tests had a second side to them, score D's on tests in which they answered correctly every question they attempted. While yes, the students should have looked to turn the page over to find more questions, the "D" tells the student, and the student's parents, and potential colleges next to nothing about the students' learning. Everyone involved, including the teacher, knows this "D" is not indicative of learning. So why give false information? 

 I also wonder about the role of extra credit. I know there are students who score 106% on tests. That is impossible! One cannot know more than all the material. It also reinforces the notion that tests are about the points, and not the learning. 

Yet, here is my real point today. I'm resigned to giving grades in my new role. What I want to know is when did we decide in American education that an average was the best way to determine student understanding?

Imagine a foreign language class.
Student A scores
80, 80, 85, 80, 84= 81.8 average

Student B scores
55, 70, 75, 90, 100 = 78

Who has learned more? Who is the more proficient student of the foreign language. Hasn't student B learned far more and by course's end,  know more? This is an unlikely example (though it is one that any long-time teacher has seen), but it does prove the point that averages can deceive. In terms of weather, the average temperature in Dublin and Philadelphia is largely the same. The average tells us nothing about the weather in Philadelphia and Dublin. I've spent a good amount of time in Dublin. It isn't like the weather in my hometown of Philadelphia, PA. 

A colleague of mine pointed out that for one's golf handicap, the highest and lowest scores are dropped. Makes sense. Outliers are just that, outliers. 

Some schools are rethinking assessment and grades. Some have dropped grades. Others have become very intentional and specific in what they say the role of grades are. 

If you give grades, please remember the point of a grade is to quickly show student learning. Do yours? And pointing the mirror back to me, do mine? 

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