Wednesday, October 8, 2014


In this next installment of “really cool things I got to play with during EdTech” I will talk about Padlet. Essentially, Padlet is an online bulletin board. It lets you organize pictures, links, documents, videos, and nearly any other kind of file you want to post online. Like Google docs, you can invite others to view or edit your boards. You can also customize it in really snazzy ways so bonus point for visual interest.
In the classroom, this means you can have a survey you want your students to do, an article you want them to read, and a video you want them to want without sending them separate link. They can also collaborate and post stuff of their own if you give them the correct permissions. Apparently, my predecessor at my placement used it to organize a ton of lessons. However, this year my placement school is switching to Google Classroom, which serves many of the same purposes. I’m still exploring all of the differences between the two but here’s my current evaluation:
A lot of this comes down to style. For example, Padlet is its own thing. You can upload your own files of almost any kind. Google Classrooms is part of the Google Drive Family which can be good because it links to stuff like Google Sites. That being said, you can easily link a website on your Padlet. Google Classrooms is inherently structured while Padlet can be very relaxed in format.
Realistically, I will probably be using Google Classrooms later in the year to organize the content for my classes. It’s already part of the school system and it’s easily organized and more formal looking. On the other hand, for my own presentation on a tech program you can use in the classroom, in this case Audacity, we chose to use Padlet to make a group project. Why? Really, because it’s cooler. You can drag and drop even audio files and you can arrange the files in basically any order you want. It just feels more like a fun project than a formal school assignment.

Tech Survey Thoughts

After finishing a survey on the technology available at my teaching placement, I have come to the conclusion that I am really, really lucky. Firstly, the school I’m at has a lot of technological resources, my favorite being the Chromebooks we have in my classroom. However, all the tech in the world doesn’t help if you don’t have teachers and staff who know how to use it. I don’t necessarily mean knowing how to make a website or format a computer (although these skills are important), but knowing how tech can be a real tool rather than a gimmick used twice a year or for testing practice. From what I’ve seen, it takes a very flexible approach to teaching to really make full use of tech. Days we use the Chromebooks in class often don’t look like any other class I’ve been in. For example, Mr. Brater, my mentor, will have students pull up an online lesson plan on Google Classroom, then have each student work at their own pace, filling out surveys, reading articles or watching videos. Students can get a lot of information in a way which may suit them better than lecture. Of course, this is usually followed up the next day with a more traditional looking lecture/discussion session. He also lets students choose from a list of articles or videos and pick one to view and discuss later. This means that the “smart kids” can’t explain all of the reading and makes the students rely on each other (and do their own work).

Filling out the survey made me realize the physical resources we have, everything from video editing software to computer labs, but more than that, I realized the commitment to tech this school must have. My school is pretty middleclass, and not in the kind of school district which you expect to have a lot of tech (another thing that surprised me while filling out the survey). I know that Mr. Brater and Mr. Hughes had to start a campaign to get the Chromebooks. Before the school year started, we had a PD session which focused on using Google Apps. It was…. dry. However, it’s hard to argue its usefulness. I can really see the value in having the staff on the same page so that calendars, lesson plans, goals, surveys, etc. can all be shared easily. This is why I’m lucky, not just because of the physical resources available here, but also the human resources, people who make an effort to bring tech tools into the school in a meaningful way. And who are patient enough to explain to their peers, students teachers and students how to share that Google Doc about a hundred times. (Thanks Rory!)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tech For the Expansion of Audiences

Thursday, I had the pleasure of hearing David Thuene (pronounced Toony, which is kind of awesome) discuss how he uses tech in his classroom, a pleasure which is usually reserved for those attending his panels at teaching conferences. Through the power of the University of Michigan and the awesome abilities of my tech professors, I had him hand delivered to my tech class. Mr. Thuene is not exactly you’re stereotypical techno geek. He’s much more on the touchy-feely, favorite drama teacher side. And this may be exactly what the technology field needs. He doesn’t use tech a as gizmo and he doesn’t emphasize how great technology can be for research or cool projects (although it certainly can be). Rather, what I saw him doing was using technology to connect people and expand students’ audiences.
For example, Mr. Thuene teaches English and came to the very reasonable conclusion that students shouldn’t just be writing for their English teacher. The purpose of writing is usually to reach an audience and students can be pretty limited in their learning potential if they are only writing for a teacher. Mr. Thuene had a variety of solutions for this, ranging from non-tech solutions such as inviting parents in to listen to student read essay out loud, to connecting with other students via webcam. He also had a great idea to have students advocate for a particular charity, then award money to the charity with the most votes, as an alternative to the usual persuasive essays we all had to write in high school.

The talk was full of great ideas, not all of which were directly related to technology, but it made me think about the role of technology in a people-oriented framework. (People-oriented frameworks are not my forte).  I’ve usually thought of technology as a tool for research or organization. I love the internet because it gives me literally millions of articles about whatever I need to know about. I remember listening to professors with horror as they told me about the bad old days when you had to look up paper copies of journals. However, I haven’t spent much time thinking about how amazing it was to sit in Japanese class and talk to students in Hiroshima. How fundamentally powerful connecting with people in a different country or a different school district could be. Tech gives us the ability to connect in ways that were simply unfeasible a few decades ago. Since we are supposed to be preparing students for life in a global age, helping them connect with and understand people outside of their communities is becoming more and more important. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Steali, I mean borrowing other ideas

                One of the cool things about education is it is one of the only fields where colleagues actively encourage you to borrow their ideas. After all, we want all students, not just our own, succeed. The internet has really improved the flow of ideas as more teachers start “edublogging”. I looked at some of bloggers my professors recommended and found this gem:
The writer, Silvia Tolisano, has been pondering the idea of documenting for learning. She is talking about documenting such as a blog, diary, scrapbook, video, annotated notes, mind maps, etc.  Basically, making record of an event or a thought process is documenting. She argues that documenting for learning, that is intentionally documenting in order to reflect or aid learning, could:
Serve a metacognitive purpose
Be a creative multimedia expression (oral, visual, textual)
Be a component of reflective practice
Help makers take ownership of one’s learning
Be a memory aid
Curate a project
Be a tool for professional development

This is a simple but great idea with a lot of possibilities. I would like to add another purpose; we could use this process to teach students that history is a process, not a jumble proven facts to be memorized. For example, we could have students make a scrapbook page about their last year in school. Students will have to choose how they want to represent that year. Will they include all good things? Do they focus on their friends or on a hobby? They automatically have to select what they think was important about that period. Just like historians and document makers of the past. I think this could be used to start a conversation on how history is made. And that’s the beauty of the education blogger community. We can read each other’s ideas and add to and adapt them for our own work. And then share it from there so someone else can add to what we’ve made. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Teaching with Apps and Teaching Apps

One of the challenges faced by teachers today (and probably throughout history in one form or another) is that teaching technology. Often, students need to be taught how to use technology in addition to the subject area. For example, they need to know how to take computerized tests. Also, there are a lot of excellent tech-based teaching tools out there but unless teaching and students know how to use them, everyone can be equipped with the greatest in-class tablets or fantastic lab devices but it won’t do any good. Colleagues of mine put together a lesson plan which uses an app called Geogebra  to teach how to define, evaluate, and compare linear functions.

Geogebra is a nifty little app that can help students visualize how graphs and equations relate to one another. Note that they students still have to do the work the old fashioned way before they can use the app to figure it out. Some advantages this approach has include giving students both visual and hands-on interactions with the problems and whole lesson is structured very well for an “I do, we do, you do” style of scaffolding. Another advantage though, isn’t really related to math or to traditional teaching techniques. By using the app as a tool, the students can learn a little about how apps work in general and that there are more useful functions of a smart phone or tablet than Candy Crush. Realistically, apps are no longer just a way to waste time and show off the capabilities of a prestige item. Being able to navigate an app is becoming an important part of being able to navigate our society.  And this isn’t likely to change. While there are obvious challenges and questions related to teaching technology in the classroom, I think lessons like this one which integrate content and other skills is a way to help students be able to prepare for their futures. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Organizing My Online Life!

I’ll admit it. I’m a conscientious objector to the internet. Which is weird given how much I love video games and other tech but somehow learning to use different internet services is just aggravating to me. When we had to do an assignment teaching different apps that might be helpful to teachers to each other, I was not excited. However, I learned a lot about having to fit a lot of information into a small amount of space.
Making a one page (double-sided) handout describing how to use Google Drive is not as easy as it sounds. Not because Google Drive is hard to use: just the opposite. It’s really easy but there’s not a lot of space on a single page of paper, especially if you’re using screenshots. I still chose to use the screenshots despite the limited space because only using text just wouldn’t convey what to click. I think I would actually have wasted more space trying to describe in detail where buttons are than just using the screenshot. Or, I would have left my students without really giving them the information they needed. So I showed the basics of how to use the site then listed some of the more specialized features and gave them the link to tutorials if they decided they wanted to go further.
Also, I taught the” class” by sharing the handout itself and then sharing, modifying, etc. with the group. This way, I could give them more details in person but they could use the handout as a guide later. Plus, they were practicing all the skills as I taught them.

I think the take away from all of this is that you can only give students so much information at once, so choose that information wisely. Also, combine formats of information to be able to reinforce the skills being passed on and to make sure students are following. Finally, let students try new things out as they learn them (see, I’m learning from those great video game tutorials). That way, they remember it better and you know they can successfully use the skill.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lessons in Video Games

I've been playing video games for most of my life. A few weeks ago, I was struck by the similarities between a good video game tutorial and good lesson planning. Obviously, I was quite happy when I got an assignment to go check out video games and relate them to teaching. I thought about all the video games I could look at but kept coming back to those tutorials. What made them good or terrible? Bad tutorials are usually cheesy and annoying with some guide giving you cookie-cutter directions (Hey, listen!). Good tutorials though, just sort of blend into the game. You learn to play the game by exploring and testing new skills as you learn them. Sound familiar? Tutorials are essentially lessons for gameplay so I’ll be exploring how good tutorials are built and that might relate to good lesson design.
For tips, I have turned to the always excellent team behind Extra Credits, a video game design vlog. Check out their tutorials 101 video:
So what are the rules for good tutorials?
1.       Less text
When players are confronted by walls of text, they tend to tune out. Not surprisingly, so do students. In good tutorials and lessons, text is broken up with images and action.
2.       No front loading
Video game designers sometimes feel like they have to teach the player how to do EVERYTHING at once. Teachers can often make the same mistake. Both students and players get confused and have trouble with remembering all of the details. Teach students what they need to know to be able to do the next step and save the rest for later.
3.       Make it fun
Um, duh. Video games are played for fun but often the first thing players encounter, the tutorial, is booooooring. In teaching, “make it fun” is a cliché but we all got into our content area for a reason. For me, I love the mystery of history and the puzzle of fitting together different factors in history to figure out why things happened. Even if I can’t convince students that history is super awesome and fun (which it totally is), I can pass along a little enthusiasm. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional game in the classroom.
4.       Reinforce learning through play
This relates to #2. When players learn new skills, they need a chance to try it out. Let’s be honest, if I just found out that I can blow things up with my mind in a game, I want to go blow something up, not listen to five more minutes of explanation. The same thing applies to students. If they just learned how to do something new, then they need a chance to apply it.
5.       Listen to your players
I’m going to steal a line from Extra Credits: What is obvious to you (designers who have been working on a game for a long time) isn’t always obvious to them (brand new players). Likewise, what is obvious to me as a history teacher who has spent countless hours poring through primary texts and writing literally hundreds of pages of research, is not obvious to a high school freshman taking his or her first history class. Check in with them and find out what they are and aren’t understanding. That’s the point of assessment.

So it turns out that video game makers are running into the same issues as teachers and looking out how they successfully solve those issues can help teachers solve those same basic issues. Plus it gives me an excuse to play video games during grad school. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Yesterday I tried taking the Smart Balance assessment. Wow. I thought the SAT was confusing. This is the test the higher ups are thinking about using for the standardized state testing. Apparently, the lobbyists are trying to convince lawmakers to use this but school administrators want to use an ACT derivative. Both tests are computerized. I haven't tried the ACT derivative but the computerization of this test makes me want to tear my hair out. There's a split screen, a confusing menu, you have to scroll everywhere, you had to highlight text but it wasn't clear how to do that. It was a nightmare and I have a master's degree. I can't imagine how awful it would be to ill-prepared high schoolers. And yet, this is the future of my profession.

It is both mind-boggling and depressing how much students' future depends on the machinations of our political system. There's a lot of money to be made in standardized testing. Every test is made by a private company and they pay lobbyists to get their test chosen. And in this situation, computerized tests are cheaper to proctor, right? Most of the cost is up front with a smaller amount of maintenance. But there's been a ton of research which indicates people don't read or test as well on a computer as compared to paper. So not only are we trying develop an enormous amount of ability in our students' head, we're telling them to proof it in a more difficult environment.

However, this is the situation and no amount of fussing on my part is likely to change it. So what can I change so my students have a better chance of succeeding (and I can keep my job)? I can incorporate computer skills into my teaching. Hey, it's a good chance to do cool computer projects while giving them some of the basic skills they need to do well on convoluted tests. I can teach them strategies that will help not only with tests in general but with computerized tests specifically too. And while I hate to suggest time away from my beloved content, they'll probably have take a couple of test runs. I can at least comfort myself that if I teaching good critical thinking and problem-solving skills, they'll have some clue of what to do when they encounter unfamiliar situations. I can hope.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Interests and Power

"I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power."
I was recently introduced to the writings of education philosopher John Dewey. It was love at first read. In his “My Pedagogic Creed”, he addressed the thoughts and concerns I have had for a while on education but in a far more elegant way than I ever will. The creed has a lot of good stuff, mostly about how education should build something and how students are more than empty heads to be filled, but the sentence which jumped out at me was "I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power”. I had to think about that for a moment. If knowledge is power, then perhaps interests are signs of growing knowledge but also pathways to further knowledge.

I think about my time in secondary school. I did not feel powerful. I felt like no matter what I did or what I learned, someone was telling me that I was just a kid and didn’t understand anything. I think about the middle schoolers I’ve been working with and how powerless they must feel. I think about what they’ve told me when they don’t understand something or when the older kids push them out of the way for games. They don’t look powerful. But they have interests. I have a dog lover in my class. I have a soccer player. I have a student who does origami and collects tiny erasers. They don’t come in with empty heads and a set ability. They already know things and have interests and abilities and understandings that I don’t. This rant isn’t meant to be a touchy-feely proclamation of “everyone’s special” but rather the statement of a goal for myself: Learn my students’ interest. Learn what they already know or what they could know and excel at if given the right tools and environment.