Thursday, December 15, 2016

What should educators do about fake news?

The fake news phenomenon has been developing alongside the growth of social media for years, but it is getting more attention presently because of the important role accurate and inaccurate information can play in a presidential election. Since 50% of young adults get their news primarily online, and teachers observe their younger students doing the same, many educators have growing concerns about their students' abilities to identify the real from the fake news on the internet.

The most alarming statistics came recently from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, 82% of middle schoolers were unable to distinguish between "sponsored content" and a real news story on a website. When these young learners do academic research and find out about the broader world through the internet, are they be able to tell the difference between real and fake?

Together with my colleagues at school and my peers in other schools, I am developing strategies and plans for addressing fake news with our students. Before we start talking with students, however, it is important to check on our own ability to accurately identify fake and real news. Pew Research Center released a study today that, among other information, shows one in four adults have shared fake news.

What's more, the results of an Ipsos Study released last week showed that, when tested, adults rated fake news as "somewhat" or "very" accurate at least 75% of the time. They even broke down the percentages of adults who recognized and believed certain fake news headlines were true.

Source: Buzzfeed

This data about adults' abilities to identify fake news is concerning. It means that we have to remain vigilant and provide ongoing professional learning for teachers on fake news. Not only is it important for our students to be critical consumers of media, it is essential that teachers remain up-to-date with the new and best methods for evaluating information.

Here are a few resources that educators can use to get started:

1. DigCit@SJP - Deep Dive: Communication & Responsibility   
Developed by my colleague Julie Cremin and I, this page is part of a larger website that served as training modules for our faculty on digital citizenship and continues to serve as a resource for our entire school community. The page linked above is full of our favorite resources – including Snopes, Common Sense Education, ConnectSafely, the Harvard Berkman Klein Center, and more – for helping students understand the importance of being critical consumers and of being honest and positive contributors to the internet.

2. Stanford History Education Group - Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning 
Start by reading the executive summary from the Stanford study mentioned at the top of this post, but continue scrolling to see the activities researchers used to carry out the study and samples responses. It is a powerful read and it would be rather easy to use the same activities with the adults and students in your school community to help get the conversation about fake news started.

3. PBS NewsHour - Lesson Plan: How to teach your students about fake news
Not only does this lesson plan realistically tackle fake news in a 50 minute class period, it is full of links to studies, articles, and websites that you and your students can reference as you work together to evaluate online information moving forward.

4. ConnectSafely - How and why to avoid sharing fake news 
This short article explains what fake news is, how to help yourself and your students recognize it, what to do once you've spotted it, and how we can all work together to combat fake news and make sure the information we find online in the future will be grounded in fact and analyzed with honesty. 

Although Craig Silverman has been consistently warning us about fake news on Buzzfeed for the past 6 months, it is an issue that all of us must take responsibility for as consumers and creators of online media. School administrators and teachers can work with students to help them understand the difference by recognizing that research and information gathering has changed in the past decade, paying attention to media patterns as they shift over time, and giving students ample opportunities to be critical consumers.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How to Talk About Sexting

The advice for the past few years from parents and educators everywhere has been clear:

Don't do it. 

That advice has been less than effective.

So, here we are. Sexting is still going on and may even be "the new first base" for teens. In fact, 80% of adults admit to sexting within the last year. The reasons that adults and teens engage in sexting behavior is often different, and schools and parents are usually rocked by scandal when teen sexting comes to light in their community. In the mean time, many adults are afraid to talk about it because it seems so taboo and uncomfortable.

This post is meant to provide enough information to empower educators and parents to start talking to their adolescents and teens about sexting proactively. The discussions need to happen before the scandal breaks and in an effort to prevent it, not in reaction to the scandal. This information should make adults feel empowered, not frightened.

Also, as a disclaimer, this post is not meant to be the ultimate and final guide to sexting. There is much more to the topic than can fit in one blog post. Many educators and parents just need a place to start. This post might be that place.


For some girls, sexting seems unnatural and unimaginable. We should never assume our daughters or female students are engaging in this behavior and open with accusations. But, if and when these girls show interest in boys and start communicating with them using messaging technology like iMessage or Snapchat, it is not unreasonable to assume they will be asked for "nudes" from those boys. (Worth noting: "Nudes" can be spelled almost any phonetical way such as "noodz" and many others.) We can start by asking them what they have heard about sexting and if anyone they know is sending those kinds of pictures.

According to the research of Nancy Jo Sales, girls are caught in a tough spot. If they refuse to send a naked picture, they are called "prudes" or even blackmailed with personal information they do not want others to know. If they do send that naked picture, they lose control of it and it can be copied and shared widely by anyone who receives it. Both options are a potential black hole for their reputations to fall into. It might be worthwhile to listen to the podcasts and read through the articles on Sales's website and choose one to share with your daughter. Ask her what she thinks and if she is worried about that happening to her. Let the conversation happen organically and go from there.

What we do know, as Teen Vogue's recent article makes clear, is that telling girls "just don't do it" is ineffective and tends to make them less likely to be willing to talk with their adults about sexting and the social pressures that go with it. Sometimes a girl is so consumed by these pressures that she might send "nudes" even when they are not requested because she thinks that is the expectation when she likes a boy and wants him to like her back.


For some boys, the idea of asking a girl for "nudes" or of sharing a "dick pic" (an unprompted penis picture) is way outside their comfort zone. Not all of our adolescent and teen boys are engaged in sexting culture or even have a desire to be. We should not start the conversations about this topic with accusations, but that does not mean we should not be having the conversations at all. Start by asking what they know about sexting and if they have heard other boys, even their friends, talk about sending, asking for, or receiving naked pictures.

Based on information from Dr. Powell-Lunder, who calls it Clark Kent Syndrome, boys are programmed from a young age that being the alpha-male – a sort of superhero status – is what they should strive for. Even boys who are quiet and unassuming in person can act out that ideal on social media or via private messages. If a boy who is shy in-person can contribute "nudes" to a "slut page" – an Instagram, Facebook, or Dropbox where teens collect nudes that have been sent and shared – then he can help make progress toward the superhero ideal.

It is important to note that some boys do not initiate the sexting and are pressured into exchanging "nudes" by a girl. Ask your son about these dynamics, what he has heard about or seen, and how he feels about it.

Where to Go From Here

It all starts with the courage to ask questions and the patience to listen. Most of the time these conversations will not end with answers that you or your children/students are comfortable with. In fact, most of the time the conversations will be a little uncomfortable. After all, there is a lot at stake and the people involved care a lot about each other. For this reason, a couple of resources I like are ConnectSafely's Tips for Dealing with Teen Sexting and Common Sense Media's Guide to Sexting. Both resources acknowledge that there can be legal consequences involved, but in many scenarios that might not be the best path. They also state up front that there are many relationships affected when sexting happens and there are no easy answers.

Ignoring sexting because it is scary or because we adults are worried about what we might find out will not help our children/students navigate this complex and mature topic. Starting and continuing conversations with our children and students in a way that lets them know we care about them is the best way to get started.

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.


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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Make #EdTech Work for YOU, Not the Other Way Around

Some criticize technology use in the classroom as a way to draw kids in with flashy colors, sounds, and games that don't promote hard work and deep learning. I see technology use in education as a way to inspire our learners to want to dig deeper into everything they learn. It can also help our students access resources and experts from the world beyond their school.

So how can we make sure the EdTech is working for you and your students, and that it is not just another thing to add to the list of "things to do" in your classroom?

1. Better Professional Learning

If school and instructional leaders want teachers to take risks with new teaching strategies and technology in their classrooms, they have to model that risk-taking when we design their professional learning experiences. Instead of having "technology trainings" we should embed technology into all professional learning. After all, we want teachers to embed technology only where it fits well into their students' learning experiences. It makes sense for teachers to experience learning in the same way first.

Not all teachers see the influx of technology into schools as a positive. Traditional teacher-centered education models that seemed tried-and-true are being questioned. Help open up traditional mindsets by sharing encouraging stories, giving teachers time to tinker with new tech, and modeling the risk-taking you want from your teachers. Kyle Pace and I shared our experiences and ideas for how to make this happen. The ideas are realistic and really work.

Now, if the teachers and students in your school are going to start using devices, apps, and programs more, they need to be prepared to be positive and responsible users. Technology can be empowering and can unleash creative genius, but it can also be distracting and even addicting. My colleague, Julie Cremin, and I developed a professional learning model that empowers teacher to integrate digital citizenship vocabulary and themes in every content area. It also means teachers empower their students to use, discover, and create with technology while staying safe and secure.

2. Inspire Students to Take Action

While professional learning can inspire teachers, it is the teachers that can inspire students. Push yourself, and encourage your fellow teachers, to give students access to high-quality interactive online resources, give them choice about how they show their learning, give them feedback as they struggle through the learning process, and then celebrate and reflect on what they create. It may sounds like a tall order, but it can be done in a 4 step process.

Want to see some examples of how students can benefit from this process? Check out my TEDx Talk. It isn't just their final products that will amaze you, they will also find a way to build a classroom community because they grow accustomed to struggling, learning, and celebrating together.

3. Choose the Right Tools to Meet Your Needs

As schools start thinking about putting devices in student hands, they need to consider which device is the right choice for each age group, the resources they must access, and the tools they should be using to refine their skills. Even if you cannot purchase any more devices for this school year because of budget deadlines, this article from ConnectSafely can help you determine how to best budget for next year.

Once the device is purchased, there are thousands of apps for technology directors and teachers to comb through. How can we decide which will both promote student learning and keep our students safe? When it comes to pedagogy and district goals, this 10 question checklist – created by Ross Cooper and I – can help guide the way. When it comes to data privacy, classroom teachers don't have to leave it to administrators and tech directors alone. Every educator should play a role. ConnectSafely and Future of Privacy Forum worked together to publish this guide for educators that can help.

4. Dream Big When It Comes to Student-Centered Uses of #EdTech

Entrepreneurs and innovative classroom teachers are always dreaming up the next exciting trend in EdTech. But if that trend has the potential to truly improve student learning, we should speak up about it. Today's trends include augmented reality and virtual reality. Are these really just games, or are they powerful learning tools? Try them with your students and ask them with they think. This EdSurge article has a few ideas to get you started. You and your students should decide if they're worth the hype. Then share your findings.

Looking to inject more student voice into how technology is used school-wide? A student-driven help desk might be the answer. Some school call them innovation labs while others refer to them as technology teams. The exact name doesn't matter much. What does matter is that a group of committed students get to consistently tinker, create, and share their ideas with their teachers. Check out this EdSurge article to hear directly from students who have been part of pa program like this. If they value the opportunity, would your students value it too?

5. Tell the Story of Your School with Social Media

Once you and your fellow educators and students have found success with EdTech this year, share it! Parents and other community stakeholders will feed off the energy your school is building. Educators far and near will learn from you and their students will benefit as well. School leaders like principals, department chairs, and curriculum supervisors can get the movement started with the ideas in this post from Corwin-Connect.

If you or others in your school community are nervous about sharing publicly on social media, ConnectSafely has a guide written especially for educators. It provides a realistic perspective on the benefits and risks of using social media to share student work and school happenings. Just remember that if the educators working in the school with the students don't tell their stories, either no one will know the great things students are doing or someone else will tell their own version of those stories. Educators are a hopelessly optimistic bunch. Let's spread that optimism.

Make sure EdTech is working for you, not the other way around.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Half-Truths of Collaboration in Education

In a healthy collaborative situation, I know I can create better work and deliver a higher quality product to teachers and students. This might be the reason that my favorite part of the writing process is going through edits, feedback, and revision. If a person I trust can read through a piece with fresh eyes and perspectives, I am eager to consider their ideas, concerns, and even the most minor wordsmithing. Notice, however, that I prefaced that last statement with the caveat that it must be a person a trust.

Taking the time to build a relationship of trust must occur before healthy honest collaboration that challenges all individuals and improves the collective results. Without building that trust, we are left with "half-truths" about collaboration.

In Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work, Dufour, Dufour, and Eaker explore these half-truths.

1. "First, educators often substitute congeniality for collaboration (Barth, 2006; Segiovanni, 2005). If the members of a group get along with one another or perhaps read and discuss the same book, they are satisfied they are a collaborative team. They are not–just as good friends or the members of Oprah's Book Club ar not collaborative teams." (p. 182)

Classmates and colleagues who have similar personalities or interests might end up becoming friends. We might be able to laugh together about happenings in our classrooms and we might even share exciting or discouraging moments with one another. Perhaps we gather at a local establishment on Thursday or Friday afternoons to talk about topics outside of education. All of this is helping to build trust, but it does not mean we are collaborating.

2. "The second half-truth asserts that 'collaboration is good.' But there is nothing inherently 'good' about collaboration (Fullan, 2007; Little, 1990). It represents a means to an end rather than an end itself. Collaboration can serve to perpetuate the status quo rather than improve it, to reinforce the negative aspects of the culture rather than subject them to collective inquiry." (p. 183)

A quick conversation by the copy machine about a difficult student is a great way to relieve stress, but it isn't collaboration. A laugh over lunch about one of those moments in class that should go into your "someday" comedic book about the real life of a classroom teacher is fun, but it isn't collaboration. Again, these conversations help establish trust and build relationships with colleagues. They are the building blocks for potential future collaboration. But they, alone, do not constitute collaboration.

To me, collaboration means that all parties are willing to give, receive, and respond to both critical and positive feedback. It isn't about being best friends, although everyone should be positive and professional. It isn't about coming together to vent about standards or students. It means all parties are committed to using their dedicated collaborative time to improving themselves, helping their colleagues, and improving their students' results.

Barth, R. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Education Leadership, 63(6), 8-13.
Fullan, M. (2007). The new meaning of educational change (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Little, J. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers' professional relations. Teachers College Record, 91(4), 509-536.
Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the heartbeat: Leading and learning together in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Four Elements of Paperless Learning

My journey to the paperless classroom started years ago. Even then there was both excitement and criticism around the concept of eliminating paper from our learners' academic experiences. Now that we are in an era where technology is a given, and no longer something special, is "going paperless" still worth discussing? What does "going paperless" really mean, anyway?

Here's my definition:
Paperless Classroom: Students and teachers use all available tools to access resources, record and organize information, communicate among themselves and with the outside world, and create original products as evidence of learning. As with all other resources and materials, paper is only used when the learning process or final product requires paper as a necessary element. Paper does not drive the process.

There are obvious economic reasons for going paperless:

  • Economy of costs: Paper is a significant percentage of every school's budget each year. If teachers and students use less of it, then schools save money.
  • Economy of time: Teachers use big chunks of their prep time standing at copy machines waiting for packets to assemble and appear in the output tray. Distributing and collecting paper worksheets also takes time away from learning during class time. Instant digital distribution and collection eliminates these time sucks.
  • Economy of convenience: It is quicker and easier to find, curate, and send resources to students, parents, and colleagues using paperless means. For instance, it is quicker and easier to send an email home with links to missed readings, videos, and activity instructions than it is to pull together a folder of class work and deliver it to a family.
While these are the reasons some educators have started on the path to going paperless, the truth is that a paperless learning environment can be truly transformational. Even if some teachers make the leap for the three reasons above, they should be moving toward these four game-changing elements of the paperless learning environment:

1. Open Doors to Open Education Resources

About a year ago I wrote an piece for EdSurge and said that Open Education Resources (OER) were one of 4 top trends for the coming school year. OERs are more than a trend. OERs can fundamentally change they way teachers design their students' learning experiences. What's more, they help students understand that they, like their teachers, can feel empowered to find their own high-quality sources of information. OERs include primary sources, documentary videos, audio podcasts, lesson and project plans, hands-on activities, infographics, artwork, and a whole lot more. Why not unlock all of the potential that OERs make possible for your students? Committing to a paperless method can help lead your teachers and learners away from prepackaged curricula and texts. Encourage them toward the instructional design and powerful potential that OERs make possible.

2. Smoother Collaboration

There is more to collaboration than co-writing a Google Doc. So much more.

Ask yourself and your students, "How can technology bring us together and help us connect with the people we want to learn from?"

3. Create More and Varied Final Products

The funny thing about all the tests we take in school, both in K-12 and higher ed, is that they are the only tests we take in our lives. Once gaining my licenses and certifications at the end of my schooling, I have never taken a test since. Instead of measuring learning with a test, why not invite students to create like they will as professionals? Here are a few ideas:

If my students and I can dream up those projects, imagine what your students will do when you give them permission to be creative.

4. Practice and Refine Real World Skills

As you might be thinking already, students are using many real-world skills to create the products listed above. They have to clearly define their questions and goals, research pertinent high-quality information, organize the data, make a plan, problem-solve when things don't go as planned, give and take constructive feedback from their teacher and peers, and then figure out how to best share their final work.

These are skills professionals in all industries at all levels utilize daily. When we give students experiences like these, we are preparing them more thoroughly than any test could.


A digital worksheet is still a worksheet and going paperless should not happen for economic reasons alone. These four elements can be a guide to help shape your conversations with students and teachers about why paperless should still be top of mind. If your school or classroom is going to go paperless, why not leverage the opportunity and transform the way learning happens?

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Good, Better, Best of School Culture

It seems the universe wants me to think more deeply about school culture this week. So, I'm asking myself:

How can we achieve the best school culture?

I attended Edcamp Leadership Massachusetts on Monday (see #edcampldrma for the live tweets from the day) and the dominating theme was school culture to promote positive change and to address the current climate of unrest and inequity nationally and globally. The participants there asked themselves and one another what responsibilities schools have to intentionally shape their culture so that our students have a healthy environment to ask tough questions.

Then, of course, I read a few chapters in Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work as part of my summer learning with a few colleagues at school and the focus was on school culture. As I read, I found myself returning to the Cultural Shifts table in Chapter 3.

This and other reproducibles from PLC books can be found here.
Overall, the trend I noticed throughout the table is the quest to give all stakeholders a seat at the table. This means that administrators are working closely with faculty; teachers are constantly sharing, celebrating, and critiquing their work together; and students receive and are able to respond to formative feedback frequently. A school culture that promotes this kind of transparency will always be improving because every student, teacher, and leader has plenty of colleagues who willingly share their work for the betterment of the community.

It got me thinking about what this looks like at the classroom level and as part of that relationship between students and teacher. The work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey on personalized learning immediately came to mind. They also provide a chart, updated in their recent book Making Learning Personal, to help educators understand how to make the shift to a classroom culture that respects the personal learning needs of their students and promotes a healthier classroom community.

When a classroom community strives for personalization, the each learner is a stakeholder who has a clear voice in his/her own learning. While the table in the first book emphasizes the formation of a culture among the adults in the school, the table in the second book emphasizes the formation of a culture in the classroom. Why not tell our students we are working on building this kind of community and include them in it using the personalized learning table? Any time we can be transparent with both our colleagues and our students we are strengthening our school as a whole.

School culture is good when school leaders keep talking about it. School culture is better when school leaders and faculty come together. In the end, we will achieve the best of school culture when we involve our students in building that culture.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Best Personalized PD I've Ever Experienced

Over the past 4 months I've had two incredible opportunities and each of them could easily qualify as the best personalized professional learning I've ever experienced. In fact, they were so powerful that I am planning to propose that a similar experience and format become a part of the professional learning we offer at my school. Here is my proposal:

Open or close faculty meetings, PD days, PTO gatherings, and even student class meetings with a TEDx-style or Ignite-style talk from a member of your community.
Why was it powerful? Well, there are a few reasons:

From the Speaker's Perspective

On April 30 I had the opportunity to give a TEDx Talk as part of TEDxYouth@BHS in Burlington, Massachusetts and on June 26 I was able to give an Ignite Talk (twice!) at ISTE's 2016 national conference in Denver, Colorado. The format and preparation requirements for each event forced me to examine my pedagogy, classroom activities, students' projects, and many pictures of my classroom and students in action. Throughout this process, I developed a clear understanding of who I am as an educator and what I believe an educational experience should look and feel like for my students. Now that I'm on the other side of these events, I feel like a more confident and sure-footed teacher who knows my strengths and is eager to learn more on the topics where I need to grow.

From the Audience Perspective

Lucky for me, I was able to sit in the audience and watch my fellow speakers do their thing. Every talk I heard got me thinking in a different way about what my students could do and how they could be learning. Even though every member of that audience heard the same talks, they touched each of us differently. I've started to consider in detail how I can teach my colleagues and students to tell the story of our school through just about any social media platform, and Bill Selak's Ignite Talk about Snapchat is helping me bring another tool into the fold. My husband, who is not an educator, took Eric Johnson's TEDx Talk to heart, has mentioned his Erase Meanness ideas to others since, and still wears the green bracelet often. The colleagues from my school who witnessed Starr Sackstein's TEDx Talk about grades and grading in education have started to rethink the way they design projects and rubrics for their students. Adding these short but inspiring talks to the typical gatherings in any school community can bring people together and get them thinking and talking differently about what they do.

My Ignite talk about how I got rid of some parts
of my students' typical classroom experience and
helped them feel more empowered and engaged.

Get to Know the TEDx and Ignite Formats

Both TEDx and Ignite have strict formats. For instance, a TEDx talk cannot be longer than 18 minutes and is based on an idea that is new, is surprising, or challenges commonly held beliefs. An Ignite talk is propelled forward by 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. The speaker has 5 minutes to communicate their message in a fast but entertaining way that ends with a call to action.

How to Get Started

If you are thinking of trying out talks, it will take a little planning. Identify people in your school community who are taking risks and have something to share that everyone else can learn from. The speakers will need a couple of weeks to prepare. Here is the process I went through to prepare for both events:

1. Find your purpose. Examine your own creations (in the form of lessons, offerings for your teachers, or anything else), students' products, and photos from your school or classrooms. What is a common thread or big idea that you can share when you look at all of it as a body of work? What is the message or meaning you want to share about that work? How can your work inspire the people in your community to think differently about their work?

2. Write the transcript and create slides. I suppose this one step could be divided into two, but I did both simultaneously. I intended for the slides to emphasize the points I was making in the transcript through photos of my students and their work and VERY brief questions/quotes. When it comes to the words in your transcript and on your slides, less is more. Use simple clear language.

3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Whether you are planning to do your talk from memory or with the help of some notes rehearsal is important for emphasis, timing, and clarity. I rehearsed in front of a mirror, my husband, and even my 7 year old daughter. I recommend rehearsing 2-3 times a day for the 4-5 days before the actual event. By the time your talk date arrives, you'll be confident and perform it well.

Organizers and colleagues can support speakers by reading transcripts and looking through slides (like Jenn Scheffer for my TEDx and Ross Cooper for my Ignite). Offering classroom space for rehearsals is helpful too.

It might make sense to start by modeling as a speaker yourself. Then go with speakers who are teachers, but don't limit yourself. If it goes well, invite parents to do talks for teacher groups or invite students to do talks for administrator groups. Anyone who has something to share should be teaching everyone who has something to learn.

Adding talks to regularly scheduled monthly meetings and gatherings can serve as a way to honor people who are taking risks, inspire others, and share the good that is happening in your school community. It can also be the best personalized PD every speaker and audience member has ever experienced.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Key to Revolutionizing Education

    As I was reading the first few chapters of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work I found this statement about how policymakers view education and the role teachers have in improving our schools.

    Conservatives may contend that educators won't improve their schools, while liberals argue that educators can't improve their schools; but both groups seem increasingly resigned to the fact that efforts to reform schools are doomed to fail. (p. 51)

    The data the authors cite is positive,
    but it is largely based on test scores
    and graduation rates.
    Something is missing.
    Of course, the authors go on to use statistics to argue that there is evidence of widespread school improvement, despite the hopeless outlook many policymakers have. While these statistics are upbeat and fun to read, they are based on assessments: test scores, graduation rates, and how they measure up to socioeconomic data. There is something missing here: the human element. The biggest reason education continues to move forward is because of the determination of educators themselves. There is no single reform movement, technology tool, law, or regulation that is going to "revolutionize" education. Education will continue to grow, reexamine itself, make adjustments, and move forward because that is what good educators do every single day as they step into their classrooms.

    I do think there is a deeper message here about PLCs. The authors define a PLC this way:

    Educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. Professional learning communities operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous, job-embedded learning for educators. (p. 14)

    Educators who are focused on learning, their students' and their own, are the reason education continues to improve. We aren't satisfied to use a lesson that worked once, in the same way, year after year because we know we won't have the same students year after year. We design, implement, reflect, tinker, and redesign all over again to meet our students' needs. As a result, each year we get better.

    PLCs can help that forward progress of education because it provides an opportunity to go through this continuous process of self-improvement with other educators. Teaching is a lonely profession, and PLCs provide an opportunity to change that,

    Here's one of my favorite YouTube videos about the role of technology in education reform. I think it helps explain why PLCs are a good approach to improving teacher quality. The video, like the assumption behind PLCs, insists that teachers are the most important factor for any student. We should provide teachers with the policies and tools they need, but we must remember that teachers are the element of education every student really needs. Enjoy.

    Author's Note: As I mentioned in a previous post, I am engaging in my own personalized summer PD that includes books, conferences, online engagement, and more. This is a reflection based on the first chapters of one of my summer reads. A cohort of my colleagues and I are studying professional learning communities (PLCs). This post is a part of my participation in that summer work.