Feeling Thankful and Moving Forward

Today I am feeling thankful.  I just viewed a tweet from Highlander Institute which made me laugh (they usually do!), but which also gave me a huge flashback to my time in their FuseRI Fellowship as part of their very first group of fellows: Cohort 1. They are currently choosing their Fuse Fellows for Cohort 4 and the teachers chosen will be lucky enough to experience what I experienced – an enormous shift in their thinking about and practice of educating and interacting with students.

Laughing – a lot – is certainly a big part of what I did while working with them.  That is reflection of the kind of people they are: positive, spirited, fun, and smart.  More important than that however was the knowledge and experience I gained from each and every interaction I had with them and the experiences they designed for me to engage in.  Their emphasis on hands-on learning and authentic experiences for their fellows results in a level of competence that truly changes a teacher’s practice.

I am ending another year in the classroom and still learning all of the time.  My work with my students now incorporates choice, differentiation in pace and place, and a whole toolbox full of apps, extensions, techniques and models.  I reach back towards my Fuse training over and over again to inform what I do daily in the classroom. The experience was truly career changing for me and I would encourage anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of extra work to just go for it!  It is so worth it!

We are ending our year green screening “Advice for Incoming 7th Graders” using Doink on my student’s phones.  The kids are having a blast and they are developing video recording and editing skills that are impressing everyone around them.  They are pretty proud of themselves and we should have some funny and very real advice for next year’s kids when they are complete.

Before my Fuse RI Fellowship I would never have taken on a project like this; now it is part of what we do and how we learn.  Thanks Highlander Institute!  I am moving forward more confident, smarter, and, I think, more fun!

Aside

Creating Spaces For Technology In Education

I’m spending lots of time this summer reading about how to implement changes in my classroom that will improve both learning and engagement for my students.  There are more great PD books out there than anyone could consume in a summer, but I am giving it my best shot.  Articles and blog posts are a whole other category of PD reading that I am trying to glean tips from.  There is a topic that I keep coming across that really interests me; classroom redesign.  This topic also infuriates me and here is why.

Most educators I know are not just doing a job – teaching is part of the fabric of their beings.  Thinking about their craft and how to be as effective in their role as a mentor to children is ever present in their minds.  The strategies to use in the classroom, the content to emphasize, the most effective way to conduct formative assessments, crafting meaningful feedback protocols, picking up on students’ emotional cues, and creating a welcoming and respectful environment for learning are all topics that are fighting for space in our brains daily.  These are all areas where our talents as educators and the investment of our time and energy can make tremendous differences for our students.

The current fascination with redesigning classroom learning spaces is an important topic and, to some extent, we can move desks/chairs/tables that we currently have in our classes to facilitate movement and sharing of ideas.  I am onboard with this.  What I am not onboard with is the suggestion that it is somehow my responsibility to obtain furniture for my classroom.  Are you kidding??  I have often cited teaching as the only profession where you have to bring your own pencil to work.  Seriously.  Depending on the district you work in, you could be provided with all you need to teach with and more, or you could have to literally supply your students with pens, pencils, paper, and create your own instructional materials.  This is one of education’s dirty little secrets.  Well, maybe not so secret, but certainly not discussed as openly and frequently as it should be.

Blended learning pedagogy and the frequent use of technology for learning make changing how we group and move students within the classroom a topic that cannot be ignored.  Dropping Chromebooks or iPads in a classroom and thinking that magically learning will morph into something new is naïve.  There is a method to every teacher’s madness, so to speak.  Purposeful and meaningful use of technology requires tremendous forethought and planning.  Mobility and grouping strategies are a huge part of what makes technology in education so powerful.  If we want to maximize our investments in educational technology and really create change, we need to pay attention to the physical spaces in which our students learn.  This cannot be an afterthought and it cannot be left to chance or the ability of an individual teacher to shop yard sales with personal funds!  When was the last time you were scheduled for surgery and your doctor had to purchase the operating table, supporting machinery and bring his own scalpel?  Just saying……………

 

 

Exploring New Tools

 

Much of my time as a blended learning teacher is spent looking for the next great app we will use.  I want to keep my students engaged and guessing!  Using the same app over and over again means it becomes familiar, too familiar, to my students and I sometimes see an accompanying dip in their effort.  

One of the wonderful things about running my blended classroom is that things change – that works for me.  Being flexible about which apps I use to address different learning goals and student styles is important and there are new apps being build every day.  The hard part is finding the time to explore all of them.  My PLN has been a huge help with finding strong apps for classroom use and their reviews of them help me sort out which ones are worth my time and which aren’t. 

We definitely have our go to apps that we use repeatedly.  We have found these to be reliable, easy to use, they produce nice finished products, and they have useful features:

  • Google Apps for Education – we are a GAFE school so this is where I started.  Students were already familiar with Microsoft Office so the transition was relatively painless.  The biggest problem I have with using these is the lack of practice some students have had with how to use an application like Google Docs to format.  We’re working on it!
  • BlendSpace – FREE – This is a great way to deliver self-paced content to students.  Their search feature is a great time saver and putting together a collection of content you want your students to view is quick and easy.  It gets a bit more complex to add interactive materials you have created elsewhere, but once you get the hang of it, this is also a fairly speedy process.   You can design your BlendSpace to be viewed in a particular order, in any order, or as a place to hold information that students will reference over and over again.  Students can also make their own as a way to present their learning.  This one’s a keeper!
  • Glogster  – PAID – There is an edu version of this one and that is what I use with my students.

http://edu.glogster.com//glog/37753564

I can use Glogster to create assignments that are a little more fun to work with than usual!  Students love using this tool to express their creativity and to present their knowledge.

http://edu.glogster.com//glog/49088137

  • Padlet –  FREE – This tool has created a way for my students to go public with their thinking without having to raise their hand and speak in front of the class.  Although this can get silly when they all decide to post ridiculous pictures instead of addressing the prompt, it can also be a very easy way to get a snapshot of student understanding.  You can project it or not, your choice.  That could be one way to manage the behavior!
  • ReadWorks & NewsELA – FREE – Two great resources for high quality, leveled informational text.  If you want an article with questions to assign to your students to check their reading comprehension or close reading skills, these are great apps to use as resources.  I know some teachers that use these every week.  I primarily use them for current events articles for my Geography classes.  I know the content is high quality and that they are at a level I can expect my students to be able to attain.

Recently, I have found some newer apps – or at least newer to me.

  • DocentEdu – PAID – This was an amazing find!  You can turn any webpage or document published as a web page into an interactive assignment for your students.  It is a Chrome add on and you simply find the webpage you want to use, click on the app symbol up on your Chrome bar, and you are ready to create.  I have classes created and as the students work, I can see their answers.  It is very easy to look at every students’ answer for one question or one student’s answers for all questions.  I love it and the students have responded very well to working with it.  Our principal bought a small number of trial licenses for our faculty so we can try to use it in a cross-curricular way.
  • Wizer.me – FREE – This one is fun!  This is a simple interface that allows you to make online worksheets and interactive lessons that can contain a whole list of different types of questions and even videos.  My students labeled a map, matched vocabulary words with their definitions, and answer a multiple choice question.  It was simple to set up and a nice rest from textbook based work.  My first attempt was pretty basic and I am looking forward to making something more interactive.  Best of all, it grades the work for you!  Hallelujiah!  A great way to check to see who is getting the content!
  • Cram – FREE – This site has precreated vocabulary lists – tons of them.  Or you can make your own set of flashcards.  Students can download this onto their phones and use it to practice for tests.  My students loved the games on Cram for reviewing their vocabulary.  I saw real improvement in their retention of content specific vocabulary terms after using it.  They were asking for class time to play – you can’t ask for more than that!

I’m sure you have many other apps you can think of to suggest I try.  Please share!  The hunt for great apps is a time consuming activity and I would love the hints and tips.

 

Kids as Catalysts of Change

Have you ever gotten so caught up in doing something that you forget to look up and see what is around you?  I have been guilty of that this year as I have attempted to make my classroom a blended learning environment.  The challenge of changing how I create and present content to my students has been overwhelming at times and I have frequently forgotten about a rich resource I have right in front of me all day long: my students!

My middle school students are, I have realized, the key to my success.  Of course there are many days when I am sure they are also going to drive me into an early retirement!  In previous years I have used their enthusiasm to help foster inquiry and engagement about what we were learning.  This was an integral part of how I taught and it worked well for me.  This year, however, I lost sight of that important facet of my teaching.  I was focusing on the “how” and not the “why” of  what I was doing in my classes and content areas.  Becoming so caught up in finding new and slicker resources and managing the inconsistent availability of technology resources became my number one consideration and I have often felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water.  It has not been a happy time for me as an educator.  I have often felt lost and inept this year; feelings no one ever enjoys.

Now that I have more of a feeling of control over the technology end of things and a more thorough understanding of the how and why of the apps that are out there to use, I can lift my head and take a look around me a bit.  My students are still there and still have so much to offer.  

I have started a list of ways I can capitalize on their innate enthusiasm in a blended learning environment.  While some of these techniques are very similar to what happened in a more traditional model, some take on an new twist in the area of technology, some are new, and all will make a big difference in my outcomes with blended learning.

  • Student as “guide on the side” – I have begun to leverage the knowledge and aptitude some of my students have shown in the area of technology (both hardware and software) to expand the amount of guidance there is available to struggling students.  I clearly cannot be everywhere at once and it is very likely that a student isn’t “ready” for some information until they are at that step in the process.  As much as I try to front load my instructions, that is not always helpful to everyone.  In order to have help available at the right time for learning, my students who find technology pretty straightforward and understandable have become my trusted co-guiders!  This is good for both the helper and the helpee because in order to be respected as a helper, they need to display certain behaviors and trustworthiness.  This role has proven to be important to some of my students improved self-image.  They appreciate the level of trust I have placed in them and they like helping their fellow students.  I plan to work on formalizing the skills and characteristics I want to celebrate with the class so this becomes a coveted designation.
  • Student as expert – I cannot know everything all of time – no one can.  We are very hard on ourselves as teachers and often hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard.  How wonderful it has been to periodically hand over the role of expert to my students!  I have seen them step up to take on this challenge for some portion of content and the pride they have in themselves when they provide the class with something they all need.  While this is not practical for everything we study, I am incorporating it more and more and even see students seeking this opportunity.  What an opportunity for growth!  Again, I need to build some further structure around this, but so far so good.
  • Making learning public – Technology is a huge asset here and there are countless options for how students can show what they know, reflect on their process and what they have learned.  This can take the form of a quick-write on a shared class Padlet or similar app, the creation of a new product like a PowToon, or a video or podcast.  There are so many options, the biggest problem is deciding which one to use!  The real power of asking students to make their learning public is the increase in the accountability and engagement – I have seen a huge increase in both of these.  I love seeing pride on their faces.
  • Creating classroom lists of “go-to” apps and tools – We are compiling a list of our favorites with reasons and this is sort of evolving into a list of “look for’s” in new apps.  It is a very backwards, organic process but the creating as we go nature of it has grabbed their attention and the fact that they have true input is powerful.  I would like to try using apps to collect some of this data through polling and google forms but I have not formalized it to that point yet.  I have info in a few different places and need to pull that together – add that to the to-do list!

This has been a year of tremendous learning and growth for me as a professional and I owe so much to my students who have put up with all of the changes and experimentation and changes in direction I have thrown at them.  I love my kids!

Plan A Becomes Plan B

Have you heard the one about the teacher who decides to create a blended learning classroom with 22 kids and 6 Chromebooks?  She ended up in the funny farm!  Yep, that teacher would be me and the Chromebooks started out as a promise of a class set, then were reduced to 15, then 8 were delivered later than expected, and now 2 are off being repaired.  What was I thinking????

I cannot blame our IT people.  Those poor souls are straight out trying to service way too many people and machines.  They are miracle workers as far as I am concerned.  Between the shirt tugs in the hallway from desperate teachers with tech problems and the school committee breathing down their necks for estimates of how much money they will need next year, you couldn’t pay me enough money to do that job!  

I really blame myself for opening my big mouth and saying I would pilot a blended learning classroom in a district that has not defined what they believe blended learning is yet.  That is a detail they really need to spend some time on!  On the other hand, my administration was nice enough to be flexible and let me think outside the box and supported my initiative.  They didn’t have to, but they did.  I do appreciate their good intentions.  The execution………….well, not so much.

All of these factors have conspired to create a situation where I am sometimes planning for one reality – Plan A, but come into school and realize my reality that day will be much different which means I have to pull out Plan B.  Teachers learn early on to have a backup plan because a school can be an unpredictable place.  Interruptions like fire drills, sick kids, office announcements, impromptu assemblies, etc. can make it impossible to complete the lesson you had planned on for the day.  This year and my new attempt at a blended classroom have added more potential interruptions to the mix.  The problem is Plan A is taking so long to create, Plan B is often nonexistent!

Let me explain.  Every lesson this year is new for me.  No, I am not a new teacher, just a teacher using new tools.  Really exciting and interesting tools but new nonetheless.  I am taking what I have taught in previous years and trying to turn it into digital content, at least in part.  I love doing this, and I think it is really worthwhile, but it takes a tremendous amount of time.  

Each night I look at what we are learning and try to create lessons that are interactive, engaging, have choice built in and allow students to work at their own pace.  I can’t always include all of that, but I am trying.  This means I spend hours at night trying to find just the right mix of apps and tools for my content and for the kids to use.  By the time I have it ready, creating a Plan B ain’t happening!  Of course I could just fall back on what I did last year, but the pacing is different and it doesn’t always work well to do that.  

My school day starts with me hoping the technology will work and the resources I am counting on will run correctly.  Many days, it all goes very well.  Unfortunately, there have been far too many days lately where a major problem has occurred and we can’t get online or I have no working equipment for the kids to use.  Honestly, there have been days where I have considered just giving up on this whole thing and waiting until we, as a district, are more ready.  

My kids have been so great about all of this.  They have stepped up and learned to use technology to learn and it has not always been easy for them.  They have also had to regroup when they have started an assignment online and then found out that they cannot finish in school.  They have had to put up with me changing things on the fly when our internet is down.  They have endured some not so engaging lessons because Plan B was needed and I didn’t have time to create any bells and whistles after having created the Plan A we had to scrap.  They are real troopers!

We are in the middle of the year now and have come so far together in using this technology to learn.  A big part of me is really questioning why I am putting myself through this.  It is all made worthwhile however when one of my kids creates something they didn’t know they could a few months ago.  They are growing and learning and that makes it all worthwhile.  Plan A or Plan B – we are a team and will keep moving forward!

Google Classroom – A Blessing and a Curse

Google Classroom is the both the best thing and the most frustrating thing to happen to my teaching in a long time.  My district “went Google” and the most logical thing for me to do was to try to leverage all of what was available to me to try to maximize the effectiveness of my teaching.  My newly blended classroom was the perfect place to experiment and learn about this new tool.  

While Classroom has given me some absolutely wonderful functionality, it is far from perfect.  Google readily admits that and has a wonderfully flexible outlook on its own product.  They are very upfront about how they are always working on it and are very receptive to input.  I really cannot ask for more than that from them, although sometimes the much-desired features seem like they will never take shape.  Thankfully, many features have been added, and each time a new one is introduced, I jump on board to try it.  So far, I have not been disappointed.  We may have to wait, but what they have added is high quality.

So, let’s look at the good:

  • The distribution of assignments and resources – this process is so much simpler using Google Classroom.  Please note that I am not doing any product comparison here other than comparing using Google Classroom to physically passing out papers!  The biggest win for me as a teacher in using this feature is the ability to hold my students accountable – they can’t lose anything or say they didn’t get a copy.  Organization, particularly in middle school students, is a rare thing. I have to say, some of them are speechless when they realize that old excuse has no validity anymore.  I kind of love that………………..
  • The ability for kids to have a classroom for each teacher they work with – again, organization rules!  My students can sign in and see all of their classes in one place.  This is invaluable when working with kids who have 5 different major subject teachers with 5 different lists of assignments.  I have seen a real difference in my kids’ ability to pull their organizational skills together.  We aren’t talking miracles here, but there has been far fewer meltdowns.
  • The ability for teams of teachers to use Google Classroom in a purposeful, planned way – the potential here is huge, although there is room for growth feature-wise on Google’s part.  Not only can we make each other teachers in each other’s classrooms, but what I create can serve as an example for another teacher on the team trying something for the first time.  Built in PD!
  • All of the add-ons created for Google Apps for Education and Chrome that work with Classroom – Holy Toledo!  The number of add-ons is growing every day.  Clearly, the quality is not all equal, but the ability to have so many to pick and choose from and the fact that they are available to the kids too is terrific.  The biggest issue is choosing which to use.  Some of my students have even become “product testers” and recommend certain ones to the class or to me.  Who doesn’t like free shopping??

With all good comes some bad.  Let’s take a look:

  • The grading situation – I cannot get my head wrapped around this flow – it seems unnecessarily cumbersome to me and involves way too much clicking.  There is vast room for improvement here and, if Google can figure out how to smooth this out and streamline it, they will have a huge win on their hands.  And a big fan!

 

  • The stream – it could just be that I am not a Facebook user or a fan of social media, but I don’t like this interface.  Visually, I would love the ability to change the layout – the timeline is just not working for me and many of my students struggle with this view as well.  The ability to display the assignments/announcements/questions in multiple ways – user choice – would be a very welcome change and would make this tool so much more user-friendly for many of my students.

 

In the end, I am much happier with Google Classroom than I was without it.  I do believe it will get better with time and user input.  I appreciate Google’s commitment to making Classroom function better for both teachers and students.  If you haven’t given it a try yet, what are you waiting for?  Dive in.

Tech Savvy is a Relative Term

Have any of you been told just how tech savvy this generation is?  I certainly have.  As a teacher I am told all the time to just hand hardware to my kids and let them figure it out because surely they know more than I do.  WRONG!

I am completely amazed at my students’ struggles with technology.  Let’s break this down:

We have two big issues here: hardware and software.

  • Hardware
    • iPads
    • phones
    • Chromebooks
    • desktops
    • laptops
    • tablets
  • Software
    • complete computer software programs
    • task specific apps
    • extensions

I might agree that the kids can take an actual piece of hardware and make it work.  They can usually play around with the physical design of the thing and make it turn on and manage the controls – they have probably played with something with similar features before.

Software, on the other hand, is a whole different story!  I can’t help but be surprised each and every time they quickly give up and ask for help when presented with a new app or extension.  Where is their adventurous spirit?  Whether having to register, navigate the pages on the site, or somehow submit or share their work, I am deluged with requests for help and reassurance.  Unfortunately, this makes me cranky.  Very cranky.

I mean, really, how hard is it to click a few times and see what happens?  Why won’t they do that?  I think we have pretty solid evidence that nothing is going to explode and no alarms will go off.  Where is the hesitation coming from?

From where I sit, it is a refusal to risk being wrong.  They are afraid to make a move that could be wrong and they might not be able to fix.  What if they can’t destroy the evidence that they made a wrong choice?  What would their peers think?  What would their parents think?  Oh no!