Setting Boundaries and Staying Productive

One of the biggest struggles I am hearing from my teachers right now is how overhwelmed they are with the number of emails and messages they receive on a daily basis. Emails from administration, colleagues, families and students fill up their inbox on a daily basis. On top of that, we have a messaging app that allows parents to essentially text teachers throughout the day.

During distance learning last spring, everyone started increasing the number of messages they sent electronically. Since we weren’t in the building, we couldn’t just stop by someone’s classroom to have a chat. It almost all went through email. It got to be a lot and often teachers and staff felt like they had to be “on” all the time because the school community was now messaging each other at all hours of the day and night.

I felt it in the beginning, too. I felt like I was spending 24 hours a day looking at my computer screen and responding to emails. I wasn’t sleeping well and it was exhausting. Eventually, I had to take a step back. While I wasn’t always closing my computer by 3:30 every day, I was definitely closing it by 5 or 6. It helped immensely.

Now we are in hybrid learning. We’re all still in the habit of sending tons of emails and messages (families included). But now we have kids in front of us from 8:00 to 3:00. We can’t drop everything and respond in real time the way we did when we were all at home in our pajama pants.

Email can be a HUGE time suck if we let it. I know I’m incredibly guilty of leaving my email open all day long and dealing with new messages as they come in. I have my work email on my cell phone and I’m always checking it throughout the day and night. In fact, it’s often the first thing I see after my alarm in the morning and the last thing I see at night.

But that needs to stop. We think by checking email frequently, we avoid the huge pileup at the end of the day. Productivity experts say you should check email far less than we do. We think we’re saving time by responding in real time, when in fact, frequent checking actually wastes more time than it saves (See here).

There are two other tricky parts of email at work: 1) the more you send, the more you get and 2) when you respond immediately, you set the tone for the future.

The first part is easy. If I send an email to five staff members, I will be expecting 5 emails back from that message. And if I have a particularly heavy email day, I can expect dozens of emails to fill my inbox when I return. My solution here is to stop by classrooms when I can or set up a quick Zoom chat to avoid sending so many emails. Another solution is to consolidate the info in a weekly (or perhaps daily if need be) email that goes to your staff with relevant information.

The second part isn’t hard to figure out but it’s sometimes difficult in practice. When we respond to messages immediately or after hours, we teach those we communicate with that we are always available. But that’s not realistic, especially this year with all of the extra demands being placed on us in schools. Our school handbook says we have 24-48 hours to respond to parent communications. But because we so often send off a quick reply, parents now become frustrated if they don’t hear back immediately.

This is where boundaries come in. It is perfectly acceptable (and honestly, necessary) to set limits to when and how people can reach you. Teachers and other school staff are not “on call.” We do not need to be available 24-7. That said, if you are going to change your communication protocols, it’s a good idea to give people a heads up first so they don’t feel like they are suddenly being ignored.

So what’s my plan to tackle this? I’m kicking around a few ideas around goals for productivity and boundaries:

  1. Stop checking email after work. I have provided my cell phone number to my teachers if there is a genuine emergency. Otherwise, send me an email and I’ll read it in the morning.
  2. Stop sending emails after hours and on weekends. Gmail has a “schedule send” button. If I feel the need to get caught up after work hours, that’s on me and my staff shouldn’t be expected to do the same simply because I am. I will use the “schedule send” button if I’m working outside school hours so I’m not setting the example that working late is the expectation. It starts with me.
  3. Set times for checking email. I need to set up my schedule around what I need to do and not let what comes into my inbox dictate my day. I like to check email first thing in the morning and before I leave for the day. It feels good to have an empty inbox when I walk out. I may also consider adding a 3rd time around lunch if the end of day session starts stretching out too long.

How do you manage all of your emails and stay productive?

New Job, New Uniform

When I got my first job when I was about 14 or 15, I wore a uniform. I worked as a car-hop at the local drive-in. Not a movie drive-in, but a restaurant where customers ordered food from their car and we brought it out on trays which hung on their car windows (thankfully for me, not on rollerskates). Each day when I went to work, I wore a polo shirt with the restaurant logo on it and either jeans or shorts, depending on the day’s weather. Easy enough.

I haven’t worn a uniform for a job since then. I’ve worn many things over the years and my teaching wardrobe varied a great deal over the years. When I took my current job, I thought a lot about what I wanted to wear to work. I wanted to look professional but still be able to be mobile around the building. My students wear uniforms, so I felt like I needed to make sure my look wasn’t too casual.

More than 20 years after my time at the drive-in, I find myself wearing a uniform again. No, I’m not moonlighting in fast food. I’ve simply narrowed down my wardrobe to the point that I wear almost the exact same thing every day. To be honest, it sort of happened by accident. I’ve read before about how important people like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama wore the same clothes every day, with very little variation.  Some of them say it has to do with the fact that they make so many important decisions each day that something simple like their wardrobe shouldn’t be one of them.

I don’t pretend to think I’m as important as either of those two, but I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to spend time and brain power selecting my clothing for the day. If you’d have asked me even last year, I’d have said that a “uniform” wasn’t for me. I liked clothes and variety in my wardrobe far too much.

So what do I wear? Nothing too fancy or complicated. My uniform consists of black trousers, a button down Oxford shirt, a school jacket, and my Dansko clogs to save my feet. I do have multiples of everything so I don’t have to do laundry every day, and I have shirts in both blue and white. I purposely bought 3 different school jackets this fall because I’m proud of where I work and I like being able to show school spirit every day.

If you’re considering trying a work uniform, you might wonder if people will notice that you are wearing the same thing every day. What I can say so far is that if anyone at my school notices, they don’t say anything. In fairness, I think having two different colors of shirts and three different jackets means I don’t have to wear exactly the same thing each day.

Will I wear the same uniform all year? Maybe. As the weather changes, I may need to adjust the pieces I’m wearing since a shirt and a jacket might be too warm. But seeing that winter in Minnesota lasts forever, I should be set for awhile.

Have you adopted a work “uniform”? Would you consider it or is it too restricting for you?

Heading to the (Droid) Dark Side

I’ve had a cell phone since late 2001. It was my first year of college and I had the same sweet Nokia gem with the (mint green) changeable faceplate that played Snake. I don’t even know how many different phones I’ve had since then, but once the Apple iPhone hit the market, I was a loyal customer. I believe the first iPhone I had was an iPhone 4 and I’ve carried almost every iteration of the phone since.

If you’d have told me at any point in this journey that I’d become an Android user, I’d say you were crazy. I’ve been an Apple fan for years. I have an iPhone, an iPad, and a Macbook Air. I’ve loved how they communicate seamlessly with each other and the user interface has always been much more intuitive for me than any other platform. But lately that’s started to shift.

I still have no intention of giving up my Mac. I have a PC at work and I honestly hate it. But between my laptop and my phone, I rarely use my iPad anymore. It’s a little older and the battery life isn’t great. And because it’s an iPad mini, it really isn’t that much larger than my phone. I bought a Kindle Fire a few months back that I use primarily for traveling because the storage capacity and battery life was superior to my iPad when wanting things to read and watch on an airplane.

Plus, I’ve been hanging out on the sidelines watching as the whole home automation scene has been exploding. Nothing about my home is “smart,” but I’m intrigued by a few tools that I’ve seen come out in the last few years. The Google Assistant looks promising (I’ve never been in love with Siri and the Reminders app on my iPhone) and being able to control a few things from my phone would sure be handy (my parents would probably say lazy, but oh well).

After LOTS of reading online and visiting the store to see and touch the tech toys in their native habitat, I decided to buy a Google Pixel 3. Almost everything I use is already Google: email, calendar, photos, documents, maps, and so on. I’ve never used the native Apple apps for any of these, at least not for long.

The biggest problem with this change is that it means I won’t really have a use for my Apple Watch anymore. Admittedly, I don’t wear it every day. I like to wear it on weekends, playing in the water with my son, or working out. I also wear it certain times at work when I need to make sure I’m not missing phone calls or notifications. So, that will be an issue to figure out once I evaluate the phone situation.

I’m sure it will be an adjustment. I’ve never owned a non-Apple smartphone (though I did own a Blackberry for a short time in the mid-2000s). But I’m pretty techie and a quick learner, so it should be fine. The phone should arrive later this week – I’ll be sure to write an update to share how the transition goes!

Have you ever made a major change like this? How did it go? Do you think I’ll love the Pixel or hate it?

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?

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?

Ready for a Break

Ah, spring break!  It’s one of the things that students and teachers look forward to all year.  Except when you don’t have one.  Tomorrow is my spring break; I get a three-day weekend and it’s back at it on Monday.

Crazy, no?  Actually, this is not the first time I haven’t had a spring break.  My previous district apparently didn’t believe in them or something, so almost every year I worked there, we would get Friday and Monday around Easter as our “spring break.”  This year, new district, but because of construction deadlines, the school year is compressed a bit.  The plus side is that I’ll be done with school on May 27th (though that doesn’t make me feel better right now).

Because of the schedule, most teachers in my district only get two days off between New Year’s and Memorial Day (President’s Day and Good Friday).  Students have a few more days off, but those end up being teacher professional development or work days.  It makes for a long haul, particularly in Minnesota where we’re still waiting for the warmth of spring to fully kick in.  Kids are restless, teachers are tired, standardized tests are looming on the horizon…..all three combine to make school a bit chaotic.

Big deal, says everyone else in the “real world.”  Teachers get three months off, so why should they need breaks during the year?  Well, don’t you have vacation days?  In my jobs, I’ve only ever had (at most) 3 vacation days all year.  Now don’t get me wrong, “regular” jobs don’t have breaks built in like we do in schools (winter break, thanksgiving, MEA, etc.).  But people who work at “regular” jobs also don’t have to do all of their work in advance so somebody else can take their place.

Plus, we all need a break.  Americans are notorious for not taking time off.  Somewhere along the line, we adopted this culture that says taking time off is a bad thing, like it means we’re less committed to our work.  For me, even though I’m a bit of a workaholic, I love getting time away.  Whether I have big plans or none at all, I still need time away to recharge.

As I embark on my luxurious three day break, what will I be doing?  Not much.  Spending time with my family, and honestly, probably doing some work on the side.  Hoping for nice weather so we can enjoy some sunshine.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll even write a blog post or two…

Guided Access on iPads

Have you ever used iPads with your students and caught them using a different app than what you asked them to use?  Frustrating, right?  Wouldn’t it be nice if you could keep them in the app you wanted in the first place?  Oh wait, you can!

The iPad has all kinds of tricks and hidden gems built in to make life easier for its users.  One of them is called Guided Access and what it does, among other things, is lock the iPad into a particular app.  It’s not exactly straightforward to find and turn on, but with a little digging, it can make classroom management with many iPads much simpler!

Guided Access is hidden in the accessibility settings.  To find it, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Settings menu.
  2. From there, click General.
  3. Click Accessibility (there are actually several features here you might want to check out, but we’ll move ahead for now).

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 8.14.32 AM

4. Scroll down to Guided Access (near the bottom).

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 8.14.22 AM

5. Tap the switch to turn on Guided Access.

6. Then click Passcode settings.  (You will need to create a passcode if you don’t already have one.  This is what you will need to exit Guided Access when your students are done working.  Be sure you keep track of the passcode!)

You’re all set!  To activate Guided Access, enter the app you’d like students to use and then triple-click the home button.  The window will shrink a bit and you will see the Guided Access controls appear on the screen.  Click Start at the top right corner and Guided Access will be activated.

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 8.14.03 AM

Now when your students use the iPads and try to back out of an app, it won’t work.  They also can’t double-click the home button to scroll between open apps.  When you’re done using that app, triple-click the home button to reveal the Guided Access controls again.  From there, you can either end or resume Guided Access.  You can also use the Guided Access menu to turn off access to particular parts of the screen.  This can be helpful if their are buttons you don’t want your students to bump accidentally.  Remember, Guided Access has to be turned on each time you enter an app!

Google Drive: Collaborate or Copy?

Most people will admit that the introduction of Google Drive and its collaborative features, has been a game changer in the world of education.  Gone are (or should) be the days of emailing documents back and forth only to be working on outdated copies and trying to sort through multiple versions to find the “right” one.

The ability to share documents and other files with colleagues and students with just a few clicks is amazing.  We can work together on a single document in real time without having to crowd around a computer screen.  Participants can add to a meeting agenda without needing to email the items to the organizer.  Teachers don’t need to photocopy documents or manage hundreds of emails from students (particularly if they use Google Classroom).

Sometimes, however, collaboration on a document can be problematic.  Sometimes we want to share something with a colleague, but we still need to keep our original.  We remind them to make their own copy (which they can do), but they often forget and just start editing away.  This causes some teachers to revert back to old methods of emailing a document so they make sure their work doesn’t disappear.

But there is a little trick!  Did you know that you can force someone to make a copy of your document?  By making a small change to the URL of the document, the recipient will see a screen like this:Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 10.26.20 AM

Clicking the “make a copy” button will automatically create a copy of the document in THEIR Google Drive.  Your document is intact and you’ve still shared your work with others.

How do you do it?  It’s actually pretty simple.

  1. Open a Google Doc (actually any Google file type should work).
  2. In the address bar, you should see a URL that begins with https://docs.google.com…
  3. Somewhere relatively near the end of the address, you should see the word edit (it may be followed by additional words or characters).
  4. Delete the word edit AND everything that follows it.
    Untitled drawing (2)
  5. At the end of the address, now add the word COPY.Untitled drawing (3)
  6. Highlight the entire address, and copy/paste it into an email that you send to anyone who needs the link.  When they click it, they will see the screen above.

So now you have the choice: collaborate or copy.  Both serve very useful functions in different situations.  For example, any time a group of teachers will need to have access to the SAME document, they will want to share the document with the group and edit on the same document.  Any time I’m sharing a document outside my organization, such as at conference or with Twitter friends, I tend to force the copy.  There are times, though, that I still use the force copy feature with colleagues within my district.

One example would be when you have created an assignment, assessment or template that you’d like to be able to share with your team.  In this case, if it’s important for every student to do the exact same assignment, you would want to share.  If you want each teacher to get the document but be able to customize it, you might want to choose force copy instead.

Again, both ways are helpful, so choose what works for you in your particular situation!

Google Classroom: Class Workflow Made Simple!

How many of these have ever applied to you as a teacher:

  • You have had to send students to the library to print an assignment they forgot.
  • Students left their papers at home.
  • Someone was absent and now needs to know what the assignment was or needs a copy of a handout.
  • Your shoulder is sore from hauling home a massive stack of papers to grade and comment on.
  • Your shoulder isn’t sore because you forgot all of the papers you needed to grade that night on your desk at school.
  • You’ve gotten several papers turned in with no names on them.
  • You have students share their finished Google documents with you only to get dozens of “shared with you” emails and then have to try to sort through all of them to put them in folders so you can find them later.

If any of these apply to you, you need to stop what you’re doing and get yourself on Google Classroom.  I’m not kidding; stop reading right now and go set it up.  I’ll wait until you get back.  It’s that awesome.

So now that you’ve set up your account, here are a few things you can do with Classroom to make your (and your students’) life easier.  First of all, it provides a place where you can post any class announcements, handouts, and assignments.  It’s a one-stop shop where students should be able to find any and all information they need to do their work.  No more “I can’t find my _______.”

Since it is a product within the GAFE domain, it works extremely well with Google Drive.  In fact, when you create assignments and have students submit them, Classroom will “talk” to your Drive account and automatically create a folder for each class and assignment, meaning you no longer have to deal with students sharing documents with you (and the dozens of emails that go with that) or trying to organize all of them in your Drive.

Evaluating student work becomes easier with Classroom as well.  Once assignments are submitted, the teacher can use the built-in commenting or suggesting features of Google Docs to leave feedback for students.  Tools like Doctopus and Goobric make rubric grading and other evaluation go much quicker (learn more here) and one like Kaizena allows you to leave voice feedback instead of writing or typing comments (check out Kaizena).

My absolute favorite feature of Google Classroom is that when you create an assignment and need to share a document with students, you have three options: students can view file (no editing privileges), students can edit file (everyone edits the same document), or make a copy for each student.  The last one is my personal favorite because if I attach a Google document or other file type, it will automatically generate a separate copy for every student AND put their name on it.  And again, because it’s Classroom, all of those files are neatly organized in the appropriate folder in your Google Drive with no additional work from you.  I suggest to teachers that they create a template for their students (even if the entire thing is blank) because then each assignment will come in with the same title and include the student name.

For those of you who teach more than one class at a time: when you post an assignment, you can assign it to any of your classes simply by checking a few boxes – no need to recreate the assignment for every section.  You can also add students easily by giving them the 6-digit alphanumeric code that Classroom generates for you; this is much more efficient than entering hundreds of students names yourself.  You can even add a co-teacher if you share your class with a colleague.  Finally, for all of my primary teacher friends out there, Classroom can even be used with your students!

If I haven’t yet convinced you of how awesome Google Classroom is, then feel free to check out some other resources.  There are several guides to Google Classroom for sale on Amazon, the most popular of which is Alice Keeler and Libbi Miller’s 50 Things You Can Do With Google Classroom (available here).  Keeler also has a tremendous amount of blog posts, suggestions, and tutorials on her website (www.alicekeeler.com).  I also wrote a short e-book that can help get you started with the basics of Classroom (free e-book here).

iPad Full of Photos? Send Them to Google Drive!

Photos and videos can be a powerful tool for students and teachers.  But getting photos from place to place can be tricky.  It used to be the only way to move photos from your iPad to your computer was to email them a few at a time.  It took forever!  Not a good use of any teacher’s time!

Many teachers find themselves with very full iPads. Often, this is because they and their students are documenting their learning through photos.  Pretty soon, though, the iPad is full but we still want to keep those pictures.

Your iPad has limited storage, but your Google Drive does not.  You can now easily move photos from you iPad device to your Google Drive, where you can store as many photos as you need.  Once the photos are uploaded, you can delete them from your iPad and free up much needed space.

Teachers can opt to do this in one of two main ways: manually or automatically.  Now, you might be asking why I would even mention a manual option when it can be done automatically.  I like teachers to have options that meet the needs of their workflow.  If you have students taking photos, you may want to go through them before they end up in your Drive, so you’d rather upload photos as needed (Manual).  Or maybe you’d prefer an automatic solution and you’d like to go through the photos on your computer instead (Automatic).  No right or wrong answer here because both will accomplish what we need to do.

I have created directions for performing both options (click each option to see the directions I created for my teachers):

Manual Uploading

Automatic Uploading

Hope it’s helpful!  And keep taking photos!

Update: In the short few days since I created these tutorials, I’ve shared them with at least a half dozen teachers in my district! Apparently, I was more timely than I thought!

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?

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.

Want to keep track of things? Try Google Keep!

It seems like there is a never-ending stream of information for teachers, staff, and students to keep track of.  You write it down, but then that post-it note falls off your computer. Or you can’t remember where you saved a file with some important info.

One possible solution is Google Keep.  It allows you to create notes that look like sticky notes, but with so much more power!  Here are a few great features you might like:

  • Title your notes
  • Choose a note color to keep yourself organized
  • Add a note reminder
  • Search your notes for any words in the title or body of the note
  • Share notes with colleagues
  • Tag notes with keywords (which allow you to pull up all notes with that tag)
  • Add images to your notes
  • Copy a note to a Google Doc if you need to do more work with it
  • Can access on mobile devices (iOS and Android) or on the web
Use them with your PLC to have shared notes with reminders.  Use different colored notes to keep track of different things (students, parents, PLC, grade level, etc.).  Collect information or data on students and tag with the student’s name to find quickly.  Keep track of teaching resources, websites, etc. that you need to reference later and tag by subject or standard. The possibilities are endless!

To check it out, view the video below or visit https://keep.google.com/.

Reaching All Learners With Web Tools

You probably know that the Internet is a great tool for education, but what you might not know is that there are many tools and websites out there that can make learning easier for students.  Unfortunately, many educators believe that the only students who can benefit from such tools are students receiving special education services.  Not so!  These resources are available to anyone – no IEP required!  Any student or teacher can use these resources to help them be successful.

Here are some I’ve been checking out this week:

1. Announcify

Announcify is a Google Chrome app that reads the text printed on a webpage.  Not only that, but it blurs out any other bits of information or text that are not currently being read.  This can be particularly helpful for students who might be distracted by objects on the page or have trouble tracking while reading.

2. Closed Captions on YouTube

Showing a YouTube video but have students who have hearing impairments or have trouble keeping up?  Maybe the text on the video is just unclear?  Many YouTube videos include an option for closed captions. Videos with captions available will have a “CC” icon in the video summary in search results. When playing a video that has captions, you can turn on captioning by clicking the “CC” icon in the bottom right corner of the video window.

3. Speechnotes

For anyone who doesn’t want to write or type!  This is one of MANY voice recognition/dictation programs that allow the user to speak their text rather than type it.  They can also add punctuation by voice command as well.  They can then copy/paste their text into a Google Doc or other assignment platform.  One caution: while the dictation programs out there now are pretty good, it is always a good choice to go back and have the student edit his or her work before submitting as you can occasionally get some interesting results!

4. Clearly

Made by the makers of Evernote (another favorite tool of mine), Clearly gets rid of all of the “junk” on websites so readers can see the material more “clearly.”  Users can also print the Clearly version (or better yet, save it as a PDF for sharing with others!).

These ideas don’t even scratch the surface of all of the tools that can improve accessibility to the web and its content!  Teachers or students who would like to use these Chrome apps and extensions can install them themselves on their Chrome browser.  See below for some helpful videos!

What’s a Chrome Web App?

Who Are You and Why Are You Emailing Me?

This is a common question I ask myself several times a week.  While I have met many new faces in the district, there are still several I haven’t yet met.  So, when I get a request for help and the only identifying information is the person’s name, I need a little more information.  Where are you located?  What department do you work in?  What age are your students? Are you a teacher, paraprofessional, secretary, or something else entirely?

Now imagine you are a parent, particularly one with multiple children.  Now imagine they’re all in middle or high school and they have several teachers at the same time.  You send an email saying they did a great job on a test, or maybe that you’re concerned about their grade.  But they have no idea what class you teach because they can’t keep all their kids’ teachers straight.

A solution?  Create an email signature!  It’s an easy way for anyone receiving your email to know who you are and what you do.  It takes just a couple of minutes – see below!