Category Archives: Thoughts about Teaching

5 Tips For Better Digital Content

When I was in college, my Anatomy and Physiology professor, Dr. Mason, was both the course lecturer and the author of our textbook. As such, he lectured from the book. Verbatim. You either got it or you spent hours in the library (this was, after all, pre-Internet Dark Ages) trying to find a source that could explain things in a different way. Or you found a friend who could explain the sodium/potassium exchange in layman’s terms. Failing this, you hoped there wasn’t much about that on the test.

I have to wonder how much things have really changed. Over the years we’ve fallen into a blended learning model that sometimes looks like a digital file cabinet from our classroom. I’m not faulting teachers here- they have responded to a request for transparency and that’s what we have. Students can go online and access most of the materials they have from classrooms. These are available at any time from any place with internet access. It’s all good, right?

Sometimes. If students understand content from class and need a review, placing our course materials online makes sense. These students can easily retrieve them and pick up where they left off.

This leaves out the population that doesn’t really understand what’s been presented in class. They make THINK they do- but when they get home and try to do things on their own, the wheels fall off the bus. Giving them the same resources you used in class may increase their frustration to the point where they give up.

Materials designed for face to face teaching and those that are appropriate for online learning can be very different. Each is valuable, but they are not always interchangeable. Materials for online consumption need to follow different guidelines. Here are five tips to get started:

  1. Make sure your students know what they are supposed to do. This might sound like a blinding flash of the obvious but bear with me. In class, you might provide a list of all the steps to complete a project in one document. Online you would do well to provide this in small discrete steps. Readers online tend to skim and may skip steps when a long list is provided. Make each step (or group of small steps) into its own task.
  2. Chunk your online content. Then chunk it again.  Do they really need a whole Keynote slideshow with your notes? Or would they be better off with smaller, more targeted explanations of key concepts? Think “SparkNotes” for your content. Make sure your content is digestible and students know what they should know as a result of viewing it.
  3. Use tools that scaffold learning. If you are asking students to read online articles, use a tool like InsertLearning to provide reading guides. These help students with comprehension and provide you with formative assessment information about their progress. For videos, you can use tools like Edpuzzle to help students check their understanding of content.
  4. Provide ways for students to know if they are on the right track. Nothing is more demoralizing than thinking you are finished, only to find you need to start over. Build in small assessments via tools like Edulastic, Quizlet, or google forms to provide feedback along the way.
  5. Build in ways for students to let you know they are stuck. This might be time in class or digitally based. You know what works best for your population.

 

Finally, take a critical look at your assignments. Use your student data to see what is and isn’t working in your material. Is there an assignment or assessment that seems to be stopping a large number of students in their tracks?  Sometimes a lesson redesign is what is needed to help move students forward.

 

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BeeBot Pedagogy and Best Practices

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What does what its told, always moves in six inch increments, and holds the fascination of students? It’s a BeeBot, a small plastic robotic bee gaining popularity in classrooms all over the world.

I did a staff training on the use of BeeBots by setting up an obstacle course challenge that required them to work in teams. I gave very little instruction, deciding instead to let them learn cooperatively on the fly.  The training concluded with a “race” to see who could a) program the BeeBot through the course while staying within the challenge parameters, and b) get to the finish line first.

The training was a lot of fun and by all accounts successful. Teachers were energized about the possibilities this tool could bring to their classrooms.

There’s always that one teacher, though, that doesn’t buy in. He was straightforward with me. What else could he do with it besides build a route?

This question bothered me because I didn’t have a good answer. I chewed on it all weekend, wondering just what I could tell him. It took me a couple of days and a nice long bike ride to figure it out. Here’s what I came up with:

BeeBot Pedagogy

Like most tech tools, BeeBots have uses at multiple levels of pedagogy.  

At the most basic level, they are engagement tools- ways to grab and keep students’ attention for a period of time.  They can provide a fun way to provide drill and practice activities for students.  Their ability to address multiple learning styles helps students stay on task when using them in the classroom.

At this level, they are helpful in teaching and reinforcing skills like counting, estimating, sequencing and directionality.

But, like any tool, they become toys if we don’t provide a way to use them for higher-order thinking and problem-solving. Toys are fun for a while but without some increased functionality in either the toy or the way we play with them, they are soon relegated to the bottom of the toy box.

That’s why it’s important to leverage the opportunities that BeeBots bring to the classroom. To up the ante, we need to think about how we can provide problem-solving challenges to our students. The BeeBots become a visible way to see student thinking. They provide a means for collaboration within the task of finding viable solutions. Students may come to see new talents within themselves and their classmates. You may too.

Best Practices

When using BeeBots, less is better. Don’t feel as though you have to teach students how to use them. Give them to students and give them time to figure out how they work. Let them explore the functions of the buttons and figure out how the program is stored and cleared.

  • Have students create a “BeeBot Code of Conduct” that outlines guidelines for acceptable use. Post this so they can refer back to it as needed.
  • Use the BeeBots in  centers/small groups so each student will have an opportunity to participate. Large groups mean some students will be left to watch while others participate.
  • Create open-ended challenges that require problem solving and collaboration.
  • Have students develop a system to record their code for each challenge. This can be written or designed with the use of control cards. This will encourage them to analyze mistakes and compare successful solutions. This also requires them to represent their thinking with symbols.
  • Provide ways for groups to share their solution process.
  • Build in ways for students to create their own challenges to share with peers
  • Build in enough time for trial and error.

Ready to jump in? Check out BeeBot Resources for ideas for challenges.

The Shifting Role of the Tech Integrator

Here’s a snapshot of a typical day in my life as an integrator:

Zip down to classroom 1 to put out apple TV fire. Respond to 3 emails from students who can’t remember their Educate passwords. Touch base with teacher using GoogleForms for feedback. Respond to text from assistant principal to check student’s use of laptop. Show up late for meeting with a teacher about how they can improve collaborative techniques using technology. Beg forgiveness and begin the “tool pitch.” Return call to frantic 7th-grade parent who is concerned about Facebook activity…

You get it. More often than not, an integrator’s job is to  react to change. Sometimes it’s big change- a new LMS or a new model of teaching. Most often it’s small, “just in time” help that gets a teacher or a student over a small hump and back on track. We listen to teachers when they say “I wish I had a tool that…” and review new tools with an eye to where they might best fit in different content areas and learning environments.

My job description tasks me with improving teaching and learning through the use of technology. This means I have to stay on top of the tools available to enhance the learning process, stay educated about best practices in pedagogy and the district’s direction, and develop professional development for teachers that is largely voluntary and rarely attended. This isn’t to say that teachers don’t want to learn- on the contrary, they often speak about wanting to use technology to improve engagement and understanding. What they lack is a 30-hour day within which to fit me in.

Technology has played a large role in our change and I am proud of our staff for the way they have embraced change and learned new skills in order to provide better opportunities for their students to have “voice and choice” in their learning. That said, my job has gotten harder and harder the deeper we get into proficiency-based learning.

It used to be easy. Teachers who were doing days of whole class instruction had the luxury of allowing me to come in and demonstrate something like Kahoot as a review tool or how to properly use presentation software. Now it’s different. In a class of 20 students, you may have four or five different levels and learning targets going on at once. The teacher is now a facilitator, students are working on personalized learning pathways, and I am on the outside looking in.

When a school changes, everyone changes. How the administration uses their integrators needs to change as well. Here’s why:

Integrators are teachers first

More often than not, integrators have been classroom teachers. We understand that tools and strategies just have to work. Because of our classroom experience, we can “vet” tools for ease of use and come up with strategies that will lessen issues – like developing password protocols and recognizing tools that might not work well with networks. And, because we are teachers first, we have the necessary understanding of pedagogy and scaffolding when it comes to finding tools and resources that move learning forward rather than merely entertain students.

Integrators know the staff

By the very nature of the job, integrators develop personal relationships with almost all of the staff. We know their interests and their classroom struggles. Some even let us in on their fears. For the most part, teachers trust us to be on their side. Most everyone knows who is resistant to change on a faculty.  Integrators often know why. Knowledge of this resistance provides insight into how we can structure professional development prior to the implementation of changes so we have more buy-in.

Integrators are collaborators

Most integrators have a curated personal learning network of innovative educators who are available 24/7 to vet ideas and offer advice and experience. This wealth of experience saves time and frustration as we learn from each other’s successes and struggles. Very often, integrators enlist teams of students to vet tools and provide feedback about how they think they will work in the classroom.

Changing the role of the Integrator

Most integrators are both small-change agents (at the classroom level) and reactors to systemic change at the building level. Rarely are they involved by administrators at either level to look at how they could become contributors in meeting the larger scale yearly goals of districts and individual buildings.

Here’s how it usually works: September comes and everyone is full of energy. I’ve been to a conference or two and have some ideas of ways I think technology can help in a couple of classrooms. I meet with teachers and offer my pitch. They are enthusiastic as well but already have their plans in place and this new idea feels like an add-on. “I’ll think about it,” is about as far as we get.

Here’s how it COULD work (and I risk the wrath of integrators everywhere with this one). What if my 180-day contract could be fulfilled anytime between one September and another? What if I could sit down with teachers as they are planning in the summer and work to turn technology into teach-nology? September is a bad time to make changes. July and August are GREAT times to look at how to do things better.

Teachers can receive professional contact hours during this time so they don’t feel as though they are working “for free.” I adjust my contracted schedule to reflect the number of days I work during the school year (there is no sub when I am out). No cost to the district.

We should be working closely with our curriculum coordinators to see how teach-nology fits best with district goals. If improving writing scores is a building or district goal for the year, what are the tools that will support that best- and how do we provide professional development that pairs pedagogy with tool mastery for resulting best practices? What scaffolded learning activities can we support with technology at each level so technology use becomes more effective? By focusing our efforts at a more global level, we create a community of practice that works to support all learners- even teachers.

 

Research Cheats for Struggling Students

research cheats
The purists in the crowd may take great umbrage with this post, but I’m willing to risk their wrath. I have to meet kids where they are- and where many of them are is struggling when it comes to research.

I’ve vetted this Research Cheat Code sheet with small groups of students and it’s worked well. It contains four tools that work well together. These tools are also helpful for any student in the “pre-search” process. They are:

1. Google Advanced Search – allows students to search by reading level.

2. Using CMD F (keyboard shortcut) to search for keywords in a document to aid in scanning for relevant information.

3. TLDR– “Too Long, Didn’t Read” is a summarizing tool that gives options for short, medium or long versions of articles. There is a “summary” section that students should bypass as it often omits critical information. CMD F will also work in TLDR to aid in scanning.

4. Google Similar Pages– Provides students a list of similar sites, cutting out the junk that Google often packs into the search results.

Please note- TLDR and Google Similar Pages are Chrome extensions. Students need to use Chrome in order to use them.

This Research Cheats handout can be kept handy to help students out.

Research Cheat Codes

Out on a Limb: Holding Ourselves Accountable


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I had a conversation with a colleague on one of the last days of school that has stuck with me ever since. We were discussing classroom management (I had just posted my “Distracted by Tech” article). My colleague said, “I get so tired of listening to complaints from some of our staff. All I hear is what the students haven’t done or won’t do and what they (the teacher) isn’t going to do. I’d love to hear how teachers hold themselves accountable for student success.”

I write often about strategies for holding students accountable when using technology but rarely have I thought about my own accountability when teaching.

This post isn’t really about tech integration and may offend some people. It’s not my intent. My intention is to spur thinking for those who are stuck and frustrated and perhaps are thinking laptops and phones are the cause of the learning blockage.

Teacher accountability isn’t easy. It’s not about how detailed my lesson plans are or how clear my directions for projects are. It’s not about how much kids like me. It’s about how effective I am in my teaching practices. In a nutshell, teacher accountability means that I take a regular look at my teaching practices, my classroom management, and my personal pedagogy and see how well it is meshing with student achievement.

For me this falls into four segments:

Relationships: 

As a human teacher there are students I click with and students I don’t. Some can be downright nasty to be around when they are wearing their armor. I find that sometimes I don’t WANT to get to know these students- but if I am holding myself accountable, I have to find ways to develop some sort of relationship with all my students. We don’t have to be BFFs but I do need to give them the same amount of time and attention that I give the “easy” students. Sometimes I will keep track of who I have worked with during class- then make a concerted effort to connect with those that are off my radar during the next class. It may take all year but I can usually make headway with even the most hardened soul.

Relevancy

I teach digital citizenry and it’s abstract. There are lots of “if…then” situations and quite frankly it’s a topic that often seems remote to students because these situations won’t ever happen to them- until they do. I don’t have too much trouble showing them in class why it’s important that they learn about it. What is difficult is figuring out how to help them change their actions. I’ve had success having students show mastery in the classroom and thought I was teaching well until I saw these same students in real life trouble for doing the exact opposite of what they learned. I don’t hold myself accountable for their decisions, but I do hold myself accountable for the fact that I didn’t teach the information in a way that made it leave the classroom walls.

Relevancy makes learning move WITH the student. My challenge is to find ways to make what they learn pop up as a behavior choice when they are faced with decisions.

Workflow

Having a classroom workflow can make life so much easier. Many classrooms have this already- it is a physical workflow chart designed and agreed upon by students that indicates what to do when a student begins a project, is finished with a project, or is stuck. A large majority of behavioral issues and/or work stoppages result from students not knowing how to start their work or getting confused during an assignment. When all students are on the same page in the workflow, students can help each other move ahead.

(Spoiler alert. Some might be insulted here.)

Teachers need a workflow too, and part of our workflow has to be to move away from our desk. Relying on students to come to us when they need help isn’t effective or efficient. It gives us no way to start conversations, recognize good progress, or give the feedback that keeps students moving. Being on our feet and moving around the room keeps kids more accountable and helps us have a better idea of how they are doing.

Having a plan of how you will target those that are falling behind (and moving ahead!) helps with efficiency. Knowing where my students are in their learning helps me group them so they I can better give targeted instruction. I have often done daily seating charts so I can put students together based on their progress, saving me from answering the same questions at different times all over the room. Planning MY workflow helps the overall progress of the class.

Ongoing assessment

The days of the end of unit test as the only assessment are gone- thank goodness! We now rely on a number of kinds of assessments that allow students to show what they know. What we aren’t so good at (still) is the really informal formative assessment. Throw out the idea of the quiz- we don’t have to work that hard. Formative assessments that are quick and simple can give us a really good handle on how our students are grasping the material. Rather than expound upon the ways we can do this, take a look at Edutopia’s “Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding.” You should find something here that will work for you and your students.

 

 

Brain Warmup with Geoguessr

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 8.09.48 AMI will begin this post with the disclaimer that I was addicted to Geoguessr from my very first attempt (and fail!). I have poor geography skills on a good day and this game would normally not be one that I would gravitate to.

The basic premise is simple. Geoguessr provides a Google Street View of a building or area. You have to figure out where in the world it is. You are able to move around using the same tools you do in StreetView. Once you think you know where it is you submit a guess. Geoguessr shows you a map of the actual location, your guessed location, and the distance between the two.

The beauty of Geoguessr is not in how it strengthens geography skills. It’s a great way to wake up the brain and begin using the problem solving skills necessary in any discipline. Strategies that worked for me were to look for language clues on buildings – for instance, WC on the bathrooms told me I wasn’t in the US. Other clues might include the side of the street that traffic flows on, what pedestrians were wearing, or flags that are flying in front of buildings.

Geoguessr allows you to “take what you get” or use their filters to narrow down the geographic area.

At our school we’re addressing not only curriculum but also the manner in which we ask students to think and attack obstacles. We’ve adopted the 16 Habits of Mind . For some students these are not innate skills and need to be discreetly taught. The use of Geoguesser as a learning warmup touches on a number of these habits and frankly is just plain fun.

Changing Classroom Culture with Chat

Setting the tone for a digital classroom culture can be difficult. Students have one set of behaviors that they use at home (or on their personal devices) and one that they use, hopefully, on their school devices. For some students the boundaries are one and the same- they use technology appropriately no matter where they go. Others straddle the line…or don’t see it at all. With a conscious effort we can help them change the culture.

A great place to start is by using Todaysmeet in class. This backchannel tool is easy to set up, easy for students to access, and provides a good way for students to practice social networking in a “teachable” venue.

Here’s how I used it:

I went to a sixth grade classroom to help with logins for their LMS. Rather than go from desk to desk asking kids who needed help, I had them go to the TodaysMeet room. They were instructed to put their name in the nickname box and the message “I need help” in the message box.

The result was a list of kids that needed help with their logins. These are sixth graders and they are used to towing the line, so we had no inappropriate responses. The task for the tool was specific and the students could clearly see the purpose.

That said, in time it could be a great way to begin the conversation about how you present yourself online.

Today's meet How? From a gradual release of responsibility. My next step from here would be to use this as a way for students to reflect on their learning. A teacher could set up a room that was called “I wonder” and provide a place for students to provide questions about their learning.

It could also be used as a way to provide an exit ticket for students.

At some point someone will go off-course with their response. This is not a discipline issue! It’s a the perfect opportunity to address appropriate online behavior – and a way to begin the creation of an SOP for online discussions. Once this behavior has been agreed upon and practiced, the sky is the limit. Your class will be ready for tweeting, blogging, google+ communities, participating in global projects and all other manner of social media interaction with the intent to improve learning.