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25 Strategies to Engage Students on Your Next Zoom Meeting

Now that we have all been thrust into the world of online learning, we have to figure out ways as educators to engage our students when they are online. Some of the first things schools did when shifting to remote learning was to hold regular video meetings with their students. These can vary based on the ages of the students and the frequency of when a teacher interacts with their students, but most teachers realized quickly that they can’t use the same behavioral strategies (like proximity) that they use in a physical classroom. This can lead to a lack of student engagement and involvement in what is trying to be taught regardless of age.

These 25 strategies listed here are not meant to take the place of deeper learning. That kind of learning is generally better when done with a mix of asynchronous learning. That said, in order to get our students to that deeper state of learning with greater depth of knowledge (DOK) levels, we need to make sure they are engaged when we have synchronous conversations and discussions. Some of these strategies take little set-up while others might take more time and energy to make them really successful. The purpose of these tools is to draw students into the lesson/activity and make them engaged and looking forward to your next virtual class meeting.

While there are a lot of video meeting solutions out there, I’m going to focus many of the tools around the Zoom platform as it has some of the best interactive features and seems to be the most widely accepted in K-12 schools across the country. However, as many of these strategies can be used with any video platform or device, I only focused on Zoom-centric ideas on the first 5 strategies, the rest you can use on any platform. Also, kids (especially teenagers) can say and do that darnedest things, especially when being remotely hidden behind a screen. As you would with the physical classroom, I would strongly encourage teachers discuss norms when it comes to interacting over video chat with their students prior to any of these strategies.

Here are 25 strategies to engage students on your next Zoom meeting:

1. Share your screen 

I’m going to start out with one of the basics. While you may be doing many of your chats with just video, don’t forget that you have the ability to share part or all of your screen with your students. This can be something as simple as sharing a question of the day to an entire slide show. If you have a slideshow that you’ve already created for use in your classroom, don’t recreate the wheel, just launch it on your share screen and use built in Zoom tools like ‘raise hand’ or the chat room to have a floating backchannel as you go through your slides. One bit of advice, check what items you have on your desktop and in your “favorites” bar of an internet browser before you share that with your students. There’s nothing more embarrassing than you students seeing your latest beach pic or maybe your bookmark for you favorite drink recipe.

2. Use the Whiteboard feature

Of course, if you don’t want to share your screen you can always use the built-in whiteboard feature that comes with Zoom. This feature can take some getting used to, especially if you are using a mouse or trackpad. To use it, simply go to share your screen and choose “whiteboard”. A little tip – if you have tablet like an iPad, install the Zoom app and then join the meeting with your iPad as well. This works better for drawing especially if you have a nice stylus or Apple Pencil. (just be careful you have one of the devices muted to avoid echoes) Of course, as you get more comfortable with Zoom and student expectations, let your students also use the whiteboard feature to share their understanding. If you are not using Zoom, a tool like Classroomscreen.com has a bevy of tools including a whiteboard if you share your screen with your students.

3. Enable the Annotation Features

Another feature that you could use when sharing slides, photos, or websites is the annotation tools. You’ll want to check your account settings to make sure these features are enabled by default. Having these tools enabled, you’ll be able write over any image, highlight certain features of a website, and make the viewing experience for your students much more interactive.

4. Create breakout rooms for collaboration

My favorite of all the Zoom features for learning is the ability to create breakout rooms for your students. Unlike whiteboard and annotation features, the ability to create breakout rooms are not enabled by default. You’ll want to go into your account settings to enable this ability before using it with your students. Once enabled, you can have Zoom either automatically or manually assign students into rooms. Even if it’s automatically assigning, you can swap students out depending on group dynamics (note: it helps to have your students put their name on their Zoom login). You can even rename the rooms depending on group names or topics before assigning certain students to each room. The great thing about these rooms is that it can create a more collaborative setting than the large whole-group zoom experience. As the moderator you can float around and join rooms to check in on the discussion, post an announcement to all rooms, or even place a time limit on them. Once you ask students to rejoin the whole group and end the breakouts, they’ll have 60-seconds to wrap-up their discussion and rejoin. A powerful way to enable collaboration remotely! Check out the video below for a quick how-to:

5. Virtual backgrounds can be more than just fun

If you’ve been in any Zoom meeting the past couple of months, you’ve probably seen all sorts of crazy and fun virtual backgrounds. These can be hilarious but also distracting so some educators have disabled this feature for their group meetings. However, there could be some productive uses of these virtual backgrounds. Some examples of using virtual backgrounds might be re-enacting moments in history with the appropriate backdrop, selecting a geographic landmark they might be studying or “visiting” virtually, or just having students select either a solid green or red background to quickly show if they agree or disagree with a topic (hint: use Grid view for this). No matter the reason, virtual backgrounds can be much more than everyone acting like they are a character from The Office.

6. Play “I Spy” Backgrounds

If you really want your students to focus on everyone in the classroom, play a game of “I Spy” backgrounds. You can do this either with or without virtual backgrounds, but in essence you are describing things that you notice in the background of someone’s zoom call. Students then quickly have to search all the attendees and see which student’s background is being described. A fun, 5-minute way to get students hooked into their next Zoom meeting.

7. Scavenger Hunts

Probably one of the most popular games to play with students is a virtual scavenger hunt. The premise is simple, you have a list of items and then ask students to run through their house or apartment attempting to find the items and show them on the screen. A quick word of advice on this is to be sure you are not picking exact objects for them to find like “a toy cell phone”. Rather, create a category that could involve all sorts of different objects that qualify like “an object with numbers on it.”  This will reveal a lot of different interpretations of the clue as well as not limiting what students can find around them. You could also use software like Eventzee or Goosechase to do a virtual scavenger hunt throughout the day or week where students capture items you’ve identified with their camera.

8. Live Quiz or Trivia

Last week, I got to host a virtual trivia night via Zoom. We had over 150 people during the event that drew lots of positive feedback for keeping them engaged while also doing something fun during this stressful time. I used a pro-level software called Crowdpurr to run my event, but I could just as easily do something similar using a tool like Kahoot! or Quizziz. These quizzes or trivia can either be done live or student-paced. Having the scores decrease as time dwindles down on each question also prevents students from “googling” the answers as it will affect their score. Check out the latest “Challenge” feature within Kahoot to create more of a self-paced challenge for your students that might have limited access to technology or can’t participate synchronously.

9. Survey your students

In the classroom, we use the classic “raise your hand” to gather feedback from students. In Zoom, it’s no different as there is a “Raise hand” button available to students, but some savvy teachers have also figured out that the chat room can act as an impromptu survey as long as it involves brief responses. For better tracking, you could always use a tools like Nearpod, Polleverywhere, or Peardeck to gather feedback via a second screen or browser tab. Playing a game like “would you rather” would work well to test this out before using it more in-depth in later lessons.

10. Brainstorming ideas 

Gathering feedback in polls is one way to interact with students, but you could also use a shared collaborative space like a Padlet or Ziteboard to have students discuss and brainstorm ideas on shared spaces. You could also combine this with the breakout rooms (#4 from above) to have each group brainstorm a topic while you navigate from board to board. A tip here is to create the “walls” or spaces for the students to collaborate on so that you have a live link to what they are working on. Once you’ve split them into groups, share your link to each group to work on.

11. Interactive presentations

Yes, you can share your screen and even your slides with your students via a tool like Google Slides, Keynote or Powerpoint. But since you have them live, why not use a tool like Nearpod to actually guide them through the learning with you. Ideally, this would work best with two screens, but since everything these days is web-based you could guide them through the presentation on one screen while they follow along to your voice on the other. Doing this on an iPad? Share the join code with your students and then have them switch to the Nearpod app while leaving the Zoom app open in the background so they can hear your voice while following along. Of course, one of the best parts of using a tool like Nearpod is all the extra features like Virtual field trips, 3D models, Microsoft Sway, collaborative boards and more. One thing I’ve tried that worked well was embedding a PollEverywhere poll within my Nearpod. That way students didn’t have to jump out of the app ever.

12. Embrace the pause

Silence can be awkward in the classroom. It’s even more awkward when you are looking at more than two dozen teenagers on the screen. That said, it’s important to let students pause and reflect throughout the lesson. Using a countdown timer either on a slide, video or on a tool like ClassroomScreen.com helps students know when they should break from their pause or reflection. As I will mention on my next point, students need breaks from lengthy instruction throughout their day whether they be on a screen or not. If you are hosting a 50-minute lesson online, build in a 5 minute break for students to stretch or get a glass of water to keep their brain active.

13. Brainbreaks

Taking breaks throughout a lengthy lesson are important whether it be for a reflective pause or just an opportunity to stretch. Using tools like GoNoodle, teachers can lead a virtual dance party in their remote classroom to get the kids up and moving. One word of advice here, if you are playing a video through your system speakers, make sure you don’t have headphones on or adjust the audio source in Zoom by clicking on the up-carrot symbol next to “Mute” to change your selection of audio output. (see image on the right)

14. Reveal your answer

With everything being digital, it’s also nice to take a break from digital as you already have a Zoom meeting occupying the students’ screens. There are a wide variety of analog strategies you could use with your students by using paper and pencil. One might be sharing a math problem on your screen while students work out the results. Then, countdown and have them reveal their answers to their cameras at the same time. I’ve also seen teachers have success doing a “directed drawing” by pointing their webcam or phone camera down to a sheet a paper while they give instruction and then have students share their creations at the end.

15. Box of Lies

A big struggle with online learning via video is keeping students focus and attention, especially to the finer details. The game “Box of Lies” was made popular by Jimmy Fallon (video below) and would be a creative way to see if students are paying attention. The premise would be that the teacher or student has an object out of camera view and then has to describe the object. You could do this with all sorts of other ideas from historical figures to using descriptive words in another language.

 

16. Monster drawing

Taking that directed drawing from #14 to the next level by doing a Monster drawing. In this activity, a teacher or student read aloud descriptions of their drawing but don’t let other students see it. They have listen for information like “my monster has a rectangle body” or “my monster has 5 eyes, one of them is big and in the middle” to figure out the drawing. This helps kids both with descriptive words but also with listening and translating. In the end, have students show their creations on the screen to see who got closest to the description. This activity could be used in other areas as well such as re-creating a story character or describing a graph in math.

17. Organize projects online

Distance learning doesn’t just have to be about kids filling out digital worksheets or playing online learning games. Students can still do long-term projects either individually or in groups even though they final results may be different than what was done traditionally in the classroom. Using online project management and productivity tools like Trello, MeisterTask or ClickUp can help students struggling with organization and timelines. Coupling those tools with video meeting check-ins can help kids learn how to collaborate and complete a project online over a length of time.

18. Breakout a Digital BreakOut EDU

BreakoutEDU has always been one of my favorite ways to engage students of all ages by creating a series of clues and challenges that the students have to uncover. For the last couple of years they’ve been offering Digital BreakOutEDU as an online version of their platform. Teachers could leverage the “breakout” room feature of Zoom with a Digital BreakOutEDU and have teams solve the challenges within a certain timeframe. The great thing about their platform is they have already done most of the heavy lifting in creating the BreakOuts for you based on subject and age level. You can also check out this “Build Your Own” resource if you don’t have the funds to purchase a subscription.

19. Who’s who?

A fun non-tech game to play is “Who’s who?”.  In this game, students privately message the teacher some facts about themselves and then the teacher reveals the clues. Students then write down their guesses as to who the person is based on the clues. This could also be turned into “Two truths and a lie” fairly easily. Other adaptations could be students sending clues about historical figures, book characters, etc. that the class has to figure out.

20. Play BINGO

Who doesn’t love a good game of BINGO? While this isn’t the classic game with numbers, balls, and clever calls, it is using the set-up of Bingo as a way to review facts, geographical locations, scientific terms, or even mathematical applications. Using the Flippity.net BINGO tool, you create what goes in the squares and then you read out the clues while students fill out their own digital square or by printing a game card. Flippity actually lets you send out the cards via link or QR code as kids can fill in their cards digitally. Then when it’s over, have them share their screen and review their answers to see who wins!

21. Host a Game Show

Amongst some of the other Flippity.net tools is the classic Jeopardy-like game show. A great way to review information for a unit or novel study, you can fill in the back-end answers using a Google spreadsheet and then share your screen with the game board. Students can play individually, or you could pre-assign teams and then send them to breakout rooms to discuss what they think the answer might be.

22. Story Progression

You remember the “telephone game” or maybe the game “one-word stories”? This is a similar concept where you start the story and have random students add the next line. A story could start with “Once upon a time….” and then you could select the student by unmuting their mic. By doing it randomly rather than in a specific order, you cause all students to be thinking of a response rather than just waiting until their turn. Mix it up with story recaps or historical fiction to see what they come up with.

23. Autodraw Slam

For those of us that are not budding artists or struggle with drawing with a mouse, I’ve long been a fan of Autodraw.com. This web-based application has you draw out a shape as close as you can while the AI guesses what it might be. When you see an object that is close to what you are drawing, you select it to place into your drawing. One fun thing I’ve tried with this is having students draw their favorite movie scene and then putting the picture on a Padlet wall for everyone to guess the movie.

24. Digital Flashcards

Flashcards can be pretty boring, especially if you are just using them yourself to practice terms, definitions or maybe even a foreign language. Now that we are remote, it becomes even more challenging to find a partner or group to practice with. Using tools like Fishbowl and Quizlet Live can be leveraged to create fun and energizing ways to have kids practice their terms either as a group or in breakout rooms.

25. Polygraph Questions

One of the hidden nuggets I always love showing teachers is the Polygraph feature contained within the free, web-based math app called Desmos. This tool acts creates a “Guess who?” like game where 2 students are randomly paired up via a join code you share with them on the screen. You create the cards and student A choses one of the items to be their “mystery item”. As you can upload any image, the mystery item could be a person, place, thing, word, math problem, etc. Then student B has to ask yes or no questions and decide which items they can eliminate. Polygraph creates a private loop between the students and the teacher can see the questions and guesses that each student is making to better check for understanding.

Additional Resources:

While most of these activities I either have done with students or teachers (both live and online), there are hundreds of other resources and games out there available to use freely with your students as you teach remotely. Here are two that I’ll give shout-outs to as I found them while writing this post:

TCEA Tech Notes – Zoom Games – This post came out while I was writing this post and contains many other games like the scavenger hunt and Pictionary that teachers could benefit from using.

Quarantine Games – This google doc compiled by @ihartnia has pages of board games, card games, and other things that you can play online.

I hope you enjoy my list and please feel free to share any other games or ideas you have in the comments below. Here’s an infographic with all 25 of the strategies (ironically) on a Zoom call. 🙂

Stay safe and stay sane!

 

How Prepared is Your School for a Long-Term Pandemic?

It’s been interesting to watch the world react to the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the “Coronavirus”. In the age of social media and instant notifications on our mobile devices, it’s made this pandemic seem like the worst on record when in fact, it’s not even close. That said, as with any disaster or pandemic, there comes an increased awareness to how schools and districts respond to it. Many schools are on alert, creating plans and awaiting guidance. While others, like this school in Seattle, are shutting down as a precaution.

Last week I posted the question of how schools prepared for a long-term closure using Facebook, Twitter, and group texts as ways to crowd-source responses.  Those responses varied from “packets, we’ll just give them lots of packets” to “we’ll use Google Classroom to hand out assignments.”  Neither of these responses are inherently good or bad, but it does open the door to a slew of questions schools and districts need to be asking themselves when it comes to continuing the learning even when the building is closed to students.

This post is a cumulation of those responses crowd-sourced from school administrators across the globe. As every district is different, it’s impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach to long-term closure. However, I do hope these questions can help guide you as you see what kind of plan you have in place should the unfortunate happen. Being from Texas, I know that weather can cause long-term closure as well (see Hurricane Harvey). For the purposes of the following questions, I’m going to assume that it’s a pandemic and that it’s affecting the entire community and surrounding districts. I will also post some ideas and solutions that were shared with me in the hopes of sparking an idea for your school or community.

1. How will you deliver learning to your students?

I purposefully put “learning” instead of “content” as too often times we default to what we know. Learning online looks a lot different than learning in a physical classroom. Some mentioned using LMS platforms like Schoology or Google Classroom to deliver the learning to their students but this assumes that A) they have devices and B) they have internet access (see next question). Also, most of the responses pertained to students in grades 6 and up. Some had some measures for 3-5 students while most had no plans for online learning when it came to K-2 students.

Ideas/Solutions: As mentioned, using LMS platforms seemed to be the most common response to this question, with Google Classroom being mentioned the most. Sometimes these can be online assignments, digital worksheets, or journal prompts. Some mentioned using live chats, YouTube, and Google Hangouts as a way to supplement the learning, including having “office hours” where teachers take 10-15 minutes to check in virtually with each of their students. A couple of districts mentioned their teachers creating lessons on Nearpod and using the “student-paced” option to send work home as it tracks their answers and allows them to upload work. Andrew Wallace from South Portland Maine Schools shared another creative solution. In his district, they send home a “one page cheat sheet” with passwords and usernames for online resources like Newsela, Tumble Books, Overdrive, and BrainPop (which already has a new lesson on the CoronaVirus – see below) In Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, Kyle Berger deploys a Classlink portal for all teachers, parents and students to access resources. Of course, this all still assumes that all kids have devices and internet at home which leads me to my second question.

2. How many of your students DO NOT have online access at home and how do you deliver learning to them?

This is a question many schools may already know the answer to. Online survey tools like Survey Monkey and Bright Bytes can help collect this data (ironically, you have to be online to take the survey) or you could collect this information during school registration. Regardless of how you collect it, you’ll likely have a percentage of students without access that you’ll have to plan for.

Ideas/Solutions: There were a WIDE variety of ideas and solutions for this question. Bonnie Blan from Southwest Christian School was able to leverage discounted internet access for families in need using Kajeet and the BroadbandNow initiative. Others mentioned giving out hotspots as it would be likely that students wouldn’t be able to go to places like McDonald’s or Starbucks during a quarantine (although some adults might risk it for coffee :). With either of these solutions, you would need to set these up well before disaster strikes, but I like that schools are solving this issue regardless. In general, the responses from educators seemed to indicate that you should be prepared to have some analog mixed with digital. Writing in journals and reading are easy enough for ELA, but having prompts for writing helps. Some schools mentioned having students check out extra books out of the library just in case.

3. How prepared are staff and what is their role?

Like Jennifer mentioned, setting up a bunch of brand new tools during a stressful time like a long-term closure wouldn’t be wise. Staff will be worried about their own families as well as their students. Anything that is implemented would either need to be put in place before hand or easily deliverable to a teacher’s existing curriculum and instruction. While not ideal, this could mean just sending home paper or digital worksheets, but even that can be a challenge.

Ideas/Solutions: Having a plan in place with deliverables to staff would be a smart thing to create and have on hand regardless of a global pandemic. These can range from having some one-page step-sets that show teachers how to deliver a variety of content on your LMS of choice to an internal website with a range of ideas for online learning. Schools can leverage tools like Microsoft Teams as a way to collaborate or have conversations or create Padlet walls that students can post ideas on. Any and all solutions should be web-based, device agnostic and able to work on a smartphone as that may be the only online access they have.

One bit of advice from Jennifer Pearson, a Tech Coordinator who works at the International School of Nanshan Shenzhen in China – “There should be a plan. The plan should be consistent and NOT introduce a bunch of new techy tools.”

4. Are these days recognized by your state or country as actual instructional days?

As you might imagine, each state and country has different rules around this. Here in Texas, we count instructional days based on the actual amount of minutes our students are physically in school. While there might be exemptions made, currently those days won’t count and schools would presumably have to extend the school year to make up for the loss of days and weeks while shut down which would likely push through the end of June. While I think learning should still continue even if your state or country doesn’t recognize it officially, this brings about many other questions, including contract lengths of your professional teaching staff.

Ideas/Solutions: Some states, like Illinois, recognizes a handful of “eLearning Days” that can often times come about due to poor weather. These days are counted as official instructional days and were recognized by the state, which means no make-up days at the end of the year. Phil Hintz from Gurnee D56 in the Chicago area was a part of a handful of districts that ran the pilot for eLearning days starting in 2016. While not a solution for weeks of closure, the framework they built was around giving students windows of time to complete assignments and using Title 1 funds to get those without access Kajeet Hotspots. Here’s a video of his school’s experience with eLearning day.

5. What role do other “non-classroom” professionals play?

In an average school building there are many professional, salaried staff working along side the classroom teachers. Some of these teach special area subjects like art, music and PE. Others include counselors, nurses, and campus administration. While the majority of the interaction of students will come from the teacher in an eLearning concept, these staff still have a role to play.

Ideas/Solutions: Principals are the go to source for school-to-home communication. They should be posting updates regularly to both parents but also to staff and help identify families that might not have online access at home. They also have to set expectations for teaching staff in making sure online instruction is consistent. Special area teachers should continue to serve students and provide instruction whether it be having students post a video of them doing push-ups on a FlipGrid or capture their art and reflect using a digital portfolio tool like Bulb. Counselors and nurses can provide support to families in need either through one-on-one at home visits or through online video chat tools.

6. What about itinerant and paraprofessional staff?

Those professional staff on salary can rest easy knowing that they are still getting their paycheck every month, even if the school is closed. Sure they may have to work some extra days, but they aren’t clocking in to work an hourly job. Custodians, administrative assistants, cafeteria workers and teacher aides don’t have that luxury. For them, a shut down could be a devastating hit to them financially if they aren’t working.

Ideas/Solutions: There are still roles for many of these staff to play even if the building is closed, but they may be very different compared to the normal school day. Custodial staff should do a deep cleaning of the building and prepare it for the eventual return of students. Admin assistants can help connect teachers with students and vice versa as they have access to parent contact information. Cafeteria workers can help provide and deliver meals to those families in need. Teacher aides can use tools like Google Hangouts to meet with those students they serve and check in or assist on the work that they have to do at home. In some cases, while human contact in masse is to be avoided, they can also make one-on-one home visits like the counselors and nurses. While the building may be closed, there is still plenty of work to be done and these staff are vital to keeping things running efficiently as well as helping our students with special needs.

In summary, there is a LOT to consider before shutting a school down for a few days or even a few weeks. The questions above are just the tip of the iceberg, but they come from a multitude of librarians, teachers, and administrators across the world that genuinely care about keeping the progress of learning happening despite the closure of a physical building.

What plans does your school or district have in place? Please post your ideas and solutions in the comments section below. If I’ve learned anything from this post, it’s that we all are better when we work and collaborate on ideas together.

A Scary Story From A Not-Too-Distant Future Classroom

As Ms. Shannon entered her learning studio with the familiar ‘whoosh’ sound of the automatic doors opening, she noticed something different about her students.

It wasn’t the dried blood pouring from their ears or the vampire-like teeth they seemed to all be sporting. Being a teacher for 20-plus years, she had become accustomed to kids not following along with the school rules banning any type of costumes or “Halloween attire” from the school. Having fought (and lost) many a battle with parents, she had given up hope in some ways that the kids (or better yet, their parents) would actually honor any type of school rule.

No, what was different was that they all seemed to be actually sitting quietly waiting for some direction.

She dreaded this day.

From her first day as a teacher in 2020, to the present year 2041, she always hated dealing with typical rowdy behaviors from her 3rd/4th grade mixed class on October 31. It became a huge pain to try to keep them engaged in any type of lesson. She tried to have them create their own virtual haunted houses and even used augmented reality to zombify their “Facetagram” profiles. Nothing seemed to work.

They were obedient kids, but their boredom tolerance was almost non-existent. She felt as if she had to always entertain them and on Halloween, when they had visions of ‘safe-for-school’ candy dancing in their heads, she knew it would be particularly difficult to keep them engaged in any task.

So, this year, she decided to try something different. Something that would TRULY scare them.

“Class, today we are going to take a surprise field trip,” Ms. Shannon said.

“What? Where? Today? Our parents didn’t get a note, how can we do this?” the students questioned.

“Will it be a virtual field trip?” some pondered as the teacher liked to integrate virtual reality into her lessons regularly.

“No, it will be an ACTUAL field trip,” the teacher responded.

Following some moans and groans, the students slowing rose from their flexible furniture and ambled in zombie-like fashion past the interactive wallpaper at the front of the class (which was currently displaying a misty cemetery setting with headstones that had each of their names).

“Should we take our tablets?” one student asked.

“No, for this you will only need your eyes, your feet, and a snack,” replied the teacher.

As the self-driving bus landed in front of the school, the students filed in with a murmur. There was a mixture of excitement and fear. Usually all field trips had to be approved by parents, and most of these students had never gone anywhere without their parents careful planning. From pre-planned “play dates” when they were 3 and 4 years old, to the cavalcade of TaeKwonDo lessons, Oboe Practice, and Drone Racing League meets, they had all lived extremely scheduled and pre-approved lives.

After a quick flight out of the city, the bus came to rest in the middle of a forest.

“Alright class, everyone out!” the teacher exclaimed.

The students noticed her demeanor had shifted from grumpy to cheerful, which put them all at ease, albeit she seemed to be overly cheerful.

“Students, today you are going to be a part of something you have never experienced. In a few moments, I’m going to leave you alone here in these woods.”

The students shifted uncomfortably in their self-lacing shoes. Some began to look nervously to each of their classmates as if to say, “Do you think this is real?”

“Somewhere, there is a note giving you directions that you’ll have to uncover, but until then, good luck.”

And with that she stepped onto the bus which quickly flew up into low-hanging grey clouds and disappeared.

For what seemed like a lifetime, the students stood still, mouths agape.

“How could she leave us here?” one boy with an interactive t-shirt displaying a 38-year old dancing Billie Ellish commented.

“She’ll be back. I’m sure of it,” a girl with three pig-tails reassured.

After a few minutes, when they realized she wouldn’t be coming back, many of the students began to gather in small groups trying to decide what to do next. One group elected to stay right where they were until their parents came and got them. Another group started to cry and scream from the stress. A third group immediately began looking for the note the teacher had mentioned.

One of the girls in the third group, Sheri, had been a part of “the Scouts” as they had now been named. (Boy and Girl Scouts had been merged in 2036) Sheri had some knowledge of survival skills and immediately took up a leadership position in the group.

“Listen, we can’t wait here for someone to come get us. This is a challenge that we must overcome together. Our teacher is always talking about how we need to collaborate more, think critically, and problem-solve. I think this is a test to see if we can do that,” she stated.

“There are 20 of us here. If we work together, I’m sure we can find the note the teacher mentioned and get out of here.”

“LOOK!!” one of the boys shouted. “There’s an old cabin over there!”

The students gathered closely together as the dilapidated cabin seemed to leer at them behind spider webs and dead vines climbing along the sides of its walls.

“What are you crazy?!? Go into that place? NO WAY” one of the kids commented.

Sheri reassured them,”You don’t really think our teacher would leave us out here with something dangerous? She’d get in so much trouble from our parents. I think this is all an elaborate trick.”

As the words escaped her mouth though, Sheri began to wonder. She had noticed a change lately with Ms. Shannon. She seemed to be getting more and more pail as the year wore on. Her hair, normally perfectly placed, had become disheveled. She seemed stressed. And not just the normal stress that teaching 60 hours a week for a small paycheck had brought upon her life. No, this was different.

Secretly, Sheri thought that Ms. Shannon had finally cracked.

As the students huddled together and slowly approached the cabin, a deep fear had crept into all of their brains. They had never done anything without first checking for consent from an adult. A large group of kids decided to stay in the very spot where they had been left by the bus, opting to collect their snacks in a pile and await for their parents or the teacher to come back for them.

The smaller group, led by Sheri, progressed into the cabin. Inside, it was musty. There were strange all-in-one desk looking torture devices set in rows in the room. An old interactive whiteboard from yesteryear hung tilted off one of the walls. What was this place?

One boy named Leo chimed in, “This almost looks like a learning studio. I think they used to call it a ‘classroom’.”

Other students nodded. There were old, sun-bleached bulletin boards on the walls and alphabet letters strung up across the top of the wall (although four letters E,H,L, and P were missing).

At the front of the room was an extremely large desk. The students had never seen a desk of this size. One of them commented, “It almost looks like it could be a teacher’s desk, but teachers don’t have desks anymore so I’m confused.”

On the middle of the desk laid a single sheet of paper.

Sheri, with hands shaking, picked up the note.

It read:

You have all lived very scheduled lives. You have amazing skills when it comes to using technology, however, none of you have ever learned how to think or entertain yourselves. So today, I’m going to challenge you.

The note continued:

You have no directions. You can do whatever you want. There are no devices to help guide you out of these woods. You are miles from any resources or Wifi. There is only one way out.

Once you have figured out how to think for yourself, you will be freed from the forest. 

A loud SCREAM came from the cabin. The group of kids outside sprawled and ran in all directions.

I wish this tale had a happy ending, but it doesn’t.

The students would never leave those woods.

And to this day, if you ever hover near the old school house planted in the middle of woods, you might hear their confused cries for help and direction as they sadly never figured out how to think for themselves.

The Marriage Between IT & Curriculum

Relationships are always a work in progress. Kayne and Kim. Will and Jada. Beyonce and Jay-Z. Carl and Renee. The list goes on and on.  Some couples make it, others end in divorce. While every couple has its own unique circumstances and situation, there are some common tips to make their marriage more successful.

Over the last few years, more and more, I feel like a marriage counselor when it comes to the couple known as “IT & Curriculum.” This relationship is a tricky one, because there is no way to opt out. While my district has what I would call a very healthy relationship between the two, it wasn’t always that way. And when I go out and speak with other districts, there seems to be some common problems that arise between curriculum and IT.

Last week at #TLTechLive event in Boston, I had the honor of being the opening keynote to address this topic head on. And while I won’t recap the entire presentation, I found some interesting insights over the course of our one hour “counseling session” that I thought I would share here.

Presenting the vows of Ed Tech

The Vows

Like any marriage, there need to be a set of agreed upon vows or standards. During my session last week, I donned some preacher robes (actually a graduation gown) to deliver the vows between IT and Curriculum. Here’s an abbreviated version:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate this thing called….Learning.

Curriculum – Do you solemnly swear to check interoperability standards before purchasing an application?

IT – Do you solemnly swear to being open to new ideas, as long as it furthers the learning of our kids?

….in sickness and health, through printer errors and slow wifi, until death or the end of public education do us part….may I have the ringtone?”

As I recited the vows on stage, I realized that wedding vows sound an awful lot like Acceptable Use Policies.

Patient #1 – Dealing with Insecurity

With all the new applications or online textbooks being purchased almost daily it seems, our schools have many points of vulnerability when it comes to data. The IT side of the relationship wants to be open to these new programs and applications, but also is concerned about security and data privacy.

While there is no magic bullet answer to this relationship issue, many districts and states are moving toward a standard agreement when it comes to the use of student data. In fact, in Massachusetts, there is a Student Privacy Alliance which connects districts across the state to leverage the collective power in getting companies to agree to their student data privacy agreement.

With all the recent news with the Zuckerberg testimony to Congress and the subsequent avalanche of companies changing their terms of service when it comes to user data, this issue in the relationship between IT and Curriculum could soon be going away, allowing the happy couple to finally go on the honeymoon they’ve always wanted.

On stage with one of my ‘patients’ @MatthewXJoseph

Patient #2 – Spicing things up…in the classroom

If you’ve ever been a teacher and attended some state-wide or national ed tech conference, there is almost always some app or tool that you learn about that you want to try. However, when you get back home, IT says “no” before you even attempt to pilot it with your students.

The truth is, there is more than just IT that needs to vet new tools. I’ve seen many an app out there that is really just students mindlessly tapping on screens and not vetting in any type of research. In our district we have a workflow for requesting new apps for students (the app store isn’t on their iPads) as well as our League of Innovators – a group of early adopters that are willing to try and test new software or hardware. What mechanisms does your district have in place for trying new applications or tools? Is there a process for piloting new ideas?

These questions can sting an unstable relationship as it gives IT the impression that you are happy with what they are offering and your eye is starting to wander. However, a stable relationship has an open dialogue and a process for getting new ideas, if effective, into the hands of students.

Patient #3 – Feeling out of sync

After the honeymoon phase, typically a couple decides to purchase their first house. In the case of IT & Curriculum that could be in the form of a Learning Management System (LMS) or perhaps a large online textbook adoption. This new purchase has many needs and requires the attention of both sides of the relationship.

For IT, there is nothing more frustrating than finding out that Curriculum has purchased a new adoption that either doesn’t work on the district’s existing devices OR requires a lot of heavy lifting to get student data into the system. The good news is, there are more and more platforms moving to a Single-Sign On (SSO) approach and with the One Roster standard from IMS Global becoming more widely adopted, the issues of data uploads via .csv files may soon go away.

Patient #4 – Worried about our kids

@SimplySuzy – final patient of the day

At some point in a relationship, kids enter the picture. With IT & Curriculum, they are there on day one. The focus of both ‘parents’ in this marriage should ultimately be the students. Many times, districts purchase expensive software or applications in the hopes of enhancing student learning.  But how do we know if that’s actually happening? How do we measure the effectiveness of the programs we are using?

For me, it means pulling up usage statistics of over 40 applications or online resources. This process can take more than a week and the data comes in a variety of formats which is rarely longitudinal in terms of usage. Again, the good news here is that there are now tools in development to help with this efficacy of use and ultimately, learning. One company I’ve been advising with over the past year that does this very thing is CatchOn. Their motto is simple – “Simplify the evaluation of Ed Tech usage.”

Once you have the data you need at the touch of your finger, the next challenge becomes those hard conversations in the relationship around budget. Maybe curriculum is spending too much or IT is too much of a penny-pincher, whatever the case, once you have the usage data you can make better decisions for your “family” around whether to cut a program or keep it and provide more professional learning around it.

How do we save this marriage?

Through all of the issues between this couple, the keys to an effective relationship sound eerily similar to that of an actual marriage:

  1. Better communication
  2. Empathy and understanding of both sides
  3. Being open to new ideas
  4. Working together, not separate

And ultimately…we need to stay together…for the kids.

Editor’s note: Looking to learn more? Check out my book Mobile Learning Mindset: The IT Professional’s Guide to Implementation which includes an entire chapter dedicated to the marriage between IT and Curriculum.

Digital Parenting BINGO

I’ve spoken with parents from all over the country. One item that constantly comes up is “how do I know what I don’t know?” when it comes to raising kids in the digital age. While I always emphasize that tech or no-tech, parenting is still largely about relationships, communication, honesty, feedback, rewards and consequences. When you add a layer of technology to parenting, there are some additional items to be aware of and some “tools” you should have in your digital parenting toolkit. I created the Digital Parenting Bingo card as a way to easily show some talking points for parents that are dealing with either school-issued devices and/or personal mobile devices. Listed below are the talking points listed out in greater detail. Feel free to use and share with your community!

Devices in a common space – whenever possible, try and keep devices in an open, common, shared space. Even with the best filters, it’s a good idea to not allow devices behind closed doors.

Check filter settings – While devices are filtered on campus, they are on your network at home. Check your filter settings with your Internet Service Provider. Many provide free filtering software or you could use a service like OpenDNS or Disney’s Circle to help monitor and regulate activity on your home network.

Turn off devices 30 minutes before bed – The brain comes equipped with a circadian rhythm that adjusts based on the day-night cycle of the sun. In his TED Talk, Dr. Russell Foster suggests that ideally, you should turn off bright lights and screens at least 30 minutes before bed to get a better night’s sleep.

Use Guided Access for focus – In the settings of your iOS device, scroll to General->Accessibility. There you find a tool called “Guided Access”. Once enabled, it will lock the user into an app until unlocked. The code used for take the device out of Guided Access is different from the one used to unlock the device. For more information, check this support page.

Charge the device nightly – One of the most common issues that affects learning with mobile devices, is forgetting to charge the device at night. Investigate setting up a centralized charging station in your home and try to avoid having your kids charge their devices in their bedrooms.

Rules at a friend’s house – A new variable when sending your child to a friend’s or neighbor’s house are reviewing what their policies are when it comes to the internet and mobile device use. Review these rules with your child and, if possible, with the family he/she is visiting.

Know their account information – You should have access to all your child’s accounts and passwords. This shouldn’t be set up as a way to “spy” on your kids as much as it is to help with openness and transparency about what your child is  doing and posting online.

Be a good role model – Do you tell your kids how to act with their mobile device, but then you demonstrate the opposite? Imparting wisdom on your kids is important and much of that comes with how you model those best practices when it comes to your own mobile device.

No devices at dinner table – With our virtual world continually intermingling with our face-to-face world, many families use dinner as a sacred “no tech” time. A time to have conversation, reflect and discuss the happenings of members in the family.

Spot check the photo roll – Many of today’s social media apps are very photo-driven. Periodically, spot check items in the photo roll and also which apps are accessing the camera on the device.

What happens if they come across inappropriate content – Even the best filters fail. If your child comes across something inappropriate online, discuss what steps they should take to communicate this to parents. Sometimes these can turn into teachable moments, but not if your child is hiding it from you.

Discuss how the device is being used – Ask your child to share examples of how he/she uses the device in and out of school. Doing this allows you to switch roles with your child as you become the learner and he/she becomes the teacher.

Who are they sharing their data with? – Even as adults, we often quickly read through the ToS (terms of service) agreements with companies that access our data. Be sure to review which apps have access to your child’s personal information. Also, make sure they are not sharing their account information with friends or people they meet online.

Balance entertainment with educational screen time – While there needs to be a balance of screen time versus non-screen time, you should investigate how they are using their screen time as well. Educational, interactive screen time has a more positive effect on the brain versus passive entertainment-based screen time.

Check battery usage for which apps they are using – If your device’s battery  is draining too fast, or you want to “see” what apps your child is using regularly on their device, look at the battery usage under settings. It will detail which apps have been on the screen the past 24 hours and 7 days.

Set limits – The average person spends over 4 hours on their mobile phone. At times, kids will need help monitoring both how and how often they use technology. Work with them on setting realistic limits as to how much time they spend on their mobile device.

Check browser history – If you suspect your child may be visiting inappropriate sites, check the browser history in either Chrome or Safari. If you notice the history is blank or they have been surfing in “private” or “incognito” mode, you might want to have a conversation with them about what sites they are visiting and why they would want to hide those from you.

Create a techie agreement with your child— Rather than come up with a set of rules and limits for you child, work with them to create a tech or media use agreement. There are several examples of these on the internet that you can start with, but it’s important your child takes ownership in creating the agreement.

Enable restrictions if necessary— If your child is having a hard time focusing or using the device appropriately, you have the ability to set additional restrictions on the device. Here are steps on how to set up parental restrictions on an iOS device.

Balance between tech and non-tech times— Too much continuous screen time and sedentary behavior can be unhealthy for people. Part of being a responsible user of technology is knowing when to take breaks throughout the day.

Encourage problem-solving— We want our children to ultimately be self-sufficient. There are times when a website or app isn’t work they way it should on your child’s device. Before running to a parent or teacher, encourage your child to troubleshoot first and try to solve the problem on their own.

Keep device protected— The majority of device damage comes during transport between classes or between home and school. Use the district-provided protected case whenever in transit and be careful when tossing backpacks  on the ground as the impact could damage the device inside.

What happens when they come across an online stranger?— Just like when coming across inappropriate content, you want to encourage your child to share with you if they are ever approached by someone online that they don’t know.

Spot check email and social media accounts— Having access to their accounts is one step, but also occasionally spot-checking email, text messages and social media accounts can help keep you informed of what your child is posting. Ideally, this would also involve a conversation with your child about transparency and not necessarily involve you “spying” on their accounts.

The above list and bingo card are NOT meant to be a substitute for parenting. While some of the tools allow you to check-in or “spy” on what your kids are doing, I would always encourage you to have a conversation with your child on being transparent about what they are doing and saying online and on their devices.

It’s Time for a New Core Curriculum

Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. For decades, these subjects have been the staple of the modern American educational system. The creative arts and physical education have also been played somewhat of a secondary role in that system. While all of these subject areas play a role in the development of our youth, they are based on career needs of the mid-20th century. According to this Pew Research study on Changes in the American Workplace, there has been an exponential demand on the social and analytical skills.

However, in our schools, we still teach the same “four core” areas and then fill in the rest with other subjects ranging from World Languages to Robotics. What’s interesting is, those original core 4 were considered the staple in preparing students for a 1950’s factory model work force. In this Sir Ken Robinson animated video, he talks about how our schools are designed for the assembly line.  One only needs to look at the following graphic of companies that no longer exist to see that the American economy has shifted rapidly since the early 1970’s.

Compare the above with the graphic below which shows companies that didn’t exist in the early 1970’s that are now on Forbes top 200 list.

While there are some mainstays in terms of travel, service and retail companies, there is a huge growth in technology based companies. Now taking these new companies into account, let’s focus on the skills they desire for their future employee and see where schools stack up.  This graphic by Tracy Clark (@tracyclark08) has been one that I’ve shared for many years.  It’s sort of a “Soft Skills Bingo” chart of things that employers in those Fortune 500 companies look for when hiring.

I don’t see any of the “core four” subjects listed on that chart.  While you could definitely argue that communication plays a role in language arts and critical thinking plays a role in math and science, I start to wonder why we are trying to “fit” these soft skills into our 1950’s core?

What would a modern core curriculum look like? And probably even more importantly, how would we transition from the current curriculum to a more updated model?

Let’s break apart both of these questions so I can attempt an answer.

Future Ready Curriculum –

If we were starting the American school system from scratch today, knowing what skills our students will need, we could change the subjects and not base them on what big-time publishers want us to focus on with our students.  Building on some of the great work from FutureReady.org, the ISTE NETS for Students and keeping in mind those most desired future job skills from above, I would propose the development of the following 7 courses for every student:

Collaborative Outreach – A way for students to both serve the communities around them, but also work in teams, plan projects, and practice empathy.

Entrepreneurialism  – Thinking “outside-the-box” but in a class form. Many of the ideas from this class could work hand-in-hand with the other courses listed here. Again, working in teams, students create solutions or products with the goal of developing the entrepreneurial spirit.

Communication & Design – Oral and written communication still play a major role in our current system, and by all accounts they will in the future. However, what about visual communication? What about making a visually pleasing presentation to pitch a product or reflect on an outreach opportunity? This course would encompass those skills.

Creative Expression – Having outlets to express yourself creatively and time for passion projects is huge in the workplaces of Google and Apple. The same should be true for schools. This course could be all about an app you are designing or a sculpture you are trying to complete (either by hand or by 3D printing).

Critical Problem-Solving – Much of the curriculum from math and science would fall into this course, although elements would be sprinkled in the other courses (like economics in the entrepreneurial course and science in the Environmental Mindfulness & Outreach courses)

Investigative Thinking – This course takes many of the research skills taught in social studies and applies it with a twist. How can looking back and investigating history help predict future outcomes? Traditional statistics would play a role in this course too.

Environmental Mindfulness – We need to allow time for students to be outside and/or active during the traditional class day. We also need to allow time for students to reflect on what they have learned and set goals for their future. This course takes some of traditional P.E. and mixes in meditation and deeper thinking exercises as well.

Transition to the Future

Creating these courses is the easy part. The hard part would be transitioning our current core areas into the above. It will take me an entire new blog post to outline that plan for this transition, as it involves some heavy change in mindset (by both educators and community). In the meantime, here’s where I feel parts of our current courses would fit in the above new curriculum:

Mathematics – Critical Problem-Solving, Entrepreneurialism, Investigative Thinking

Language Arts – Communication & Design, Investigative Thinking, Creative Expression

Science – Critical Problem-Solving, Environmental Mindfulness, Collaborative Outreach

Social Studies – Investigative Thinking, Communication & Design, Collaborative Outreach

World Languages – Collaborative Outreach, Communication & Design

Fine and Performing Arts – Creative Expression

Physical Education – Environmental Mindfulness

Career and Technology – Entrepreneurialism, Collaborative Outreach, Creative Expression, Communication & Design

If we really want to prepare kids for what’s next, whether that be in a high-tech career or the service industry, we need to transition our curriculum into areas that will help them be more successful in a highly automated future. I feel like the new core curriculum I am proposing does that while at the same time folding in some of the ‘classic’ curriculum models of our educational fore-fathers.

What did I miss? Chime in on the comments below.

 

Creating Time for Your Inner-Genius

I had a major problem in my last year as a first grade teacher. I had been teaching for several years and the students were so far ahead with two months to go that I had to figure out what to do with them. The year before, I decided to give them a head start on second grade curriculum thinking they would lose some during the summer break. I discovered that this was a major no-no and akin to taking a teacher’s personal parking space. Following a pretty good tongue-lashing by the second grade teachers, I was entering April with a choice, do I do it again?  Or do I figure out something else to do for our final 2 months together?

One thing that always bothered me as a teacher was the curriculum. The school I was teaching at and the team I was teaching with would rarely stray from it. The Teacher’s Edition was like a Holy Bible for a newer teacher as it provided the scope, sequence and pacing of delivery of content. There was one MAJOR problem with this….it didn’t take into account the kids. I was forcing them to learn math through fake story problems involving trains moving in opposite directions and learn history of whatever the textbook or standard dictated and never any more than that.

So with almost all the first grade content covered and a couple months of school left, I decided to consult the most important people in the school about what to do with the time….the students. I asked them what they wanted to learn about for the remainder of our time together. I had hoped for maybe one or two ideas but instead I got 22 different ideas for 22 different kids. It makes sense when you think about it. They each are unique and have different passions, so why wouldn’t they come up with things they are interested in?  The choices ranged from tornadoes to the actress Rachel Weisz (yes, a little boy named Sean was obsessed with her).

After gathering their list of ideas I presented them with a challenge – tie in all the core areas of curriculum – writing, science, reading, math and social studies into their passion and present a final project the represents all of these areas. While the school day was still fairly structured with centers and finishing up the final pieces of first grade curriculum, I started giving them an hour or more each day to work on their “passion project”.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this is exactly the way companies like Google work with their 20% time. It’s also the basis behind the concept of “Genius hour” in schools. Spend the majority of your time working on the “work” but then carve out pockets of time to explore your passions and inner genius. I’ve also heard it referred to as “Interest-based Learning.”  Whatever you want to call it, I stumbled into it my last year of teaching and immediately had regret. Not regret for doing it, but regret for not doing it sooner.

The content of our COWs – Apple’s iBook

The classroom bubbled with energy whenever the students had time to work on their projects. With only 4 computers in the room (do you remember Compaq computers?), they had limited research time and time to create. I ended up locating the one COW (Computers on Wheels) at the time which was full of a dozen pearl-white Apple iBooks (image left). I told the rest of the school that I would be the computer “farmer” in charge of the COW until the end of the year as my kids were using it heavily to wrap up their projects.

The amount of creativity energy flowing out of room 52 that year was breath-taking. During the last week of school, each of the students presented their passion project. I invited their parents in to see the final outcomes. Mary’s project on horses involved a history of horse migration to North America, an original poem on horses, and even math story problems on horses (“If two horses leave a barn at the same time heading in opposite directions…”).  Every student rose to the challenge and while it was hard for some to tie in the core content areas (Rachel Weisz was particularly challenging), they each accomplished the goals on the rubric.

So how do we make the time in schools for students to follow their inner-genius or passion? Some schools create Genius Hour time one day a week or one class period a week. Others, like one of our elementary campuses, creates something called “Enrichment Clusters” (based on the work of Joseph Renzulli) where not only do the students get to explore their passions, but the teachers get to teach their passions as well. Courses range from coding to yoga to golf in these clusters where students learn and ultimately present their project at the end of a 9-week time period.

As the students in my class wrapped up their projects that year, I felt extremely rewarded for making the choice I had for our time together those final weeks.They had the time to explore their inner-genius and had rewarded me by showing their learning. Thusly, I wanted to reward them for taking on this idea with such fervor. I tried to find some sort of trinket or object for each of them associated with their project. The boy who’s passion was Harry Potter got a stuff-three headed dog named Fluffy. The girl who was passionate about surfing got a charm bracelet full of different surf boards.

Oh, and in case you are wondering what happened with the student who created the Rachel Weisz project, I decided to reach out to the actress’ handlers but didn’t get a response. I ended up asking Sean to present on the last day just in case she decided to send a note or something. On the last day of school, his reward arrived:

It’s amazing what students can accomplish if you give them some voice and some choice. As a teacher, we need to figure out how to make this time for our students. We all have an inner-genius, we just need the time to explore it.

 

 

Eye-Opening Reflections on the #Student4aDay Challenge

My pre-requisite teenage selfie before I start the day

My pre-requisite selfie (with hoodie) before I started the day.

I’ve been blessed to experience amazing professional development from around the world.  I’ve had incredible, powerful conversations with people in my PLN via social media that help me learn and grow.  All that said, yesterday’s #Student4aDay Challenge was the most eye-opening and possibly most life-altering experience for me as an administrator in a public school.  What follows is my reflection on the day and some major “Aha’s” that I hope will guide both the future of professional development for our teachers but also the lives of our students. For those of you that want a play-by-play recap of the day, check out the hashtag #Student4aDay on twitter.

About the challenge:

I blogged out my predictions and a little bit of the background for this challenge in this post, but the gist is I wanted to “be” a 10th grade student for a day.  My main goal was to see what student life is like in this 1:1 mobile world at a highly successful place like Westlake High School.  I was also curious about how they interacted with the teacher and each other, the desks they had to sit in, how they used technology, and generally, what their day felt like.

My Schedule:Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 12.47.37 PM

I “borrowed” this schedule from one particular student who agreed to let me shadow her. However, because we had a pre-scheduled site visit, I needed to do take both 4th and 5th period off.  It worked out well since World History had a sub and were going to just watch a video. I also had a AP US History teacher request I visit her class at 7th period instead of going to choir.  Since I was feeling under the weather and my singing voice was not up to snuff, I took advantage of the opportunity to see her Humanities course in action.

Predictions Recap:

I made 5 predictions (or hypotheses) about how the day would go.  Here’s how they turned out:

1. Kids will be on their phones between classes – SOMEWHAT TRUE – There were a few kids texting or listening to music or even talking on their phones (rarely), but for the most part, kids were talking to each other.  They were having conversations about a certain class, a movie, a game, or what they were doing after school.  I assume some talked about relationships too, but they tended to quiet down when I got close.

2. My lack of a healthy singing voice will hurt me in choir – FALSE – Since I swapped out Choir for US History, this one never came to pass.

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Desks not meant for large humans

3. The desks will hurt my back- TRUE – I suffer from mild back issues, but sitting in these torture contraptions was getting to be down right painful by the end of the day.  I found myself fidgeting in them, turning to the side, slouching over, and generally just constantly shifting from one “cheek” to the other.

4. Technology use will be a mixed bag – TRUE – In the English class it was extremely hands on, with the teacher using Nearpod to engage student questions about Catcher in the Rye and even have us draw what we thought Holden Caulfield looked like.  Of course, the two computer lab courses heavily used technology as well. Most classes used the projector at a minimum, however one class, Geometry, had a long term sub and so he was relegated to only using the dry erase board.  No technology (except for calculators) were allowed out in that class.

5. My “real job” will affect my job as a student – I did miss 5th period for a meeting and during US History I was asked to help trouble-shoot with a Nearpod issue.  I tried to claim I was just a regular high school kid, but the class cleverly remarked that most kids could help troubleshoot technology, so I should too. Well-played…..

Class I was best at:

FullSizeRenderInteractive Media – of course!  The class was at the end of a Photoshop project designing a an advertising poster for the college of their choice to recruit students.  I observed several students working collaboratively on their posters (and some procrastinating). I came up with my Matthew McConaughey -University of Texas concept (pictured left) and nearly finished it within the 50 minute class period.  One of the quotes of the day came when a fellow-student called out another student for procrastinating to which she responded with “I’m not a ne’er-do-well!”

Class I was worst at:

Chemistry – This was a mixture of style and content. I’ve always been a big fan of science and when I think about my favorite high school teachers, science usually comes to mind because it’s so hands-on.  However, this particular class on this day was a review class, so it was very direct-teach over concepts I haven’t had to remember since…frankly….the last time I was in high school chemistry. (Quick! What’s Avogadro’s number?)  The students had been over this more recently, but my memory was shaky.  So much so that I failed the 2-question quiz over a couple of simple molecular concepts. 😦

Outcomes (or “AHAs”):

I could probably write a blog post on each class I was in and the overall student life.  However, I’m going to try and summarize what I discovered during this day in four major “AHA” moments.

AHA #1 – The schedule is overwhelming 

From the amount of time you have (50 minutes) in class to the amount of time you have in passing period (6 minutes), the day flew by without much time for deep thought or reflection.  I realize that giving teenagers too much transition could spell trouble, but I barely had a second to digest what I had learned before abruptly moving to the next subject. And in the classes (like English and US History) where we were starting to have a good, deep discussion on a topic, we were interrupted by the bell.  I can really see the benefits of having some sort of hybrid block-schedule after a day like today.  In the end, I was completely exhausted at the end of the day and, strangely enough, just wanted to go home and play video games.

AHA #2 – The technology may have changed, but the kids haven’t

Sure they were on their phones during passing periods and occasionally they’d listen to music when done with an assignment, but for the most part, the kids were kids.  Typical teenagers with angst and hopes and dreams (channeling my inner-Caulfield here).  In the chemistry class, there were one or two students that tended to answer every question, while the rest of us (including me) blankly stared at the board. In between classes I even got into a spirited conversation with a 16-year old about how good the latest Tell Tale Walking Dead game is. The girls giggled and the boys sighed at times, but in general, the kids were respectful and attentive no matter what the subject. (save for a couple of girls I noticed texting under their desks during Geometry). One kid did try to use his camera on his phone to take a picture of notes on the board to which another kid called him lazy.  His response was priceless – “That’s not being lazy, it’s being efficient.”

AHA #3 – How much of this content will be relevant in later life?

My Chem1 Quiz results

My Chem1 Quiz results

I can understand that taking courses like Geometry and Chemistry and Business Infrastructure Management give you the ground work for some basic life skills.  However, I can honestly say I’ve NEVER used Avogadro’s number (6.02×1023 for those of you dying to know) in my real life. In fact the last time I used it was 24 years ago when I was a sophomore taking Chemistry.  Why do we feel compelled to still teach the “4 core” subject areas every year in high school?  Is it because this is what we’ve always done?  I can see it being useful to those with a real interest in Chemistry or Calculus or Poetry but why force it on every student?

AHA #4 – It’s still really all about the teacher (and their style)

I’ve written in the past that technology is the “Great Amplifier” when it comes to teaching.  It can make a good teacher great and a bad teacher terrible.  In the classes I felt most engaged were the ones where technology was “invisible” in a sense and the focus was on the content and the discussion. I can tell you almost verbatim things I learned about Thomas Nast political cartoons based on the student discussion but I can barely remember what mathematical equation I was told in Geometry.  The biggest difference in those classes was both the style in which the teacher facilitated discussion but also the physical configuration of the classroom.  Desks in rows tends to imply that it’s all about focusing on the teacher (always exceptions to this too, as I discovered in the tremendously engaging English class).  Desks with the ability to turn or face each other made the center of the room the focus, a place where ideas could be shared and discussed without judgment.

All in all, I have learned a lot from this day, much of which I hope to apply and help steer changes in the classrooms and schools for kids in the coming years to make it more about student-centered, personalized learning. It’s been an eye-opening experience that I hope others in my district (and in other districts) will attempt.  I even reached out to some law-makers on Twitter to invite them in to do the same.  It was both a humbling and frustrating experience that I was honored to be able to attempt and it will live with me forever.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home and play some video games.

How I looked (and felt) at the end of the day

How I looked (and felt) at the end of the day

Editor’s note: Tracie Simetal took on the #student4aday challenge as well and live-blogged her results on this Google Doc.  Kudos to Tracie and any other administrators willing to take this on!

Update: The Austin American-Statemen ran a report on this experiment and posted it here: http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/administrator-spends-eye-opening-day-as-student/nkHWG/

What If We Said “NO” to 1:1?

Last night, I had the opportunity to present in front of our School Board on the state of technology in our district.  We reflected on the first three years of our LEAP initiative that brought 1:1 iPads to hands of every student at Eanes ISD.  We talked about successes and we talked about mistakes and how we’ve fixed them. While we are still far from where we would like to be, I am blessed to have such a supportive staff, community and board that have helped make this program a success.  In the coming months there will be discussions about what to do with future technology funding.  While I made a strong case to continue the program, we know it costs money and that money has to come from somewhere.

As I slept last night, a vision came to me in the form of a dream.  It was a vision of an alternate universe that would have been my life and the life of this school district if we decided in 2011 not to pilot this innovative idea of 1:1 iPads.

In this dream my life was pretty boring.  I was doing a lot of training on Powerpoint.  We were constantly struggling to buy enough digital cameras for classes.  My budget was getting burned up on licensing Adobe software for film-producing and photo-editing. But as boring as my life was, it was worse for kids.

As I visited classrooms, there was no technology except for the A/V equipment and the teacher’s desktop. The computer labs were still there, but they were now 7-8 year old machines that barely worked.  Teachers fought for 45-minute time periods in the lab when they could, but ultimately, many decided it was better not to even go. We had mobile technology in the form of netbooks (maybe this was more of a nightmare than a dream) that were really nothing more than expensive paper weights.

When I woke up this morning, the dream/nightmare stuck with me.  I started thinking…what if we didn’t go 1:1? What if we took the easy way out?  What would be different?  What would be lost? Here’s just a few things that came to mind:

Apps would disappear

ASL App Not_edited-1

ASL App no longer exists…

When we first bought the iPads, the common perception was these were solely consumptive devices.  You could read books with them and that was about it. I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve seen students creating amazing works of art, publish books and produce movies because they had the power to do all of that at their fingertips.  One very creative example came from Westlake High School Student Michael Bartmess. He was in need of an app to help himself and classmates with ASL finger spelling.  When he couldn’t find one in the App Store, he decided to make his own.  Where would his motivation to create this have come from without these devices?  In this alternate universe, his app wouldn’t exist and thousands of kids would struggle with finger spelling in ASL classes around the world.

The library would just be a library

One of the most inspirational spaces in our district is the “Juice Bar” at Westlake High School.  It’s a unique mix of Starbucks cafe and Apple Genius bar all-in-one. Digital librarian Carolyn Foote’s vision for this space was transformative and ahead of its time.  It provides students with a place to plan, collaborate and troubleshoot. In the world without 1:1, this area of the library would just be a sleepy corner that exists for 10-year old reference books to collect dust.

The iVengers would just be computer lab teachers

I am blessed with the best team of Educational Technologists on the planet (a.k.a. the “iVengers”). In a 1:1 environment, the role of a Ed Tech as technology integrator is vital to success. Prior to our 1:1, this position was based primarily in a computer lab (because that’s where the technology was) and was centered mainly around delivering 45-minute lessons once a week. Now they are truly coaches working to collaborate, co-teach, and design lessons with teachers in the classrooms.  In this alternate world, I think this position and the highly successful rock-stars holding the Ed Tech title would be long gone from this district and our teachers and students would suffer as a result.

Sir Ken at iPadpalooza in 2013

Sir Ken at iPadpalooza in 2013

A Global Learning Festival Would Not Exist

iPadpalooza was born out of the idea that we need to gather as a group and share our successes. While it’s turned into a global event, at it’s core it’s still based on that idea that learning and sharing can be engaging and fun. In my bizarro world, this festival wouldn’t exist and the thousands that attended would have missed the inspiring words of a Sir Ken Robinson, the creative madness of a Kevin Honeycutt, and the thought-provoking questions of Sugata Mitra and the creative conversations amongst colleagues.  After all, who would want to attend “Netbook-a-palooza?”

Parents would be in the dark about digital footprints

Having a 1:1 means having continual and ongoing conversations with parents about their role in the lives of our digital kids. I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking with parents, working with parents, and now teaching parents online about what it means to raise a kid in the 21st century.  While I’d like to think that would have happened regardless of our 1:1, the reality is, in a world where every kid doesn’t have a device, what is the motivation for a district to support parents in this realm?  We blurred the line between school and home, so we need to be the ones helping in both fronts. Without this initiative, the parents of our 8000 students would be left on their own to figure out how to navigate the world of social media, how to balance screen time, and how to help their children build a positive digital footprint for themselves.

There would be a few less trees in the world

We are far from a paperless district.  However, we have more and more content being moved digitally across our network then ever before.  Pulling up our Google Drive stats today reveals that we have have more than 170,000 files, docs, sheets, and forms that have been uploaded or created digitally since 2011. Moreover, we just had our 50,000th document shared.  That’s a lot of collaboration that doesn’t take place if everyone doesn’t have a device.   If you take into account that many of those files would have likely been photo-copied and distributed and that a typical tree is made of about 80,000 pieces of paper, think about how many trees would not be here now if we said “no” way back when?

Students’ voices would be muted

iPadLess_edited-1

Blank screens instead of blank stares

While it’s nice to save paper, create an app, redesign a library and connect with community, this one to me is the most important. Students that are trusted with a device are also empowered.  Traditional schooling exists to teach kids how to answer questions rather than ask them.  Empowered students can amaze the world and we’ve been lucky enough to have multiple examples of this over and over again in our 1:1.  From an entire class of 3rd graders becoming published authors in the iBook Store to a student creating an entire website to help her nephew with his illness, when you give students an opportunity to express themselves, you’ll be amazed at what they produce.

In this no-student-device universe, their voices might not be heard.  A universe like that means that a teacher’s job might be a little easier because they don’t have to change anything about their practice.  It means a parent doesn’t have to even think about what their child is putting on-line.  It means that administrators don’t have to wrestle with Apple IDs or filters or restrictions.  It makes the lives of all of those people a little more easier and a little more boring.  But who are we forgetting in that scenario?

Students.

They are the reason schools exist, not the other way around.  We need to do everything we can to prepare them for an uncertain future and that means NOT taking the easy way out.

For me, it means never resting until that becomes a full-fledged reality for this world.

It means more work and less sleep.

But in reality, why do I need to sleep when I’m already living the dream?

A Whole New World of Apps (for the Under 13 Generation)

Green PG-13_Hv_CS3As students fill the hallways of our schools on their first day back, there is a major change afoot for those kids under the age of 13.  Students in the pre-teen realm have always had less options when it came to personalization and use of certain websites/social media.  While some of those rules still apply when it comes to the web, Apple’s new system of allowing districts to issue Apple IDs for those students under the age of 13 (with parental consent) means that the days of every elementary students having the same standardized iPad are in the past.  Combining that with the new deployment system and (in our case) an MDM like Casper, and we are finally starting to see some of the real powerful potential of the 1:1 iPad platform.  While I know there will be some glitches (there always are in technology), I’m looking forward to the improvements listed here this year for our K-6 students.

App Provisioning

For the past 2 years, our elementary students have been living in the 1:1 world when it comes to devices, but haven’t really gotten the full-fledged personalized experience of their older counter-parts when it comes to apps.  Because we couldn’t have individual Apple IDs on each iPad, we used Apple Configurator to provision “images” to sets of iPads at every grade level. This was a painfully arduous process that entailed having a Support Tech go classroom to classroom with a Macbook and provision the images to each iPad.  With the amount of time and man-power it took to accomplish this, we basically had time for one app-refresh cycle every year.  Besides the inefficiency of this model, we also had several times when iPads would get “hung up” during app refresh and have to be completely wiped, losing important student work that hadn’t been backed up.  Now that every student will have an Apple ID, we can “push” apps out to students over the air (OTA).  If a classroom wants an app, they contact our MDM campus manager who loads the app and pushes it out to the class overnight.  If it’s a free app, the kids can even download it themselves!

App Personalization

Since we basically had two groups (K-2 and 3-5), that meant front-loading the images with pretty much every app we would think to use for the school year.  The resulting images were somewhat heavy (taking up over 6GB of the 16GB space) and many were unnecessary depending on your grade.  Here’s our example list of apps for elementary last year. You could have 3rd graders looking at 5th grade apps that they didn’t even need. While we’ve really focused on productive apps vs. consumptive ones, we at least knew that all kids would have the tools they needed to create a finished product.  Now that we can now push apps over the air, that means starting with a much leaner set of core apps to start (nearly all “productive” apps) and adding those content or grade-level based consumptive apps as needed.  One drawback of not having a set image on them is that iPads are essentially naked to begin the year until the students have their Apple IDs set up.  Enter the always clever Janet Couvillion. She’s an Ed Tech at one of our elementary campuses and she created this tremendous Thinglink about all things you can do on an iPad with only basic apps:

Content Distribution

We utilize eBackpack as our web-based and app-based content distribution system.  However, we’ve also found some successes using iTunesU at the upper grades when it comes to quickly creating courses for students.  Now that our students under the age of 13 have Apple IDs, we can have them enroll in a class course at the beginning of the year that a teacher can use to push out content as it becomes relevant. We can also provision specific iBooks or class sets of iBooks to students based on their Apple IDs, something not possible in the past.

Time to Focus

Another potential bonus of all of this is the new Casper Focus feature we had a kindergarten teacher test for us last year.  With all iPads in this new system and each student with an Apple ID, a teacher can now “control” or “lock-down” all the iPads in his/her class into a specific app.  While I’m not a big fan of the lock-down control model when it comes to teaching and learning, I do know there is a time and place when this might need to happen from time to time.  With state and national testing moving to an online platform, we’ll need to have this ability going forward.  This year we’ll be pilot testing the ACT Aspire test on iPads for students in grades 4-9 and we’ll also be piloting using a Desmos Calculator app during our 8th Grade Algebra State assessment.  None of this would be possible without this new system in place without individually going to each iPad and enabling Guided Access.

Parent Involvement

In order to make this system work, we have to really rely on parent support.  They have to go through the online consent and Apple ID creation process for us to be able to utilize all the advantages listed above.  As a parent, the advantages to this program versus making your own Apple ID are many (here’s a Parent Guide from Apple).  They’ll be able see what apps their students are purchasing.  With their students being in the Under 13 program they’ll have less advertisements and data mining to worry about.  As a parent of a new kindergarten student, I was excited to not only set up her Apple ID because we can now mirror the apps she’s getting at school and put them on our devices at home to help with her learning.  I’ve always been a believer in the concept of a village raising the child and in our ever-increasing online world, the lines between home and school are no longer clearly defined.  This process gives us as a district another opportunity to communicate about the education of their child, which can in the end only be a good thing.

To help introduce parents to this process I made this somewhat silly 3.5 minute video (below) along with some instructions for them on their end.

 The future is bright and no longer just for those born before 2001!