Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reflecting on FlipCon15: I'm Still not a Flipper

This summer I attended my first FlipCon as a presenter at Michigan State University. My wife who is a Michigander and MSU alumni who was thrilled to be able to attend with me and show me around the campus. We also got to hang out with my sister-in-law who is a local anesthesiology student. The first night we met up with her in a college bar and she asked me what the conference was all about. As I began to explain flipped learning she cut me off with:

"Yeah yeah, you look at the material the night before and then you do something interactive with it in the next class. We do that in my nursing program. Why do you guys need three days to talk about that?"

I really did not have a good answer for her and as I spent the next three days sitting through sessions, I often asked myself the same question. In fact, I have an admission to make. Its one that I know I am not supposed to make as a 21st century teacher, connected educator, edtech guy...whatever we call ourselves. But here goes:

I still do not get why flipped learning is a thing.

My theory is that flipped learning is more of the reflection of the natural growth that individual teachers make as they progress through their careers. I recall spending much of my first year teaching giving notes and worthless homework assignments. I did not know any better. I was very proud of myself when I came back the next year and did not spend a single minute of class on notes. We did a lot of group work, projects,  and simulations. I often gave homework assignments that required students to read some background information or develop a character for what we were going to do in class. The class was lively, students were learning, and I quickly became a respected teacher.

When I look back on that second year I suppose it could have been called flipped learning. The homework was preparing them for the class activities but I certainly was not making videos and asking students to use the internet at home was still a losing proposition in many cases. Thinking back on many of my favorite classes I realize that many of them shared that structure long before the flipped movement. Having students come to class prepared to use that class time most effectively is always a sound instructional strategy no matter what we call it.

I do not think the flipped movement is a bad. If teachers are getting hooked on the philosophy of it and becoming better teachers because of it then it is great. I enjoyed spending a few days talking about teaching with a group of my colleagues but three days discussing what should be a simple premise was more than enough. If calling yourself a flipper makes you a better teacher than do it. I probably won't be with you at FlipCon16 though.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A 2 Second Paradigm Shift

Educators often ask their students to take risks but we often miss the mark when it comes to establishing an environment in which to do so. We recently made a switch within my department to a mastery based grading system in which we allow revisions of work and do not take points off assignments for being turned in late. This approach is well grounded in research but has not been without its critics who often say things such as, "How will they learn responsibility?" "If they know they can go back and fix things why would they put any effort into their work?" and "They need to learn to deal with failure."

The switch certainly requires some reflection on the nature of grades and what they should mean. Students are also not used to such a system and have become used to chasing grades instead of focusing on the process.

The following is a 2 second conversation that I had this week that illustrates the process at work though:

     Student: You said here that I need to add evidence to make the discussion post better right?

     Me: Right.

     Student: So if I go back and add the evidence I can earn a higher score?

     Me: Yes.

She went back and added evidence and her score was updated. She didn't have to wait until the next time we did a discussion post to act on the feedback and the score she wound up with reflected her true ability to use evidence to support an argument.

Something in her reaction let me know that a shift had occurred for her and that's all that needs to be said about learning responsibility, effort, and dealing with failure.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Lead a 21st Century School: 3 Steps to Take Right Now

Here is my contribution to Leadership Day 2014....

A lot of talk about 21st century schools is focused on devices and apps. You could be buried in all the iPads and Chromebooks you could ever imagine but the culture at your school will not change until the philosophy of 21st century teaching, learning, AND leading is embraced.

Here are 3 steps that you can take right now:

1. Model the Change You Want to See

If you want to reduce the use of paper or go paperless this year, then don’t have handouts and copies of the PowerPoint that you are going to use at your meetings. Send it out in email or better yet, flip it by asking teachers to review it and be ready to discuss prior to coming to the meeting.

If you want your teachers to be reflective practitioners then start your own blog and share it with them. The best schools have sharing and collaborating built into everything they do and opening yourself up will go a long way towards establishing the trust that must be in place first.

And by all means, if you want to see innovative teaching practices and risk taking in your school then don’t welcome your teachers back with data chats and performance goals. Yes, we all know that it is important but we want to be excited about the possibilities of a new year not rehashing past shortcomings. If we were into disaggregating data we would be making a lot more money doing that somewhere. Give teachers some time to connect with each other and the reasons they got into this line of work in the first place.

This year at my site we opened up our welcome back week with a Top Chef style pizza cook off in the school kitchen and wrapped it up with a team challenge to create the best cheesy, shamelessly self-promoting ad for our departments (see below). We talked some data and SMOs (specific measurable objectives) in between, but it was the team building activities that stuck with me.

What did you do in back-to-school PD this year?

2. Remove the Safety Nets

I was part of an infuriating conversation last year in which a group of colleagues was saying that they could not make the transition to Common Core because they did not have the appropriately aligned textbooks to teach from. My perspective was that the transition offered the perfect opportunity to ditch textbooks altogether and focus on more engaging and effective strategies. In the end administration wound up siding with the textbook proponents and the perfect opening to remove a safety net was missed. A textbook centered curriculum was ensured through at least the next adoption cycle.

People don’t like change. Many will complain. Ultimately, removing safety nets but empowering them to explore alternative solutions will push them forward. That’s leadership.

3. Focus On the Needs of Your Best

The best teachers have a deeply ingrained drive to become experts at what they do. Unfortunately for them, many school initiatives got bogged down in numbing conversations about holding the few bad teachers accountable. This gives the bad apples way too much power and drives the good ones mad.

The mindset has to change from one of accountability to one of growth. Create a professional development framework that will allow teachers to identify areas that they want to focus on. Then instead of requiring everybody to sit through the same sit-and-get traditional style PD, give them that time in PLCs to research and develop strategies in their focus areas. Finally, give them a venue to share their learning with their colleagues. You will grow a staff of professionally fulfilled  experts.

In an era where tenure is probably on the way out, schools and districts are losing one of the main things that motivates frustrated teachers to stick it out through the hard times. Good teachers are also increasingly using social media to develop large networks of other likeminded individuals. Without the barbed wire of tenure restricting the flock to your pasture and the promise of greener grass on the horizon, the intrepid ones you want to keep are probably going to wander off. If the needs of the best are ignored chances are pretty good that schools are going to wind up losing them to those leaders who are embracing the philosophy of 21st century teaching and learning.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Connected Classroom Lives!

Doing twitter, blogging, etc... can feel like drinking from a fire hose.
Sometimes you have to coil it up and walk away for a while.

Since my last post here almost a year ago I’ve been a bit busy. I bought a house, had a second adorable son, spent some enlightening time on parental leave, somehow managed to present at 3 national conferences, and ultimately decided to leave my district of 7 years for a new job...3000 miles away on the opposite coast. It was a great opportunity but it meant that I also had to fix up and sell a house within a few months before taking a cross country trip with two young kids, two large dogs, and an elderly cat. I survived (so far) but grew more than a few new grey hairs and its been some time since I felt like sharing.

With the start of my new job and new roles that come with it I have decided to recommit to the blog and begin sharing once again. When I first started this blog 4 years ago I had a cart of netbooks (only half of which worked at any given time) and was THAT teacher who allowed students to take out their phones in class. I was simply trying to figure out how to best use technology in class and this was a place to record some of what I thought was important along the way.

As my role has evolved, so will the purpose of this blog. The new focus will be the pursuit of true blended learning and the role of teacher leadership.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Revisiting the September 11 Oral History Project

Two years ago as we approached the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I decided to take a different angle in teaching the complex topic and created The September 11 Oral History Project with students. Students went out and conducted interviews to record the memories of those who lived through that day. We even got many people to call in and record their stories and captured some emotional accounts from witnesses. The goal was to practice good historian skills and to create a resource that could be used by others in the future.

The 7th and 8th grade students that worked on this project were the last to come through my class who were actually alive on 9/11/2001. Last week I realized how prescient it was to have them create it at that time when I was giving examples of different forms of government and nobody knew who Saddam Hussein was when I brought him up as a dictator. I thought teaching about 9/11 was tough two years ago but it is even harder now that none of my students have actual memories of that time period.

This year I updated The September 11 Oral History Project to make it more visually appealing and added a section with a Thinglink of learning resources.

Students will be completing a blog post that links the ideas of historical memory and the novel The Giver which they have been reading in their Language Arts classes to reflect about 9/11.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Widgets, Cogs, and Flipping the Syllabus

Bored with the traditional first day syllabus and icebreaker routine, this year I figured out how to spend the first day incorporating a simulation while walking on tables and watching Pink Floyd videos instead.

Emotionally Intelligent Classroom Maxims

Inspired by Dan Pink’s emotionally intelligent signage posts, I replaced my classroom rules that nobody (including me) pays attention to with a set of 3 maxims. Knowing that my maxims would lack concreteness and be equally as worthless as the old rules unless I could attach meaning to them I came up with a set of lessons to drive home the point.

Widgets and Cogs

For the first lesson I was able to repurpose an old assembly line simulation that I used to do during my Industrial Revolution unit. As I was mulling over ideas for the first maxim I came across the video for Another Brick in the Wall. The crazy scene where the faceless kids are marching into the grinder has always stuck in my mind and I got the idea to create a widget that looked like the grinder and have students make it piece by piece in assembly line fashion.

When students came in the tables in my room were arranged in three long rows and I had taped instructions for each students construction station on the opposite side from where they were sitting. I started by asking them what the most important innovation in American history was. I fielded their responses for while (some were really quite good) and told them they were all wrong. After a few minutes of this fun, I pulled out my completed widget and told them that I had devised it over the summer and it was in fact the most important American innovation ever.

Of course they then asked what it did and I had a lot of fun playing a wealthy self-important industrialist. I told them I could not possibly explain it to them because they were all just lowly cogs who lacked my genius abilities. I told them that a cog was a cheap easily replaceable part just like they were and they could not possibly figure out what it did but that I could teach them to build one. That’s when I introduced the assembly line as the second most important American innovation and shared some photos with them to show how they worked.

They were all ordered to stand up and take their places on the line. I came around and gave them the materials and simple tools they would need at each station. I had a few students left over that became “scrap monkeys” and were ordered to walk around picking up the scraps. They then worked the line as I walked around as the industrialist character and examined their work with a ruler chastising them for minor flaws in cutting or folding. I walked back and forth on table tops doing this making faces at the frightened 6th graders who happened to look into my room while passing in the hall.

At the end we debriefed and talked about the lowly level of skills and the negative emotions involved in such work. Nobody raised a hand when I asked if they wanted to ever work on an assembly line in real life. I told them that was good because those jobs had largely been replaced by robots or overseas laborers and were no longer common in America and that higher order thinking skills were now needed for most jobs. Maxim #1 was then revealed:

This is not a widget factory; you are not a cog

We discussed what it meant and I told them that I would never treat them as cogs but that meant that they were never to come into the class and act like cogs. I then told them that I would refuse to grade any work that looked like it was made by cogs in a widget factory. We finished by watching Another Brick in the Wall to see if the could spot where the idea for the widget came from. One girl said she was going to have nightmares.

Flipping the Syllabus

All of the syllabus information was moved to my website in video form and students were given the first day homework assignment of watching the videos with their parents and taking a simple Google Form quiz as they watched.  

The tedium of the first day was not completely removed since I wound up doing the same lesson five times. However, I did have much more fun and got to know the students on a different level. They also saw me in a different light and I was able to build excitement for the class. I had asked the students to view the flipped syllabus videos with their parents and while it is not something that they all did, my intent had been to engage them as well. So far the feedback from both students and parents has been positive with one girl even telling me, “my dad thinks you’re cool.” Considering the fact that nobody in any situation has ever referred to me as cool- I’ll chalk it up as a first day success.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

The New (2013) Nexus 7: A Review for Educators

This week I got the opportunity to try out a set of new Nexus 7 tablets to evaluate their potential for use in school. I run a 1:1 classroom with Chromebooks which I have found ideal for school use but I also use an iPad and a MacBook Pro so I have no particular allegiance to one system or another; just an interest in what works.

The new Nexus 7 is an Android based tablet from Google. Is has a 7” inch screen with amazing display performance and audio that is superior to the iPad. It has front and rear facing cameras that take both stills and video. I was initially worried that I would be put off by its small size but I did not miss the extra real estate after using it for a few minutes. Its size and light weight make it exceptionally portable. The specs claim a 6-7 hour battery life which is less than an iPad or Chromebook but still adequate to get through the school day on a charge.

Account Management
The Nexus 7 allows up to 8 user accounts to be set up on each device. One of the new options is to create restricted accounts where the primary user can restrict access to certain apps. This was designed for parents to use with kids and not necessarily for schools but it could come in handy especially at the elementary level when you only want to offer a few options. One negative aspect to using it with students would be that those who sign in to restricted accounts aren’t synced to their own Google Apps accounts but they can still access them through the browser.

The account management feature that I really liked was that when I signed in as the primary account holder on multiple devices all of the apps that I had downloaded were automatically set up on each new device that  I set up. This is a much better setup than the iPad offers since multiple accounts on each device is virtually impossible and syncing apps across devices is a headache.

App Quality
The selection of Android apps is not as great as the selection that has been built up in the Apple ecosystem. Key iPad apps such as iMovie and GarageBand are missing but there are still many that work almost as well in the Android environment. I tested out many educational apps and found a lot of free ones that would be very well suited to the elementary level. Google also recently announced that a Google Play Education store is in the works for this fall. This focus promises to offer more to teachers in the near future.

Some apps of particular interest:
  • Video/Photo Editing -WeVideo is a cloud based video/slideshow editor that has been upgraded consistently over the past year. It syncs automatically to Google drive and has become the go to video tool for my students. The android version lacks some of the capability of the browser version but I found it to still be highly functional especially when combined with Animoto and Aviary for photo editing.
  • Note Taking -Evernote, and my new favorite Springpad both allow students to take notes and organize their work. Both can also be used to capture audio, photos, and video which would make them ideal for capturing what is happening in class. Springboard was also very easy to use to capture web resources and other media that would very helpful in tracking research. Simplemind is a good tool for mind mapping and StudyBlue works for making and sharing notecards.
  • Socrative- Teachers can use this app to pose questions and have students reply via their device. Questions can be multiple choice or open ended and responses can be tracked in real time on the teachers screen which can also be projected. Socrative recently received $750k from investors for improvements and this has the potential to be an even more killer app that would replace stand alone classroom clickers.
  • Splashtop Whiteboard- This was the only paid ($9.99) app that I took a look at. It allows teachers to use the tablet as an interactive whiteboard with annotating capabilities in the classroom.

Collaboration Potential
Collaboration should be a key component in a 21st century classroom so any devices used need to be able to support it. Google Drive has always been my go to solution and I was disappointed to find limited abilities to use it in the Android operating system. Documents and spreadsheets can be created, edited, and shared but presentations and drawings can only be viewed. I frequently have students collaborate on presentations and I have not yet found a solution that would support that.

That being said it still has seamless resource sharing functions. Apps and the browser are all synced so that resources can be shared across a variety of social media and note taking :

Creative Potential
One of my concerns about tablets has been that they make great consumption devices but are less than desirable when it comes time to creating robust content. Some of my go to options such as Glogster, Voicethread, and Prezi, are not supported on the Nexus 7 but there are enough app options available through the Android store that students can still make and share high quality videos, slideshows, and podcasts.

WeVideo student work example:

Other Considerations
  • No Flash- Android no longer supports Flash so this unfortunately puts it in the same league as the iPad. Many educational resources including the iCivics and Mission U.S. games that my students play would not be accessible. There are workarounds to this that I found but the average teacher would not be willing to go to such lengths.  
  • No Projector Output- There is no output feature that would allow a projector to be attached. However this should not really be a factor at this point, videos created with apps such as WeVideo are cloud based and can even be synced to Google accounts. Students would just have to sign in from a classroom computer hooked to a projector and go from there. Additionally, the new Chromecast could eventually have potential for sharing screens in the classroom. Right now Chromecast only supports a few different apps but that is bound to grow with the attention it has been getting.
  • Testing Software and Textbooks-They are not going to run your PARCC or FAIR tests. Shame on you if that is what you are checking these out for anyway. Textbook support would be variable by publisher but there are many free digital textbook options available out there and intrepid teachers can make there own digital texts fairly easily.
  • Lacks the Cool Factor- Many teachers are familiar with iOS and may not want to give a tablet other than an iPad a second look. They will have to invest some time getting to know a new operating system but I found the learning curve to be minimal.
Bottom Line
Except for having a better system for managing user profiles, the Nexus 7 will not do anything that an iPad cannot. That being said, I think it can stand toe to toe with the iPad for most uses and is a tremendous value for schools at $230. With the new iPads still priced at $499 and the the minis starting at $329 the Nexus 7 blows them out of the water for the cost. My school has been purchasing both Kindle readers and classroom clickers but you could get a tablet that does both of those things and much more for a little bit more of an investment. Looking at it another way,  you could get a new Chromebook for $249 AND a new tablet for the same price as one new iPad.

Tablets haven’t yet superseded other solutions for a true paperless classroom but are great for most 1:1 initiatives. If the solution that you are seeking is a tablet I would highly recommend checking out the Nexus 7 as a true competitor to the iPad.

Size Comparison: RAZR, Nexus 7, iPad