Jump Start Your Workout (And Your Classroom)!

A couple of months ago, I started working out again. I’m one of those people who works out a lot for a few weeks, then loses interest and doesn’t work out for six months. It wasn’t a New Year’s thing; I started in December instead of with everyone else in January. It wasn’t a weight loss thing either; I just wanted to be healthy and strong.

Part of being successful and consistent in working out is finding a routine that works for the individual. Some people are early morning gym rats like my husband. Others race to the gym after work before picking up the kids. Neither of those worked for me. I found my best time is right after putting my son to bed. I’m awake, I have energy, and nobody else can bug me.

I also had to discover that I hate cardio. Well, I already knew that actually, but I found out that what I really enjoy is lifting weights. Not only that, but just walking or jogging here and there didn’t give me the results I wanted. Now, I still get some cardio mixed in there, but my program is much heavier on weights than anything else. And you know what? My body is not the same as when I started. Most people probably don’t notice, but I notice a difference in how I look and (more importantly) how I feel.

Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or get in shape will tell you that they struggle with plateaus, those points where they seem to stop making progress. No matter what they do, they can’t seem to lose another pound. The body has gotten used to whatever it is they were doing and has refused to budge. Many trainers recommend cross training and changing things up to continue to see results. Surprise the body with changed routines and it will respond.

In many ways, teaching is the same. It’s easy to fall into the same “plateau effect” where things might feel in control but aren’t really going anywhere. While it’s okay to pause to take a breath during those times, it’s dangerous to get comfortable there. Just like we have to surprise our body with new workouts or foods to jump start our metabolism, we have to jump start our teaching with new ideas and strategies to keep us moving forward.

Teaching on autopilot and expecting results is the same as those people you see at the gym who do the elliptical on a low speed while reading a magazine. Yes, they’re moving, but if they’re really trying to improve, they’re going to have to be on that thing 24 hours a day. Yes, your kids are learning something, but are you really making progress?

If we don’t defeat the plateau in the gym, we keep those last ten pounds in perpetuity. If we don’t defeat it in the classroom, we keep our kids from reaching their highest potential. But remember, just like we can’t just keep doing the same thing in our workout routine and expect to see results, we can’t keep doing the same with our students. If you’re not seeing the results you want, change your routine.

What’s the “ten pounds” in your classroom? What are you hanging on to even though it isn’t working? Take a hard look at what you do in your classroom (and your workout) and only keep what is truly effective. The next time you plan a lesson, stop and think: what am I trying to accomplish and is this the most effective way to get there?

For the record, those are not my arms in the photo. Maybe someday?

Lessons Learned at Preschool

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my son’s preschool for the first time. An almost 3-year old, he’s been attending the same Montessori center since he was an infant. About a month ago, he transferred into one of the preschool rooms. Last week, they invited parents into the classroom to see what the children had been learning about.

When we arrived, each child had their own space in the room, marked by a small name tag. Some were sitting at tables, while others were on the floor. He came over to greet me when I walked into the room. Then, he grabbed a small rug, laid it out on the floor and went to find his first “job.”

Yes, my toddler has jobs. They are different activities that he can choose from to practice a variety of skills. He goes to the shelf, chooses his job, carries it carefully to his mat, then starts to work. When he decides he’s done, he cleans up, returns the job to the shelf and grabs another one. This process repeats until time is up.

At his age, my son’s tasks help him practice colors, shapes, matching, stacking, letter sounds, and motor skills. In the shape sorting activity below, he has to sort the shapes. Some of them are quite small, which helps him practice fine motor skills as well.


H working on shape sorting and fine motor skills with squares, circles, and triangles of various sizes.

Another activity appears to be a simple stacking activity, but the blocks are weighted. This allows him to not only working on the coordination of stacking, but helps him learn body control while carrying the blocks. He can stack the blocks in any sort of configuration, but the classroom rule is that the towers are not taller than the builder (H is still working on this one as the best part of building towers is still destroying them).

I have been consistently impressed with the things my son learns at preschool.  Did you know that both the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper were painted by DaVinci? My son does. Or that you can show him a painting and he can tell you it’s the Purple Robe by Matisse. I don’t share this to show you how brilliant my son is (though I’m sure he is and likely gets that from his mother, right?), but to share how impressed I’ve been with his Montessori experience.


H and the weighted “brown stairs” blocks.

The most astounding part of this experience? The fact that my almost 3-year-old was working side by side with a 5-year-old who was ordering numbers from 0 to 20 and working on single digit addition. Multi-age classrooms are a trademark of the Montessori approach, the idea being that social learning is vital and children teach each other. How is my son able to blend in with the rest of the class even though he’s only been learning the routine for a few weeks? Because he watches his peers and copies what they do.

Every single one of the 18 students in the class is working on a different activity simultaneously. Every child works on what they need to work on to develop their own skills. There’s no “lesson plan” for the whole class during Montessori time. Children work independently, so teachers are able to circulate throughout the room to help them as needed. As they notice that the children are mastering certain tasks, they can give them new ones to push them forward.

As I watched the kids working, the parent side of my brain was so amazed and proud of everything my son can already do and excited to think about what he’ll be able to do very soon with the help of his classmates and teachers. The teacher side of my brain was reeling at the implications this has for K-12 education.

Imagine what a classroom would look like if every child could work independently on what he or she needed right then. Because they’re not tied up teaching whole group instruction, the teacher gets to circulate to observe and interact with every child. Teachers wouldn’t spend time preparing lesson plans in the traditional sense, but would develop activities for independent skill practice. Students wouldn’t be held back or dragged along to keep them on pace with their peers.

Some classrooms utilize learning centers or stations that do something similar. But often times they’re missing some of the elements that I witnessed yesterday: individualization for each child rather than for groups, a quiet working environment, students fully engaged the entire time, and one-on-one time with every child.

Perhaps K-12 education could benefit from taking a page out of the Maria Montessori playbook. What elements of Montessori education could you incorporate into your teaching?


This blog post only describes a fraction of all of the amazing things Montessori education provides for kids. Want to learn more?  Click here!

The “Other” One in 1:1

I’m sitting at the airport waiting for my delayed flight home from the Leyden Symposium near Chicago. I’ve just spent the past three days filling my brain, meeting new people, and exhausting myself thinking about all of the possibilities for how I can apply it all. The Symposium started a few years ago as the folks at Leyden were forging ahead with their 1:1 device initiative. Educators from several states come to West Leyden High School to talk technology and best practice.

One thing stuck out to me though. While there was definitely talk of technology at the Symposium, there were more sessions that started to shift the conversation a bit. More and more, conversations centered around innovative teaching and learning and how technology supports it.

We are beginning to realize that our 1:1 initiatives might not be enough. It’s not about the devices, but rather the opportunities they provide for access and collaboration. In fact, the organizers of the Symposium know this, too. This year’s event was billed as the Innovative Teaching and Learning Symposium, as opposed to previous years when it was a 1:1 Symposium.

And the change isn’t unique to Leyden. Earlier this summer, I attended an EdCamp and noticed the same thing. Gone were the obligatory tech tool sessions of EdCamps past. Now, teachers were asking for ideas for project-based learning, student centered classrooms, and student voice and choice.

We’re starting to pay more attention to how students learn, what skills they will need to survive in the world after high school, and turning the tables on educators who refuse to adapt to the times. Suddenly (but really not so suddenly), the way we’ve always done things or the way we learned them in school is not enough. This change can be difficult, particularly for those teachers who’ve never been shown another way, but some districts are trying to help the process along.

Some districts, including Leyden, are changing the roles of their instructional coaches. In years past, they may have had specific technology coaches in addition to math or literacy coaches. Now, those positions are merging to one instructional coach position that focuses on good teaching as a whole. Despite the fact that I’ve worked as a technology coach (though under a different title), I like the change.

When I would work with teachers, I would often notice other issues in the classroom that merited discussion, but they didn’t fit into the category of “technology.” I also believe that the title of “technology coach” implies that technology is somehow separate from the rest of the teacher’s practice. Instead, I believe instructional coaches need to be skilled (or at least resourceful) in all areas of pedagogy, including technology, to be able to serve their teachers.

One of my favorite takeaways from the conference came from a session about innovation facilitated by Jason Markey (@JasonMMarkey). One graphic he posted (originally credited to Molly Schroeder, @followmolly), encouraged us to remember the “other” one in 1:1. It’s far too easy to focus on the device and all of the neat things it does. However, the device will change as will the tasks it can perform. What doesn’t change?  The “other” one.Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 4.36.43 PM

What IS the other one? The kid using the device.  The students are why we do this job, why we have these conversations, why we attend these conferences. Ultimately, everything we do should make the educational experience better for them. We have to let go of our old ideas and biases about what education did or should look like and continually ask ourselves one question, “Is this really what’s best for kids?”  They’re the ones we need to worry about.

Preparing For That First Year

Think back to your first year of teaching.  For some of you, it’s an easy request as it wasn’t long ago.  For others, you may have to dig in the memory a bit.  I don’t remember my first day of teaching, probably because it was a nerve-wracking blur.  I do remember highlights, though, and that will suffice for now.

As I write this, I’m taking a break from planning a new teacher induction program.  My job is to take brand new baby teachers and help them have a successful first year (and hopefully come back for a second).  I’m calling on a lot of my own knowledge of things that were good and not so good from my own first year (perhaps it’s fortunate my first year wasn’t that great, so I have lots of ideas for what NOT to do), but I’m also consulting outside sources.

One such book is called Your First Year: How to Survive and Thrive as a New Teacher, written by Todd Whitaker along with his two teacher daughters (Whitaker is also the author of books like What Connected Educators Do Differently, School Culture Rewired, and a handful of books talking about what great teachers, principals and others do differently).  The book is a quick read (a must for me) and gives some pretty solid advice for newbies to the profession about how to not only survive but even thrive in the first year of this crazy job.

The authors give a great deal of emphasis to relationship building and classroom management for the new teacher and spend very little time talking about curriculum and instruction.  While some might see this as odd, I think it’s brilliant.  Not that teachers don’t need to plan great lessons (actually, they do), but if you don’t have the respect and cooperation of your students, you can’t expect much magic to happen in that classroom.

Behavior management is one of the most difficult things for first year teachers, though I actually like to think of it as behavior prevention instead.  If I invest time up front with structure, procedures, and respect (not necessarily in that order), I will have very little behavior to “manage.”  There was a running joke between my behavior para and I when I was in the classroom that if I ever sent a student to the office, they must have really screwed up in class!  There were many years I could count the number of students I removed from class on my two hands.  And that was teaching 400 kids each week.

Why?  Because I had routines in place for students to follow so they knew what to do most of the time.  I had lessons planned that kept my students moving and engaged to keep them from having down time (what’s the saying about idle hands….?).  My students knew if they messed up in class, I wasn’t going to tolerate it but I would let them try again when they had pulled themselves back together.

I know the time I have with these new teachers is invaluable.  I also know their minds will be spinning a hundred miles an hour with excitement, anticipation, and honest to goodness fear as they think about everything that is coming their way.  What do I leave them with that is a good use of their time and helps start the year off on the right foot?

What do they need to hear in August and what can wait until later in the year?  How do we give them as much information as possible while not making their brains explode (in a bad way)?  But how do we make their brains explode in a good way because of all of the mind-blowing discussion or ideas?

I’ll be tackling some of those questions and others over the next few weeks.  In the mean time, what would have been the most helpful for you in that first week as a new teacher?


Note: Clicking on any of the links in this blog post will take you to Amazon.com for purchase. 

What’s Next?

Up until a few months ago, I had never watched an episode of The West Wing. I know, I know. My husband started watching it on Netflix because he loves that stuff (political science/history majors tend to do that). I’ve only watched a handful of episodes and know almost nothing about the show after the first season, but I’ve already adopted one of the show’s lines as my own.  “What’s next?” President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) says several times.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, there’s actually a great flashback scene where Bartlet explains what he means when he says it.

He’s the POTUS (or trying to be in this particular scene); he’s a busy guy and doesn’t have time to mess around. Get to the point! What’s next?

I use this phrase quite frequently in my own professional life. In education, we spend a lot of time dealing with issues that are incredibly important; what’s more important than kids, right? But sometimes we spend way too much time deliberating and discussing when we should be acting. The school year often seems to zoom by at the speed of light. Educational change flies at us from every direction. If we don’t keep moving, we’ll get broadsided.

On a more granular level, I adopted this mindset in my classroom even before I heard Bartlet’s words. I was always moving, always learning, always looking for the next great thing for my teaching. It’s not as if I didn’t have enough great material, but I knew it was my job to keep my students engaged and learning despite whatever challenges they might throw at me that particular day. Water that doesn’t move becomes stagnant; teaching is no different.

And more than that, nothing translates to students better than passion and excitement. If you aren’t excited about what you’re teaching, I can guarantee your students won’t be either. Some years, I taught as many as six or seven sections of a particular grade level. While I loved the material I was teaching, after using it seven times in the course of a couple of days, I had to change it up.

Even now, as I’m no longer in the classroom full time, I’m always looking for what’s on the horizon. What’s happening in education? What’s another way for me to hook my teachers? How can I help them grow that much further this year? Always learning, growing, hungry for more.

I’m spending my summer doing just that. I’m going to a couple of EdCamps, presenting a few conference sessions, and reading some great books by educators in my PLN.  What about you?  Summer is the perfect time to gear up.  What’s next?

Out With The Old…

Think about your favorite lesson to teach.  We’ve all got at least one; the one we look most forward to teaching every year and can’t wait to dust off.  When did you first start teaching that lesson?  Last year?  Five years ago?  More?

Does the lesson look the same now as when you started teaching it or have you made changes?  Most likely, the first time you taught it, there were some bugs.  Maybe a direction was unclear or there was a step missing that, once added, made the student’s work go much more smoothly.  The great part about accumulating experience is that we get the opportunity to revise our work and continually make it better.

Here’s the thing though.  If that favorite lesson is more than, say, five years old, there are so many things we’ve learned about learning and teaching that your lesson is most likely in need of a revamp (and very possible that it might even if it’s newer than that).  Much research has shown us that the way many of us were taught is actually relatively ineffective.  That’s not to say we didn’t have great teachers; in fact, it’s likely one of those great teachers who inspired you to pursue this career in the first place.  Even our best educators need to update their material once and awhile.

Think of it this way: how likely would you be to go to a doctor who hadn’t gone to a single medical conference or medical practice seminar in the past twenty years?  Would you want them using outdated medical tools, practices, and procedures on you or your loved one?  Of course not!  With medicine, we want the most up to date knowledge so we can care for our health effectively.

Education is very similar.  Though the stakes may not seem quite as high as in medicine, using practices that don’t support what we know about how students learn actually makes it that much more difficult for our students to learn.  We need to use what we’ve learned about education to make better choices.

Before you teach your next unit or lesson, consider the following images:

What do you notice?  What do they have in common?  All of them shift the focus from the teacher as knowledge bearer/giver and student as passive receiver to a model where the students are actively learning with the teacher as facilitator or guide.  You’ll also notice that there is an increase emphasis on personalizing learning for the student (and using technology to help with this as needed).  Kids don’t need the same things, so they don’t get the same things (I will grant that this gets a little stickier to understand when we have a push in education for “standardizing” everything – more on this in a later post).  In the 21st century classroom, the teacher’s role becomes more of a coach, guiding kids to the outcomes while pushing them to do the real “work” of learning.

I hear a lot of teachers argue that these ideas don’t match what was when they attended, and they’re right.  Schools in years past prepared students for jobs that already existed. But schools today must prepare students for jobs that can’t even be imagined yet. Kids today have unprecedented amount of knowledge at their fingertips within seconds. That changes the type of information they need to know going forward, and the type of skills they need to have to be successful after graduation.

This is a hard concept for some teachers to get behind. We are trained to be in charge of the classroom and make all of the decisions about student learning.  But don’t worry; giving students choices is not the same as letting them be in charge (My two-year-old gets to make choices, too, but he is certainly not in charge).  In fact, I would argue that allowing for student voice and choice actually requires better classroom management skills because those things can only happen within a strong classroom structure so students can feel safe and free to learn and explore.

Again, remember we are preparing students for life after our classroom.  Life is full of making choices.  If we want our students to make good ones in the real world, they need practice.  And what better place to practice making decisions that probably aren’t life altering than in the classroom with the support of a great teacher/coach?

These changes likely won’t happen overnight.  I don’t expect you to overhaul your entire curriculum over the weekend.  But as you sit down to plan your next week, consider the following and see where you can make a tweak or two:

  • Is there room in your lesson plan for a chance for students to make a choice or two?
  • How can you allow them to be creative, collaborative, critical thinkers with strong communication skills?
  • How can you provide differentiated learning for students of varying ability or readiness levels?
  • If your lesson includes lecture, how can you shorten, minimize, or toss it out altogether for something more engaging?

You just mind find your changes addicting.  I can guarantee your students will!


All Learn and No Play?

Think about your school when you were a child.  Did you like going to school or dread it?  Do you remember being happy there or was it all hard work?  I honestly don’t remember much from those early school days, but I remember my mom telling me I was excited the first day and then came home and said I was bored.  That being said, I remember many good things about my elementary school days.  A few bad things, of course, but I was generally a good kid and did well in school so it was a pretty positive experience.

I remember having recess at least twice a day (and playing on playground equipment that would likely be banned today), having special events at school, and making all sorts of crafty things that I still have in scrapbooks in my basement.  As I’ve become a teacher myself, I wonder what that experience will look like when my own son gets to be school age.  Ask anyone who teaches kindergarten and they’ll tell you that kindergarten is not what it was when I went.

Kids are expected to be reading before leaving kindergarten, yet many of them enter it without knowing any letters or sounds.  It’s setting up a five year old with a pretty unrealistic expectation.  The learning that used to happen in first grade has now been bumped down to the younger ones, regardless of whether those learners are prepared for such a load.

Kids are coming to school younger and much less prepared than ever before.  Daycare is expensive and school is free.  Many families require both parents to work outside the home, and often multiple jobs, to make ends meet so there isn’t a parent home all the time to read to them.  Then on top of all that, we cut down on art, music, physical education, and recess and then expect them to sit still for eight hours.  Anyone else not surprised by the growing number of ADD/ADHD labels in schools today?

Today, I read an article from this past fall that talked about the vast differences between kindergarten in the United States and Finland (read the article here).  The Finns take a very different approach to learning with the little ones.  The vast majority of their day is spent at play and “real learning” happens when students are ready (though really, they’re learning all the time they’re playing, just not in the traditional sense).  In more and more American schools, however, children are expected to spend up to half of their day in reading instruction with minimal amounts of time for free play and physical movement.

A study from New Zealand cited in the article said that children who learn to read at age seven catch up to their peers who learn at age five, and by age eleven the two groups have comparable skills.  So why the big push to start so young?  Not only do our younger “readers” not come out ahead in the long run, I’d venture to guess that many of them actually come out behind.  If reading is drilled into you for 3 hours a day, will you ever learn to love it?  Will you ever think of school as a place to learn and grow or will it always be the land of rules, worksheets, and no fun?

I feel fortunate that so much of my own training has been centered around teaching children through play.  My approach to musical literacy has always relied on kindergarten to lay the foundation of sound and experience and never begins true “reading” until first grade.  My lessons centered around play and experience; often students wouldn’t see what we were doing as “work” or even learning because they were having so much fun (on a side note, I also had very few behavior issues in class because the students were playing and moving all the time).

According to the article, the Finns have a saying that goes, “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”  Read that again.  Now think back to your own days at school, both as a student and as a teacher (if you are one).  How much of what you did was done with joy?  And how much do you remember?

I can already hear some of the teachers I know saying, “School isn’t supposed to be fun.  Kids are there to learn, not have fun.”  Why can’t it be both?  Is there some unwritten rule that says you can’t have fun while learning?  Or some thought that if your class is fun that the kids aren’t learning anything?

We need to let kids be little.  In case you don’t believe me, consider these:

“Play is the work of the child.” – Maria Montessori

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” – Plato

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –  Fred Rogers

They will learn, no matter when they begin.  But they can never go back to being little.

Ditch The Textbook! Find Your Passion!

This past week, I participated in the #ditchbook Twitter chat.  Named after the book by Matt Miller (see on Amazon here), the chat focused on moving students from being consumers to creators and pushing teachers to be creators themselves, particularly when it comes to their own curriculum and resources.  The teacher side of the discussion particularly challenges the traditional way of thinking of curriculum and resources in the classroom.

Many districts still spend time and money on traditional curriculum review cycles, which ultimately result in the purchase of some sort of textbook and related resources.  The thing is, though teachers spent a fair amount of time and district money to choose the textbook, they are almost always dissatisfied with their purchase.  But by then it’s too late; there’s not usually a return policy for a mass purchase of textbooks.

Then once the books arrive, teachers are always so excited because they think that this book might just be “the one;” the one-stop shop that allows them to just teach and not have to scramble putting together extra resources when the book doesn’t meet their students’ needs.  Yet time after time, they eventually come to the same realization that they will still be hunting and gathering to get the job done.

So why do we keep doing this?  If we have been buying textbooks for decades only to be continually disappointed, why haven’t we figured out that the only way to fix it is stop buying them? Even when some teachers are on board with not purchasing textbooks, districts often say no and force them to purchase them anyway.

One reason I hear from teachers who cling to textbooks is that it would take far too much time to curate or create all of the resources they’d need to teach their course.  A fair point to some extent. But if you’re already scrounging for extra resources to fill in the gaps of a textbook, why not just start there to begin with?  Start with the standards you are expected to teach and then select the best resources available to teach them.

Textbooks are boring.  When was the last time anyone was at all excited about the content in a textbook?  This is particularly true when I look at texts for English/Language Arts.  I have yet to see a textbook that can remotely compete with the excitement of a good novel or short story.  How on earth do we expect to create kids who are passionate about reading if all they ever get to read are the awful, canned stories from the textbooks?  Why not teach using the latest YA novel that kids are raving about anyway?

On top of that, textbooks in some subjects, such as science, are virtually out of date the moment they’re printed. And since many district don’t purchase new texts for at least seven years, there could potentially be drastic changes to the information before a new purchase is made.

Guess what else?  Teaching boring materials is boring.  Remember how most teachers got into education because they were excited and passionate about teaching kids?  It’s pretty hard to be passionate about textbooks.  Textbooks don’t make subject content come alive; passionate teachers do.  How much easier would it be to spring out of bed each morning if you knew you were teaching a concept you were absolutely nuts over using resources that were exciting and engaging?  Now compare that to your excitement about teaching chapter 5, page 12.

A word of caution here: teachers sometimes confuse teaching with passion with just teaching whatever they want and throwing standards out the window.  That doesn’t work either.  But good teachers can use something they’re excited about to teach virtually any concept by the connections they make with the material and the resources they support with learning.  In fact, they might even become more efficient because they will realize that they can tackle multiple standards with a particular resource.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that some teachers might feel compelled to use the resources provided by the district.  It’s as if the teachers need to hold up their end of the bargain in exchange for the district pulling out its wallet.  That needs to stop right now.  Yes, I know there are districts that mandate textbook use; some even go so far as to designate what is taught on a given day in each classroom with the excuse being high numbers of transient students.  I actually do see the benefit of some consistency in what standards are being taught when, but I believe it should be up to the teacher to determine how that happens.

Finally, what works with one group of students doesn’t work with all. And what is relevant one year might not be in five years. Creating or curating your own curriculum resources ensures that the person who knows the students best is choosing materials specific for them, rather than some generic textbook that is supposed to “fit” students all over the country.

This process I’m suggesting here is not an overnight fix.  Building these types of resource collection takes time and effort.  So start small.  Choose one standard or group of standards that is presented in a particularly terrible way in your current textbook and completely transform it.  How could you teach it so it would absolutely blow your students’ minds?  What resources would you choose?  Where could you allow students some choice in what or how they learn?  How will you have students show you what they know?  How might technology fit in?  I promise, if you take the time do really do this well, it will likely grow to be your favorite unit all year.  Imagine if you worked up to all of your units being taught that way – you’d have the best job ever!

Full disclosure, I haven’t even read Matt’s book yet and I know I’m totally on board.  In nine years of teaching, I never used the textbooks provided to me by the district (unless you count using one or two to prop up a projector or flatten something).  The material wasn’t great quality, the books themselves were not great quality, and the book didn’t support the sequence of concepts and skills set forth by our district.

If any of this resonates with you, join the #ditchbook Twitter chats on Thursday nights at 7pm CST and follow Matt Miller on Twitter!

Give Screencasting a Try!

A lot of teachers ask me what my top tech tool is.  It’s like desert island for geeks: what one tool could you not live without if you were stranded with only one thing?  While it’s hard to narrow down, I think my answer right now would have to be the screencast.  They can be used by any teacher at any level and be extremely effective and efficient when done well.

What is a screencast?  Basically, it’s where you record what’s happening on your screen (a broadcast of your computer), usually with some sort of audio recording.  Some screencasting tools also allow you to record a web cam as well, meaning you can also see the person doing the recording while you watch.  Screencasts can be created on virtually any device, though some particular screen recorders work better on particular platforms.

Screencasts have a tremendous amount of value in the classroom!  A common use of screencasting is to operate in a flipped classroom model.  The teacher records a video segment teaching a lesson, the students watch the video as homework, then the teacher helps the students work through problems and questions the next day in class.  The lecture moves outside the school day and the in class time is spent working directly with students.

Screencasts can also be helpful when planning for a substitute.  I used to love creating screencasts for when I knew I was going to be gone.  When I was teaching a class, I couldn’t always count on getting a substitute who knew my content, but I always had someone that could click a link or press play.  I could leave directions for a particular activity or process, record a greeting for the class, or explain difficult concepts that my students needed to know about in my absence.

Or what about students who are absent?  How many times have you had to sit down with a student and reteach an entire lesson because they missed it?  Or a student who was in class but just hasn’t quite grasped the material yet.  Both of these students can stay in the classroom, watch the video on some kind of device, and then be ready to join back in with the rest of the class.  The teacher, meanwhile, is free to move around the room helping other students working in real time.

Students can also use screencasts to show what they know.  Want kids to explain a process and show you they understand?  Have them create a screencast where they walk through their knowledge, hopefully with visuals of some kind.  Want your students to do a slideshow of some kind but not want to sit through 30+ presentations?  Have them create a Google slideshow then record a screencast to talk through their presentation.  Then have students share their videos for the teacher and their classmates to view.

My favorite screencasting tool by far is Camtasia.  You can pause recording, edit out mistakes and add so many fancy features to make your videos look amazing.  But for the beginner screencaster, I would recommend checking out Screencast-o-Matic, Screencastify, or Snagit.  The last three products are free; Screencast-o-Matic works best on computers (Mac or PC) and the other two both work on the Chrome browser (Mac, PC, or Chromebooks).

Never made a screencast before?  One tip is to plan out your video ahead of time.  Have any windows open that you need and are ready to go rather than having to wait for software to load.  Make sure you have a quiet environment where you won’t be disturbed; this helps keep you from having to edit your video or re-record later.  Finally, keep your videos SHORT! Screencasts are generally more successful when they are less than five minutes, but even better when they are less than three.  Consider chunking your content into smaller bits to allow you to record shorter videos.  You will appreciate it when you are recording the videos (and so will your viewers).

Have you tried recording a screencast before?  How have you used it in your classroom?

Classroom = No Phone Zone?

Yesterday, I saw a post on Facebook that made me stop and think, and then get frustrated.  The photo was originally posted by the account of a newspaper in Oklahoma and showed what appeared to be high school students in a classroom.  In the foreground, a box with slots held all of their cell phones.  The caption read, “Do you think this would be a good idea in schools?”

As I scrolled through the comments, I was surprised to see that almost every one I read said yes.  A handful thought the same practice should be applied at meetings, in the workplace, and in the home.  One said she thought it should be used while driving as well.  So far, I’ve only seen one person say no but it was because she felt students should have access to phones in case of an emergency.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there are many aspects of cell phones that are problematic.  Obviously, distracted driving is a major concern among teens (and adults).  And yes, I am a little concerned with the number of teens I see buried in their phone screen rather than talking to the table of friends sitting with them.  I do value humans engaging and interacting with one another in meaningful ways that don’t include technology.

But that’s where I have to draw the line.  What does it teach kids that we need to lock up their phones in order to teach them?  What does it say about our teaching that the only way to get students to listen to what we say is to take away their personal property?  I know, I know.  Cell phones are a distraction in class, kids can cheat on tests, and teachers are up against a pretty big competitor when it comes to keeping kids focused when phones are in the room.

Humor me for a second, won’t you?

What if it didn’t matter that cell phones were in the classroom during an assessment because the “test” being given didn’t have answers you could Google.  Or text to your friend across the room or in the next period.  What if students were using their phones to create new content based on the material, such as blog posts or videos that make it virtually impossible to cheat unless you copy and paste the entire thing?

What if students were expected to engage in a backchannel for additional questions or discussion during class?  The teacher could check for understanding, the students would be engaged, and those students who tend to keep quiet in class would have a forum for their viewpoints or questions.   And since many students have phones, the teacher wouldn’t even need to provide many (if any) additional devices to do it.

What if teachers were so engaging and their content so relevant to their students that the kids couldn’t help but pay attention?  Maybe the teacher has a gift for turning everything into a compelling story that students just have to hear.  Or maybe kids really want to learn about what they’re doing because they need the information for a project that they’re doing, particularly one that has real world application or an authentic global audience.

Now, I know you’re probably saying that I’m crazy or unrealistic to think that any of this would work.  Maybe I am.  But I’ve also walked past many high school classrooms that still largely consist of lectures and worksheet packets.  Now tell me that you’d be able to leave your cell phone in your bag and pay attention!

We as teachers need to make sure we are engaging our students as fully as possible.  Engagement, however, is not the same as compliance.  Just because students are sitting quietly and not disrupting class doesn’t mean they are engaged.  They need to be thinking, and more importantly, they need to be talking.  Multiple sources say that the one doing the talking in the classroom is the one doing the learning.  Mobile devices like cell phones provide another way for students to “talk” and discuss the course content.

As more schools start moving toward one-to-one access with mobile devices, this is an issue that deserves some critical thought and reflection.  What kinds of questions should we be asking students when they have Google in their pocket?  How can they connect with others, not just in the classroom, but around the world?  Why write something just for the teacher when it can be shared globally?  Why watch videos when you can create your own?  How can we use the available technology to personalize each student’s experience for his or her learning style?

These changes won’t happen overnight, but if these questions aren’t on your radar (or if you have been the teacher with the cell phone box), you need to start thinking about them.  Gone are the days when teachers brag about keeping technology away from their students.  Instead, pride yourself on teaching them to use it appropriately and responsibly.

In the end, kids are going to be using cell phones anyway.  Might as well have them use them for something worthwhile.


Start Asking Why

Why?  I have several friends who have three-year-olds that seem to do nothing but ask this question all day.  It is probably their least favorite word in the entire dictionary.  But the word “why” is powerful, when used in right way.

Toddlers ask why because they are curious.  They want to understand everything around them and they’re trying to make it fit into their existing world view.  Eventually, though, they grow out of this phase.  By the time they hit school age, they are likely still curious, but it isn’t the only word out of their mouth.  By the time many of them get to high school, the only time they likely ask “why” is when an adult is telling them to do something.

What about teachers?  Do we ask why?  I would say that we do, similar to the high schooler above, when administration or some other authoritative body tells us to do something (think one size fits all professional development or state-mandated testing).  But what about in the classroom?  Do you ever ask your students why?

Today I read an article about some new ideas in teaching mathematics (read it here).  The first strategy the author mentions for changing how we teach is asking students why.  In this case, the teacher is specifically asking why students think a certain way or why their answer works or doesn’t.  They don’t just look for the answer, because the answer doesn’t reveal anything about how the students got there.  It could have just been a lucky guess.

If students know that when they give an answer the word from the teacher will be “why,” it forces them to pay attention to their work and be more thoughtful in their response.  This likely won’t happen the first few times, but eventually the students will start thinking in this way and will be able to articulate the why behind their thoughts.

Why is important for teachers, too.  It’s easy to ask when something is being asked of us or imposed upon us.  But what about the things we put upon ourselves?  How much of what you do in the classroom is of your own choice and how much is dictated by others?  The answers to that question will vary greatly depending on the teacher, school, and district, but the fact remains that some teachers do a great many things that nobody is forcing them to do.

Simon Sinek’s 2011 book, Start With Why, talks about how the “why” is one of the most important aspects of a successful corporation (and, I would argue, school).  Everything we say and do should tie back into our inner “why,” that part that really resonates with who we are.  Everything else is distracting background noise.

About five years ago, I remember standing in an Office Max with a friend during workshop week and she was worrying about her to-do list she hadn’t completed and open house was later that evening.  One particular item of concern was a magnet that she had intended to print out for every family that included her contact info.  When I asked why she was worrying about it, she told me she had always done it and the parents would be disappointed if she didn’t do it this year.  Really?  Unless she had retained a student from a previous year, I was pretty sure that no parent would ever notice or care.  So who was this really for?

If you work in a school, your “why” is likely to do what’s best for kids.  At least I hope it is.  And if it is, then your decisions become fairly simple.  Does a magnet with all of your contact info really help kids learn better?  What about creating new bulletin board displays every month?  What about grading every single homework assignment you give them?

None of these things are inherently bad.  I’m sure there were some parents that appreciated the contact info magnet.  But is it worth stressing yourself out over in a week where you’re already incredibly busy?

I’d challenge you to start asking your students why every day.  You might be surprised at how insightful they are.  And maybe, every once in awhile, you might take a look at your own practice and ask why.  Keep those things that are absolutely vital to making learning happen for kids.  If you have time for more, by all means go ahead.  But be okay to take those things off your plate that don’t fit with your why.

Evernote (Part 1: Curriculum)

Quite possibly my favorite teacher techie tool of all time!  On the simplest level, Evernote is a notebook where I store ideas I want to save for later.  But because it’s amazing, it does so much more!  I have two accounts, one personal and one professional.  In this first installment, I’ll explain how I use it for my curriculum.

In my professional account, I keep my curriculum I’ve used when I have taught music: songs, games, literacy activities, etc.  I can see the sheet music for the song (that is, a master copy for those of the Kodaly music persuasion), game directions, pictures of the books I have on my shelf and any other pertinent information.  Each note is also tagged by keyword, such as lesson theme, rhythmic or melodic concept, type of movement activity, etc. so I can easily find what I need.  This also comes in extremely handy when I need to share an activity with another teacher – email or print it out and, voila!

I also used to be terrible about filing away workshop notes.  Because Evernote allows the inclusion of photos and PDFs, I simply scan any of my handouts or notes from any workshops or conferences I attend and put them in my notebook, again tagged as necessary.  No more paper clutter and easy to refer back to my notes!

Check back for my next installment, Evernote Part 2: Planning & Preparation!