Questioning the Connected Echo Chamber

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is something I’ve been mulling over for quite some time: Connected Educators sometimes tend to create an echo chamber. I find this most notably on Twitter, where 140 characters and easy contact helps to create a space where everyone agrees with one another, and if they don’t, conversations can quickly escalate into heated arguments.

There are three areas in which I don’t agree with the EduTwitterverse:

  1. Compliance is not the enemy.
  2. Teachers must be given the devices first, and then their hunger must be developed.
  3. There are times when students should put their devices away.

Before you argue with any of my opinions, please take a moment to hear me out:

What is the opposite of compliance? The easy answer some people give can be critical thinking, creativity, or empowerment. But I don’t think that is necessarily true. I believe that the true opposite of compliance is anarchy, which is an environment that does not promote student learning. Now I am not talking about controlled chaos or perceived chaos that is ultimately ordered. (“Oh my gosh! All the students are doing different activities!”) By anarchy, I mean, “Wow, I don’t feel safe in this classroom. Let me get out of here!”

It is important for teachers–even dedicated 21st century educators–to maintain control over the environment. By control, I do not mean that teachers need to regulate every single action of students, but to create a safe environment for learning, risk-taking, and the ability to allow students to work on a wide variety of activities.

To be sure, many teachers simply create activities and lessons that are not centered on student learning, where the only goals are silence and obedience. This is wrong. Some teachers also make homework and classwork a large portion of the grade in order to ensure that students do it. This is also wrong. This is not pedagogy that is focused on student learning; it is an example of teachers attempting to use the grade book like a sword. I do not support these forms of compliance whatsoever.

Secondly, there is always a debate on Twitter between which is better: show teachers the possibilities of tech and make them hungry for the devices, or give them devices first and then make them hungry. I firmly believe that the devices should come first.

Why do I believe this? Because I have seen teachers time and time again tune out when they are at a professional development session, and they realize that they cannot apply what they have learned from a presentation without the technology. Instead of “igniting a fire,” it merely gives teachers a reason to be mad at administration for not providing technology for the latest initiative.

I will provide an analogy to prove this point: I cannot possibly afford to go to Disneyland. It’s roughly $100 per person per day, plus hotel, plus food, plus transportation, etc. Therefore, I do not get excited about Disneyland at all. Why would I bother? I can’t afford it. In a similar vein, teachers who don’t have tech often will not get excited about it.

What’s more, most PD sessions are graded on the idea of “Day One.” That is, a good speaker must present an idea that can be implemented the very next day. That way, teachers can take the idea and immediately begin using it in the classroom. If not, the knowledge will soon be forgotten. If we try to inspire teachers before they even get devices, they will likely forget everything by the time the devices are introduced to the classroom.

Lastly, there is an idea around educational technology circles that students should be able to access their devices at any given point during the day for any reason. If a student is distracted, that is completely the teacher’s fault for making a lesson disengaging or uninspiring.

While it is true that technology requires teachers to design better and more engaging lessons (and that we can’t nor shouldn’t simply punish our students into paying attention), I believe that there are times that students need to put devices away. I teach in a Catholic school, and we have morning prayer. It is inappropriate for students to be watching YouTube videos or playing 2048 when we are doing prayer (and we cannot simply make prayer so exciting that they will magically want to pay attention). I also feel that if I am talking to the class for a brief interval (5 minutes max), they need to put devices away to avoid the distraction.  To be clear, I do allow technology for the vast majority of my class time. I simply feel that technology (as with most things in life) comes with limits.

This brings us to the point of this exercise: how can I prevent Twitter from becoming the echo chamber? I believe that the best way I can do this is by questioning others. If they feel that students should be able to have devices on at all times, then how would they handle times when we do need whole-class attention? If someone advocates “hunger first,” then how would he or she handle teachers who complain about the lack of access. Turning Twitter into a heated argument doesn’t persuade anyone; it merely gets everyone angry with each other.

That being said, if you disagree with any of my thoughts, please feel free to tell me why. I welcome comments and blog posts that provide differing opinions.

They will help us from becoming lifelong members of any echo chamber.


The Joy of Pinterest

Recently, I had been searching for a place where I could get great ideas from others and could save articles and posts for future reading. I had been tinkering with Diigo and EduClipper, but I didn’t have much success.

I then sought advice from Jon Samuelson, who recommended Listly as a resource, and he also recommended Pinterest.


No way. Pinterest is not for me. I’m not interested in recipes or wedding planning, so I can’t possibly get any use out of it. And even then, how can I even use it? It seems like a weird, cryptic site that eludes understanding.

And yet… I trust Jon Samuelson, so I decided to give it a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I began creating boards that fit my educational interests (Educational Technology, Apps for Education, etc.). I would find articles or blog posts that fit those categories, and I began pinning them to those boards. The Pinterest Chrome extension makes this very easy to do. I also sought out some of my PLN members and began following them and their boards.

The result: when I go to my Pinterest homepage, I am bombarded with ideas that are relevant and useful to me. I don’t need to search anywhere to get great ideas and excellent resources.

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Pinterest is exactly what I was seeking: a place where I could share excellent resources with others and easily find resources that I can use.

Go ahead. Try it out. You might just be surprised.

Why I Love Curriculet

Recently, I attended the CUE Conference, and I worked in Curriculet’s booth. I extolled the virtues of Curriculet to passersby and demonstrated its merits.

So why do I love it? And what is it?

Curriculet is an online digital reading platform. It has many great features: scaffolding supports to aid reading (including text, images, and video), questions that pop up to assess student learning (these are both multiple-choice and free-response), and it tracks how quickly students read (or whether or not they finish). These annotations almost always come with the online books, but teachers can always edit these annotations (or create them from scratch). These books are available from an online library, with almost every classic available for free. Curriculet also offers a new USA Today feature, where the most current USA Today articles are available with these annotations.

However, there are other programs that offer these same products and features, most notably Actively Learn and Subtext. I believe that Curriculet stands out for two reasons.

First of all, unlike Subtext, any teacher can use it with his or her students instantly. It is the ultimate “Day One” product. Go in, create an account, give your students a class code, and they are in. What’s more, the classics are free. This is a great tool for high school English teachers who want to give students some extra assistance in reading difficult novels.

Secondly, the layout of Curriculet is far superior to the layout of Actively Learn. Actively Learn looks like books have been transposed onto blog posts, while Curriculet feels much more like a book. Perhaps more importantly, the annotations are tucked neatly to the side, which do not distract the reader until it is time to view the annotations.

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The annotations in Actively Learn are posted directly into the reading, which makes it difficult to focus on the text itself. I believe that these features make Curriculet a much better product and a better choice for middle and high school English teachers.

As I said before: individual teachers can sign up and create accounts. Thus, teachers can sign up tomorrow and get started.

What are you waiting for???

The Joy of PD

Recently, two California greats Scott Bedley and Karl Lindgren-Streicher have taken up a discussion on the value of professional development and conferences. Scott’s post is here and Karl’s post is here. They are both brilliant posts that speak to the triumphs and shortcomings of educational conferences.

I think that many of us have had that experience when were first exposed to educational technology when we realized that there were tons of resources, strategies, and tools at our disposal. We were overwhelmed and overawed at what we could accomplish with what was out there, and we were left astounded. As time went by, however, we adapted to these tools and learned to successfully navigate the tools at our disposal (at which point, pedagogy–not technology–became our focus).

When this saturation point hits people, the conferences become less exciting, less thrilling, and easier to comprehend. Technologically competent teachers feel comfortable with a wide array of apps, websites, and extensions and don’t feel a thrill with many of the sessions at a conference or feel a need to see everything. In a sense, the conferences can become dull.

This then begs a question: are these conferences any less valuable? Can we as more technologically competent educators (not that I am in any way in Karl’s or Scott’s level of proficiency) gain anything from large conferences like CUE or ISTE? If none of the sessions genuinely excite us, is there any point in attending?

I believe the answer is a definitive yes.

I believe that all teachers have to work really hard to get through the days and weeks of the school year. We might innovate and try new things, but we can only try so many things at one time. We might know of other new tools or strategies, but we have to put those on the back-burner as we can only do so many things at one time. Conferences are a time and place where we can take time to reflect on those ideas that have been simmering. I had heard about Adobe Voice many times before going to Scott’s session at CUE, but it gave me a chance to dive in and try it firsthand. Aurasma has been on my iPad for months, but a session at SVCUE by Anne Schaefer-Salinas and Rebecca Girard gave me the time to play with the app and really try it out. Mark Hammons‘ session on iMovie at CUE showed me things about the app that I hadn’t previously known. This time has given me the time and space to try new things and to discuss new ideas. These ideas can come from actual sessions, but they don’t need to. After the first day of CUE, I had a conversation in a bar with Moss Pike about how to run a Minecraft server for a fraction of the cost of purchasing Minecraft for the school. These brief discussions (called by some “HallwayCUEs) are often more valuable than any official presentations at conferences. I also believe that these informal talks can best happen in face-to-face conversations. Yes, we can discuss ideas over Twitter or Voxer, but sometimes we need the real interaction to fully grasp these new and innovative ideas.

And this–more than any official fifty-minute talk in a room–is why I enjoy conferences and believe in their potential.

The Slide

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is about “The Slide.” When students return from Spring Break, they sometimes suffer from the week off and require some work to get back on track. The momentum of learning can be interrupted by this week off.

Or so they say.

I personally have never really witnessed this. Sure, the kids come back a little sluggish on Monday morning (as does yours truly), but by Wednesday, it’s like we never had break at all.

I do see a slide, however, and it is greater than a one-week interruption. And THAT is the 8th-grade-itis slide. You see, I teach in a small (280 students for grades K-8) Catholic school, and many of my students have been together for nine years. Those kind of restraints would be challenging in the best of schools, and it is compounded by the fact that many of them will soon be attending some of the best and most exciting private high  schools in the nation. Their sights are set not on this world, but the one hereafter. Starting in January, the reality of saying goodbye sets in for all of them. This leads to a greater sense of “checking out,” as they care less and less about what happens here.

This puts me in the position of great challenge. I must do everything possible to grab hold of and keep their attention. I must constantly innovate, as what worked for the Class of 2014 probably won’t work for the Class of 2015. I must–at times–leverage the power of technology to allow for student creativity, while at other times, I must share personal anecdotes to maintain strong teacher-student relationships. I must reach out to some students while I hold the line with others.

Perhaps most importantly, I must carefully navigate these challenges in a healthy manner. I cannot give in to making excuses, but I also cannot blame myself for everything in the classroom. This challenge gives me the greatest stress but also the greatest sense of purpose and accomplishment. 

Ultimately, this challenge is what continues to push me to become a better teacher. 

I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

My Time at #cue15

The story of my #cue15 began last December. I eagerly awaited to hear if my proposals were accepted, but sadly, they were not.

I then pondered if I would go. It would be great to catch up with many members of my PLN, but registration, hotel, and food could easily cost between $500 and $1000. With a heavy heart, I decided to forego the trip.

Events took as sudden turn for the better six days before the conference when Thomas Shields from Curriculet contacted me and indicated that the company would be willing to pay for me to go in exchange for time working in the booth. Needless to say, I was on board with the idea.

It was my first time working as a vendor instead of a presenter or a participant. Although I did get some time to attend sessions, I spent the majority of my time with Curriculet, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did not have the intense pressure to deliver a great presentation and wasn’t working on anything at the last minute. I also didn’t have to worry about which sessions to attend and instead spent time bouncing in and out of presentations. Sessions from Scott Bedley and Mark Hammons did teach me some great tricks and tips.

I also had the opportunity to see an educational technology tool from the developer’s perspective. Publishers set some limits on what companies like Curriculet can do with their product, and the company has adapted quite well to those restrictions. The company also has the challenge of offering a low-cost and high-quality product while turning a profit, a no easy task indeed.

Ultimately, the best part of CUE is the best part of any conference: seeing people you know and making connections. I met countless people for the first time and reconnected with others.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat.

Innovation Does not Happen in a Vacuum

The weekly topic for #YourEduStory (of the week of February 8th–I’m er… a little behind) is “What is connected learning and what’s in it for me?”

The answer –in short–is that innovation does not happen in a vacuum.

Very rarely does a “Eureka” moment simply pop out of thin air. 99.99% of innovative and creative ideas come from something previously created. Steve Job and Jony Ive put together all the pieces already out there to create the iPhone. The creators of the Swiffer watched a woman use a wet paper towel to wash her floor and saw a potential product. Dorito’s had been around for years before Taco Bell realized that a taco could be wrapped in a chip. Innovation is almost always the act of taking ideas that are already out there and finding a creative use or a new combination of them.

In my own teaching, I have seen tremendous benefit from being connected, as I have learned several ways to effectively use technology in the classroom. From Cheryl Morris, I learned how to use Todaysmeet as a backchannel when doing Socratic Circles and how to use peer coaching with Google Docs to enhance discussions. From Will Kimbley, I learned how to use ThingLink as a product-based assessment. I learned all about Classcraft from Timonious Downing at EdCamp Home last summer, and I now love it immensely. I can’t tell you how many times I am with other educators who say to me, “How do you know all this stuff?” The answer, in short, is that I am an idea-mooch from all the mighty educators in my Professional Learning Network (PLN).

That being said, the value of connected learning does not only apply to educational technology. It wasn’t until I read Doug Robertson’s great book He’s the Weird Teacher that it fully dawned on me that relationships are the most important aspect of education. I also found out about another great book through connected education: through the podcast EduAllstars, I first heard about the great Josh Stumpenhorst, who published a wonderful book entitled The New Teacher Revolution, which mentioned the exact same idea. (If two rockstar teachers mention the exact same idea, they might be onto something.)

I also get great ideas from the mighty Jon Corippo. His speeches and sessions always involve educational technology, but he always includes some important aspect of pedagogy. It is not enough to give shared Google docs to students, but to effectively scaffold and model for them what to do. I have grown tremendously as an educator because of his help.

I think it’s important to clarify exactly what “connected learning” is–and isn’t. It is any form of teachers learning and sharing ideas with one another. This can come in variety of forms: conferences, EdCamps, Twitter, Facebook, Google +, Voxer, department meetings, Pinterest, EduClipper, Listly, Diigo, and many, many more (and I will include Teachers Pay Teachers, even though many will disagree with me). It does NOT mean that a teacher MUST be on Twitter or participate in weekly Twitter edchats. Some of the best ideas I have learned have come from conferences and watching CUE videos on YouTube.

Thus, being a connected educator is more of an attitude than a specific action. It is the demeanor of educations who believe that we are all indeed better together. Thus, what’s in it for me is the same thing that is in it for all of us: improving our abilities as educators to improve the quality of education for all our students.

Classcraft is Indispensable to Social Studies

When I was in middle school, I often felt perplexed at why leaders or politicians behaved the way they did. Why couldn’t they just get over their differences and come together? Why wouldn’t they take a risk, especially when it paid off in the end?

I think that my ignorance stemmed from the fact that scenarios are not real to middle school students. They often don’t feel the risks involved; the risks are far too abstract to our students. As a teacher, I have sometimes tried role-playing situations to make them real. Despite these good intentions, I have often found that adolescents rarely take these seriously. There is no need for them to care, so why should they? When the going gets tough, they check out, and the struggle that is necessary for learning disappears.

The role-playing game Classcraft changes this dynamic. Students can gain experience points (XP), which can allow them to eventually level up, and they can lose health points (HP), which can ultimately lead to real consequences for students (like eating on the floor during lunch or cleaning out my closet and bookshelf). I typically use XP and HP as incentives and consequences, but I have recently discovered the tremendous value in using them for role-playing scenarios.

Recently, we were learning about the Revolutionary War. I wanted students to understand the significance of the Battle of Saratoga–that by winning the battle, the Americans showed France that the Colonists just might win the war, which encouraged France to support the Americans. To create a similar situation, I created a Google doc for student groups giving them the choice between two companies. One company had a 25% chance of making it big, while the other had a 50% chance of making it big. Groups had to choose which one to invest in. If the company made it, the groups would earn XP, and if the company didn’t, they would lose HP. The HP loss was much greater for the 25% company, and the XP was comparable for both. Unsurprisingly, most groups went with the 50% company. I then went to a random generation website to see which companies made it and which did not. Most groups that went with the 50% won, while everyone who went with the 25% group lost. I then had my class research the Battle of Saratoga, after which I asked them to connect Saratoga with our class activity.The students immediately recognized that Saratoga increased the odds for American success and provided the incentive for a French alliance. This idea would not have hit home as strongly without Classcraft. Students would not have the incentive to care about the investment; winning or losing wouldn’t have any effect on them, so why would they take it seriously?

Today, the class lesson focused on the failure of the Article of Confederation to pass any bills. I made each group a state and assigned it unique characteristics. Some states did not want a national army, while others did. Some wanted the government to take over the debts, while others were strongly opposed. If a bill passed that went with a state’s interests, that group would gain XP. If a bill passed that went against a state’s interests, that group would lose HP. I also required a super-majority to pass bills, just like the government under the Articles of Confederation. Needless to say, few bills were passed because groups did not want to vote against their own interests (one group that did bite the bullet saw its members lose all HP, thereby earning real consequences). Students didn’t want to lose actual HP, and so they didn’t vote against their own interests. This hit the point home that the Articles of Confederation didn’t work. The end result was ineffective government, which students got to experience firsthand.

Thanks to Classcraft, learning simulation in social studies is now possible, and students will comprehend the motivations of historical figures. Could I ask for anything more?

Do you Kahoot?

Last month, I first heard about a quiz / game website called Kahoot. The way it works is simple: the teacher creates quizzes, and students answer questions on computers or devices. There is a time limit for each question, and students get points for answering them correctly and quickly. The less time it takes to answer correctly, the more points students earn. At the end of the game, students see a list of top-earners.

With many educational tools and strategies, we often wonder if students will like it, or what will happen if we don’t do it absolutely correctly. When I started using Kahoot, I was blown away by how much my students bought into it. They all get very excited and try to earn the most points in the class. (I often award Classcraft XP points to the game’s champion)

I have used it as a formative assessment tool, but I also like to use it if the class has been doing some intensive, quiet work an extended stretch of time, and the kids need a break. It allows them to participate and be excited while also staying focused on class material.

It takes some legwork creating quiz questions, but the site currently has 415,700 free quizzes (by the time you read this, it will probably be higher) that you can easily use with your students.

I delayed using it for the first few weeks, but in retrospect, I wish I had started earlier. What’s stopping you?

The Effect of Comments

The renowned German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.”

I sometimes think about that quote and how it impacts us as teachers. Sometimes one seemingly insignificant detail is the difference between triumph and failure. That one little thing can make a huge difference in a lesson or even a child’s life.

One critical detail is the importance of comments in Google Docs. In the past, I had guided students in their revisions by simply writing in the middle of the document. I would make it clear that it was my writing by using either capital letters or a different font color (or both). Students could then change their writing based on what I had written. Unfortunately, my students often disregarded what I had to say and neglected to improve their writing.

Lately, however, I realized that it was time for me to go ahead and use the well-known comments feature of Google Docs. It surprised me how this small difference–I was giving the same feedback–made a big difference in the students’ reactions. They were excited to get comments, and they often replied with humorous responses. I was absent yesterday, but I was still able to comment, and some students used the opportunity to say hello. I also noticed a change in the quality of the students’ writing: students were much more likely to follow my suggestions and take steps to improve the quality of their writing.

I have also noticed the value of giving this feedback in class when they are writing. The real-time aspect of comments keeps them engaged and much more likely to follow the advice I give. When I gave feedback away from the writing time, it often got ignored. The effect of instantaneous feedback is real and potent.

The bottom line: details matter.