Friday, September 10, 2010

The Beauty of Gray

First, welcome back to a new school year everyone! It is always an exciting time to be back at school.

This year, we have made many changes to the technology we have available. Many of our teachers have new laptops. We are implementing wireless throughout our district. We have moved to Active Directory from Novell. This has led to some password changes. Then there are the little changes along the way. We updated MOODLE to the latest version. We have migrated our data to a new data mining software.

These changes can be frustrating. When you come to work ready to go through your class lists and make name tags only to find out you can't find your class list because it is in a new place, this is frustrating. When your new machine has a new image with different stuff in different places or your archived files haven't been put back where you expect them to be, this is frustrating. When you try numerous times to log into your webpage to update it and you can't get in because you have a new password, this is frustrating.

Many of us have gotten used to operating in the gray area that is technology. However, I do run into people who don't like the gray. They want all problems resolved before anything goes live. They don't want any errors or glitches. It got me thinking about what might happen if we did that.

First, we would only make one change at a time and we would test it to the point of making sure that nothing could possibly go wrong. This would of course take months for each implementation so those nice new laptops wouldn't be ready to go out until we tested every application, every change to the image... Your laptop will be ready for you in 2013. Your student response systems? We'll get started on those as soon as we get your laptop done.

Of course, by then, the technology we are using today will be outdated so we will just toss your laptop and other tools and start over.

If we are going to realize the potential of the technology we have access to, we are going to need to learn to embrace the beauty of gray... and I don't mean the gray hairs we get as a result of all this change. I mean that we must learn to accept that with rapid change will come unexpected issues and unresolved problems. We must be flexible enough to make use of our tools as best we can given these issues and be ready to change again as the issues get fixed. The people I see who are successful (by successful I mean both good at doing their job and personally fulfilled in do so), seem fluid in dealing with change. They don't get too bent out of shape about the inevitable glitches that come up.

My wish for all of you for this new school year is that all of you can learn to appreciate the beauty of gray! Good luck this year!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Backchannel Discussions

Ever wonder what your students are thinking while you are teaching? Backchannel discussions are the way to get student thinking at the forefront of your lesson!

Wikipedia defines backchennel as :

"the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks. The term was coined in the field of Linguistics to describe listeners' behaviours during verbal communication, Victor Yngve 1970.

The term "backchannel" generally refers to online conversation about the topic or the speaker. Occasionally backchannel provides audience members a chance to fact-check the presentation."

So often when the teacher is speaking (or a student), the other students are disengaged. They may be thinking about something else. We don't really know. Providing your students with a backchannel to discuss what you are teaching in real time gives them a way to engage in the discussion, while at the same time, it gives you a way to KNOW that they are on task and part of the lesson.

Some examples of backchannel discussions:

1. While discussing literature in class, invite a group to discuss the book at the front of the room, while the rest of the group has a discussion on the backchannel. Encourage them to fact check the group, offer their own insights, and provide additional resources. Consider projecting the backchannel discussion in real time.

2. Have students report about their science experiments as they are doing them. One group reads about a problem another group is having and shares a solution. Another group finds a new way to approach the problem and shares it with others. Meanwhile, the teacher benefits from seeing how students are processing the information.

3. During a debate in Civics, students are fact checking and providing feedback about the debate as it happens. Students are engaged, digging for sources to support arguments, and persuading one another to one side or the other.

Some tools that can be used for backchannel discussions:

1. Twitter

2. Chat

3. Google Groups


5. Students blogs

Friday, June 4, 2010

Using Digital Tools to Facilitate Learning Teams

I have been a fan of Bill Ferriter, who blogs at The Tempered Radical, for a long time. Not because I always agree with him, but because he always makes me think.

His recent post on Using Digital Tools to Support PLCs got me thinking, mostly because we have been having the same conversation here. We have a few classes at our Summer Tech Institute in August that focus on how technology can facilitate our learning teams. We have some phenomenal teachers that will share ways that they use MOODLE, Google Docs, and video conferencing to share data, discuss student assessments, develop common assessments, and much more.

Bill does such a nice job of explaining how he and his team are using a wiki to accomplish this same thing.

"Over the past six years, my own learning team has had to learn how to coordinate the following actions:

  • The development of common assessments.

  • The development of shared sets of essential outcomes.

  • The publication of shared sets of lessons and materials.

  • The organization of team-based collections of web sources.

  • The organization of team-based websites for communicating with parents and other interested parties.

  • The development of team-based approaches and philosophies about key issues like remediation, enrichment, grading and homework."

Our learning teams are working on the same actions. Often, I hear people complain about the time, energy, and organization needed to make their learning team work effectively. This is true, but, like Bill, I believe that technology can increase productivity and save time. Having an online repository for resources means fewer meetings, less chance of losing materials and recreating them, and less chance that people use outdated material because that is what is in their file cabinet.

I encourage you to read Bill's post (as well as his follow up posts in this series) and consider signing up for a Summer Tech Institute class!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can you learn literacy from a textbook?

After reading about this course about Critical Literacies, it really got me thinking about how we teach. We use textbooks and assign chapters to be read. We all come to class having read the same thing and then discuss it. Sound familiar? Well, I have to admit, I don't get it.

In my world, no one assigns me what to read. I have to go find it. I have to sift through gobs (yes, this is a technical term!) of information and find the most relevant, accurate, non-biased, current information. I love the design of this course. It basically breaks the course down into four categories:

1. Aggregate - Give students access to lots of information and give them the opportunity to practice the skill of focusing their search and finding the best information. Don't just tell them what to read, show them where to go to find the information. Teach them how to search, analyze sources, and choose the best information. This is a skill that will be essential to their future!

2. Remix -  Give students practice organizing the information they find, consolidating information from multiple sources into one place. Ideally, it should be a place where the notes can be easily shared, like a blog, social bookmarking site, MOODLE, or some other place.

3. Repurpose - Give students experience communicating their learning using tools that allow them to publish their ideas. Teach them to create new learning from what they have absorbed. No more regurgitating knowledge. Students must redesign what they learn into new products.

4. Feed Forward - Let students share their learning. We live in a society in which sharing is easy and powerful. We should be teaching our students about how to do it effectively and responsibly. They have a digital footprint. We should be helping them design it.

I can predict some of the questions and concerns that people will have. How do you hold a discussion when everyone has read something different? How do ensure that what the students choose is authoritative and accurate? How do you control where they go to make sure they don't get off track?

As I see it, those are the fundamental questions for research today. If we don't tackle them, are we really teaching research skills? Research is challenging. We don't do our students any favors by avoiding the challenge and making it easier.

So here is my challenge to you: Start the fall with a list of resources. Give your students the freedom to select which sources are best. Let that freedom feed a discussion about effective research practices. Then help your students lead discussions through online publishing tools.

Thanks to Rita Kop and Stephen Downes at for their great idea!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do Books Make You Smarter?

This recent study states that the more books you own, the further your children will advance in their education. It would have me believe that if I just go out and buy a bunch of books and put them on shelves, my kids will go to college! How wonderful!

Unfortunately, it doesn't ask any of the relevant questions about reading today. For example, how does reading on a digital device compare? Can my kids read on an iPad or Kindle and still go to college? If they read books (which they do), should they also read digitally? Should they be well versed in attaining knowledge in a variety of ways, including video, audio, still image, print, digital text, etc...? Will this help or hurt their chances of going to college?

I have said it before. I am not anti-reading. I'm not even anti-traditional reading from a book. My kids read books daily. They are excellent readers. But... this isn't the question in my mind. The question is, "Do other media negatively impact a student's ability to attain knowledge?" If my kids read books, and watch video, and listen to podcasts, and, and, and... does this hinder their education or benefit it? My contention is that it benefits them.

The key is that they have a love of learning and the initiative to delve deeper to learn more substantively. Do books on a shelf do that simply by being in the house?

Read more on the study at

Photo thanks to:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where is all the reading material?

"In 2002, the information produced would have filled 37,000 Library of Congresses! .01% was on paper!"

What does this mean for education? Do we spend more than .01% of our time focused on paper based reading? What should we be doing instead?

We need to change the stigma that book reading is real reading and electronic reading is not. It is quickly becoming the opposite!

From this study by UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems:

Head nod to Mike W. for sharing this fact with me via his blog at

*Image thanks to:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Can you teach in the Ignite style?

I came across this video on how to give an Ignite talk. It got me thinking. (Surprise! Surprise!) An Ignite talk is a presentation in which you must present your material within 5 minutes. You must use 20 slides which auto advance every 15 seconds. It is amazing to watch how people are able to get their point across quickly and efficiently.

A few years ago, I was working with my peer coach (Yeah Jill!). I wanted to shorten the amount of time I took on direct instruction to get my students working more quickly. I felt that the longer I went on, the more my students became bored or disengaged. So I set a goal to try to finish my direct instruction and get students to work within the first 10 minutes of class. Jill observed me and timed my instruction. Sure enough, by the tenth minute, all students were at their seats started. What's more, Jill observed the students. They were more engaged and excited and ready to begin their work. Of course I paused their work time throughout class to go over questions and make observations, but students appreciated hearing the instruction in small chunks rather than all at once and they had the advantage of context when I went over those next pieces.

Now I don't really expect teachers to teach in 15 second clips, but it would be an interesting experiment to see how teachers do if they focus on shortening their direct instruction and getting students working. Who knows? Maybe it would IGNITE some learning!

Are you a rose person or a thorn person?

Thanks to my wife for sharing this quote with me!

"Some people grumble because roses have thorns; I am thankful that the thorns have roses."

-- Alphonse Karr

I immediately thought of technology when I read this quote. Some people think of the problems that arise when using technology rather than thinking about how technology helps resolve problems.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Do you read well or Do you understand well?

Admittedly, anytime you question the importance of reading, you are taking your life in your own hands. So let me preface this by saying that I am NOT questioning the importance of reading... I am broadening my definition of reading. It is not the act of reading that is so powerful, but the ability to understand and interpret what we have read. So why is it any less important to understand the messages we receive through other media? Why is information in a book inherently better than information on a website, video, podcast, or anywhere else? The answer is, it's not.

I know... the act of editing... the sheer cliff one must navigate to get published helps to weed out a lot of the garbage that gets published elsewhere, but now we are making a judgement about what all of our students read... or consume. We might want them to read books that we deem valuable, but we need to prepare them to consume information from many sources.

On an average day, I read receive information from books, websites, tv, streaming video, audio, Twitter and other social networks, advertisements, magazines, photos, and other sources. The ability to sift through that information to understand what is most accurate, least biased, most up to date, and most relevant is perhaps the most important skill that I utilize every day. So why don't we do a better job of building this skill in our students?

Fear... We are afraid our students will stop reading. We worry that books will lose their value if we appear to be giving kids a choice of how they get their data.

I'm more afraid of our students not understanding the information swirling around them all day long.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

From See Saw to Balance Beam

Lately I've been feeling a bit conflicted.

I hear some people write very eloquently about the power of data. If we collect good data on our students, we can use that data to help inform instruction. We will make sure that every student gets the instruction they need. They talk about common formative assessments. They talk about personalizing education.

I hear others write equally eloquently about the fact that easy access to information changes how and what we teach drastically. They talk about constructivism and project based learning. They talk about the importance of creativity and design. They talk about deconstructing curriculum and focusing on skills instead of content.

And me? I feel like a see saw. One day I'm on the data bandwagon. The next day I'm a hardcore constructivist. And I often have a hard time reconciling these two notions. On my data days, I'm thinking about standards, assessments, how my instruction ties into the curriculum. On my constructivist days, I'm thinking about real life application, problem solving, and collaboration.

Up... down... up... down...

I feel an increasing need to move from a see saw to a balance beam. I need to walk the fine line between these two seemingly divergent concepts. The fact of the matter is, they can both work, but not alone. If we focus only on data, we get bogged down by too many assessments. We focus so much on WHAT we teach that we forget about the importance of inquiry and teaching our students HOW to learn. If we focus only on constructivism, we fail to keep in mind the individual needs of our students and what we need to do to improve our instruction.

So I will walk the balance beam (no back flips... nothing fancy yet!) and try to find the commonalities between these two schools of thought. If anyone has any suggestions on how best to do this, I'm listening!!!

* Photos thanks to: Gimnasia Madre_Matilde @ and Di_the_Huntress @

Friday, April 2, 2010

Remember when...

Remember when...

...we used to pull over and unfold a map?
...we used to make sure we had a dime in case we needed to use a payphone?
...we used to wait a few days for our film to be developed?
...we used to have to watch a show at a certain time?
...we used to look up numbers in the white pages?
...we used to back up to handfuls of floppy disks?
...we used to wait weeks for a written letter reply to come in the mail?

Guess what? Our students don't.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nature vs. Technology? I don't think so!

This past week was Spring Break. My family spent the week in Florida at Everglades National Park. We spent the week exploring, hiking, birdwatching, counting alligators, boating, and basically just enjoying nature.

As someone who spends a good deal of time talking about the power and benefits of technology, I thought I ought to talk a bit about how important I think BALANCE is. For all the time we spend on our computers, cellphones, televisions, ipods, etc..., my family spends a lot of time enjoying nature and the outdoors.

I often hear people talk about technology as a bad thing because it is making kids obese, antisocial, or noninteractive. I disagree with all of those assertions. As a family of technophiles, we enjoy playing sports, exercising, hiking, getting out in nature, camping, etc... One does not automatically eliminate the other.

On the contrary, just as it takes a commitment of time and energy to ensure that we enjoy the outdoors, it also takes a commitment of time and energy to ensure that our kids have a safe and positive experience with technology. Avoiding technology does not mean our kids will have a positive experience with nature. Neither does using technology mean they will have a negative or lack of experience with nature.

The point is both require a concerted effort, as do all things in life: healthy relationships, healthy bodies, healthy finances... Why does technology need to be the scapegoat for the fact that we often don't make these other things a priority. I believe we can and must make time for all these things. In fact, I believe they are interconnected. Technology can help build a love for nature. My children love to research places and animals online. They love to watch video of rare animals they have never seen. We use technology to plan our trips to beautiful natural locations.

I hope our children continue to have a healthy balance in their lives between getting outside and enjoying nature, enjoying healthy relationships with family and friends, and enjoying healthy and safe online habits that encourage social interaction, online learning, and fun!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Is it really our job to teach kids how to live without technology?

This Sunday, I read this article in the Star Tribune. It talked about how professors are asking students to have a technology fast to gain an appreciation of what life is like without technology. It got me wondering. (Surprise, surprise!)

Is it our job to teach kids how to live without technology? Did teachers need to teach kids how to live without cars? Without tv? Without radio? What if your pencil stops working?

I understand that these teachers want their students to understand the value of face to face interaction. I also believe wholeheartedly that we should learn to appreciate nature and the world around us. But it is not like these teachers were leading hikes or canoe trips.

Am I way off on this? I don't have a problem with learning to appreciate life without technology if you are also teaching them about life with technology. Where are the lessons on appropriate use? Who is teaching them how social networks are a valuable networking tool if used properly? Who is infusing these tools into their classroom so students learn how to live WITH technology in a balanced way, using the technology to expand thinking, not shrink it!

Just saying...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Is Technology an Event?

I am currently reading Curriculum 21 by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. One of the first questions she asks at the beginning of the book is "Is technology use in your district an event?" In other words, are we still in the place where we view technology as an add-on, a novelty, or an extra (if there's time)?

If I'm being totally honest, I would say that much of the time this is true in our district. We haven't embedded technology into what we teach the way we have the pencil, paper, or book. What do you think it will take to move to the point where that is the case?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Ask any teacher what they are up to these days and you'd better pull up a chair and bring a snack. There are many new things happening in our schools and teachers are being asked to make many changes to they way they teach. Each change requires time: time to learn, time to apply your learning, time to collaborate and develop new curriculum.

So when I speak to teachers about technology and 21st century learning, I am often greeted with a glazed over look that says, "I don't have time for one more thing." That's not to say that many teachers aren't doing wonderful things with technology. They are. But we could be doing much more. The key is figuring out what are the most important changes that need to take place. This is no easy task. Take the following initiatives:

Data and Assessment
Cultural Proficiency
Technology Integration
Literacy (This includes multiple concepts like Daily 5, Reader's Workshop, Big 6, etc...)
Brain-Based Research
The list goes on...

How do you pick one over another? All are backed up by some sort of research. Some claim to improve test scores.

For me, it comes down to this. Imagine your students as adults. Imagine the world as it will be then (Good luck!) What will make the difference for them? What will make them successful? Healthy? Functional? Happy?

The answer is all of them: But knowing how to access information(in all its forms) and communicating effectively (in all ITS forms) will undoubtedly be important. Knowing how to be safe in an online world will become increasingly important. Knowing how to work with and live alongside people from around the world will be increasingly important. It is hard to imagine how we will do these things without a strong understanding of technology.

How do we infuse technology into our cultural proficiency program? Literacy program? All programs?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Are American Students Lazier Than the Rest of the World?

After reading this article from the Boston Globe about how American students in this professor's class are lazier than her International students, it got me thinking.

Her argument goes something like this: American students are not doing well in her class because they are playing video games all night while her International students are overcoming their language challenges to produce better quality work. I won't argue with this. I went to school with a few of these students. I find it believable. It is the next argument that I have trouble with.

She says "... creativity without knowledge - a common phenomenon - is just not enough." Hmm. Again, I agree, but I don't see the connection. Because some students play video games too long into the night, we should return to old style teaching of base level facts? OR... would a more engaging classroom that utilizes the power of technology make the class more beneficial to ALL students? The kids with lousy time management skills will continue to do poorly, but that doesn't change the fact that learning how to leverage technology for research, collaboration, creation, and communication is essential to the success of these students.

Just saying...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Creating Traditions

Over the winter break, my wife and I got talking about traditions. At this time of year, there are many. Somehow or another, the conversation ended up on technology. (I don't know how... really!!)

We were talking about how traditions are a part of our core values. For us, a love of nature is a core value. We have planned a couple of family trips to take advantage of the nature that is accessible throughout our country. We talked about how many people, including us at times, feel like technology can be a threat to our core values. It might be in conflict with our work/life balance, our love of the outdoors, our perceptions of what good relationships are about. But then we began talking about how technology has helped us build on our core values.

As we planned our trip to Utah to go to the National Parks, we used the Internet to research the parks, find a flight, book a hotel, rent a car, and look at maps of the area. We might use a GPS system to help us get around while we are there. We might use a cell phone to help us stay in touch with family while we are away or to help us if we get lost. We will certainly use a camera and video camera to document the amazing trip we hope to experience. We will use our computer to share the pictures with others. My son and I will use an ipod to learn the bird calls of the Western birds we hope to see. My kids might use an ipod or computer to entertain themselves for parts of the long drives. Who knows, I might use my blog or Facebook or Twitter accounts to share updates with friends.

My point is that there are many uses of technology that will actually help BUILD on our traditions. Without some of these technologies, we might not be able to make the trip, or it might not be as enjoyable. In the end, the technology will HELP us enjoy nature even more.

What are your family's core values? How might technology help you build upon them?