Month: June 2014

One Year of Tech

I can vividly remember the first day my students were given iPads. I had high hopes of using great apps, invigorating websites, and interactive ways to engage students.

Once the students received the iPads, they immediately used them as personal entertainment devices. They found ways to send messages to each other. The iPads began making strange beeping sounds, and the sound of typing and notifications drowned out everything that was going on. I tried introducing an app that I was convinced would be exciting, and it fell flat. I could tell that when I spoke to them as a class, I did not have their attention at all. I immediately felt overwhelmed. To borrow a phrase from Henry Adams, I “stood at first as bewildered and helpless as, in the fourth century, a priest of Isis before the Cross of Christ.” That is, I realized that my classroom had instantly changed the second iPads were in the room. I knew then the world of education had changed.

I then spent all weekend adjusting and configuring a game plan. I looked up various Learning Management Systems such as Edmodo and Schoology, and I found note-taking apps, including GoodNotes and Notability. I found ways that I could scan and send pdfs to students, and they could annotate them and turn them in.

In short, I was trying to take the current method of most educators and fit it into the technology. I did succeed in this. I found ways to have students annotate chapters, develop ideas based on the text, and turn it in. It was working. Or rather, it was functioning. We were getting by.

Then, in January, I went to a tech conference. I have been to many conferences, and most of the ones I’ve attended have not been inspiring. This one, however, began with a keynote address by Catlin Tucker. She presented various ways the uses technology; she had used it ways I had never imagined. The presentation included Padlet, Todaysmeet, Instagram, Bring Your Own Device, and in the end, it completely opened my eyes to technology. It was like the clouds were opening, and I was seeing a whole new world. I also saw Greg Dhuyvetter speak about Twitter and blogging, and I realized that I could potentially connect with educators around the country.

As I connected with other educators, I realized that although I was pretty tech-savvy compared to some teachers, I was way behind others. I had been scared to try online discussion tools, but I resolved slowly wade into them. Before I knew it, my students were using padlet effectively, and we were discussing Macbeth on Todaysmeet. I was seeing more and more engagement through those tools.

However, as I participated on edchats on Twitter, I realized that I was still trying to pour old wine into new wineskins. Countless other teachers on Twitter were giving students the chance to explore learning. I had been trying and failing to engage students through passion and excitement and trying to create the perfect project. Other educators had inspired students through giving them choice and a say in the learning process. I slowly began to allow for more investigation time. I gave them wider latitude in projects; I let them present in whatever format they came up with. I also checked in with them through Socrative to see how their work was coming in case they needed extensions.

I soon found that they were more interested in what they were doing. Behavior problems decreased. The quality and diversity of student work went up. Some students created amazing videos, others designed Flowboards to present work, some created Mine Craft videos, and one group, after researching the role of women during the Civil War, presented their findings on a poster in the shape of a woman. The change was breathtaking. I had found that giving students autonomy and power over the learning process, through class projects and through a novel idea called genius hour, led to heightened engagement, passion, and excitement.

In short, I learned this year that although technology is just a tool, it can totally redefine who we are as teachers and what education is all about. People have talked about “self-directed learning” and “inquiry-based education” for decades now, but with technology, it actually becomes a possibility. Dreary classrooms with rote memorization don’t need to exist anymore. We, as teachers, don’t need to work in isolation.

In short, although I was completely overwhelmed and distraught on my first day with the iPads, I was right about one thing. The world was changing underneath my very feet.

And that’s a good thing.


Sixty Minutes of Genius

In early March, I heard about this new idea called Genius Hour from Mike Taylor. It seemed like a strange, new idea. The whole concept is basically free time: Google allows its employees to spend 20% of their time on their own investigations, provided that what they learn could somehow help the company. The idea, as it has been translated into classrooms as Genius Hour, is that students spend an hour a week learning about something they are interested in. They can choose any topic they like. They can learn about a given topic, or they can learn how to do something. It seemed like an idea worth trying.

However, I was busy. I was trying all sorts of new technologies, and I didn’t seem to have time for it. I had to grade papers, my wife had a baby, I had administrative paperwork to take care of, etc.I kept putting it off. Thankfully, tweeps like Melissa Rosen and Sarah Nelson challenged me to go forward as soon as I could. As the year wound down, I found a few extra time slots in the week. I’d already secured permission from my principal, so I decided to go for it. I decided to unveil it with cliffhangers. Two days before we would actually begin, I told my students that we were going to do something new. Something that great companies were doing. I also said, “For this next activity, the way to succeed is to fail.” I said this to build up the excitement and wonder, and to encourage the risk-taking that is essential for Genius Hour.

The day I mentioned it, the excitement in the room was palpable. Students immediately set to task to learn new ideas and how to do things they had only dreamed of. Needless to say, I did not have any behavior issues. Everyone was on-task, doing his or her best to learn about something or to create something. Some students learned about cheating in baseball over the last thirty years, one learned about the history of the mafia, and others learned the background story of One Direction. One student wrote a six-page paper researching the real story behind the end of the second season of Sherlock. The results were amazing. One student learned how to create and use gore makeup for movies.

Gore Makeup

One student learned how to draw a face using charcoal.


Another learned how to draw a face using pencil.

Face Drawing 2

Another student created a sword and demonstrated it through a video.

And yet another pair of students created a poster, which was inspired by Harry Potter. They imagined themselves as George Weasley, saddened by the loss of his twin brother Fred. They created a poster as a dedication, which included a four page letter to Fred.

Weasley Twins Poster

I was blown away by their creations. Classmates were impressed as well, and they enjoyed learning what each other had created. I think that one of the truly wonderful aspects of Genius Hour is that no two people created the same thing. How many times have we had to grade essay after essay, or watch Powerpoint after Powerpoint? With Genius Hour, it is a chance for a teacher to kick back and be awed by what students can create if they can tap into their passions.

If you only try one new thing next year, make it Genius Hour.