Friday, February 12, 2016

Guest Post: My Hoverboard and My Kids

By Sarah Thomas

A Big Change

August 2015 marked the beginning of the most transitional year of my career.

First, a position opened at the district level, coordinating technology with a team that had inspired me to become a teacher leader.  

Almost simultaneously, I was offered a high school position that everything in my gut screamed “YES” about.  I accepted (after disclosing my pursuit of the other opportunity).  This was one of the scariest choices I had ever made.

It was my first time in high school since 1999, when I actually was a student.

It was my first time teaching Technology Education, which I soon found out was very different from Technology Integration. I had taught the latter for six of the previous seven years, and had thoroughly enjoyed gamifying a curriculum of our (the students and my) choice, which included any and everything that we could get our hands on. We coded with Sphero, learned basic photography and video editing, created podcasts, and discussed the possibility of a Minecraft club, among many other things. The new content was heavier on science, engineering, and math.

It was my first time leaving my “home,” where I had stayed for seven years of my ten in the classroom. This was the hardest part, as I said goodbye to the co-workers, students, and parents I considered my extended family.

The change was exciting, terrifying, and full of possibilities. I loved every minute of it.

Settling In

I had no idea what to expect when I started teaching high school. Luckily, my previous school had many students who qualified to come to this magnet high school, one of three with a STEM programs in our county; thus, I felt a similar familial environment here. In addition, I already knew many of my coworkers from various workshops, conferences, and social media. The administration was phenomenal, extremely supportive, and embraced technology.

I won’t lie; despite all this, I was extremely nervous at first. Never before had I worked with students in this age group. Knowing full well my strengths and weaknesses (i.e. I’m a huge softie), I had a couple of sleepless nights, wondering if my classroom management would hold up in this new environment. Should I be tough? Should I not smile until Christmas?

As always, my PLN had my back. As a matter of fact, it was my dear Voxer friends who encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone and accept the position. More great advice followed, such as “just be yourself...they will love have the perfect personality for high school.”  In addition, I decided to listen to myself in this foreshadowing video, that I had made prior to even knowing anything about my new role.

The first couple of weeks, I went into some strange sort of auto-pilot. However, I kept it real with my students from the get-go. We bonded almost instantly, as we discovered that we had a lot in common. 

In applying what I had learned from my PLN, the class was extremely student-centered. The students created the rules through memes, and voted on them. They were encouraged to demonstrate mastery of the content in practically any way that they wanted. They had choice over how they decided to use their time in class, how they structured their groups, and topics that they decided to explore.

The Hoverboard
Source: Flickr
For one of the first assignments, I had approximately 60% of my students choose to create a Google Slides presentation about something called a “Hoverboard,” as a piece of technology that inspired them. When I kept seeing the theme recur throughout each class period, I asked a group of students if it was like the skateboard from Back to the Future. They gave me a proper education, showing me videos of what it was, as well as clips of people riding, some of them falling. I told them it looked cool.

Two Weeks to Remember

In early November – only three months into the school year – I was notified that the promotion came through. I would be working alongside people who had inspired and mentored me as a teacher leader for years. The change would have to happen quickly: I only had 2 weeks to say goodbye to my students. While elated, I knew it would be tough to break the news to my students the following Monday.

My kids (yes, I will still call them that) are mind-blowingly amazing. They took the news incredibly well. We vowed to make the final two weeks together something that we would remember.

Go big or go home.

I introduced students to the Accelerated Course, which they did for a class period. Afterwards, I introduced another tool to the arsenal: There were several musically talented students in the class, and it allowed them to collaborate using loops and MIDI instruments. The last assignment was an optional PBL that they could carry on without me: use the Engineering Design Process to brainstorm something they were passionate about creating. I can’t wait to hear about the results.

Falling and Getting Back Up

Of course, I couldn’t leave without fulfilling my promise. I went to Amazon to order the elusive Hoverboard.

I wish I could have recorded for posterity the moment when I told my students that the board was in the mail. They had probably thought I had forgotten, but the excitement was palpable!

That weekend I learned how to ride it. The Hoverboard is not as easy as it looks, that’s for sure. It took me about a day and a half to finally get it down, but by Monday, I was sailing down the hallways and around my classroom with ease, even Periscoping on a few occasions.

I whipped up a Google form as a sign-up sheet for the students. Each entry would get them two minutes of riding time, and karaoke rules applied (meaning: you could only sign up again once your turn was over). About 100 kids took the Hoverboard challenge, across my six periods.  I also rode around the classroom, while periscoping for good measure.

Overall, the students were a lot quicker to master it than I was, probably because of neuroplasticity or something to that effect. Some kids started off shakily, but by the end of the class period, they mastered it.  A couple fell, laughed, and got back on it. A few clung onto me for dear life until they were ready to go.  

We had a great time for those two days, and it was the best send-off I could have ever imagined.

About the Author:
Sarah Thomas is a Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools.  She is also a Google Certified Innovator and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest.   Sarah is a doctoral candidate in Education at George Mason University.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Teaching the Risks, Rewards, and Realities of Social Media

Communication via social media may be new, but it is not a passing fad. While it is crucial for our children to learn formal language used for business, they must also learn how to communicate using expanding digital platforms. Need proof that it isn't a fad? Look at Pew's results tracking teen social media use from 2006 to 2012:
Source: Pew Research Center

Concern #1: Privacy

Our children need to learn how to protect their geolocation and contact information. Once that information is available, any savvy tech user can find out a great deal about their lives. It takes only some sly text messages, voicemails, and emails to gather the information needed to steal an identity. A more talented hacker can take only name, address and a few other bits and get everything they need.

Concern #2: Photos

These go along with privacy, but we also need to dig deeper. What are the photos teens are posting? Are they all positive? Are some potentially embarrassing? What about the photos teens post of their friends, or enemies? Could those be ruining others' digital footprints?

Concern #3: Revealing Vulnerabilities

Beyond that, what are our teens sharing about their fears, worries, and insecurities with strangers online? And does this mean they are not sharing with the parents, educators, and other adults who care about them and want to help them? I'm not insinuating that people should be unrealistically perfect with their online identities, but we do not want our children reaching out for help to strangers who may not have their best interest at heart.

Avoiding social media altogether is not the answer either. If there are so many risks to sharing this information online, why are teens (and adults) doing it in growing numbers? There must be some rewards that outweigh the risks if the statistics from Pew are real.

The best description of the rewards I have heard personally is through the phrase Ambient Intimacy. I heard about it when a friend, Dan Whalen, posted about it on Facebook. Ambient Intimacy is a term to describe the types of relationships that we build when we share bits and pieces of our lives online, and when we see the bits and pieces of others' lives online. They are described as "pixilated relationships."  They are not categorically better or worse than in-person relationships, just different. Here's a description:

We must teach teens to understand the similarities and differences between these online pixilated relationships and face-to-face personal or professional relationships. The truth is that our teens, and many adults, can't imagine life without both face-to-face and online relationships. It would be unrealistic to ask them to leave their online relationships behind. Actually, online relationships are incredibly important when it comes to building a strong foundation for a rich adult personal and professional life.

At the same time, while most social media users are experts at being clever - with silly selfies and pictures of fancy food - they need to learn to round out their online identities. Some digital citizenship experts call it a footprint, others call it a tattoo. No matter what you call it, millennials need to understand the impact their digital identity will have on their lives, personally (when their dates Google them), academically (when admissions officers Google them), and professionally (when their interviewers Google them).

Answers, But Not Solutions

We can teach this!

We do it by:

1. Modeling it with our online presence and allowing our students to "Google" us. If we are going to expect our students to keep their online identities clean, we should model it. For years I encouraged my students to look me up. Not everything you'll find about me is perfect, but it is the real me and I know my employers, family, and friends have seen it all.

This doesn't mean we should follow our students' social media accounts. Teens deserve some semblance of privacy and space from their teachers online. Plus, most school Responsible Use Policies prohibit teachers from following students.

Need an example of how this works in real life in a real school?  I was in a meeting with a 13 year old 7th grader earlier this school year because he has used Instagram in a concerning way. I told him I wanted to show him my Instagram to prove that I'm a fan of the platform. He shied away as if I was revealing something private to him. I wasn't. My Instagram is open, and I think carefully about that every time I post. It was as if a bell went off in his head before my eyes. If an educator at his school is happy to share her Instagram with him, perhaps he can make his Instagram into something he would be proud to show his teachers. It was a rewarding conversation, and it is a conversation that could happen in schools everywhere.

2. Coaching and encouraging them to post the work they're proudest of right there on their Facebook or Instagram with their other posts. While some students have those silly selfies and fancy food mentioned above, others might not have much of a social media presence at all. I feel strongly that schools should not force students to make their lives public, but education should include information about the risks and rewards of sharing online.

For instance, I have researched any company, school, or professional I have ever worked with. If I cannot find a significant online identity, generally it takes me more time to assess whether the professional relationship will be valuable for either of us. That doesn't mean that things won't work out, but it does mean that I tend to be more skeptical going into it. Now, not all professions are so technology and social media focused, but all professionals do use technology to communicate and share their ideas. Online presence is essential.

Even high school students, like Timmy Sullivan from Burlington, Massachusetts are recognizing this. I'm starting to get more and more Linked In connection requests from my students, and I'm thrilled to see them building their academic and professional identities.

3. Celebrating and sharing the work of students and colleagues that are posted. Use your social media reach to extend the reach of those who deserve it. The past four years of my teaching career included students turning in their work almost exclusively via electronic means. In many cases, they were posting on blogs, sharing on YouTube, or using some other web 2.0 technology to create and share their ideas. Not all of them made their work accessible to the public (We talked about privacy settings and they made thoughtful decisions about whether they wanted to share their work. Most did.) but when a student did and that work was exceptional, I did my best to amplify their academic voice. Whether it was clever and funny or deep and meaningful, students loved seeing their work get noticed by people outside the four walls of our classroom.

There are no true solutions to all social media concerns. Every user has a different comfort level with how much information she/he is willing to reveal to family, friends, acquaintances, or strangers. We need to take the time to ask our children why they like social media and what concerns they have. When listening, even if you don't know the answers to their questions, take the time to look up those answers with them. There are risks and rewards to communicating and building relationships on social media, but there are risks and rewards to any kind of relationship. We must recognize that social media communications are not "less than" other communications. They are just different. Our job, as educators, is to help children develop the skills to communicate clearly and as their real selves in any situation: in person and online, with the written and spoken word, with body language and voice inflection, and - yes - even with emojis now and then.

Additional Resources:
The Educator's Guide to Social Media -
Teens speak: Should students publish their school work online? -

Monday, January 18, 2016

Guest Post: The Problem with App Smashing

By Ross Cooper

According to EdTechTeacher, “App Smashing is the process of using multiple apps to create projects or complete tasks.”
According to Wikipedia, inquiry-based learning “starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios – rather than simply presenting established facts or portraying a smooth path to knowledge.”
The Problem
On many occasions, I have seen/read about App Smashing being leveraged in a way that is entirely anti-inquiry. In instances such as these, an overly contrived and smooth, risk free process is followed, all for the sake of a “cool” product.
Here are directions I pulled from a real project:
Using iMovie, shoot a scene of two actors portraying characters from a novel. Use the speed editor in iMovie to speed the video up slightly. Save the video to your Camera Roll. Open 8mm, pull the previous video from the Camera Roll, and use the “1920s filter” on the video and resave to the Camera Roll. Open Tellagami and use a solid green image as your background. Have the avatar in Tellagami explain what is going on in the silent movie scene. Finally, use DoInk Green Screen to combine the video created with iMovie & 8mm with the Tellagami commentary. Save the finished product to the Camera Roll.
As said by Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann), “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.”
The Solution
For short-term activities, I have never had an issue with “recipes,” as along as a bit of student freedom is included. But, when it comes to longer projects (or project-based learning experiences), inquiry-based learning and the process (not the product) must be prioritized. After all, if a large amount of class time is dedicated to a project, why would I want all of them to turn out (1) the same, and/or (2) exactly as I had planned? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of student-centered learning?
So, how do we avoid this predicament?
When planning, do so with the end in mind. But make sure “the end” refers to enduring understandings. Not a product. Not an app. And not an overly contrived workflow.
Here are some ideas as to how we can plan with the appropriate end in mind, while also promoting student problem solving and creativity through the use of iPads:
  • Have students use a rubric, which ideally should be created by them. This way, they are free to demonstrate their understandings however they choose as long as they follow the rubric, which should align to standards (not a product). Ideally, students should view each rubric as a starting point and not a “ceiling” for what can be accomplished.
  • Provide students with the freedom to download their own apps to assist in fulfilling project requirements (if possible, given your “technology situation”). Student “app awareness” is one of the primary benefits of them using the same devices, such as iPads, both in and out of school.
  • Challenge your students to use a minimum amount of apps (in a worthwhile manner) when creating their final product. Although this approach shifts the focus on to the technology, students would be forced to stretch themselves by having to improve upon their work. Also, they might discover new tools they can use at later points in time.
In the End
In the end, there is obviously nothing wrong with App Smashing. But what matters most is that opportunities for student problem solving and creativity are prioritized.
While “app crazy” teachers may find the need to continuously “push themselves” by developing new App Smashing techniques…most students simply just don’t care.
Per Michael Fullan, “Pedagogy is the driver, technology is the accelerator.” Or, as can be the case with App Smashing, technology is the roadblock.

About the Author:

Ross is the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Teacher. His passions are: curriculum and unit design, inquiry-based learning, assessment and grading, and quality professional development. He blogs about these topics at Also, he regularly engages in speaking, consulting, and presenting. He has conducted keynotes, speaking engagements, and workshops ranging from 15 minutes to all-day. A list of what he has previously offered, and testimonials, can be found on his blog. Connect with him on Twitter at @RossCoops31.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Can we reconcile the paperless classroom with the screen addiction?

I believe in two, seemingly opposite, basic concepts when it comes to technology use:
  1. Technology has transformed how we learn and communicate for the better.
  2. Technology is used as an escape that pulls people away from building strong in person social skills.
From a personal perspective, I believe in the first point because social media has allowed me to stay connected to family and friends who no longer live near me. We watch one another's children grow and keep up using a mix of public posts and private messaging. When we are finally able meet up in person, it feels as if we were never apart.

From a professional standpoint, I believe in the first point because once my students and I decided to go truly paperless, we experienced a shift in how much we learned and how we shared that learning with one another and with those outside our classroom. Students now have easier access to better and more varied resources. They are able to collaborate in person, from home, or even asynchronously when their busy schedules don't match up. And the best part is that they can share what they've learned by creating a greater variety of projects. Assessments are no longer limited to tests and posters. They are producing movie trailers and public service announcements, publishing blogs, editing and annotating photographs and artwork, and so much more.

Source: Pixabay
The second point is concerning, though. While I know technology allows my family, friends, and students to do things we've never been able to do before, I also know that some of us struggle to find the right balance of technology use. Gaming, movies, music, and other types of media have benefits, but are also easily used to escape from tough real life problems. Does a school that encourages students to leverage technology throughout their day hurt our children more than helping them?

Just like humans have to eat, we also have a need to communicate and connect. Since technology makes that possible easier, faster, and with more detail, my belief is that the digital world is here to stay. Especially in places of learning like schools. In a recent interview with NPR, Chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media David Hill discussed the debate over whether screen time for children should be compared to diet or tobacco use.

"With diet, harm reduction measures seem to be turning the tide of the obesity epidemic. With tobacco, on the other hand, there really is no safe level of exposure at any age. My personal opinion is that the diet analogy will end up being more apt."

I like Hill's assessment -- it jives well with my experiences as an educator, parent, and tech user -- but we do need more research. In the mean time, we need to keep the discussion open.

Additional Resources:

If you'd like to read more about my students' experiences in the paperless classroom:
If you'd like to read more about screen time other classroom tech concerns:

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Every Teacher Should Write Like a Spider

Image Source: Pixabay
This is what it feels like.

The idea is there. It might develop because of a conversation. That conversation reminds you of a lesson you taught, a workshop you participated in, or an article you read. The idea is the fibrous web that connects all of those things together. At this point, though, the web is only in your head. You're not sure where each of the strands will be, but you know they will be there.

At this stage you have a constant nagging need to nurture it until it is fully formed. So, as the day goes on you take quick notes. Maybe they're on a notepad or on your phone. Each note is a strand of the idea web. You methodically record each note, starting to design the structure of the web.

Once you have a basic outline that connects all of the pieces, you start to write. Those notes are now subheadings, and the details on each of those big ideas become paragraphs under the subheadings. Once it is done, you sit back and look at the web. You proofread and make little adjustments here and there to ensure there are no big holes.

The Web Feeds the Spider

The mental effort it takes to come up with an idea, give it structure, and fill it in with evidence and opinion are quite different from the effort a spider puts into making a web. But, like the spider gains food from its web, writing seems to always give back. For a writer, though, it isn't about trapping insects. It's about brain food. When sharing that bit of writing with colleagues, educator friends on social media, and family, the result is feedback. Sometimes they agree and add evidence or enthusiasm to the idea. Other times they disagree and challenge the thinking. Either way, the conversations that result from the writing will feed your brain and keep you coming up with more ideas.

Spiders Are Known for Their Webs

Click here to read the EdSurge piece.
Different species of spiders create different types of webs. Really! There are orb webs, funnel webs, platform webs, and more. Similarly, writers are known for what they write.

Recently I wrote a piece for EdSurge about how educators can build their brand. The article discussed how writing, and then sharing that writing, can lead to more professional connections and opportunities. Educators who write build a reputation for their patterns of thinking and ability to express themselves through their writing.

I started my blog in 2009 to share the weekly writing I was doing as part of a graduate level cohort. Once the cohort ended, though, I found it hard to stop writing. (Remember those nagging ideas? Thankfully, they didn't go away!) My blog evolved as my career did. It became more about student-centered lessons and thoughtful use of technology in the classroom. Lucky for me, a few online EdTech publications - at first it was EdSurge and Smarter Schools Project - noticed. Now I get to write and share my ideas more broadly. It's like making that spider web ten times bigger and catching ten times as many insects. Yum! I get even more feedback from other passionate educators and professionals. Think of all that brainfood!

My teaching, learning, and writing has improved, all because I started writing about my classroom 6 years ago. Every educator can feel this energy. Start by writing like a spider.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Guest Post: Empathy as Understanding

By Dan Ryder

Empathy isn’t a just touchy-feely, get-to-know-your-neighbors, appreciate-the-rich-tapestry-of-our-community, we-are-the-better-for-truly-understanding-the-perspective-of-another exercise in character building.  When employed in classroom, empathy proves a nimble and dynamic tool for critical thinking, authentic understanding and demonstrating proficiency.  

I’ve long taught the value of diversity, tolerance and understanding of others’ points of view.  For some time I served as co-advisor for our campus Civil Rights Team, developed interactive theater experiences around social justice issues, and raised consciousness in my classroom through music and film.  But it wasn’t until I adopted design thinking -- empathy-fueled, human-centered problem solving --  as my preferred pedagogical lens that I became aware of how useful intentional empathy could be in the content areas.

What follows is something of a prototypical day in my English classroom at Mt. Blue Campus, a regional public high school nestled into the foothills of rural western Maine.  Here’s hoping this little bit of context and application inspire some ideas of your own.

Ninth Grade English:  Empathy Maps to Understand Character in Of Mice and Men

My crew of ninth graders love to build and tinker and create stuff.  LEGO bricks, Jenga blocks, miscellaneous bits and pieces from our Maker Cart -- the materials matter little to these folks.  They just want to create.  George and Lennie’s dream of homestead and the current economic climate in Maine inspired a design challenge:  How might we design a tiny house for the dreamers in Of Mice and Men?  To get us there, we would use Mary Cantwell’s DEEP design thinking process, the second phase of which calls upon the designer to empathize with the user.

Step 1.  Define Your Users/Characters

On this particular day we first had to identify our users: who are the characters for whom we are designing?  George and Lennie are the obvious users, but we also had to recognize Candy’s role in making the homestead feel more like a reality and Crooks’ offer to join them in the endeavor.

Step 2.   Identify Your Users/Characters’ Needs

Once our users and characters were defined, we had to identify their needs.  The text serves as surrogate for an interview with the dialogue providing the subject’s words, the narration, the subject’s actions and behaviors.    Using Crooks as an example -- a character chosen deliberately because he appears less frequently and provides less concrete desires about the homestead -- I quickly modeled for students how we can analyze what a character says and does to generate a simple hypothesis regarding what they may be thinking and feeling.   I explained that our words can reveal our thoughts on a subject, while our actions and body language can relate our feelings.  Often, what we say may not align what what are doing and those are the tension moments where what’s really going tends to be revealed.  

Step 3.  Unpack Our Observations

Typically, empathy maps are used by designers to unpack interviews. Again, for our purposes, the dialogue serves as “say,” and the narration serves as “do.” The dotted lines are there to emphasize the fluidity in the thinking and the interrelations between all four quadrants.

In this very quick modeling for them, using MVIFI’s organizer,I wanted the students to see that Crooks, while he may initially say he wants to be left alone, invites the others to come and sit and that this likely relates a loneliness.  This opened up a conversation about other characters who may feel loneliness, how the homestead might be able to relieve those feelings, and how all of these troubles and dreams affect the impact of the novel’s ending.
This was also a great opportunity to teach students about the power of ellipses when quoting from a text.  I didn’t want students spending all their time writing down quotes, but I did want to make sure their observations were documented.  

Humanities:  Designing Sanctuaries for Others and Speak

Despite having taught Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak for over a decade, I continue to find opportunities to explore the text in new ways.  As Grade 9 Humanities is team-taught by English and social studies teachers in the same room at the same time, we wanted a project that would explore current events, emphasize major themes of the novel, and provide an opportunity for students to create.  Earlier in the fall, one of our students’ Cardboard Challenge turned out to be a sanctuary for her classmate.   The idea of having a sanctuary is vital to protagonist Melinda Sordino’s experiences in Speak.  Right now hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in our world are seeking refuge and safety.  Thus we challenged the students:  How might we design a sanctuary for others?  

Step 1: Define Your Users/Characters.

We provided three potential users:  another member of the class you do not know well, a refugee or asylum seeker, or a character from Speak who is not Melinda.  Two of the three would provide an opportunity to demonstrate content knowledge, the third being an opportunity to grow our classroom culture, and all would require deep intentionality.  

Step 2: Identify Your Users/Characters’ Needs.

Providing structured time to explore each of the potential user classes afforded multiple angles into the novel’s themes.  We investigated the Syrian refugee crisis and the rhetoric surrounding the current Presidential race and immigration reform, comparing and contrasting those positions to those expressed by characters in Speak.  We ran a rapid prototyping session, partnering and creating mini-sanctuaries for one another using items off our maker cart including LEGO bricks, Jenga blocks, and assorted recyclables and crafting materials.  And we explored Halse Anderson’s use of symbolism in the text and the insights it provides us into the various characters’ experiences and points of view.

Step 3: Experiment and Create Based on Users/Characters’ Needs.

One student didn’t realize her sister’s college roommate is a Somalian refugee who moved to Kenya before coming to the United States and attending college in rural Maine.  This video reveals the prototype our student developed, her process of learning about her user, and the intentions behind the design.  (And this video features a brief critique of her work.)

And some students demonstrated deeper understanding of characters in the novel, such as this student who shared her process of designing a sanctuary for Speak’s Mr. Freeman.

AP Literature & Composition:  Empathy to Inform Collaborative Problem Solving and Timed Writing

Here, I wanted to express a more utilitarian approach to empathy in the class: asking what your partners need.

As I write these words, we are wrangling with a long term design challenge in AP Lit:  How might we design effective on-demand analytical essays?  We are using the DEEP process to get us there and have used the last month for our Discovery phase.  Using Diigo’s group collaboration features, we’ve been collecting resources and information related to effective timed writing in hopes that we’ll be able to find some trends and uncover some best practices, as well as the needs of the user: those who score AP Lit essays.

But rather than just find anything and everything -- which while having some merit can also feel overwhelming -- I had has run a very quick, 20 minute “design sprint” based on the needs in the room.

Step 1: Define Your Users.
We quickly (two minutes -- use a timer, it matters) brainstormed search terms to use for our research.   This was our mini-discovery phase.

Step 2: Identify Your Users’ Needs.

Then we took the time to interview one another about how we like to consume our information.  Digestible chunks?  Long form articles?  Video?  Audio?  And we took time to discuss why we prefer our information in these ways.  It was important that no judgement was cast, that trends were identified across the room, and outliers were honored.  

Step 3:  Gather Resources to Support Your Users.

And here’s where the empathy phase played such an important role.  In identifying the trends in the room about what formats of information are most helpful and useful, our next ten minutes for searching  -- our experiment phase -- was that much more focused and more likely to generate meaningful results in our shared Diigo links.  During production phase feedback, we noted the trends across what we found -- many lists, some scorer critique, few long form articles.  

Students now need to annotate what they found and it may be that closer inspection finds these links less than purposeful.  That’s all part of the learning process though and least that revision will be guided by empathy and the meeting of a need rather than score point on a rubric.

Empathy as Relevance

This is perhaps the greatest value empathy brings to the classroom.  We so often discuss the challenge of making learning relevant -- especially in middle and high school classrooms.   Exercises like those above push the focus away from grades and into the application of knowledge to solve problems.   When we embrace empathy as an avenue for understanding, we not only foster critical knowledge of the content, but provide students vital opportunities to set aside their own biases and meet the needs of another, a skill that will serve them well no the directions our students’ lives take them.

About the Author:
Dan Ryder is an educator, improviser and design thinker from the foothills of western Maine who spends every day trying to make the world a little more interesting than he found it.  A moderator of #dtk12chat and #edchatme, follow him @wickeddecent on Twitter, Instagram, and  Medium.  Keep tabs on his efforts to walk the talk on his classroom blog at and with his co-conspirators at Wicked Decent Learning.