Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Personalized Learning Starts with People

Research into how children, and really all humans, learn should inform our instructional design.  Educators should also take care when building assessments to ensure that they measure the learning that was intended from the beginning.  Personalized learning means that educators tailor the experience of the student to fit her needs instead of pushing her to fit into the traditional structures and sequences of industrial institutions.  Ideally, every student would have access to a program of learning that allows her to experience what she needs in order to hit learning goals.

Alan Blankstein
Many organizations are helping to offer this experience.  Last week I was invited by one of them, Redbird Advanced Learning, to a symposium at Stanford University for a discussion on how to make learning more personal for every child.  Redbird believes the best solution is a combination of digital curriculum, blended learning, and professional development to train educators.  Their product and approach is based on impressive ongoing research with the scholars of Stanford University.  Indeed, much of it was eye-opening for me to read and hear about.  While there was an emphasis on integration of high quality technology and media resources, I appreciated that they did not leave out the whole child.  One of the best talks from the symposium was from Alan Blankstein, President of the Hope Foundation and Corwin Press author of Failure is Not an Option among other best selling titles. He highlighted inequities in education that cannot be ignored when designing student learning experiences.

The reaction from the audience on the backchannel was quick and clear.  Blankstein effectively made his point about how personalized learning needs to go beyond curriculum.

Many of the other sessions and talks were built around strategies and research.  The symposium was a small intimate experience filled with rich discussion among researchers and business leaders on blended and personalized learning.  It was an honor to be a voice for classroom K12 educators through my participation in a panel.

#edsurge50 panel left to right: Mary Jo Madda,
Ricardo Elizalde, Brandon Phenix, myself, and Roger Cook
The panel on the lessons in personalized learning from the EdSurge Fifty States Initiative was bursting with thoughtful educators who are willing to take risks for the sake of meeting the learning needs of all students.  Moderated by Mary Jo Madda, associate editor at EdSurge, the panel included Roger Cook, Ricardo Elizalde, and Brandon Phenix.  Topics of discussion included our top 3 tech tools, our ideas of the best PD, and the student learning experience in our schools and classrooms.  For me, the most important takeaway was that personalization means getting to know the people, the students and teachers, we are serving.  You can watch the full panel below.

We took quite a few questions at the end of the panel. You can watch as we fielded queries from advice for getting started to dealing with unmotivated learners to concerns about student data privacy.
Participation in the panel was not limited to those of us in the room at Stanford University that day.  Since the panel was live streamed, #edsurge50 writers from all over the country particpated.  The Twitter feed is a wealth of information, a veritable professional development gold mine.

I was also honored to have the support and encouragement of my district colleagues and administration. John Doherty, Superintendent of Reading Public Schools, even posted about it on the district blog.

Of course, I'm looking forward to staying in contact with the researchers and forward-thinkers I met as part of this opportunity.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Supporting Technology Integration with a Student-Driven Help Desk

Julia Donohue & Megan Catalano, founding members of
Rockets Help Desk and co-authors of the EdSurge article.
In perhaps the article I'm most proud to be a part of to date, my Rockets Help Desk founding students and I co-write about our journey from idea to pilot to school-committee-approved course.  Read, share, and let us know if we can help you start your own movement.

We were even the top story in the EdSurge Instruct Newsletter this week and were mentioned during the live streamed panel at the Redbird Learning Personalized Learning Symposium at Stanford University today.

Click here to read the article.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Teachers Should Use #stuvoice for Professional Improvement

This morning Alfie Kohn  posted this Tweet:

It made me think about how some teachers put real effort into revising their lessons year to year, while others might pull out the same readings and questions no matter whether they really helped students learn or not.  Do I revise and improve my class activities enough each year?  My 10th grade Civil War infographics lesson is one example.  Last year I wrote a how-to guide for helping students create infographics as proof if their learning.  I was lucky enough that it was noticed and picked up by EdSurge as part of their Fifty States Project.  Now that I've gone through the process again this year with my students and I've improved the experience a bit, there are some important lessons learned.

1. Clarify the Goal

Last year my students' biggest complaint was that they weren't sure what an infographic was.  This year I was armed with lots of great samples of my former students' work right from the beginning. Before I even gave the students the data they would analyze or set them to work tinkering with the infographics tools they might use, I showed them examples.  While I'm a believer that process is more important than product, product is a very close second.  Process is where the learning happens, but the final product is what makes the learner feel that all-important sense of accomplishment.

2. Struggles With Analysis

Another common concern students expressed during the infographics process last spring was difficulty determining which data to include in the final product.  I provided them with more data than they would need.  Knowing this was a struggle for many of them last spring, we worked toward preparing them throughout the year this time around.  Most of our learning activities this year have involved essential questions that leave room for students' opinions.  They developed their own answers to these questions by analyzing multiple sources and determining which information they believed was most reliable and important.  Since they had more practice with this analysis skill this year, tackling a lot of statistical information in preparation for designing their infographic seemed a lot less daunting.

3. Time to Tinker 

Last year my students made it clear that they needed more time in school to tinker with the infographic creation tool.  I only showed my students infogr.am last year, but one student found Piktochart on her own and thought it worked better for her.  I learned from this that I need to give students options when it comes to tools, not just options when it comes to content.  From my PLN on Twitter I also learned about another up and coming design tool called Canva.  Students had a whole 30 minutes set aside just to explore tutorials on each of the tools and play around with them.  They talked with one another about what they liked and about the drawbacks of each option. In the end students chose the one that worked for them. Here are some student samples:

Room for More Improvement

As I was reading through my students final infographic projects and the accompanying reflections I came across one titled Technology Overload = Infogr.am by Alex.  As I looked through her infographic and read her reflection, she never really discussed the frustration expressed in the title.  So, of course, I asked her in class.  She said that she felt overwhelmed at having to learn the content and the technology at the same time.  There were moments, she said, when she felt like she was learning more about the tech than about the Civil War.  We teachers who are passionate about both our subject area and the way technology helps students collaborate and share their learning are often walking a fine line.  While I thought I was being clear about the essential questions and learning goals, perhaps students felt that I was expressing more enthusiasm for the technology than for the history.  Pedagogy should always come first.  Next year I need to work on crafting the way I present the project to communicate that better.

As educators we need to be sure to read about the latest research and curriculum available from experts, but before we look outside the walls of our classrooms we need to listen to our students.  They are the reason we are teachers and they are the experts on their own learning.  They can tell us what they need from us if we ask the right questions and take the time to listen.

Friday, March 13, 2015

OPINION: Ed Tech is not a silver bullet

Author's Note: This op-ed was originally published at Wicked Local.

Click here to see the original article.
All too often, educators hear lofty promises about the potential for emerging technologies to improve teaching and learning. Companies make bold claims that software will save teachers time and improve student outcomes. The teacher response is often skeptical. One Chicago teacher, Michael Beyer, suggested that even if software works, he’d argue against using it.
Of course, there are no silver bullets. Students and classrooms are different. School needs and infrastructures vary. While it’s obvious that technology alone is not going to revolutionize education, we are often presented with a false choice between adopting emerging technologies and investing in great teachers.
Tech savvy teachers are often frustrated by a national discourse that seems to ignore what is actually happening in today’s classrooms. Education is far from experiencing the massive disruption that we often hear about in other sectors, but we’re not living in the dark ages either. Teachers are using technology tools to get organized and improve basic processes, enhance the student-teacher relationship, provide students access to high-quality multimedia content, and help students demonstrate what they’ve learned in ways that are more meaningful to them.
Just as teachers strive to meet students where they are, technologies can be personalized to reflect the subject areas and teaching styles of educators. I use Evernote to keep digital notes. Several educators I respect prefer OneNote or Google Drive. What is important is that these tools provide a way for teachers to stay organized, track their thoughts, and then look back at those thoughts for more formal reporting.
My students find digital note keeping beneficial as well. In an article my students and I co-wrote, one student said, “It is far neater than a bundle of papers that are randomly organized. Even a messy person is forced to be neat.” Note taking and organizational improvements are not revolutionary advances, but they make a profound difference in the classroom. Without these tools, teachers and students fall back into the old problems of folders and lockers bursting with papers that are torn, outdated, and often thrown away—along with the valuable information and learning they represent.
These tools are not meant to replace great teaching and high-quality relationships between students and educators. My students made it clear to me early in the school year that their relationship with a teacher is the best predictor of how engaged and successful they will be in any given class or subject. Ed tech tools often enhance, not diminish, those connections. Technology ensures that I am available to help my students more effectively than ever before. As a high school educator, I see each of my 120 students for only 55 minutes a day, but learning does not start and stop when the bell rings. Communication and social media tools like Remind, Twitter, and email guarantee that I can be there for my students when they need me. Rather than removing that essential interpersonal aspect of education, technology can enhance it.
Ed tech-enabled content presents an opportunity to help learners access the high-quality multimedia resources. When I was a student and it was time for a video, the teacher wheeled in a heavy television and VCR on a cart and we all sat passively, all watching the same video. Today, tools like eduCanon, Bubblr, and Teachem enable students to view and interact with videos that meet their individual needs and interests, and even assess their understanding as they watch.
While the educator is usually the content expert in the room, students are experts when it comes to their own learning. The way students choose to demonstrate and communicate that learning provides invaluable insight to inform “assessment.” Standardized testing only addresses a small percentage of what our children are learning, and software geared to standardized testing should not be our exclusive technology focus. I agree with Beyer that, “Instead of a factory-model of education, we need a lab and studio model of education.” I applaud his call for a model “in which the students design the questions and create the tests themselves.” What he fails to appreciate, however, is that technology makes this type of learning model easier to implement than ever before.
Ed tech tools will never replace great teaching, but they are helping great teachers develop better relationships with their students, and deliver high-quality content. The goal of any curriculum or teaching aid has always been to boost student achievement and technology is no different. It isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s not something to be scared of either. It’s simply one more tool in the toolbox.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Dr. Will Show: Exploring Student Helpdesk Teams

I was honored to be have a chat with Dr. Will Deyamport, III last night about my students' growing pilot program, Rockets Help Desk.  We talked about the benefits of implementing student tech teams, both for students and for the broader school community.  Click here to see the full post on his blog and watch the video interview below.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Everyone Wins: Kids & Pros in the Cloud

As part of the student-driven pilot program we've been building this year, Rockets Help Desk, I've worked to connect my students with technology professionals from all over the country.  Up until now this was done primarily via video chats. Little did I know, we had a technology leader right in our back yard.

Thanks to some connections I made at the Blue Ribbon National Conference in December 2014, I found out that NaviSite's flagship facility is only two towns away from our school.  Thanks to people from both Blue Ribbon and NaviSite, 17 of my tech-enthusiast students were able to get an insider's look at cloud storage, security, and strategy from the pros.  Here's a peek at the Andover, Massachusetts facility we visited.  Click to watch.

Inside NaviSite's Andover, MA Data Center from NaviSite on Vimeo.

First, the students were brought to a professional board room with professional presentation technology. They felt special and respected by leaders in the industry.

A photo posted by Kerry Gallagher (@kerryhawk02) on

Thanks to Jeffrey Dorey's thorough and thoughtful talk on cyber threats and data security, the students now have a better understanding of who is accessing, or could access, the information they look for, save, and create on any device.  He even explained the breakthrough of VMware and how data packets can be transferred and stored better now because of this genius idea.  Here is the data packet simulation the kids experienced... with oranges!

A video posted by Kerry Gallagher (@kerryhawk02) on

Soon after, we were treated to tours of the power and data-storage sides of the facility. One of the most common comments from the kids involved surprise that "the cloud" was actually a row of black cabinets filled with servers.  As Mr. Dorey warned them on the slide below from his presentation.

The kids were buzzing with excitement as we debriefed in our own conference room back at our high school.  But I truly knew it had been a worthwhile experience when I received this email from Parker 2 days later, one of the students in attendance. He wrote:

Mrs. Gallagher,

I would like to thank you and the generous people from NaviSite for allowing us to come visit them for the intriguing learning experience on Friday. I am very thankful that you chose me as one of the students to accompany you on this excursion. In my opinion that field trip was the most interesting, informative, and most pertinent to my life so far in my schooling career. History museums are great, but learning about technology that influences my life every day is an unparalleled experience. Not only was the facility itself, in its operation and state of the art technology interesting, but the people who worked there were also incredibly informing, and had great personal experiences to share with us. The presentation at the beginning of the field trip was incredibly interesting, I do not think I have ever been as entranced by an over hour and a half presentation as I was on Friday. Again, thank you, and the people of NaviSite very much for presenting me with this opportunity to learn about aspects of my life that I utilize every day.

Sincerely, Parker Webb

P.S. If you could pass this along to someone at NaviSite to express my thanks to them, I would appreciate it. Thank You.

Of course, I did pass it along.

The most important thing I learned from this experience is that my efforts to make school a bridge to the professional world are valid. School is definitely meant to prepare kids for what will face them when they start their careers, but giving them real world experiences must be a vital part of this preparation.  The world awaits beyond school walls. Our students should have access to that world as much as possible.