My Lesson From 2016 | Responsible Innovation in Education

A new school, in a new state. This year feels very different than the last few. It actually feels most like my first, which, I have to admit, has been tough on my confidence. But I've embraced the transition from Texas to Massachusetts because I'm learning a lot as this new perspective shows me something different yet still familiar around every turn.

One of the things that attracted me to Holliston, where I now teach, is how similar the programs were to what I was used to. The district uses Understanding by Design and Google Apps for Education. These are the two most important aspects of what I do, second only to building relationships with students and colleagues.

This post is about taking a moment to think more carefully about "innovation." It's about asking questions as we try new things and further implement programs like Understanding by Design or using Google Apps for Education.

When is Innovation Also Progress?

The bus tour during the Holliston Public Schools teacher orientation was a nice touch. We learned about historical landmarks, events, and people who have influenced the growth of Holliston. By showing us the treasures of the town, it really made me feel like the school administrators were valuing what teachers bring to a community.

It was the the Cutler School, however, that grabbed my attention. This was the first school in Holliston to depart from a mixed-age classroom and the neighborhood school model, according to the tour guide.

I wondered if this was the best move for the future of public education in Holliston or elsewhere. The tour guide mentioned that parents weren't too fond of the shift. Of course, the context is everything. How was the town to know where the economy and education would go in the coming centuries? In fact, we are still making a lot of guesses with our current system.

The reorganization that occurred with the Cutler School reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson's comment about grouping kids by age – their "date of manufacture." Were the students learning more or less by separating them by age groups? Or was it more convenient for adults?

What will the next shift be? What will be the next Cutler School for Holliston?

Honesty about current situations in education must be paramount in order to avoid being sold on the novelty of an idea. Ask questions, seek answers, and make sure your voice is heard. It's the only way to keep the conversation focused on evaluating the progress of new initiatives.

What is Innovation?

I have the courage to implement 1:1 Chromebooks, and I also have to courage to ask whether or not 1:1 is the next Cutler School. It could go either way. We have many aspects to challenge before we'll know, for sure.

Concerns range from physical and mental health effects of kids using devices to the role of the teacher. In this new model that dissolves the classroom walls and puts the student in the driver seat, educators will have to be trained to maintain a healthy balance between individual and cooperative work, as well as screen time, movement, and face-to-face time.

Here are some questions to consider.

  • How do we know our innovation is successful?  
  • What do we do to support implementation?
  • Why do initiatives fail? 
  • At what point do we let go?
  • How innovative is Understanding by Design? Google Apps?
  • To what extent are we returning to what has been proven to work when we adopt a "new" program? In other words, how new are the programs?
We cannot be blinded by the novelty of an idea. There's too much at stake. At the same time, we cannot be afraid to try new things that connect our kids with possibilities not explored through conventional means.

Innovative is not always great in the long term, but if we don't try to hone in on a model that works for our kids, we will fail them before they fail themselves. We will not prepare them for the kinds of problems they'll need to solve or the technology they'll use after high school.

Where Are We Going?

Since the economic changes don't seem as defined as the onset of the factory system that spurred the end of mixed-age grouping, we have to focus on broader changes. If education shifts too much, too fast, we could find ourselves with a system that looks nothing like the world in which it was born.

I believe our future is in curricula that lend to in-depth study. The best way to achieve the depth and engagement is through proper technology choices that take high-yield strategies beyond the analogue realm. Furthermore, students need to have some control over how they solve the problems educators place before them.

Our Superman will one day be realized – not as a person or program that immediately changed everything. It will be a process that keeps pace with the changing world. It will be a system that is as real as the world our kids will take on. 

I'll leave 2016 with the most important lesson I've learned. Avoid being seduced by words like "innovation." There are good innovations and bad ones. There are bad implementations of good innovations. 

I urge educators to be wise enough to be able to recognize a good innovation and its proper implementation.   

5 Things I Miss About 1:1 Chromebooks

Last year, I had the opportunity to pilot a 1:1 classroom. My high school history students were able to do things that could never be done on paper – and that was the goal.

I have since moved to a different state and to a district that does not have 1:1, yet. Our campus has a BYOD program that's as good as those programs get. The WiFi works well, teachers have laptops and projectors, and it has both network and instructional tech professionals. 

While the wait for what comes next labors on, I will continue to reflect on things that I miss about 1:1 as to not get cold on the instructional concepts I've developed over the past few years.

1. Descriptive Lessons

Writing lesson plans are important, especially for new teachers. It's the best way to practice and reflect on the crucial elements of pedagogy. 

The frustration comes in the form of new ideas and directions that come from effective formative assessment. You know, that time in the lesson when we think, "if only I had known that they would need more reading support." Sure, these red flags are predicated and written into the lesson plan, but it's impossible to predict exactly what kids will need in advance. 

The power a descriptive lesson with 1:1 devices is in the freedom to access a variety of text selections or activity tools to adjust to the needs of students as the lesson progresses. It reminds of all the times my students questioned my choice of one tool or another by suggesting one that they appreciate more, like substituting an interactive timeline app with Google Slides.

2. Digital Citizenship 

Almost all of my students are connected at all times, and the few who don't have smart devices with data can access the Internet daily. But this doesn't mean that they all know how to maximize the potential of apps that reduce the distance around the world to a matter of seconds. 

The effect is a classroom that can move beyond the basic uses and build skills and routines that reflect safe and acceptable use. Our kids need it modeled for them. They also need independent practice with some adult supervision. All of this was easy with 1:1 Chromebooks.

Here is my favorite resource for Digital Citizenship.

3. Flattening the Classroom

The walls dissolve when the work students do in the classroom is accessible to a worldwide audience. Even if it's a video that we share with parents through email, 1:1 classrooms are more productive at opening the classroom to the outside.

I have no excuses for not doing more to make this one happen in my new classroom. Amid the changes and uprooting my family, I have failed to send even one video to parents that shares and explains what happens in their kid's classroom. With this testimony, it's time to set some goals for near future. 

  1. Make a video to share with parents about the kinds of technology their kids use for learning. 
  2. Publish a blog post on my student work blog. 
  3. Design learning activities that allow students to work as a class toward a common product. 
  4. Defense be the roles of each student as member of a team working on a part of the overall product.
It has been my goal for a long time to create an ongoing project for students to contribute. Perhaps an online exhibit of the historical evidence we analyze would be a good place to start. Then, we could find another class (probably through Twitter) that may want to collaborate on it.

More on Flattening the Classroom.

4. Device Fluency

When every student has the same device, I can instruct for one set of conditions. This relieves stress on the students who are not as familiar with the power of the Internet beyond texting and YouTube.

Most importantly, the problems are shared. This reminds about the analogy of a classroom being like a ship. We will sink or sail together with the same device. It's especially exciting when the technology issues fade away and the students begin to take more ownership over what they produce. 

Besides consignment directions and easier prediction of technology-based red flags, the likelihood of peers helping one another with tech issues is far greater when they have the same device. That's what school is all about – the opportunity to learn with others and contribute to a community. 

5. No Copies 

I do all of my lesson planning on Google Classroom. The students have access to the essential questions, agenda, and lesson materials. More on Google Classroom Lesson Planning.

If I didn't have to make copies, the time spent running the copies and refocusing in between would lead to more time for students whether in person or to provide formal feedback on assessments. 

It also saves money and the environment.

Check out this post about using Google Forms.

8 Reasons to Read Learn2Earn's Technology Integration Guide

Leaders tell teachers that they need to use more technology. For the most part, teachers will do anything with the right support. When it comes to technology, however, teachers are often the ones left behind. 

Jessica Sanders addresses this issue in her book How to Bring Technology Into Your Classroom: A Quick and Easy Guide for Teachers. By addressing the most relevant issues teachers face when integrating technology, Sanders has developed a thoughtful program on the shoulders of experience. The mindset and checklists are reflective of experienced edtech integrators.

As I scrolled through these chapters, I could hear the questions I've fielded from teachers who struggled to use technology. The suggestions Sanders presents reminds of the choices that worked well for teachers who gave such a great effort toward doing more with the tools within their reach.

Here's what you may learn from each chapter, mixed a few of my thoughts.

1. Who's Doing the Work?

If technology is stressful or feels foreign, ask your students or colleagues for help. Avoid thinking that you need to do every activity with a digital tool by starting with one thing. Choose something that cannot be done with paper alone. Use the new tool to take your classroom beyond what's possible without it.  

2. Devices and Connectivity

Connectivity was one of the things that I struggled with early on in my journey of integrating technology. It's still a challenge, but you get better at making adjustments or talking students through problems. 

Sanders suggests to consider the choice of devices, tech support, and a tech learning community. Until you're comfortable using a variety of devices, I suggest trying new tools in a computer lab or with a device that you're comfortable troubleshooting and that each student can use for the activity. 

3. Test the Tools

I believe Kyle Pace called it "Sandbox Time" during one of his presentations. It's important to simply mess around and click on things to see what happens. Create a sample group or student test user if you can't see what the kids can see. 

This guide has a few very helpful printable checklists, including one for organizing notes as teachers test new tools. 

4. It's About the Learning

Stick to your learning objectives. I wouldn't look for something that features me in the driver's seat (see Chapter 1). Think of a product that you want the students to make that demonstrates their achievement of the learning objective. Just make sure that it's a tool that takes the product beyond the potential of what you would do otherwise (also Chapter 1).

5. Quality Over Quantity

Sometimes we need to slow down to speed up. I can't tell you how much time and energy can be wasted by trying integrate too many tools. From time to time, I ask myself if we can live without the tools we're using. Whichever tools consistently earn a "no" are let go.

6. "Be Flexible"

Being flexible is about being aware of your limitations both personally and logistically. Sanders does a nice job introducing strategies that address the kinds of issues we encounter as beginner and advanced users of edtech. 

This is the chapter to reread when you feel like you're wasting valuable time. 

7. Data. Data. Data.

Measurement is one of the tasks that teachers must do well to succeed in the profession. It's the easiest way to distill an experience into a yes or no judgement. 

The list of questions and issues to consider in Chapter 7 would be particularly helpful for setting and measuring goals for the formal teacher self-evaluation process.

8. Reflection

This perhaps the most important step. I have a blog for reflection and sharing student student successes. It's been great for collecting evidence for evaluation. Most importantly, it's the best way to communicate with parents and establish a wider audience for the work your students produce. 

Choose from these links to get your copy. 



Retuning Engagement: Reflecting on K-12 Classrooms

Kindergarten classrooms are always a delight to visit. A few nights ago, my son showed me all the different learning centers in his. At first, it was overwhelming, but it soon came to life as he explained how he moves through the day. 

As a high school teacher, I have to admit that I can get a little bogged down in the content. That's why I love to see what the teachers are doing in the earlier years. It reminds me why kids come to school. It reminds me that the adolescents, however brilliant they can be, are still children with learning needs not dissimilar to what they experienced in kindergarten. 

It was the classroom routines that did it for me. My son was able to tell me the expectations and consequences for non-compliance in each area. That's great, but it was two thinking routines posted on the walls that grabbed my attention.

The first ...

1. Read the pictures.
2. Read the words. 
3. Retell the story.

And the second ...

1. Make connections with me.
2. Make connections with the text.
3. Make connections with the world.

Within the complexity of skills you may observe in my high school history classroom, these thinking routines are the fundamentals. Although I infuse them in every lesson, it's comforting to see them so distilled.

Spelling was done through song and movement. Ongoing work and communication to home were managed by the students through different color folders. There were clearly defined student jobs. And the word wall was alphabetical. The room was so well organized that I could see the kids completing their tasks.

"Their tasks." That's what makes their learning engaging. If it's something I want my students to do, engagement is at the whim of the individual. But when learning is designed to require ownership, engagement is infused in what it will take to be successful.

This leaves me with a reminder to empower my students. Make their learning their own. It reminds me that when I am doing most of the producing of original work, the scale is tipped in the wrong direction.

The takeaway from this visit to my son's classroom is to revisit Pernille Ripp's book on empowering students as well as Alan November's book on student ownership of the learning. Perhaps somewhere in my transition to a new school, in a new state, I got sidetracked and bogged down in the content. It's time to reinstitute the digital learning farm. 

My students deserve the best of me, and, more importantly, they deserve the best of themselves. 

5 Ideas for Incorporating Technology into Staff Development

Faculty and department meetings can be a drag when it's a sit-and-get experience. That's why I made a commitment last year to integrate technology in ways that enhance the exchange of information during our meetings.

Here are a few of the things I've tried and a couple I'll use in the future. 

1. Poll Everywhere Word Cloud

Sometimes the best way to collect data is through an open response like a five-word summary. Use Poll Everywhere to collect the words and set the presentation view to word cloud.

I use this for vocabulary discussion, and it's great because it's novel and it gives you a starting point based on the groups priorities. The example below was from a world history discussion.

2. Today's Meet Summary

How many times have you been in a faculty meeting and the atmosphere is thick with silent opinions? What if some of those points of view were typed and anonymous? 

Sure, certain topics are inappropriate for this type of collection. For short summaries or back channel questions and comments, Today's Meet is perfect.

3. Verso App Discussion

Do you want to know what people really think? Do you want to hear from those who don't speak up? 

Verso App provides an opportunity for users to focus on only the ideas. It allows all of the identity issues and baggage to remain mute in these conversations. 

It's always interesting to see the reactions from my colleagues when I show them the level of discussions kids experience with this app.

4. Quizlet Check for Recall

Instead of conducting a meeting to tell my department about a new policy, I broke up the beliefs and practices into a card deck. They took a quiz and we discussed the data on Quizlet based the frequency of incorrect responses.

This approach did three things. My teachers experienced learning at their own pace, they learned a new tool, and we only discussed the group's most troublesome areas. It also modeled for them the things we want to see in classrooms. 

5. Flubaroo with Google Forms

This one is a little more advanced, but easy to learn because it walks you through the steps once the add-on is in your Google Sheets app (browser only). From start to finish, this process can take two minutes if the form is already made.

1. Make Google Form.
2. Add Flubaroo to the Google Sheet that contains the form's responses.
3. Walk through provides steps.
4. Evaluate the results.

We could think of so many more ways to use technology for staff development, so here are a few to start. How have you used digital technology for staff development?