I tend to trust education advice from the people to whom I feel connected. For early-career teachers, of course, those connections can take many forms including face-to-face meetings, email newsletters and conversations, and social networks. The U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators initiative is sponsoring Connected Educators Month. The goal is to get more educators talking about the ideas and resources they need to be better leaders in their classrooms. If you’re already a Tweeting, blogging, screencasting, over-connected teacher, this is your month to show off. But for anyone who wants to be a stronger teacher leader, here are some resources to get you started. If you trust my advice, then read on.
A core idea behind being a connected educator is having a “Personal Learning Network.” I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical of “PLNs” because the acronym sounded like tredy lingo for Twitter “tweet-ups”. But everyone who gets education advice from friends and colleagues already has a Personal Learning Network. It’s the web of connections that gets you lesson plans you need to teach tomorrow and tips you off to the upcoming Edcamp in your city. Expanding your own PLN with social tools is a powerful way to share ideas, break down some of the isolation of teaching and get “‘just in time’” access to knowledge” that you need.
The Learning Network blog at the New York Times kicked off Connected Educator month last week with PLN recommendations from 33 educators they admire. They asked each two simple questions:
What is one important thing you’ve learned from someone in your Personal Learning Network (P.L.N.), however you define that network?
What one person, group or organization would you recommend every educator add to his or her P.L.N.?
I like the simplicity of the questions, so I wanted to answer them too:
Early in fall 2011 I saw the name of a new product in early beta called ClassDojo on an edtech site called Beta Classroom. There were several tools reviewed on the site (including Socrative), but I didn’t feel connected to the site enough to trust the reviews. However, a friend had recently introduced me (via email) to a teacher friend of hers in the Bay Area. When Robert Provnosttweeted about Beta Classroom, I went back to the reviews. Not long after, I was using ClassDojo for management and Socrative for exit tickets. Both tools radically changed my thinking about the amount of data I could capture and leverage in my classroom. What pushed me to take these steps? A recommendation from someone I trusted. Even though I’d never met him in person.
After getting my few wet gathering behavior data with ClassDojo, I added Kickboard to my toolkit. But the folks at the New Orleans startup aren’t just good at building tools for data-driven instruction; they’re good at providing professional development about data-driven instruction. And they share their ever-growing knowledge and connections via Twitter and Facebook. If you want a steady stream of tweets with resources that will help you leverage data in your class for any subject, follow them.
Ready for more? There’s a massive calendar of Connected Educator month events on the initiative website.
Got your own suggestions for invaluable additions to everyone’s PLN? Drop your answer to the questions above in the comments below. Or I’ll catch you online.
So you’re headed to summer Institute? You know you’ll need a laptop, Microsoft Excel, and toilet paper. This technology alone isn’t going to make you a great teacher, but there is an explosion of tech tools that can help. Problem is, there are too many to test and every moment at Institute (awake and asleep) is precious. So I’m going to try and “differentiate” my tech recommendations by aligning them to 5 out of 6 strands of the Teaching As Leadership rubric.
As you dive into teaching, you’re going to have a lot of technology tools and ideas thrown at you. But any technology is fundamentally a tool that helps you solve a problem. And the more problems a given tool can solve, the more useful it is to have in your toolbox. Think about a kitchen. Many specialized kitchen gadgets seem useful, but most are a waste of counter space. You’re better off with a small set of high-quality tools–a heavy fry pan, a sharp chef’s knife, and a sturdy wooden spoon–than you are with a juicer, a garlic roaster, and an ice cream maker. In cooking and ed tech, you have to be shrewd about which tools to use and which tools to discard.
Invest in students and their families
Maybe your summer classroom will have an LCD projector; maybe it won’t. Purposeful videos and short clips are one way to hook students into a lesson, start a discussion, or introduce a concept.
Arrange virtual visits. Investing students by exposing them to role models is another powerful approach. Find a video of a successful actor, athlete, or public official discussing the importance of grit and hard work. Even better: invite someone inspiring that you know personally to “visit” your class via Skype or Google hangout.
Make your phone a more powerful investment tool. There are also a host of communications tools that can help you mobilize student families and influencers. Start getting comfortable with a parent contact tracking system that works for you. Hint: a Google spreadsheet is a lot better than the back of a notebook.
Also, services like SnappSchool, Remind101, and SendHub are specially designed to allow teachers to group message parents and students so they get timely information about what’s happening in class.
Your five weeks at Institute are a crash course in teaching, but one of the primary goals is to make you an effective lesson planner. Because lesson planning involves synthesizing large amounts of curricular material into concise unit and daily plans (and creating and sharing those plans with other teachers), your personal digital organization is likely going to need an upgrade.
Put files where you need them. You’re likely to get CDs of files tailored to your Institute and subject area. Copy everything on any disc or flash drive into a logical folder on your laptop. Arriving to a morning session and realizing that the disc you need is sitting in your dorm room means wasted time asking around the room for the files you need.
Setup a cloud file-sharing service that works for you and your colleagues. “Cloud storage” refers to services that allow you to store computer files online, or “in the cloud.” Several software companies offer cloud storage services that include powerful free accounts. If you want all the gritty details, check out this article. Below are my personal suggestions.
Chances are, you’re going to get invited to a Dropbox folder for sharing files with other corps members and your advisor. If you don’t currently use cloud-based file storage for your most important files, get on the bandwagon. “I can’t find that flash drive” or “my computer crashed” are no longer any excuse for losing your work.
Dropbox is currently the gold standard of file-syncing services, but their free plan only gives you a base of 2GB of storage. This is plenty if all you’re syncing and sharing is Word docs and Powerpoint presentations. Photos and videos will start to eat that up quickly.
Fortunately, Google just launched a very similar product called Google drive. Just like Dropbox, it keeps a single folder on your computer synced up with your online Google account, and any number of other computers on which you install the free software. Google gives you 5GB for free.
If you still need more cloud storage, Microsoft also recently launched their SkyDrive software, which does essentially the same thing (syncs a designated folder on your computer with the cloud). While it’s 7GB for free with Microsoft, as of this writing their Mac OS client is buggy, so I won’t recommend it just yet for Institute use.
Use the cloud file-sharing service to share things that are useful. At the very least, you’re going to want to share a Dropbox folder or a Google drive folder with your collab partners–for lesson plans, student tracking data, behavior management plans, classroom procedures and systems, etc. If you felt you had to do everything yourself in college, get over it. Part of effective teaching is about begging, borrowing, and stealing. Or just dropping your materials in a shared folder.
And if you’re sharing files, be purposeful and consistent in how you name them, since other people may not understand what “monday lesson.doc” or “fractions.ppt” mean. Folders, organized chronologically, are your friends. As are logical names like “2012-05-27-pratt-lesson-fractions.doc”
Again, the kind of technology you have in your classroom will determine much of what you can do here. At Thomas Edison High School in Philly, summer 2010, we had desks, chalkboards, and chalk. A good teacher can execute effectively without fancy kitchen gadgets, but here are some suggestions that you can implement in a wide variety of settings.
Clearly present academic content. This can be as simple as making a screencast on your laptop or tablet that captures the minilesson (“I Do”) portion of your lesson. Why record yourself teaching ahead of time? There are three major advantages. First, it forces you to explain content clearly and succinctly. If you watch yourself over and it doesn’t make sense, erase and start over. Second, if you can playback your recorded minilesson for a class to see (on a projector or large screen), you can circulate among your students, managing behavior or supporting them while they take notes. You’ve essentially cloned yourself for 5 minutes. Third, a recorded lesson can become a differentiation tool. Using ShowMe, a free screencasting app for iPads, you can record a short lesson, hand the device to a small group of students, and then work with another group while the iPad users can watch your explanation as many times as they need.
Need a refresher or a starter idea on how to present an objective? There are several growing communities where you can find screencasts of high-quality lessons. TFAnet’s video hub is one. The ShowMe site is another. But if you’re teaching elementary or middle school math in states that have already shifted to Common Core, you’re in the most luck, as LearnZillion.com is actively recruiting highly effective teachers to make videos aligned to all the math standards. Did I mention it’s free? And they’ll be posting English / Language Arts lessons this summer?
Manage student practice & check for understanding. The best tech tools for doing this require 1:1 classrooms, where every student has a computer, tablet, or Internet-enable device. If you’re in such an environment, get an account on Socrative or just build your exit tickets as Google forms. If you don’t have a 1:1 class at Institute this year, you won’t be alone. Some of the most powerful tools you will learn to use for managing student practice and checking for understanding should be readily available anywhere: pencils, paper, and spoken questions.
Reinforce rules and consequences. You’re going to learn a lot of classroom management techniques at Institute. Whatever those techniques are, they will be more effective if you can keep accurate track of how you’re implementing rules and consequences. Currently, the best tool for this is ClassDojo.com, which lets you assign each of your students a cute digital monster and the track positive and negative behaviors (and award or take away points) in real time and online. The company behind it is a fast-growing startup and has recently added student accounts so that your scholars can log in and see their personal record from home. ClassDojo is designed to project the class monsters on a screen so that students can see their point totals at any time. But what if you don’t have a projector? No sweat. Since you’re first learning these techniques at Institute, ClassDojo’s mobile app (iPhone/iPad/Android) can still be immensely useful to you for tracking class points and reflecting on how effectively and fairly you are doling out rewards and consequences.
Implement time-saving procedures. Ideally, any technology you use at Institute should save you time. If doing something digitally is faster, good. If paper and pen is faster, go with that technology.
Track student performance. Here’s a place where you may see a lot of difference between Institutes. Some regions have adopted tools like Kickboard for student data tracking. Others use the powerful and time-tested trackers build in Microsoft Excel. Learn whatever your Corps Member Advisor tells you so that you can get hands-on help and share data effectively with your Corps Member group.
If you’re eager to digitize student work as part of your tracking, however, there are a few exciting products that have appeared very recently or are still in development. One available now for free is ThreeRing.com. Three Ring is a web app that stores and sorts student work that you feed in as .pdf or .jpg files. It also includes a mobile app that allows you to take pictures of student work with a smartphone, tag it, and upload it for saving, storing, or grading later.
Continuously Increase Effectiveness
My first suggestion here is simple: open up your favorite word processor or email client and start typing about what you’re learning, what you’re messing up, and what you’re doing well. Hit save. Send it to someone whose feedback you trust, or simply go back and read it the next day. Asking for help and reflecting on what you are and are not doing as a teacher will go a long way towards improving along the TAL strands for “Gauge progress and gaps,” “Identify contributing student actions,” “Identify contributing teacher actions,” “Identify underlying factors.”
As for “Access relevant meaningful learning experiences”–see my suggestions above for TFAnet’s video hub and LearnZillion. Or find the Teach Like a Champion skill that you need to brush up on and watch an Uncommon Schools teacher model it for you. Watching good teaching won’t instantly make you a better teacher, but unless you see good work and mediocre work, it’s hard to figure out how it’s done.
Lots of folks are going to tell you that you’ll “work harder than you ever have” at Institute. If you’re going to work that hard, then you had better work productively. That means that technology should never get in your way–it should help you be relentless, and it should help you protect your mental health.
Expand time and resources. Again, time spent trying to fix technology is time wasted at Institute. Save yourself time by creating a “cheat sheet” document that sits right on the desktop of your computer with all the passwords and login information you need for your college network, your school district network, and any tools that you’ll need to initiate when you don’t have Internet access. Sure it’s 2012, but you’re going to find plenty of situations where connections are poor or inaccessible. That’s another reason why file syncing services like Dropbox and Google drive are critical: they store your data on your computer and in the cloud, so you have all your files at the ready even when you’re offline.
Expanding time and resources also means making smart decisions about technology that helps you and technology that distracts you. In this regard, email and social networks can be a double-edged sword: great for staying in touch with loved ones and seeking advice and support, but black holes for precious time. So go through your inbox and unsubscribe from the email lists that you don’t really need. Turn off the frivolous notification updates in Facebook, Google+, and Twitter–on your computer and your phone..
That doesn’t mean forsake the communication tools that connect you to friends and family. In the pressure cooker of summer Institute, it can be easy to lose touch with people who need to hear from you and whose words can help you sustain your energy. In this regard, I like intimate social platforms like group texting. For almost my entire time in the corps, four fellow CMs in my region have kept in touch daily with a service called GroupMe.com. It handles group texting across any wireless provider and device and archives your private conversations. A few hundred characters exchanged between us before school each day has been a crucial outlet for stress relief and a ready source of encouragement.
This is hardly an exhaustive set of recommendations for technology that can help at Institute. Got any other ideas or suggestions? Please drop me an email or post in the comments and I’ll update this document.
I recently got a question from a corps member in Colorado who has a new set of iPads to use in her classroom. She wanted to know how to set blocks on certain apps in order to keep scholars on track. Since I’ve used a class set of iPads since September, and since classroom management is one area in particular where I’m always trying to improve, I’m acutely aware of the issue. Short answer: managing middle schoolers on iPads is not really possible through iPad restrictions. It takes a combination of investment, management, technological tweaks, and effective instruction. Here are some of my lessons learned, but I would love to hear from others with digital tools in their classrooms how they address management.
This is a tough issue in part because I don’t love thinking about “how you can stop kids from doing things.” But iPads are designed for consumers to do lots of communicating. They were not designed with Lee Canter’s classroom management techniques in mind. And I teach 7th graders, who are wily and bent on pushing every barrier they can find.
Setting restrictions (Settings > General > Restrictions) is the best thing to do, but there is not as of yet any easy way to lock down the iPads to the point that students won’t play around with other unrestricted apps, or the Internet. But here are my concrete recommendations from a year of using iPads in a middle-school English class, where four sections of students share a set of 29 tablets:
Set the restrictions to disable everything but Safari (see above). Make sure your restrictions passcode is something you’ll remember but your kids won’t guess immediately. Several of my students cracked my first code–I think because they saw me enter it. Use the same passcode on all the devices you have in your room.
This means that you have disabled “Installing Apps” which is in my mind the most important thing you can do to calm curious tapping. Angry Birds and Temple Run are both free and oh-so-tempting.
Associate all the iPads with a single Apple ID account that you control. You can use your personal account, but I have an entirely separate one. One issue is that you must associate a credit card with the account, so I use very strong password and never let the kids see me type it in.
Below the list of “Allow:” apps on the Restrictions page, there’s also a list of “Allow Changes:” for Location and Accounts. Flip the setting that stops users from adding or changing accounts, otherwise there will be a strong temptation plug personal Yahoo emails.
Bear in mind that the most important app you will probably want students using is Safari. But that is also the app curious students will use to watch YouTube videos, Google image search for shoes and candids of Lil Wayne and Nikki Minaj, and hop on Twitter. Facebook, thankfully, is blocked at the network level in our district.
Aside from that, it’s all about management, not iOS settings. “The iPads are tools for learning, not socializing,” was my mantra for the first weeks of school. Also all students, even ones who enter mid-year, must sign and have their parents sign an “Acceptable Use Policy” contract. My principal made this a requirement when she agreed to let me use the iPads, and I’m very glad she insisted on it (you can download it as a Word doc here). Be serious about setting expectations and consequences for misuse. My kids know that their iPad goes right back in the locking cabinet if I see even the corner of a Twitter screen. (“That was there when I logged on, I swear!” they say).
Another thing that I’ve found very effective for keeping students on task but with iPads open is simply turning my presentation for the day into a .pdf document and having them open it and scroll along during my minilesson. Here’s the presentation from a recent class to give you an idea of what that looks like.
They see this static version on their iPads, and I have a version in Word on my projector that I add notes and commentary to while teaching.
Again, these are recommendations that worked for me; they’re not research-tested and I would hardly claim to have perfected technological classroom management. Drop your suggestions in the comments!
Below is a snapshot of assessment data for my four sections of 7th-grade English, pulled from Kickboard, a powerful student data platform. The results come from a test taken at the end of our unit on informational texts, just weeks before our high-stakes state standardized testing:
The first two columns show results across classes for a set of questions on deciphering vocabulary words. The second two columns aggregate results for a set of six related questions on organizational patterns in informational text—patterns like main idea & supporting details, cause & effect, and chronological order. (For a bigger screenshot, click here.) It’s clear from the swaths of red down the second two columns that all of my classes needed additional support to master identifying and analyzing organizational patterns. Drawing this conclusion during the first week of March was particularly important because by that time, I had one week before the Maryland State Assessment. I needed to make the most of those five instructional days.
Looking to my assessment data in order to make teaching decisions is of course a standard TFA practice. And I could have done this with my district software, Edusoft, which also handles scanning answer sheets & analyzing test data. Here’s part of what an analogous report looks like in that platform:
The same information is there… if you cross-reference the indicator codes with their full descriptions and know the thresholds for the “Basic” band. In short, it was a lot easier to see what standards I needed to reteach once I had my data in Kickboard. Fortunately, the entrepreneurs behind the software (who include several TFA alums) have built in a feature that allows users to upload Edusoft data. That meant I could follow all my administration’s protocol for administering and storing the data from the assessment, but I could then move it over to the far more legible and user-friendly Kickboard system, which is also where I track behavioral data and parent contacts.
The Kickboard feature set is too big to cover in one post, but the group is out ahead of the pack in building a powerful Student Information System that integrates academic data and behavioral information. The software is already in wide use in the New Orleans school district, and for the next few weeks, the company will run a private beta test with 15 users. Participants will get free lifetime access to the platform: sign up here and more info below, but registration for the beta closes Wednesday.
Below, I’ll run through the process I went through to get Edusoft data into the system. The fact that you have to move information from one system to another to get better analytical tools is a fact of life at the moment, but systems like Kickboard are growing, and it’s up to classroom leaders to leverage them. When teachers can show administrators the link between new platforms like this one and student achievement, then we can make stronger arguments that resources should go to these nimble startups, not to the entrenched companies peddling mediocre data tools at the district level.
Moving Data from Edusoft to Kickboard
These instructions will make the most sense if you have Edusoft in your district, but they should also give you an idea of the Kickboard “assessment scorecard” interface.
1) Export assessment data from Edusoft as an “Item Response Report.” This will generate an Excel document that shows how each student answered each multiple-choice question on the assessment:
2) Create a new “assessment scorecard” under the Academics section in Kickboard. This is essentially a flexible data set for results from one assessment that you can then dissect multiple ways:
3) Next, you align each of the questions from the assessment with standards that you’ve previously entered into the system:
4) Now that you have the standards and questions aligned in Kickboard, you upload the (somewhat messy) Edusoft spreadsheet, check that the student names all match up, and viola:
Did Kickboard allow me to make the best instructional decision for my students last month? I believe it did. But I’m waiting on the Maryland State Assessment data to come back before I can be sure.
More on the Private Beta
This info comes from the Kickboard staff, who are interested in assembling a team of data-loving beta testers: If you’re interested in free lifetime access to the software, apply for their invitation-only private beta. Thousands of teachers currently use the tool for behavior and academic data in the schools that subscribe to Kickboard, but they want to learn more about how it can be just as effective for individual teachers.
They’ll give you free lifetime access, training, and support. In return they expect you to use Kickboard for 6 weeks, answer 8 short surveys, and potentially do a ten minute phone interview. They’re only accepting 15 testers, so if you’re interested sign up now. The beta starts this Thursday, April 19 and runs until June 1, but you’ll need to apply using the short form linked above in the next 48 hours to get invited.