Equal Learning Opportunities

As our 1:1 program has expanded upward from the elementary grades, our district has been proactive in creating an environment where digital tools and digital mindsets will  be commonplace when the expansion reaches the higher grades. To fill in the the gaps where we don’t yet have devices for every student, we have instituted a BYOT program at GHS. It sounds scary to jump into something new and foreign, but there are excellent reasons to stretch ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable and has worked in the past.

This image comes from a excellent blog post I read yesterday. Having heard my own two children have this conversation at home, I thought I’d share both the image and the post. Using technology in education and moving away from lectures is less and less a choice and more and more an obligation.

We have plenty of our own technology in Goochland. We also have opportunities to develop student-centered activities through our G21 framework. I know I’ve been away with iPad deployment over the past few weeks, but I’m available to work with anyone interested in trying something new.

Learning About Learning

I know I have not blogged in a while. We have been exceedingly busy deploying iPads to all our 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grade students. Tomorrow we get to visit our one cohort of 3rd graders at Goochland Elementary. It is exciting to be entering our third year of 1:1 learning.

I’ve also been very busy outside of school. I’ve formally become a student again, and the past ten days have been mind-stretching and time-consuming. Tonight I was going through my required readings and I came across a paragraph that made me stop reading and come over to this blog and write a post about it.

If you try to read a video game manual before you have ever played a game, you can, at best, associate definitions and paraphrases with the words in the text. The manual is boring and close to useless, when it is not simply inexplicable. If, however, you play the game for hours—you do not have to play at all well—then when you pick up the manual again everything will be clear.
This comes from James Paul Gee’s Digital Media and Learning: A Prospective Retrospective (link), and while the quote refers to a video game manual, it could very well be about a textbook in any of our classrooms. As Gee himself explains in the next few paragraphs, learning from reading the textbook without proper contextual references leads to passing the test but not much else. There is no Deeper Learning in learning for the test. Last year and over the summer, we, as a school division, spent a lot of time thinking about and designing learning experiences that are student-centered. An important part of our plans was the inclusion of a kick-off event, a vivid, memorable introductory event that would give context and purpose to whatever was to follow. I’ve often heard of teachers asking students to read a textbook chapter for homework in advance of any hands-on activity or in-class discussion. What do students really get out of this assignment? What if I asked any adult to read this intense text on the importance of Chalcid wasps in biocontrol efforts as homework for next Monday? Take a look. I read it because I have many Chalcid wasps in my macro photography collection. I know you have no interest. Still, give it a glance and try to imagine how students might feel when confronted with textbook full of stuff they have never heard about. Now think about what I could have done ahead of time to make this text a bit more more understandable and relevant despite the content being so foreign to you.
  • Show a video of a chalcid wasp laying eggs.
  • Show pictures of the typical hosts for chalcid wasps and ask students to tell me about them. Let you look up information to use in the discussion.
  • Talk about the problems of introducing toxic chemicals into a garden and let you think of alternatives. Guide you through searches for alternatives.
In the end, the text would simply fill in the gaps and become a study guide. We all want our students to love our content area as much as we do. We want them to look at a new textbook and hug it to their chest with glee at the thought of reading about the Constitution, single cell organisms, or the expansion of Islam. It would be great if they did, but they probably don’t. It is up to us to bring the content to life, to make it relevant and relatable. Your best chance to do this is with a well thought out kick-off event for any topic.        

Understanding Our Students

This morning I learned some very interesting facts about cochlear implants, about what they do and what they don’t do, from a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition. We have students with cochlear implants in our schools, and I doubt too many people, adults and kids alike, know enough about them.

How many of us have seen those popular feel-good videos about babies hearing their mothers’ voices for the first time? Well, it turns out ALL voices sound pretty much alike through a cochlear implant. Music sounds as a series of beeps and buzzes, but no melody actually comes through and lyrics are hard to understand.

There are lots of smart people, engineers and physicians, working together to make these devices better at transmitting sounds accurately to the brain. Until then, understanding exactly what our students hear can make a huge difference in how we try to connect with them.

Saving Materials For Next Year

Of course all your hard work will help you next year!

If you have uploaded content to Schoology that you plan on using again next year, all you have to do is save it to your Resources folders. If you are not sure how to do this, watch these videos. The first one shows you how to move items from your groups or classes to your Resources folders. The second one shows you how to create folders to keep your resources organized.

Even if you do not save stuff to Resources, you will have it available. All content will be archived and you will have full access to it. However, if you have it in Resources, it will be much more easily accessible.

As always, let me know if you need any help.

Math IRL

“Why do we need to know this?”

There it is. Every teacher’s favorite question right after “Will this be on the test?”

It is always fun to find real-life applications of concepts for which I probably asked the same question. Here is a great example from Wired. How do you determine the field of view of a camera? Pull out your camera and give it a try. It would be a really fun activity for a classroom full of kids, all of them with a different model of phone. This single-block project could involve angle measurements and data analysis comparing the different phones. You could go even further and see if wider angles relate to higher pixel counts or phone price. This would be really fun, I think.

While this is much more advanced, it reminds me of one of my favorite projects of the past eight years as an Instructional Technology Coach in Goochland. Back in 2009 and 2010, Ms. Berry and her students created digital 3D structures and submitted them to Google Earth. Even today, when you visit Goochland in Google Earth, what you see is what the students created. They used very simple tools (student-made clinometers and ropes with knots) to measure buildings accurately. This gave kids a very good understanding of why we learn about angles, triangles, and congruency. With the accurate measurements they gathered, they reproduced the structures using Google SketchUp and Photoshop.


The Civility and Civics Of Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia. I argue with anyone who says it is bad, and I’ve even created a document to help teachers use Wikipedia effectively with their students.

There is something special about this giant collective work and the community that has helped create it. I often think about the authors and editors and how they arrived at the decision to give up their time to share their knowledge.

This morning @Braddo tweeted a link to a post on Big Think about Wikipedia and its community. Here is a quote from the transcript.

… I think it would be wonderful to make as part of the curriculum from, say, sixth grade onward part of your task and what you’ll be graded on is to edit and make the case for your edits to an article on a service like Wikipedia and then we’ll have new ranks of people being supervised by teachers who are working on the articles and on the product and that maybe even will apprentice to the norms by which you have an argument over what is true and what isn’t. And maybe some of them will choose to continue on as Wikipedians even after the assignment is over.

 I have proposed authoring or editing Wikipedia articles as school projects many times. I’m guessing this is not such an innovative concept now that Wikipedia is 14 years old. What I like about this proposal is the last bit.

So to me if I think of an advanced civics class, it’s great to learn that there are three branches of government and X vote overrides a veto, but having the civics of a collective hallucination like Wikipedia also be part of the curriculum I think would be valuable.

We would be teaching Civics for citizens of an online world. 

So go take a look, and scroll past the write-up to the comments, where one reader offers advice for teachers willing to take on the challenge.

Earth Day Extended Celebration

Last Friday and today, Ms. Kass and I took the students in her Science classes outside to do a little exploration of our environment. In a scavenger hunt type activity, we made a list of concepts the kids have studied during the year and went outside to look for examples. We looked for stages of life cycles, evidence of the water cycle, erosion, pollution, and documented the organisms in our ecosystem. Over the next few days, students will share the images they made with their iPad cameras in a Schoology class discussion. We will discuss what we found, and if we have a chance, we will make a plan to clean up the substantial amount of trash we found in the woods.

Here are a few of the pictures I made of during our outings of little things the students found.

Soldier beetle

Lichen and moss



Sawfly larvae



Stop Motion Cells

Mr. Summitt’s students have been learning about mitosis and they have put together really nice animations using their iPads. I have edited four of my favorite animations turned in through Schoology into a single movie.

Watch these cells divide and learn.


Purposeful PBL

Yesterday I walked into Mr. Rooke’s room to do something menial and simple. I walked away awed and inspired, and with a sense that we really are making a difference in our schools.

Mr. Rooke, our very deserving Teacher Of the Year, has a very non-traditional way of teaching Spanish. I’ve never seen his students filling out worksheets. I’ve never heard his students complain about unfair amounts of work, boring lessons, or tough tests. Mr. Rooke’s students go on to perform outstandingly in advanced Spanish classes, genuinely like Mr. Rooke, and treat him with the utmost respect. Mr. Rooke embeds language learning into study units that are of personal interest to the students, and that is what we discussed when I was in his room yesterday.

Students have been learning about Central America through movies, novels, and classroom discussions. They have learned about the role of poverty in the civil wars of the 1980′s, and the effects of intervention by outside powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Recently, they have been discussing MS-13, a violent gang that traces its origins to refugees from the civil war in El Salvador.

So, as the students are learning Spanish, they are also becoming aware of recent cultural and political events that are not covered in traditional Social Studies classes, and they are becoming very aware of how interconnected our world is. They are also learning about real people involved in events, not just learning about events in an abstract manner. This personal connection is crucial.

To reinforce these connections and foster empathy, Mr. Rooke has added another dimension to the learning. He has funds in an account with Kiva.org that the kids will award to applicants for microfinancing. To decide who gets the funds, students have selected loan applicants to research.  They are using Explain Everything and other tools on their iPads to prepare Shark Tank-style presentations for their peers. Then, as a class, they will vote on the top applicants and award the funds to them. When the loans are repaid, probably next year, the next group of students will be ready to evaluate a new set of loan applicants.

This project embodies everything I’ve always imagined for our G21 initiative. It is about the kind of learning that is not for the test. They are learning about people who live in places they have never even heard of. They are learning about the reality of life in these places. They are becoming aware of their privileged lives as citizens of the United States, and of the power and responsibility that comes with that privilege. The kids will always be able to point to this time in their lives when, as a class, they made someone’s life better. 

UPDATE: If you would like to help the students fund additional Kiva micro loans, make a donation at their GoFundMe site.

Learning On the James

This week we celebrate Earth Day, and our 6th grade students have spent the past few weeks learning about wildlife and water quality on the James River. Last Friday I joined the last group to participate in a field trip to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

We had perfect weather for outdoor learning, and the docents did an excellent job of engaging all students in learning. From sturgeon to solar energy, we learned about research, restoration, and protection. We discussed Kepone and its effects 40 years after news of health problems emerged. We learned about LEED building certifications and how they help keep Presquile clean and comfortable. Most of all, we had engaging conversations about the importance of the James River for all of us.

Over the next few days, I will be working with the 6th grade team to incorporate what we brought back from our field trip into our Earth Day celebration plans.

Presquile, a former peninsula, is now an island and a wildlife refuge.

Learning about blue catfish, an invasive bottom-feeding species.

An adult Chironomid fly. Its aquatic larvae are an important source of food for fish.

Pulling in a net, hoping for fish.

Pink and green grasshopper hiding in the tall grass.

Cows, Pigs, Blocks, and Learning

“What did you do today?”

“My friends and I blew up pigs with TNT. We called it a barbecue.”

“That’s not very nice…”

“We also started building a gothic cathedral in our village. It has flying buttresses but we don’t know how to add stained glass windows.”

“That’s better.”

Variations of this conversation are common at my dinner table. Love it or hate it, Minecraft is here to stay, at least for a few years.

Personally, I love it. I have never used it myself, but I’ve sat next to my son as he gives me tours of his ever-growing village with serfs’ cottages, a castle, a forge, community gardens outside the castle wall, and all sorts of things he’s read about or seen in movies. He has also done serious research online to make sure everything he’s including is accurate. What started out as something he had to know for a test has turned into something he really enjoys. And he continues to learn on his own.

If you hate it, you might agree with what this dad wrote for the BBC Magazine: kids become obsessed and do nothing else. Still, think of making the most of the benefits of becoming an expert Minecraft builder. Or think about the serious research kids have to do when building something as accurate as a Minecraft replica of the Forbidden City. Then give this parent a chance and read his very sound advice written for The Guardian. Instead of fearing Minecraft, try understanding it. Instead of keeping kids away from it, set parameters.

I hope teachers will follow this advice and encourage kids to use Minecraft for learning rather than goofy digital mayhem.  In fact, I hope we are able to use Minecraft.edu formally soon.

Photos For Class

Last week was Spring Break and on Tuesday I made a very conscious decision to disconnect and have a very slow dinner with my children. I knew I’d be missing a couple of Twitter chats, so I went looking through my feed on Wednesday morning. There were lots of really good ideas there, but one stuck out because it solves a problem I see over and over in our schools and have been unable to do more than put little band aids on it over the years.

Katie Morrow (@katiemorrow) shared the Photos For Class website. This is a website that searches Flickr and finds only G-rated images that can be used in school project. It gets even better. When you download a photo, you automatically get the citation.

I know this resource, if used consistently, will save us many disappointments in the future. Just in the past few weeks, I have had to revise plans with teachers multiple times because what they planned to publish openly online was full of copyright-infringing images pulled from Google and other online sources. I also know this resource is trustworthy because I know that Katie practices what she preaches and she would not recommend a broken resource. If you would like to see what students can do with the right guidance, take a look at Katie’s blog post on students as published authors.

We have all the tools. We have a great example. Let’s make it happen.

Training Vs. Professional Development

I have a really fun job. I provide professional development and training to teachers, often embedded in the classroom teaching model lessons, co-teaching, or just stopping by to help everyone troubleshoot. I also help teachers in one-to-one appointments during the school day, in brief after-school sessions, and in long format sessions over the summer.

Is there a difference between providing training and providing professional development? Absolutely! Training is all about how to do things: click here, drag there, type this, do that. Professional development is about why we should do things: pedagogy, mission, philosophy, ethics. For the most part, it is very easy to train. Sequencing events or procedures is not extremely hard, when working with teachers who are comfortable with technology as most of our teachers already are. Providing professional development requires a very different approach because the process often involves changing teachers’ attitudes, both towards their students and the technology I’d like them to use.

I always make an effort to provide both training and professional development in a balanced approach when I work with teachers. I don’t just show teachers how to use a new tool. I point to how the tool can be used to solve an instructional difficulty the teacher might have or how it can help us meet our goal of providing deeper learning opportunities for students. Of course, there are issues that rely solely on training, and for those I try to push out some help using a handout or a video on my blog. The clearest recent example is the simple fix for a misbehaving Mail app on our laptops. There is no benefit to any student from a teacher knowing why or how to do this, and the DIY approach will save teachers the effort of walking to my office. But, when working with teachers to adopt something that the students will use, I have to be face-to-face with teachers, or in an extended interactive online class. This is why we have our firm two-hour minimum tech class requirement for all our teachers. 

Of course the tech team can make tutorials on how to use Garage Band. We could even grab some ready-made videos off a million different places and email those to teachers. We could have every teacher making amazing podcasts about their cats and their favorite recipes in no time. The challenge lies in changing the way teachers approach students’ role in education. Instead of lecturing day after day, allow students to formulate and answer questions, and share their findings with the rest of the class via serialized podcasts. We could write lengthy articles (like this blog post) with lots of tables and citations, but text doesn’t always convey messages like personal interactions do. Just like teachers in classrooms, we, as providers of professional development, need to read our audience and see the light dawn in teachers’ eyes.

This post I read recently asks whether we should train first and provide professional development later. The author and I agree that the two should go hand in hand. Not doing this would be a disservice both to teachers and students. Otherwise…

…training without professional development could just lead to poor teaching being delivered faster and more efficiently. While training should certainly be part of the equation, it should take a back seat to professional development. When it comes to education technology, pedagogy should be the driver and technology the accelerator — otherwise, technology will simply end up being the brake.

Beyond the Book

Ms. Thomas’s students have been reading the play based on the Diary of Anne Frank. To better understand why the Frank family was hiding, students researched other events recognized as genocides. Each student taught the class the causes, events, and outcomes of each genocide. I’m sitting in class right now listening to presentations on the Holodomor, Armenian genocide, and Australia’s lost generation.  The questions the students bring up prove they are listening and they are interested. What was the global response? How does this genocide affect global politics today? What are the survivors doing now? How did governments managed to hide what they were doing? Why didn’t they fight back? The presenters are answering, but the class is actively discussing, citing current and historical events. I’m very impressed.

These kids are connecting all sorts of things: Malala Yousafzai’s story, ISIS, current fighting in Ukraine, redrawn borders after World War I, Al Shabaab, the Trail of Tears…

The conversations are great. This might not be covered by an standards, but these kids will always remember this activity and will have a very different awareness of the world for as long as they live.

Of course, I’m also very happy the kids used Google Slides  and cited all their works properly. Beautiful work, Ms. Thomas and kids.

Reading Is an Evolving Skill

I am always interested in research that gives me real information about opinions I have formed based on anecdotal evidence. For example, I read an article in The New Yorker yesterday about the nature of online reading. I had blogged about some of the issues years ago*, and had concluded that the problems or benefits would continue to evolve. I’m glad serious people are devoting time to the changing relationship between text and people.

If you are a teacher in a school going through a digital conversion**, you might want to take a look at the article. There are lots of ideas to think about. For example:

  • kids must be taught to read differently because comprehension and retention seem to be closely related to self-control (This is the part that goes immediately back to my old blog post linked above)
  • kids who are avid gamers seem to deal better with on-screen distractions
  • all readers, young and old, need to make a conscious effort to read rather than skim. This one seems to be more of a problem with scrolling as opposed to flipping digital pages.
  • sometimes it might be a good idea to take a device offline when reading lengthy texts
As the article says, online reading is new. We’ve been reading ink on surfaces for centuries, and we have learned to cope both as writers and readers. This new trend is not going away and we won’t really understand what is happening to our eyes, our bodies, and our brains for many years. We just have to wait and read on.


*Why am I surprised that I can say “years ago” when I refer to a blog post I wrote? I guess before coming to Goochland I never thought I’d ever do any writing. Now I have eight years worth of blog posts and three books. I’m so thankful to have this ongoing record of my work and reflections.

**I’m not fond of this term since, to me, it says we are taking all the old stuff, making PDFs, and not really changing how we do school.

Fix Your Mail App

Many of our teachers have been reporting that they are unable to send messages using the Mail app in Snow Leopard. Here is a video showing what needs to be fixed. If you need any additional help, please let me know.

PBL and Cross-Curricular Connections

A few weeks ago I interviewed Ms. Kass and Ms. Krickovic to highlight what was going on in their classrooms. Both teachers told me about projects that let students publish their work based on research using Schoology as a platform for discussion and collaboration among students.

There are many overlapping aspects to these two projects, and now that the teachers have had the opportunity to reflect upon the results, they are making plans to make this a cross-curricular project next year.


About the Author

Ms. Kass and her students are making books about plant and animal cells on their iPads. They are using SketchBook and Book Creator to gather everything they are learning through labs and research. The books are going to be great and after Spring Break, we are going to make them available for download.

To make these books more like books, the students will be working in Ms. Ray’s classes to write biographies to use on an “About the Author” page to append at the end of the cell information. Although we are close to the end of the year, during the course of our conversation about rubrics and peer editing, we realized this was a great year-long project, and even a great project to last the full three years of middle school. 

Next year, we will start early. Students will interview each other write each other’s biographies. This will help the kids get to know each other as they come together into a single middle school from three elementary schools. They can use this bio at the end of all their books. But, as the year goes on, kids will have newer accomplishments to mention in their biographies. They will also improve their writing and wish to make changes.

As the kids go on to seventh and eighth grades, they can continue to add accomplishments and revise their writing. Towards the end of their third year in middle school, the kids can compare versions and see how much they have grown, both in their writing and in their lives. These biographies could be used in applications to Governor Schools and for scholarships later on.

I wonder what the effect on the students will be.  Having all their accomplishments written out in front of them will show them how much they have done, and how much they can do when they set their minds to it.

Archie and Veronica Explore the Internet

For the past few minutes, I have been flipping through a copy of Exploring the Internet published in 1999. Surprisingly, I have found the Amazon link. The book is a very interesting stroll down memory lane.

Do you remember Archie and Veronica? How about Lycos, Atavista, and Infoseek? Did you know that Lycos is still in operation? Back in the day, I was a big fan of Infoseek, knew all about Telnet and IRC.

The book is full of names and acronyms that have come and gone over the past two decades. The statistics are hilariously quaint. Did you know that there were 35 million people accessing online content from home in 1998? Did you know they were posting as many as 250,000 articles to Usenet each day? Usenet posts were the nerdy precursors to tweets. How many tweets are tweeted each day?

Despite being hopelessly out of date on the tech front, the book has a lot to offer. The main focus is on finding and using information, a topic in which there is always something new to learn, no matter how much expertise you might have.

I am a firm believer in the mission of this book despite the goofy spider graphic.

Information literacy and digital citizenship must be a part of the recipe in every single learning activity involving any digital tool. They are not the exclusive domain of Language Arts teachers suffering through formal research projects with their students. I might hang on to this book to pull out ideas when I work with teachers.

Technology changes, and it changes teaching. The truth remains that good teaching always covers the most important concepts.

Parents in Schoology

For a few weeks now, I’ve been getting complaints about the Schoology logo on the GCPS homepage linking to the “wrong” Schoology website. The link is not wrong. We linked to the non-Goochland Schooloyg page on purpose.

When parents log in to Schoology, they do so from the non-Goochland page. We are hoping more parents will do more than dip their toes in Schoology and embrace the tool as a main avenue for information to flow between home and school.

If you have not already done so, please share access codes with your student’s parents. The codes are easily accessible from the Members section of any of your courses. Parents can learn all about registering and keeping up with their children on the Schoology help page. They can even sign up for email alerts any time their children have overdue assignments.

Active, Engaged Math

“Well, of course you can do that in (fill any subject). Math is different.”

“I can’t use that tool if it does not have a built-in equation editor.”

“I don’t have time for that. My students need to practice solving math problems.”

I can hear these things a million times. I still don’t believe them. Here’s proof that we can have relevant, real-world, engaging learning activities in math class. And these are just three examples.

Cathy Yenca’s blog

Robert Kaplinsky’s lesson ideas

Mr. Orr’s blog


Teacher Dashboard Update

At the end of the month, Teacher Dashboard will transition to a new and improved version of itself. You can switch to the new version now, or wait until the change is automatic.

Here are the most important changes to keep in mind. 

  1. Update your bookmarks. You will log into Teacher Dashboard at a new URL
  2. You can now rename your classes so they are easier to identify.
  3. You can group your students and students can belong to multiple groups. This group structure can mirror groups within classes in Schoology.
  4. You can now share multiple documents at one time using Smart Copy, which is now called Smart Share. This button is also found along the left side of the screen rather than at the top left corner.
  5. You can now share documents with multiple classes or groups at one time.
  6. Teacher Dashboard will now generate a random string when resetting passwords. If you do not want to assign a random string of characters as a password, you can still type your own. Please remember not to reset passwords unless the student is requesting this in person, and always check the “reset password on login” box to help us maintain a secure environment.

I’ve created a video highlighting some of the new features. b  (GHS and GMS faculty groups) rather than here since so many student user names and full names are visible in the video.

If you have any questions, please let me know.

As Captain Picard Might Say…

When I tweet, I feel like I’m talking to myself and my words will simply come back to me in perpetuity as Timehop entries. Yesterday, my name was mentioned in a tweet and I got notifications about it all afternoon.


Dr. Gretz picked up that quote when I was discussing Phillip Schlechty’s levels of engagement. What I was saying to my audience was that assuming students are engaged because the classroom is quiet and everyone looks busy is not a good idea. Until you see what the outcome of the work is, you can’t know whether the kids were engaged or not. It is not just about observing the behavior. When students are truly engaged, they care about doing the best they can, not just meeting the minimum requirements set forth in a rubric. If students are constantly asking if the paragraph they wrote is “long enough” and you keep sending them back to their desk, they might be busy, but they are not engaged.

I’ve been pointing to Schlechty’s work for a while when talking to teachers in Goochland because, while we might know what engagement is, he puts it into words that can help teachers reflect upon their practice.

I believe engagement is made up of two separate components.  The first is the relationship between the teacher and the students. If you want your students to be engaged, you have to know them and you have to get along with them. You don’t have to be their friend, but you cannot lead students in learning if you have an adversarial relationship with them. The relationship between the teacher and the students is the main ingredient in the mix that makes up the classroom environment, and a toxic environment discourages collegiality and collaboration, which are so important to learning.

The second component in engagement is thoughtful and carefully planned instruction that is accessible and relevant to all the learners in the group. If tasks are too difficult, students will be frustrated, and if tasks are too easy, students will be bored. Allowing for some choice and creative flexibility lets students find the right combination of their own skills and the challenge in the task to be successful. Notice that there are tasks for the students to carry out. Instruction should be an activity in which the students are doing something, not passively listening or watching.

So how do we get here? Stop lecturing. Embrace project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, plan student-centered activities. Need help? Remember I’m just an email away.