Thursday, December 1, 2016

My child knows more about #edtech than I do!

A common concern I hear from parents is that their children know more about the devices and technology used in school than they do. Even parents who work in technology-rich careers may not be familiar with education technology. As a result, day to day monitoring of what their children are doing is awkward and difficult. Sometimes it isn't until their child is hooked on a video game or social media platform that they initiate any discourse about healthy technology use. When families wait until there is something wrong to have these talks, it is bound to be tense and unpleasant.


Some parents have reached out to our school's technology team to ask for advice on monitoring apps or software, parental controls, and other easy fixes. Our response to these requests is consistent with the message we have shared at parent orientations, parent council meetings, and parent webinars:
  • Have proactive conversations about twice a month.
  • Open these conversations by asking, "Can you show me how you use your Chromebook, iPad, laptop, smartphone to do school work?"
  • Follow up questions might include, "What have you created?" or "How do you keep track of everything on this device?" or "Do you ever get distracted by text messages/games/social media when you're trying to work?"
Much like parents have proactive conversations with their children about healthy eating, dressing appropriately, and how to treat others, parents can and should have proactive positive conversations about healthy technology use.

One parent recently contacted us – my fellow digital learning specialists Julie Cremin, Elizabeth Solomon, and I – to let us know that she decided to have one of these conversations and to tell us how it went. Here is her account:

Inspired (and reminded) by the Digital Learning Specialists/Super Heroes, I sat down last night with both of my boys to get a tour of their iPads. Fun!! One bonus that had not occurred to me was to do it with both of them at once. As my junior whipped through his apps, talking about features he liked about one or another, my freshman, kept interrupting: "Wait, how did you do that?" or "You can do that?!" I slid into the background as the junior started lecturing him on the importance of collaborating with his classmates by setting up group chats for every class, creating shared Quizlet decks (for world languages in particular), and arranging study sessions before and after school.

One item that stood out for me was the diagram below. My junior was studying physics with a friend before school. He has Mr. X, his friend has Mr. Y. My junior liked his friend's Mr. Y notes, so he took a picture of them and put the picture in Notability. Then, during his Mr. X class, he took a picture of the board, and pasted it onto the same image (lower right corner). And finally, he had a few extra notes he wanted included, so he wrote them in himself (note the different handwriting on the right side that begins with 'avg speed').


My junior is a kid who struggled academically in his first year and a half in high school, and now he's learned to harness the tools that are available to him to really excel (an A+ in Physics, and straight A's and 1 B first quarter).

Thanks for the work you do!
No parental controls or monitoring apps could accomplish what they accomplished with this conversation. It is certainly possible that one of their sons may struggle with healthy technology use at some point in the future, but because these parents have engaged them in positive conversations about how they use technology for school work, it will be easier for them to have those tough discussions later. Their teens appreciated an opportunity to teach their parents something and will be more likely to share what they are doing in school moving forward.

As educators, let's encourage our students to share what they are doing in school with their parents at home, and let's communicate often with parents to give them conversation-starters to help them initiate those discussions. As parents, let's practice what we preach with our own children and share our successes and struggles. Every family and school community is learning how to navigate this new connected era. Parents, children, and educators can work together to be proactive, positive, and to make progress.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Ugly Sweaters of Education

The ugly sweater. No matter your faith, it is a recognizable holiday phenomenon. Some wear them proudly, and yet it is only because they are messy, loud, and noticeable. The time when they were fashionable has past (decades ago) but there are some trends that stick around because they are hard to forget.


There are certain teaching and learning strategies that are no longer en vogue, but are so valuable they have quietly lasted decades in many classrooms. In many cases, the tools used to carry them out and the names used to describe them have changed.

Lecture

Yes, I said it. Even as a teacher who has criticized the practice of lecturing quite often, I do believe it is a tried a true practice that can be effective –– if done well. Educators who are masterful lecturers understand that a quality lecture is interactive, thought-provoking, and entertaining for all participants. Great lectures are not solo performances, they are engaging experiences.

Pear Deck is one platform that allows educators to thoughtfully plan for personalized and collaborative learning activities that are built into the lecture slide deck. Another option is to offer for participants to engage in a backchannel using TodaysMeet. Then review the transcript and respond to ideas periodically during the lecture. Finally, if you want to take specific questions live from your audience, consider using Google Slides and it's kind-of-new Q&A feature.

Daily Quizzes and Exit Tickets

These strategies are worthwhile because they are frequent check-ins on student progress, but any teacher who really actually used them daily is superhuman.  I don't know about you, but I had between 120 and 130 teenagers walk over that classroom threshold on a daily basis. Is it possible for a mere mortal to create, read, and assess that many exit tickets every 24 hours (especially when you consider the daily lesson/project planning, summative assessment creation and correction, and 6-7 hours of sleep that are also required to function)? These tried and true formative assessments were too much work before, but digital tools have changed that.

Poll Everywhere offers a live survey-style effect to close out your class period. Formative offers a variety of questions types that can remain private or can be displayed live, based on teacher preference. Socrative even has an exit ticket built in their dashboard for teachers to use spur-of-the-moment.

Bell Ringers or Bell Work

I like to call them "activators" because I like to think they activate the kind of thinking needed for a particular activity (and also because some schools no longer mark time with bells). The truth is they are just as much a class management tool – designed to get students to engage in classwork and resist messing around as soon as they enter the classroom with their friends – as they are an opportunity for learning.

Steal from the project based learning playbook and make your activator about a real world problem that connects with the topic of class for that day. For instance:

  • About to embark on a long term research project? Invite students to try to solve A Google a Day. The exercise teaches them the valuable of un-Google-able questions and includes hints on how to properly navigate search engines. They will be better prepared to author their own research question and to find the sources they need to complete their research.
  • Planning to introduce students to the concept of velocity and how to calculate it? Start by showing them this downhill skateboard racing video. Start by reminding your students that these racers are professionals (or reckless at the very least) and they shouldn't attempt such a stunt. But then appeal to their curiosity. How might we figure out how fast they are going? What information would we need? Are there clues in the video – like the regular dashes on the side of the road and the ticking seconds in the YouTube timer – that might help? 
Opening class with activities like these will surely result in a room full or students who are more invested in mastering the skills and content at hand.

While lectures, daily quizzes, exit tickets, and bell work might be old fashioned ugly sweaters to modern connected educators, they are methods that have been around for decades. They might not fit in today's classroom in their original form, but when the best edtech tools and resources are used to make them more engaging, manageable, and powerful... they're back! Just as with fashion, what is old can be new again, and we need to remember that great teaching and learning should never be pushed aside and replaced by a new trend "just because."

Ugly sweater photo from flickr

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Be Honest About PD


My favorite way to learn as a professional is to find opportunities for my colleagues and I to have the time and structure for the conversations we aren't having at school. When at school educators are limited by scheduling, the defined boundaries of titles and roles, and cultural norms or routines for "how things are done" day to day. This is why you'll often find me at regional or national conferences with my colleagues. Sometimes we are co-presenting, but more often we are eager to talk with other teachers, curriculum and technology coaches, and administrators so that we can learn from them and bring inspiring ideas back to our teachers and students.

I realized this is the most effective form of professional learning for me because I was asked to intentionally think about it today.

This week I had the opportunity to work with a team of teachers and administrators from my school at the Future Ready Summit in Boston. We worked together as a team, and also learned from leadership teams from schools and districts throughout Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

In one activity we analyzed the best and worst of our own professional learning experiences. These are some common examples I heard from participants on my team and on other district teams:

What was your worst professional learning experience?

  • The presenter did a data dump without carving out an opportunity for my colleagues and I to reflect on that data or use it to develop a plan.
  • I was forced to have conversations that required vulnerability with people I'd never met as part of "turn and talk" activities throughout the day.
  • There wasn't enough time to process the information before moving on to another topic.
What was your most effective professional learning experience?
  • The organization/trainer took the time to learn about our school, develop data, and then create an experience that was customized to the needs of our school and our students.
  • Expectations were set from the beginning to allow for us to make mistakes, iterate, and then learn from that experience.
  • We were able to work in small groups to apply the information we had just learned to concrete situations and real-life classroom scenarios. Then we could take it all with us and use it the very next day.
  • The school encouraged peer observations and I saw colleagues from across content areas applying pedagogical practices I'd never considered. It changed the way I think of using classroom space, balancing noise and quiet, and handing over learning ownership to students.
Without even referencing the research, the educators in the room had identified some of the key elements from Linda Darling-Hammond's work as they discussed effective PD:
  • genuinely collaborative
  • concretely connected to student interactions and student work
  • customized and ongoing, not one-and-done
So, what's next? Well, the education leaders in the room had to face reality and consider the professional learning experiences of their district's teachers in the past year or two. If asked to rate them, would teachers classify those experiences closer to worst or closer to most effective? What changes could be made to provide more effective professional learning for teachers in the future?

The activity concluded with more detailed discussions in district teams and some groups developed plans. Many shared their existing personalized professional learning models in this document so that everyone could benefit.

Here's the point of this post: Have you asked yourself these questions recently? Which professional learning experiences were the worst for you? Which were the most effective? What kinds of experiences are you creating for your colleagues? Have you asked your colleagues for their feedback on those experiences?

If we are going to make real positive progress in our schools, we have to have real honest conversations with our colleagues and with ourselves. These two questions are one place to start.

For more great questions that will trigger district reflection and change, take a look at the Future Ready Framework and consider using their dashboard to complete the self evaluation with your own district team.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Students, Standards, and Finding the Switch


Recently I was honored that the people at The Learning Counsel asked me if I'd author their quote of the week. Inspired by my friend Dr. Robert Dillon's thinking in his recent post for them, I decided to focus the quote on a topic in which educators are getting mixed messages.


My fellow educators have commented with affirmations and encouragement to the posts on Twitter and Instagram showing the graphic above. I think there are a few reasons why the idea expressed in the quote is speaking to people.

They Know How to Find the Switch

Teachers are charged with helping students master new information and new skills day after day, year after year. Anyone can walk into a classroom, assign a reading passage and whip up a worksheet for a child to complete. Skilled creative teachers do much more than that. They take some time early in the school year to get to know each student. They know learning is more likely to happen when they remember to think of themselves as teaching children first, and teaching math/history/reading/science second. 

For example, if we need a 9th grader to truly understand the massive risk American leaders took when writing and publishing the Declaration of Independence, we need to help them link the emotions they've felt as an emboldened rebellious adolescent to that act of political rebellion that occurred in 1776. Great teachers are able to trigger these emotions and then unleash learning at the right moment, so the purpose and impact of the Declaration is something their students will never forget. Now this is just one example, but skilled teachers can create similar experiences for students when teaching algebra, poetry analysis, or music composition.

When it Comes to Students and Standards, Students Come First

While standards-based data collection and data analysis are essential to help teachers effectively respond to student strengths and weaknesses, it is even more essential that the teacher has established a healthy genuine relationship with that student. When students only receive feedback in the form of numbers and grades – data – they are less likely to be motivated to try again or improve on their own. Conversely, as Dan Pink explains in Drive, intrinsic motivation is a more effective driver. So when a teacher has taken the time to get to know a student and build that genuine relationship, the teacher knows what that student values and will be able to link those values to a standards-based learning task. 

The results: students and teachers enjoy learning together, teachers share both personal and data-driven feedback with their students, and students understand both the standards they need to meet and how to meet them.

While it is important for educators to have standards to help guide their practice, we must remember that even a thorough and clear set of standards will not help students learn on their own. Effective teachers – the ones who take the time to get to know their students and are creative enough to trigger that switch in them – are the key to student learning.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

4 Characteristics of Effective Education Leaders

I have worked for and with excellent education leaders who have improved morale and inspired students and teachers alike to accomplish much more than previously thought possible. I've also had a few experiences with some leaders who have caused damage to a school culture. There are four particular leadership characteristics that I appreciate most in the education leaders I encounter.

Communicate a clear vision with a clear "why."

In The Truth About Leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner explain what sets leaders apart from other team members:
The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. Leaders are custodians of the future. They are concerned about tomorrow's world and those who will inherit it. (p. 46)
In schools, administrators and curriculum leaders need to be able to imagine and articulate the future that students will face. Then they need to communicate how educators can help them practice and refine the skills and knowledge they'll need to be ready for that future. Here are some guiding questions:
  • Why are we here? While it may seem obvious why educators have chosen their careers, this question goes deeper. Why are you in this community? Why do we believe in this school and these specific students? What is the one thing we want our students to know or believe when they graduate?
  • What do we do? The answer to this question will help everyone in the school understand how they are going to accomplish the goals set out by the school leader. What is the path and what can we do – day-in and day-out – in our classrooms to continue on that path and reach that goal?
  • What do we need from one another and ourselves to do those things? Every member of the school community has strengths to contribute and areas where they need help from others. A great leader recognizes all the puzzle pieces and how they fit together to reveal the vision.

Empower the people around them to follow their passions for the benefit of all.

In The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Michael Fullan explains what motivates people to perform at their best:
Humans are fundamentally motivated by two factors: doing things that are intrinsically meaningful to themselves, and working with others–peers, for example–in accomplishing worthwhile goals never before reached. (p. 7)
Once everyone in a school or district community understands the vision and how they will get there, they need to determine how their special skills and passions will help them contribute to the community effort to reach that goal. Every teacher has a slightly different set of skills and expertise, but an education leader will know how to help teachers leverage them for the benefit of all. Here are some concrete strategies:
  • When an educator finds his/her passion and it is a passion that will benefit students' learning and well-being, a great leader will stop at nothing to remove barriers for that educator to pursue that passion.
  • Once you've identified your teachers' passions and talents, find out if they are willing to use them to help the school community work toward its larger goals. Make them team leaders, committee members, and encourage them to pilot new approaches and technologies with their students.

Model risk-taking, reflection, and growth.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains the qualities that school leaders should nurture in the teachers they work with:
[Growth-minded teachers] are not entirely selfless. They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life. (p. 201)
School leaders who want to stimulate and nurture these characteristics in their teachers should first model the behaviors of a lifelong learner. Get started with a few of these strategies:
  • Take risks when designing professional learning, be open about those risks, and encourage teachers to do the same with their own lesson designs. Here are some ideas for how to modle risk-taking from a previous blog post and an article I co-authored for EdSurge.
  • Involve teachers and students in decision-making while still being decisive. If using surveys, share the data openly with your faculty and staff and explain how it is being used. When creating committees, be sure they truly have some say over the decisions they are charged with.

Build positive and honest relationships

In order to build a community of trust in which everyone knows they will be both lifted up and held accountable, leaders must be willing to have difficult conversations at the right times. In Managing Difficult Conversations, Fred Kofman explains how to remain true to yourself and open to your counterpart so you can arrive at a fair conclusion:
You want three things out of these conversations: Feel good about yourself, relate to the other person positively, and achieve your shared goals. Instead of jumping into a the problem, remember that how the other person feels is primary in order to make the conversation successful.
When education leaders can model how to manage the process of a difficult conversation with their faculty it will lead to a more honest and positive culture throughout the school. Here are a few things to remember:
  • Tough conversations don't have to be adversarial. All parties are involved in the conversation because they have a goal. If they can figure out what aspects those goals are shared then they can move forward together.
  • Critical friends are possible. Consider learning and utilizing structure to help with particularly difficult conversations. Protocols can help provide that structure and lay some ground rules that will ensure the conversation will not stray from its intended purpose.

These four characteristics are not meant to be an exhaustive list. What characteristics have you encountered in the effective leaders you've worked with? If you are a leader, what characteristics do you strive to improve?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The shocking things teens are doing online

When we write or talk about #edtech, we are often referring to the role of technology in teaching and learning. How can technology help teachers collect more data on their students? How can it help students be more creative? How can technology facilitate personalized learning? How can it connect learners with high quality resources and experts from beyond their classrooms?

These are noble pursuits, but we would be wise to remember that social media is perhaps the most popular way that our students use the technology they hold in their hands both inside and outside of our schools. There are many websites, videos, and speakers out there who do their best to warn teens about the dangers and pitfalls of social media. And there are many dangers.

But what if we approached it differently? What if we encouraged and lifted up our teens so that they truly believed it is within their power to make great and positive change through their use of social media?

Most recently my school, St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts, described people who choose to act to make positive change as UPSTANDERS. This short but powerful and honest video explains what an upstander is.

#StandUpForGood from Ben Cormier on Vimeo.

Not sure how to broach the possibility of taking action through social media? There are plenty of examples to draw inspiration from. If the teens in these examples can make change, why can't your students?


Hannah Alper is a 13 year old social media activist who calls herself a Kindraiser. Her website and Facebook page have thousands of followers because she keeps them updated with good news about people who are upstanders. Just read a few stories. They are simple, inspiring, and will leave you feeling like you can make a difference. If a middle schooler can spread positive stories and create her own movement, what can your amazing students do?


Ziad Ahmend started redefy at age 14, but he has grown his team significantly in the 3 years that have followed. With the mission to "boldly defy stereotypes, embrace acceptance and tolerance, redefine our perspectives positively, and create an active community" his team – which includes too many for this blogger to count – is comprised entirely of high school students from throughout the country. The stories page of his website is filled with true and raw stories of teens coping with stereotyping from around the globe. How can your students give others a voice when they deserve to be heard?


Trish Prabhus, now 16, read a news story in the fall of 2013 about an 11-year-old Florida girl who took her own life after facing repeated cyberbullying from her classmates. Trish was 13 at the time and immediately took action. She created an app called Rethink that is free, easy to install on iOS or Android, and asks social media users to think carefully about what they post by detecting potentially harmful words and phrases that are typed. It is nonintrusive and has been found in studies to reduce overall willingness to publish harmful posts from 71% to 4%.

Let's start changing the conversation with our students. Let's engage them by asking how they are using social media and how it makes them feel. Let's empower them by sharing the stories of their peers from all over the country and globe who choose to use the internet to be upstanders. Then, let's let them explore – with our encouragement and guidance – as they find their own path to make positive change using the powerful tools ate their fingertips.

Find out how to start these conversations in my recent post for ConnectSafely: Engage, Empower, Explore.

Friday, September 23, 2016

You're Going to #GoOpen. What's Next?

The U.S. Department of Education's Open Education initiative, also know as #GoOpen, came to New England for a summit hosted by Dr. Daniel Downs from North Reading Public Schools at the Amazon offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts today. Leaders like Kristina Peters, Andrew Marcinek, and Grace Magley spoke, and I was honored to be asked to speak about how openly licensed resources and tools can be used to help create high quality learning experiences for our students.

All students deserve great teachers, and great teachers deserve access to the resources they need to customize learning experiences for their students. But once they have access, what's next?

How can we motivate students to want to read and learn deeper with these resources?

We have to start by inspiring them with great questions. These questions shouldn't be based on standards, rather they should inspire our students to want to master the content and skills in the standards. There are examples of inspiring questions in the lessons highlighted in the slide deck below. If teachers are looking for help crafting these inspiring questions, ASCD's resource on essential questions is a great place to start.

What do classrooms look like when these tools and resources are being used well?

Learners need spaces that allow them to share, move, be quiet or loud, and create. Traditional classrooms encourage obedience, but obedient students are not necessarily learning. Included in the slide deck below are photos of creative uses of spaces in schools I've worked in for the past few years. Check out this brief interview where I talk about how to redesign your classroom, even if you have no budget, by involving your students.

There is a lot out there! What is the best OER to help teachers get started?

There are search tools, like OER Commons, Edmodo, and Follett Destiny. But what if you are just starting to look into OER and wading through the search results feels a bit overwhelming? I've put together a list of my top 4-5 OER sources in four content areas. The names are hyperlinked in the 3rd to last slide on the deck embedded below. Or just Google the names of the sites listed on the graphic.

What tools should teachers use to gather OER and then distribute them to their students?

First an foremost, if your school has an learning management system (LMS) take advantage of that powerful platform to curate resources, distribute them to students, and to give and receive feedback from students as they are learning. If your school doesn't have an LMS, create a class website or blog that can be a central place students and parents know to find everything they need for your class. Post links to the OER you plan to use there. If you aren't ready to create a class website, one platform that is cleanly designed and works well on a browser or as an app is TES Teach. It is an easy free tool. There is even an example of a middle school math teacher who uses it well in the slide deck. Here is his lesson

How can we protect our students' data privacy when using so many digital tools and resources?

Classroom educators as a group are not receiving enough information or training about how work they do with digital tools every day in their classrooms can effect their students' data privacy. The Educators Guide to Student Data Privacy was created with that audience in mind. It is a great resource for school or district leadership looking for ways to talk to teachers about this important topic. When it comes to evaluating tools, if the company who created the tool or resource you're thinking of using has signed the Student Data Privacy Pledge you are probably in good shape. Simply communicate your concerns and goals with the company and you will likely be ready to go. 

For more detail on each of the answers, please do check out the slide deck. There are lots of photos, lesson examples, and links to resources to help any school or teacher who is thinking of making the move to OER.