Friday, May 9, 2014

Competition: A Time and Place

Throughout my life, I've always enjoyed competition. In a past life (Read: before kids) I was a sponsored mountain bike racer. While I was never the fastest of my friends, I could hold my own against most of the competition.
The best advice my friend and mentor taught me was to remember that everyone gets tired on the climbs, so that is the time to crush the competition. When they see you dropping a gear and hammering away, it destroys their psyche. You win.
I now apply that mentality in all competition. Whether riding my bike or playing another sport, I look for the time when the competition is the hardest and my competitors are most tired. That's when I take it up a notch. Yes, I get tired. Yes, I need to find the will to not quit (or puke). But, I usually win. And, if I don't, I know I gave it my all.
The thing is, as much as I absolutely LOVE the feeling of dominating in competition (There's something energizing and fulfilling about hearing a worthy opponent's wheezing fade to silence.) there is a time to prove one's self, and there is a time to set aside your own genetic drive to win for the greater good and other people.
Being an educator is that time. As educators, it is our responsibility to strive, solely, for the growth of students. All students. If you have a great idea that was successful in your room, share it. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your kids, invite someone else's kids to join. If you see another educator struggling, connect with them and offer a hand. If you see another educator doing amazing things, connect with them and take notes.
Sure, it feels nice to be recognized for the countless hours we put in before the kids come in and after they leave, and receiving an award that says your work is noticed gives you validation. However, that stuff should not be the drive behind an educator. That's only the result of our hard work and noble intentions. When you stop working for those goals, you'll have actually earned them.
There is nothing more repulsive than an educator unwilling to connect and share, as though ideas are non-renewable resources and their students lose out because the idea was used by another teacher; the only thing lost tends to be the singular recognition the teacher receives. Don't be that teacher. If you know that teacher, no matter how good it would feel to hammer it and watch them fall away as you blow by them, swallow your pride and continue sharing. After all, it's the students we're in this for, and they're the ones losing when teachers look to compete.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Feeling Lost and Figuring it Out

Almost a year ago, I posted "Should I Stay or Should I Go?". While I stated reasons why educators need to stay in the classroom, I did leave it at the beginning of this school year. This past week, while attending FETC, I had some experiences that led me to reflect on my decision more deeply than I normally do, so I decided to share.

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss working with MY kids. I miss making those connections that feel so natural to me. I miss celebrating their successes, learning from (and laughing at) our mistakes, pushing them when they don't believe in themselves, and having them push me when I don't believe in myself. I miss having an idea that I think is brilliant, watching it fall apart, having the students being completely understanding when that happens, and being willing to continue playing and exploring and trusting me. I miss knowing that I've made someone happier in their own existence. (I really miss that!) What it really comes down to is that I miss the safety I feel when working with them.

And, that is exactly why I felt I needed to leave. I always told my kids that progression only happens when there's discomfort. This does not mean I didn't strive to be a better teacher every single day. It means that pushing myself to allow my kids to have the most powerful learning opportunities they would ever have IS my comfort zone. Taking risks in MY room, with MY kids, is exactly what I feel most safe doing. If failure is eminent, I trust in my ability (and my kids' willingness) to adjust on the fly. If success is certain, I will know what the next steps will be and how to challenge the  individual child to reach for it. And, when a child is having a difficult time in any aspect of life, I guarantee I have built the relationships that allow me to be able to help the child through it. I have very little of that confidence working with adults in my new position.

At this point you're probably asking the same thing I was as I finished writing that paragraph: Why, exactly, did I move out of the classroom? I didn't leave for more money, because I felt my talents were being wasted, or because I gave up on the system. To be completely honest, I left because I saw a position that was open and I felt someone in our building needed to fill it.

Now that I'm in this position, I want to be great at it. I want to make those connections that are vital for teachers to feel safe in taking the greatest risks for their students' education. I want to celebrate their successes, learn from (and laugh at) our mistakes, push them when they don't believe in themselves, and have them push me when I don't believe in myself. I want to have an idea that I think is brilliant, watch it fall apart, have the adults be completely understanding when that happens, and be willing to continue playing and exploring and trusting me. I want to make someone happier in their own existence. (I really want that!) It comes down to that I want to support the teachers so they can give OUR kids the most powerful, valuable, and exciting educational opportunities they could ever experience.

As I reread this post to come up with a magical conclusion that would blow your mind, I realized something. The school is my new classroom, the teachers my new students. I need to be willing to take risks for my teachers, as I did for my students, to build the relationships we all need in order to do the hard work together. I'm a very different person when I'm working with kids. I'm relaxed, confident, goofy, caring, and honest. But, most importantly, I'm focused 100% on their success. I've never wanted to be the focus of the things my students were doing. I wanted the success to be theirs, the work to be ours, and the failure to be mine. That's all I need to do for my teachers.

Thanks for listening as I worked through this one...

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Buying into Technology

As 1:1 initiatives are becoming the norm, and more of each school budget is being spent on technology, I'm beginning to grow concerned with the decision-making process many schools have in place when deciding which technology will be purchased. While I know it's imperative that 21st century technology is available to our students and staff, I don't feel confident with how the devices are being chosen. I'm sure there is a lot of thought behind these purchases, but I wonder if the thought is focusing on the right target.

Too Much Money Buying Devices That Have Too Few Uses
It is also my goal that every device in my school is multifunctional and is used outside of education. For around the same price as a document camera (~$500) and SmartBoard (~$1000), I can purchase four 7" tablets, an HD projector, and software that gives a teacher and the students the ability project the tablets onto the whiteboard. Or, I could equip two classes with a 7" tablet, an HD projector, and the tablet-projecting software. So, one classroom goes from having tools with limited uses--not to mention tools used only in education--to a classroom (or two) having real-world tools with multiple uses.

Just recently, a short-throw projector used on a SmartBoard died. Replacing the projector would have run us around $1,000. Thanks to a couple amazing mentors of mine (+Lucie deLaBruere  and +Craig Lyndes) I've become very wary of simply replacing one device with the same thing. Especially one that costs $1,000. So, Craig and I looked into some alternative options. We found that, for about half the price, we could purchase an HD projector. However, it's projection wouldn't fit onto the SmartBoard the teacher was using. Then, with a little more thought, we decided to see if the teacher would be willing to give up the SmartBoard in exchange for an AirServer license for her PC. (We explained that the iPad would become her SmartBoard and that she can have up to four students projecting their iPads at the same time. She agreed. We'll be making these changes in the next week.

I rarely, if ever, look to technology to revolutionize education. However, when the chance presents itself for that revolutionary change to occur, we need to grab hold. As technology ages and fails, we need to get into the practice of not simply replacing a tool. Instead, we need to use these opportunities as a chance to explore options for making changes to classroom practices.

One Device Does Not Fit All
Quite simply, one device cannot handle every task a 21st century learner needs to accomplish, yet many schools purchase the same few devices for everyone. This practice does not make sense, in and of itself, so we need to analyze what tasks each individual has before making large-scale purchases.

I believe it's important for schools to really look at what the needs are of each learner and teacher before buying each learner and teacher the same device. Does it really make sense to buy every kid a full-sized laptop or is a Chromebook or netbook the tool for some ages? Should laptops and desktops be Windows, Apple, or Linux? Would it be wiser to purchase kindergarteners a tablet instead of a laptop? Apple or Android? Do you really need a 10" tablet, or is a 7" the better choice? Shoot, would a 4"-5" tablet do the job for a fraction of the cost? Before anyone answers any of these questions they should take a good, hard look at what needs to be accomplished by the individuals who will be using them.

With that said, I'm becoming more aware of the issues that come with "one-offs", so I understand limiting the devices to a set list.

Allowing Companies To Exploit Education
I'm watching as Apple is making terrible choices for education--making life harder for schools to efficiently implement the devices, while charging more to do so--yet, I'm seeing more and more decision-makers looking at Apple, especially the tablet sector, as the answer. (Case in point: When's the last time you heard someone say, "Have you tried Configurator? It is absolutely AMAZING!"? Or, "I love the educator discount Apple offers!"?)

When one company understands they have complete control, they tend to exploit it for everything it is worth. And, education is a sitting duck because we NEED a major reform, and Apple, Pearson, and too many other companies to name see the opportunity to take advantage of us for their financial gain.

In addition to limiting the exploitation, offering students and staff a variety of tech tools forces them to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary to be successful. When we give everyone one device, they learn how to control the one device not why certain actions have the effects they do. While, if a student and teacher experience Apple, Android, ChromeOS, Windows, and Linux, they'll be forced (allowed?) to grow comfortable with technology instead of a single device.

Unfortunately, the more each school pours into one device or manufacturer, the more difficult it is for them to get out of the cycle. So, by the time there's a better alternative--which may not be too far off--teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders are going to be so deeply embedded in the Apple culture (or whichever company it is) that it will seem to make more sense to keep giving Apple our money than to actually make the best choice for education.

Buying What's Cool
Recently, I had a discussion about Apple TV in the classroom. My basic feeling is that Apple TV is an expensive, limited option for projecting an Apple device or, thanks to software like AirParrot, a Windows PC. For $100 you can connect, wirelessly, to a projector. But, it's very possible to do the same without spending that $100. So, what problem is Apple TV solving in the classroom? And, why does this technology cost $100? My argument is that it's got the cool factor. There's not a NEED for it, but it's popular.

The iPad and iPad Mini. Why purchase one instead of the other? Is the Mini really the best tool for the job, or is it just getting the job done? Is there much of a difference between the two? Here's my question: How often could an iPod Touch do the job, for a fraction of the price, instead of an iPad or a Mini? But, since the iPod Touch hasn't seen any major changes lately, it's lost the "cool".

Just so this doesn't become a blog blasting Apple, I've noticed the same is true for buying Chromebooks. Right now, education is lining up to buy devices that many people have not fully experienced. With so few people having had experiences with Chromebooks, how did they become the "must-have" of the year? Is it because they can do so much more than a traditional laptop? Sure, if difficulty with printing and not having the ability to install programs is what you're looking for. Is it just because they are less expensive? Buying 10 spoons at a discount when you need a bulldozer isn't a good deal. Is it because they're cool? Well, they're new, from a popular company, and a variation of what's already out. Cool, it is.

So, I think we, as educators and decision-makers, need to start re-evaluating the process and thinking that goes into purchasing technology in our buildings. Because, technology is the key to success in the 21st century (even the past 14 years of it), and purchasing devices, programs, or apps that have limited functions, are what you're comfortable with, or because they're cool shouldn't cut it. We need to purchase technology based on what jobs need to be accomplished, which people are using it, and how many uses it can have.

(As I re-read this post, I see how some will see a bias away from Apple. While this may be true, it's only because of how prominent they have become in education. They seem to be everywhere, but they don't seem to focus on improving products or practices that focus on making implementation into education more efficient or powerful. The reality is that many companies are falling into this pattern, and we, as the guardians of education, need to make sure we're limiting this financial exploitation whenever possible.

Additionally, I fully support purchasing Apple products, Chromebooks, and any other devices that are the best for what the learners and teachers want/need to accomplish.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Google Drive Organization System

In an effort to save my older posts, I'm transferring them to this blog. This post was originally published on September 5, 2012.

If you have ever had 60 students (and countless colleagues) share docs with you, you understand how chaotic and completely unmanageable your Google Drive can get. For the past six years, I have been using Google Apps with students in 4-6 grades and adult learners. In this time, I've figured out a system to help my students and me keep our Google Drives organized and easy to manage.

This system will help you have more success in locating assignments and activities, create a simple way for you to share materials with students (and vice versa), and make it easier to find documents, all while keeping everyone's Drives from getting cluttered with randomly named individual docs.

The general idea is that teachers and students use shared folders to give each other access to necessary material (assignments, activities, etc.), and teachers create document naming requirements to help make the drives more search-friendly. For a more in-depth explanation, and tutorial videos to help you set this system up in your own class, take a look at the Google Drive Organization presentation below.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What can the Education System Learn from the Gaming Industry?

In his blog post "Jane McGonigal Keynote - Reflection" David Warlick writes "...what would truly help me is understanding the mechanisms that evoke those emotions. How do games do it — and how might formal learning experiences pull those same triggers." The emotions Mr. Warlick is referring to comes from a list shared by Ms. McGonigal during her keynote at ISTE 2013. They are "joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe & wonder, contentment, and creativity".

While I'm not an expert in gaming, its educational value, or of the human mind, I think I have a pretty solid idea as to what makes the joy of gaming so drastically different from the anti-joy of classrooms and schools today's (and the past two centuries') education system has to offer. (My thinking comes from my own combination of experiences as a classroom teacher, life-long learner, recreational gamer, and human-observer.)

Before I start my list, I need to stress that there are many important things the average classroom offers that video games lack. (For starters, building relationships, learning social etiquette, and appropriate peer and adult interactions.)

Now, here's my list of why kids receive so many more positive emotions from video games than the classroom:

1) The gamers get to choose the content of their games. If you force someone to play a game they have no interest in, the excitement and joy will look a lot like when in the classroom. In other words, you'll hardly notice it.

2) There is no failing in video games, only having to try again. When gamers realize that a botched effort only means another attempt, they aren't afraid of trying again or demoralized when it isn't successful. Plus, they are much more willing to try different ways to solve the problem.

3) While often completely hidden from the gamer, the learning is vital to success later in the game. This is significant for two reasons. First, the skills are not forced upon the player in some ridiculous, pseudo-level. Instead, they are taught in real-game situations. The second piece to this is that there are no useless skills the gamers are forced to learn just for the sake of learning them. Every skill you need is learned and every skill learned is needed,

4) The assessment technique doesn't take the gamer away from the actual learning or the fun. Unlike our current education system, the gaming industry is similar to the real world. In gaming and most careers, your assessment tends to occur in the tasks required by your role, as opposed to some separate worksheet or task.

5) The skills are introduced in such a way that the player's frustration is limited. First, the gamer has multiple opportunities to practice each skill, in actual game scenarios, before it is vital to their success. Second, if the player doesn't learn a required skill, they don't move on to the next level. This prevents most players from hating a game due to it being too difficult for too long of a time.

6) When a game or task is too difficult, there are dozens (hundreds?) of useful resources — usually videos or blog posts created by their peers — to teach them exactly what they need to know to be successful. (Just-in-time learning is highly undervalued in our education system and our society.) In other words, "cheating" isn't an issue, because, if the skills are important, the "cheating" will be to learn, not to pass a test or complete an assignment. (I should point out that there are still ways to cheat that are frowned upon, but it's not the form where a player finds the answer by observing someone else's work.)

Some will agree with what I have offered here and some will not. But, whatever your beliefs as to why gaming offers students positive feelings that school does not, it's important to understand that education can learn a thing or two from the world of gaming. In fact, the keys to a successful game may truly be the keys to successful learning in everything we do.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Brief Introduction to Professional Learning Networks

As I get to work with more and more educators, I am somewhat surprised by the number of great teachers who keep to themselves. I'm not sure if this is a habit from days past, or if it is a personal choice, but I do know that this profession needs everyone to share. The easiest way to share (give and take) with as large a group as possible is through digital media. The power of developing a digital PLN is absolutely amazing!

What is that power?  As Michael Zimmer (one member of my PLN) states in his blog, "Imagine for a minute teaching in a school where some of the most influential educators all teach.  Imagine teaching in a school where the administrators encourage new and innovative ways to teach to your students.  Imagine teaching in a school where all those teachers share their ideas and lessons openly without fear of being seen as 'that teacher'.  That is the experience of a PLN.  Sharing ideas and experiences with people who enjoy what you have to share and openly share their personal experiences." (  The only thing I would add to that is, imagine needing a lesson or other resource and being able to ask hundreds of professionals for assistance.

Now, how does one go about developing a PLN?  Well, I was first introduced to PLNs by a friend and former colleague of mine through Twitter.  Actually, it was Twitter through Tweetdeck, a very nice way of organizing your social media accounts.  In addition to Twitter, there are countless other digital media options. The most popular are Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, and Diigo. I also have connected with people on Classroom 2.0 and The Educator's PLN.  In addition, I have there are great educator-created blogs, websites, and about a million other resources.
(A word of advice: Take your time in getting involved with the many sites designed to help build PLNs.)  

Using Twitter can be a bit overwhelming, but there are some tips to make it a bit easier to figure out.  The best tips I can recommend are to start out following a small, select group of individuals and to use educational hashtags such as #edchat.  (Basically, hashtags are a way for Twitter to collect certain tweets and group them by those hashtags.)  (I have a column on my Tweetdeck for all messages tagged with #edchat so I get all of these messages in one place.)

Google+, in my opinion, is a bit easier to manage. Thanks to "Circles", organizing your PLN is much smoother and user-friendly than many other social media options. This allows one account to easily separate your personal life from your professional life. (I use them to break down my professional life even further by creating a circle for people at my school, people I know personally, my MVPs, etc.) In addition to creating circles, you can join communities to help you connect with people who are doing similar things as you. (I just joined the "Chromebook EDU" community, and it has already played a large part in my knowledge of my new Chromebook.)

I've only shared a few of the options that are out there, but you can start to see just how impressive PLNs can be. (Feel free to add more in the comments.) So, you can make the choice, keep using the same old resources and talking to the same few teachers or develop your PLN and open up the world to you and your students.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

21st Century Teachers Must Be 21st Century People

Ask any teacher how to best teach students, and many will mention something about modeling. We understand that, if we want students to behave a certain way, we must model that behavior. This is true about personal interactions, work-ethic, manners, or any other behavior.

However, as is often the case, best practice gets tossed out of the window as soon as technology enters the picture. Modeling usually gets set aside due to a lack of knowledge that brings about fear or a lack of understanding that technology is vital to our students' futures. All of a sudden, students are expected to learn without support. We want students to keep their devices away while they watch us pull ours out on a regular basis. We want students to use their laptops only for work, while we are using them for real-life, every-day activities.

The reality is that technology is here to stay. It is guaranteed to change, but it is not going away. Whether it's Twitter, Facebook, or Google+; blogs, websites, or wikis; tablets, laptops, or smartphones; i-OS, Android, or Linux; students will NEED to be competent with technology if they are to have a chance at success in the future.

In my opinion, if we really want to be successful at preparing students to use technology in appropriate, powerful, and creative ways, we need to be modeling. But, how can we model something we can/do not do? Sure, we could all take some professional development courses. But, is that really enough? I do see the value of good PD, but can that actually give us all of the experience needed to model technology-use for the students? I don't believe it can. After all, imagine if our students only practiced reading, writing, and math in school. Could they actually be proficient at any of the necessary skills to be successful in life? That's absurd, right?

If we still have the passion to be teachers, we need to "Like" something, tweet something, post videos on-line, master search engines, use a mobile device, create a circle, or share a bookmark. (You can find a much more complete list of skills here.) And, we need to do these things as a regular part of our normal lives. After all, we wouldn't accept our students telling us they don't have time to read, write, or use math outside of school, would we?