24 December 2011

2011 Holiday Greetings

I hope you are enjoying some time off and an opportunity to do whatever you like to do with whomever you like to do it with. Borrowing from a co-worker: "Best wishes for a nicely modulated seasonality."

And to all, a good night.

10 December 2011

Lucky Seven

"Seven has always been my lucky number."
The number "seven" holds appeal for many people in many situations: brides for brothers, sins and virtues, dwarves and samurai, hills and wonders.

And today, we can raise a toast to the seven years of blogging here at What It's Like on the Inside.

Many happy returns of the day to my readers and supporters. May seven be a lucky number for us all.

02 December 2011

A Look Into The Purposeful Classroom, Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I took a long train trip. I suppose that "long" is a rather subjective term. So, let me say it this way. I spent three days traveling from my home in Washington to the town in Texas where I grew up---nearly door-to-door service. While most people I tell this story to cringe in horror---Trapped on a Train! Waste of Time!---for me, it was delightful. It was the first full week I've had off in a year, and having someone else "drive," cook, clean, and treat me to wine tastings for three days was a little bit of heaven (and not nearly long enough). It was also an opportunity to be anonymous for a bit. In fact, I think that is one of the most appealing things about taking the train...not just for me, but for a lot of people I met along the way. Everyone talked about themselves in terms of where they were going---not where they'd been. They didn't define themselves by a job. Conversations felt a little different. Interestingly enough, many of the conversations on that trip turned to Technology. I didn't bring up the topic, but there seemed to be a pervasive belief that Technology Was Very Important. If you're a regular reader here, then you know that I struggle a lot with whether or not that statement is true.

Technology has a bit of a starring role in Chapter 4 of The Purposeful Classroom by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. And as I read, I couldn't help but think of the various conversations I'd had on the train.Technology is such a mushy word (Are we talking hardware or software? Does it have to be digital or will any sort of tool do?), but within the context of the book, definition is not as important as the role it can take with establishing relevance for students and purpose in the classroom. Fisher and Frey describe the roles technology can play as students find, use, and produce information. (Unfortunately, the book went to press before Google's Wonder Wheel went defunct last summer.) To me, this is technology in its proper place---something I meant to blog about after my post on being App-rehensive about the infusion of tablets into classrooms. I see way too much confusion out in the edusphere about "student-directed" vs. "student-centered" learning. And what I like about The Purposeful Classroom is that it provides a firm, but even, hand to bridge these two ideas, even though it never uses these terms.

In Chapter 4: Ensuring the Purpose is Relevant, there is a good discussion at the beginning about relevance---a term does not refer to just one thing. Relevance can take the form of curriculum (which is where we most often try to pigeonhole it), but it can also be found in the connections we make for students (to the "real world," to other learning, to their own lives), as well as the products we ask them to develop. Relevance is an amalgam. And for me, this is an important point to carry forward. Technology is a way to make purpose relevant for students, but it is not the only way. I wonder now about the conversations I might have had on the train. They obviously thought technology was important...relevant...but were seeing it as more of a goal than an entry point.

If relevance represents the push of student-centered learning, then Chapter 5: Inviting Students to Own the Purpose responds with the pull of student-directed. I have to say that this was my favourite chapter. It's the shortest one in the book, but it packs the most punch in terms of implications for the classroom. There is a brief overview of motivation (goal theory is missing...sigh), followed by a look at helping students identify purpose statements. This is something that I would like to explore further upon returning to the classroom, because I didn't take this concept far enough with students. At the end of a grading period, each student and I would look at their performance and I would ask them three questions: What are the strengths? What needs improvement? What should the grade be? Looking back, I should have built out the second question. We did talk about what students could do---how to focus on improving, but I should have had them do some goalsetting...something we could both refer to in the coming weeks.

The final chapters (6: Identifying Outcomes Related to Purpose, 7: Knowing When a Learning Target Has Been Met) describe specific instructional, assessment, and evaluation strategies. A lot of what is included here is just part of good teaching: cooperative learning, peer-assessment, feedback, rubrics, various assessment formats. There might be nothing new here for a good teacher, but all of the ideas are good reminders about how the pieces should fit together.

If you have the opportunity to read The Purposeful Classroom, I am sure that you will have your own "a-ha's" along the way. Whether you are new to the profession and are looking for some extra support---or an old hat (like me) who needs a booster shot about working with students to set classroom goals---there is something in there for you.

I'll be attending a keynote address by Doug Fisher next Friday and then spending a few minutes talking with him about the ideas in the book. If you have questions or comments to share, I'd be happy to pass them along. Many thanks to ASCD for a copy of The Purposeful Classroom. This has been a great opportunity for me to learn and reflect on my classroom practice.

30 November 2011

A Look into The Purposeful Classroom, Part I

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s new book is The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind, published by ASCD. In this post, I’ll provide an overview and some thoughts on the first three chapters, and follow up with a look at the second half of the book in the next post.

I’ve been a Fisher and Frey Fangirl for a few years now. I appreciate their continuing commitment to walk their talk by staying involved with high school teachers and students. This sets them apart from many of the “expert” voices in education who have either no experience (or, at least, no relevant recent experience) working in classrooms. Fisher’s and Frey’s deep background knowledge shows throughout the book in the form of the personal stories they share. As a teacher, I really connect with that approach.

The focus of The Purposeful Classroom is on creating clear and meaningful purpose statements for students, and then supporting work toward these goals. At first blush, this doesn’t sound particularly new or groundbreaking—let alone deserving of an entire book. But Fisher and Frey take this concept in a direction that may be different for a lot of teachers. We know about standards. We likely encountered Madelyn Hunter’s version of lesson objectives in our teacher preparation programs. Fisher and Frey make the case that standards, objectives, and purpose statements are actually three separate things. Standards are broad and lack specific direction for students (How long will it take to learn the ideas? What will it look like when I’ve learned it?). Objectives are more for the teacher than the student (The student will be able to…). A purpose statement provides students with a clear expectation around “what they are going to learn and how they will be expected to demonstrate their understanding” (p. 6). There are some very subtle differences among the terms. The rubric on pp. 20 – 21 is a tool that PLC groups may find useful for developing and revising purpose statements, but I found myself aching for a checklist, too. I can’t help but think of all of the teachers in our small schools who don’t have a way to collaborate with others very often. A tool containing “look fors” when developing purpose statements would be a very welcome addition here.

In Chapter 2, Focusing on Learning Targets, Not Tasks, Fisher and Frey provide background on developing purpose statements that move student understanding forward by using what students already know. Part of this chapter made me want to cheer (they shy away from “higher order” and “lower order” ranking of skills), but other parts raised a lot of questions for me. On pp. 36 – 37, they state that “In addition to identifying what students already know, teachers have to understand the type of knowledge that students still need to gain.” I’d like to know more about Fisher’s and Frey’s view of both Learning Maps and Learning Progressions. It seems like a natural connection here—tools which a teacher might use to help plot the course, as it were, for students. There is a connection back to this concept in Chapter 3 during a discussion of Pacing Guides. Here again, it is refreshing to see a very common sense approach to using Pacing Guides—one which speaks directly against using them as “scripts,” but as their name suggests, a guide for planning and instruction. I’d still like to learn more about how Fisher and Frey view Pacing Guides vs. Learning Maps.

Fisher and Frey look at content and language components of purpose statements in Chapter 3. Content refers to subject-area knowledge; language the terminology used. I like the attention placed to both of these areas. It elevates the importance of content vocabulary as a basis to understanding deeper concepts. Fisher and Frey advocate for “unpacking standards” in order to look for both content and language components. This can be a great exercise for teachers in terms of identifying what students need to know and be able to do. I was also left hanging, however, waiting for Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to make an appearance during the discussion of unpacking standards. Fisher and Frey use a table to separate the nouns and verbs from some Common Core State Standards. I think this process can be useful for teachers as a way to focus on what a standard includes, but I’m not sure of the reasoning behind separating the nouns from the verbs. The table makes things look like a mix-and-match approach, when the standard is very direct about which verb and noun should be partnered…something more Webb-like. I hope to find out more about the reasoning for doing so.

I recently had a sneak peek at the upcoming revision to Classroom Instruction That Works. “Setting Objectives” is still one of the strategies listed. What I like about The Purposeful Classroom is that it gives time and attention to Setting Objectives (or, in this case, purpose statements). The book is a deep dive into being intentional with the goals we provide for students, something that can only help them in identifying gaps in their knowledge and determining pathways for growth.

15 November 2011


About 6 weeks ago, I started using a tablet. Perhaps "using" is too strong of a word. It might be more accurate to say I have access to one at work. The fact is, there isn't a lot of work that is done on it---mainly because the day-to-day aspects of my job don't fit well with this kind of device. Yes, I have access to a keyboard for it...and I even purchased an app to be able to do some basic work with Word, PowerPoint, and Excel files. But my laptop is just a much more robust tool (and, it's connected to the Internet).

However, the overall purpose is greater than just my personal productivity. I'm also doing a lot of thinking about classroom uses. I've been trying to set aside a certain amount of time each week to review apps and ponder how I would integrate the device and the apps into my teaching. I keep asking myself, If the education fairy plopped you in a classroom tomorrow and all the students had tablets, what would be different for teaching and learning?

At this point, I'm not entirely sure of the answer to that question. Mind you, I never thought much about it with other resources and tools. Replace the term "tablets" in that question with "textbooks" or "calculators" or "coloured pencils" and I don't think the answer would be very different. Maybe it's because the magic that is learning is not dependent upon the stuff---at least not in my mind.

It's not that I don't see certain advantages with the tablet. One tablet weighs a helluva lot less than a bunch of textbooks. (Tablet = 1, Scoliosis = 0) In terms of science and math, there are a lot of tools that I wouldn't have to spend precious dollars to buy/replace: e.g. stopwatches, graphing calculators, measurement tools. There are additional ways for students to capture content. They can take a picture, capture video, or sync audio to notetaking. A classroom calendar could easily be synced with a student's personal calendar to track assignments. Certainly immediate access to the Internet could be a plus (and a distraction).

But in the grand scheme of things: So what? If kids can do all of the same things in the classroom without a tablet---why bother? It's a lot simpler to pull out the container of stopwatches for a lab than to sort through the various apps to find the best option. I have to say that searching for and testing out apps is a major time commitment. I don't have to plug in and sync textbooks (and kids have a far easier time annotating print). I know that I'm not the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to careers, but I can't think of any that exclusively use tablets. (We'll get into the whole issue of student choice for product/output in the next post.)

I know that some out there will argue that this isn't the point. A tablet is a Disruptive Technology, therefore we won't understand it's potential and uses from the get-go: Users will define those within the learning environment. Maybe there's some truth in that, but I would be willing to bet that what we will see is a bunch of tablets pushed into schools and instruction will continue pretty much the same way it always has. If you want to blame lack of PD for that, feel free. But I think it's more than that. I think it's a fundamental disagreement about how teaching and learning occur.

However skeptical I am at this point that tablets will revolutionize the classroom, I'll keep poking along with my own explorations. I'm willing to be convinced.

And with that in mind, here is my first list of apps to share. These are just for organization. I don't know or care if these are available for iPad. If you're a droid person, however, you might want to check these out:
  • AudioNote allows you to take synchronized audio and text notes. It's not as good as a LiveScribe pen, I have to say, but for brief events that you want to capture, it's a nice tool. There is a Lite Version, which is free.
  • Schedule St. is geared more toward students. It's a dayplanner/agenda app, with to do list integration. I like this one because you can easily categorize and sort the "to do's." So far, this is the best agenda/planner app that I've found.
  • Bluetooth File Transfer is a nifty way to move files and apps between devices. One of the greatest advantages of the droid platform is the freedom you have with your devices and apps. You never have to use iTunes. Sharing and syncing with bluetooth means you can be cable free.
That's all for this update. I'll keep exploring and sharing ideas now and then. Have recommendations? Leave them in the comments.

13 November 2011

You've Got Questions? I'll Get Answers

One of the sessions I enjoyed most at this year's ASCD conference was one presented by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Their books have had a place on my shelf over the last few years and it was great to hear them share ideas in person. I always appreciate this sort of "unfiltered" opportunity---no editor, just a direct transmission from the expert.

I've been looking forward to seeing Doug Fisher present again at next month's WERA conference about the new book he has written with Nancy Frey: The Purposeful Classroom.

Better yet, ASCD sent me a copy to review and I plan to chat with Doug Fisher about some of the concepts in the book. Why don't you join me? Right now, you can read sample chapters of the book for free online. Have a look and see what sorts of questions it provokes for you. Then, either post your questions in the comments or send me what you would like to ask Dr. Fisher. With the impending shift to CCSS for most of our states, now is a great opportunity to think about how these will translate into classroom goals, as well as any issues associated with transitioning to these new standards. Read a chapter or read the whole thing. Ask your questions and I'll work on getting the answers.

11 November 2011

It Goes Both Ways

Recently, Good held a contest for a report card redesign. Here was the winning entry, by Polly Avignon:

While it was obvious that none of the candidates applied best practices for grading and reporting to their entry, as Susan Brookhart recently pointed out for ASCD, I have to say that we educators also deserve some of the blame. We might know a thing or two about grading and reporting, but we've had decades to redesign report cards to reflect those practices and have not stepped up to the plate. I'm sure that information designers look at our paltry efforts and say the same things about our design knowledge that we point out about their understanding of grading practices. At some point, we have to stop throwing stones and step up to learning how to communicate data both accurately and using the principles of good design.

We don't all have to invent new report formats, but we should not be afraid to ask for better from the companies which push software into schools. This includes not only those who sell gradebooks, but also those which supply benchmark and formative assessment materials. Shall we look at a few that are used heavily in Washington?

Up first: DIBELS (graph from here)

This has to be one of the ugliest colour combos around. I'm all for the "stoplight" approach to formatting data, but there are better shades than these. And there's the weird thing going on with the labeled ranges along the bottom. Thousands of teachers are handed these charts (or review them online)---all trusting that this is good design.

How about AIMSweb, a Pearson product?

Probably good information here, but who can tell? Is this really the best we can do to give teachers an at-a-glance view of student performance?

And, finally, MAP from NWEA:

The yellow is attention-getting, for sure (original here). But again, we're lacking in representing the data in a friendly way.

And so, my fellow educators, it's time to stand up against bad design---not just bad principles communicated through good design. Tell software companies that it's time to give us the kind of reports we and our students deserve. Start taking two minutes to clean up the charts and graphs you produce. Find a design scheme that works for you and stick with it. Remember that responsibility goes both ways.

Have you visited Excel for Educators recently? You missed these posts:

28 October 2011

Welcome, ASCD Ed Leadership Readers

If you're an ASCD member, you may have seen that this month's issue of Educational Leadership is devoted to grading practices. And Ye Olde Blog got itself a mention (as did my friend Kirk from Teach Science for All):

I have updated the grading wiki, in case you haven't visited in awhile. I loaded it up with more research, a section on policy, and a whole lot more. (And, thank you to the EL editor for giving me a "heads up" that company was coming so I could rebuild that site.)

If you're new to What It's Like on the Inside, thank you for joining me here. It's a space that I've used to chronicle my last seven years as an educator at the classroom, district, and state levels. Some of the content is science-related. Part of it is specific to teaching. There are rants and raves sprinkled about. I talk about being an EdTech skeptic while (currently) working in EdTech. And yes, there are a lot of posts on grading and assessment to explore. I also blog at Excel for Educators, which has a lot of nifty posts and tutorials on building and using gradebooks for standards-based grading. If you can't find something you like here, check out some of my suggestions on my blogroll.

You're most welcome to hang out and learn, reflect, and join the conversation. If you need a doggy bag, click the RSS button at the bottom of the sidebar and posts will be delivered to your virtual doorstep (I'm also on Twitter). Let me know if there's anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable. I'm happy you're here!

27 October 2011

Silicon Implants

I think a lot about the purpose of integrating digital tools and devices into the educational setting. I have been called "techie," but it is not an adjective I use to describe myself. It's not one I admire or have any desire to attain. I am not someone who claims that digital is always better or that just because kids were born into a world of computing that they should be surrounded by it 24/7.

In the circles I move in, I'm definitely the minority. I have to wonder how much this impacts things---both from my perspective and the other one. There have been times when I've been in a room of 12 people and been the only one without an iPhone. And if an iPhone is the norm for a group, I worry about how that might skew the decisions that get made. There becomes an assumption that everyone has access to an iPhone, which then drives the discussion about what to showcase or pursue. My concern is that this increases the digital divide. When what we offer is only about a single platform or expectations, the people or districts which can't afford the technology (or broadband plans) or who don't live in a particular service area will continue to be left out.

More and more, I hear about the promise that digital content and connections will have for rural schools. I agree with part of that---the increase in accessibility can be a good thing. But this promise is almost always coupled with the concept that connectivity will replace all professional development for teachers. While you might say that something is better than nothing, I don't know that creating a division where urban teachers get direct access to expertise and classroom coaching while rural teachers get ether represents a step up. How about asking rural educators what they want and how they want to learn?

And ditto for students of poverty. The constant push to infuse computers in the classroom so kids can have interventions really sets my teeth on edge. What will happen when the students with the greatest needs for relationships get 1:1 learning with a machine?

Finally, I'm not convinced that the goal of a digital learning environment has any real purpose. I see lots of pictures of kids in a cubicle-like learning space, each with their own computer doing their own thing. That there's some real disruptive innovation. The greater goal, in my mind, is to help each student learn how to learn. Some of them will want pencils and paper. Some of them will want tablet computers. "Paperless" should not be a goal any more than the endless parade of standardized tests.

Technology in the classroom isn't going to go away. It will increase, driven first by the rise of testing, and then secondly by instruction. It can help in some wonderful ways. But we need to quit looking at it as a panacea for whatever we think is wrong with today's classroom: the teacher, the distance, the student. And we need to quit admiring it for the logo it sports or the fact we can now toss our year-old model in the landfill. Tech has consequences, just like any other choice. It's time we started thinking responsibly about its use.

24 October 2011


When I was in the classroom, I used the oft-maligned "If...Then...Because" hypothesis format with students. My purpose was not to require this format. There are any number of ways to construct a hypothesis. But I had a lot of kids who had trouble communicating their thoughts about a prediction. You could talk to them and they could explain their thinking. But to write a hypothesis for a given question? They were like deer in the headlights. So, I helped them incorporate this scaffold...this tool in their belt...so if they got stuck, they had a way out. To me, this is one of the purposes of using an instructional scaffold. It's a support for the student until they can stand on their own with a skill.

At a recent conference, I was in a discussion about the research process, and many of us in the room remembered using note cards, at the behest of our teachers. Although the notecards were meant to be a scaffold---a way to help us develop the ability to "chunk" information and track sources---but many of us also remembered being either required to use the strategy and/or graded on whether we used it. In fact, I'd wager that most of us have worked with teachers who misuse scaffolds in this way: they take what should be a flexible skill (like notetaking) and ossify a scaffold around it (index cards only). Scaffoldificiation has now occurred.

This is not to take anything away from the notecard process. Index cards can be used in all kinds of awesome ways. Where I start to have a problem is when something like notecards is presented as THE way to do research or when any "musts" are attached. At that point, you are asking the student to conform to the tool instead of helping the student develop a skill. I totally get that as a teacher, you don't want 30 different styles to have to learn and provide feedback on. There has to be a balance between meeting student needs and not pulling out all of your hair. But can you introduce more than one way (even just two?) for kids so they can start to learn what works for them?

I think there are various things at work that lead to scaffoldication. Part of it may be the old chestnut of "We've always done it this way." This presumes that the best way was identified decades ago, prior to the invention of lots of other tools and methods. And, who knows? Perhaps the old way is still best. But there's no way to know unless others are given an opportunity. It may be that fear (or laziness) is another reason. We grow comfy in our ruts. Hey, it worked for some students...let's give it to all of them.

Do you need to have a conversation with a colleague about scaffoldification? Obviously, you can't start with "Scaffolds. Ur doin' it wrong." But can you help them identify what it is they really want students to take away from the process? Chances are, it's not really the "If...Then...Because," the physical cards, or that every essay must have five paragraphs. Beyond that, they should be able to see that these attributes don't belong as part of the scoring process or final grade. Help your colleagues remove their own crutches and scaffolds so they can focus on student ideas and learning.

22 October 2011

Tastes Like Chicken

Over the years, I've been involved with a lot of lenses focused on standards. I've used them in the classroom. I've helped write them. I've developed items and assessments for them at the classroom and state levels. I've presented on them. I've evaluated student performance and reported on them. If there's anything you can do with a standard, I've probably done it. I'm just that kinky.

But the more I work with these little beasts, the more I realize what complex little creatures they are. And the more I worry about the ones yet to come as CCSS becomes implemented and the Next Generation Science Standards emerge. (Aside: If you haven't been keeping up with Jack Hassard over on The Art of Teaching Science site, he's been killing it with great posts about the science standards process. Get on over there and read.)

I mentioned in a recent post about a conference session I did that was geared toward having a conversation about the shift from analog to digital in the research process and what that means for us and the students we work with. During that process, we took a peek at the EdTech standards and considered what was underneath. For example, a standard for grades 3 - 5 includes these expectations:
  • Gather information using selected digital resources.
  • Organize information using digital tools.
  • Record sources used in research.

Seems simple enough on the surface. But whether you're talking about how we guide students to take notes, paraphrase, use digital tools (e.g. outlines and mindmaps), read a digital text, or capture information about a source, there's a lot going on here. This is the mechanical engine that drives the standard. While you can make an easy link to the next grade band and how it will build on the strengths students develop at this point, that really doesn't get us toward a greater good. If there's an argument I hate more than "You need to learn this because next year's teacher will expect you to know it.", I'm hard-pressed to name it.

Although I'd never say it this way to students, the point of this standard is about getting your shit together. And that, my friends, is a lifelong skill that requires constant attention. What you learn, where it comes from, and how it fits with other pieces are things we all do throughout a lifetime (in both analog and digital ways). But we don't say this in the standard. Relevance gets lost as we condense and package the words. Meanwhile, all those bits and pieces mentioned above (such as, read a digital text) are also not mentioned. Standards seem to occupy some sort of middle ground between the grunt work that goes into mastering them and the higher purpose they can serve.

Teachers already know this. Most of the people involved in writing standards do not. I really worry about this---not just because it's ridiculous to leave teachers out of that process---but because it can take months or years for the statements representing the standards to be "unpacked" enough to know what's there. And here we are, simultaneously trying to develop assessments, when we don't even understand what's going to need to happen from an instructional standpoint.

Back when I was more naive (or more to the point: ignorant), about working in a true standards-based classroom, I thought things would be pretty simple. You read the standards...you get a picture in your head of what it looks like...and Poof!, kids learn them. The reality is different. I couldn't get to more than 6 standards in a semester with students, and even then, I felt that was pushing too hard. To build understanding for every student takes time---not just for them, but for the teacher. There needs to be multiple assessment opportunities. Instructional time devoted to teaching and reteaching. Standards shouldn't just be like chicken---something that can be incorporated or repurposed into a variety of recipes. They each need their own flavour for kids, with a palate that develops in complexity over a lifetime for them. I have major concerns about the rhetoric out there about the CCSS making kids "career and college ready." I'm sorry, but the words on those pages won't make that happen. It's all of the mechanical parts underneath---all of the unmentionables---that will guide that development. And teachers will be the most valuable part of that process.

I may well be overthinking things, but the more I have to wrangle the bon mots contained in standards, the more unsure I am that we as educators really know what we're signing up for. Hassard cautions, "Standards are opinions of a subset of professors, mostly from the academic disciplines, often appearing on boards and planning and writing teams for the first time. And in some cases participants of the teams ought to be replaced with fresh faces. Are there concepts in science, for example, that every human being must know? Probably. A set of standards for every student? We really do not have a way to determine what every student should know, and we have to wonder why we are so obsessed with this. Why, in a nation of 50 states, and 15,000 school districts, do we insist of a single set of standards, all of which are discipline based." I like the idea that every child has access to the same flexible "toolkit" when they leave the PK-12 system, but I have no confidence that we really know the meaning behind the words on those pages.

20 October 2011

Yes. Those Britches.

It's been a little busy around my place. Six events in four states in six weeks makes for one very tired Science Goddess. And tired leads to cranky. Cranky leads to putting on the ranty-pants.

Two of the meetings I've attended have been full of people who pride themselves on their educational leadership. And when it comes to discussions of online testing...or Common Core State Standards...the basic attitude is that "districts will figure it out." And I'm happy to give credit where it's due. Districts (read: Teachers) are competent professionals and do figure out how to manage what gets crapped on them. I also understand that when it comes to things like technology, it's unreasonable to expect that everyone will have the same hardware and bandwidth available at exactly the same moment in time. But telling districts to just "Git 'r Dun," as someone suggested at one meeting is not only crass, it's an abdication of your responsibility as a leader. You may not be able to solve every problem in every district, but you should at least provide some support and a road map. And, if you have no intention of doing so, please find another job and leave schools alone.

And speaking of technology-related things, such as online testing, it's time for tech-heads to quit whining about their outsider status in schools. As soon as you chose to separate educational technology as its own line item in budgets, you were no longer viewed as integral with curriculum and instruction. Claiming that you're futuristic in your thinking is ridiculous. Sure, you have a responsibility to look ahead and plan, but don't cry about how you're left out of current conversations. If you're not willing to help people move forward from where they are, then you don't get to complain about your exclusion from processes where that is happening. You didn't step up to help because you thought it was beneath you...that you were better off preparing for the world in a few years. Guess what? Others are now determining the path. Get over yourselves and ask where you can support the work others are doing. Don't expect them to come to you...and don't expect them to adopt your plans.

And, finally, I sat in on a presentation recently where a high-school teacher was talking about what she saw as a lack of skill development in students and told the elementary teachers in the room that they were going to have to do something about that. She justified this by saying that she used to work in an elementary school, then proceeded to detail her résumé---as if she'd "graduated" from low level work and could be the big booming voice of doom. Guess what, honey? I don't care if you worked with elementary students decades ago. No one cares that you think you're queen because you happen to have a high school job. You don't get to tell elementary teachers what to do. If you see a problem with student learning, get off your supposed laurels and fix it.

I feel better. Got a rant of your own? Borrow my ranty-pants (One size fits all!) and let off some steam in the comments.

18 October 2011

The Next Wave

This most recent set of conferences I've been attending is about the last for 2011. At this point in the year, I start to think about retiring my current slide decks and building new ones to extend the conversation from the current year.


With conference attendance diminishing with budgets and people attending as schedules and interests allow, it strikes me that there will always be a need for a "Start Here" sort of session when it comes to the work I do. If you're new to your job, just moved to the state, are a beginning teacher, or just haven't gotten to go to anything for awhile, you've missed the opportunities to learn the basics.

I do have a place online to put the old stuff. There are narrated tutorials anyone with an Internet connection can watch at any time. Noobs can engage with the content at their leisure (and others can review), but I also want to acknowledge that learning something online (especially in an asynchrous environment) is not the same as physically being with others who are. I don't want to claim that one is better or worse than the other. I think that depends on the skill of the presenter and the individual needs of the participant. What I do wonder is that by retiring a conference session after a year that we're eliminating a very important pathway for people to engage with the content.

As much as we discuss the concept of readiness for students, I really think there's something to that for adults, too. I've had any number of experiences working with adult learners when the proverbial light bulb goes off over their heads. Readiness emerges in waves every year. And I don't know how to account for that in an ever-changing educational landscape.

I'm going to have to ponder this some more as I start to prepare proposals for next year's conferences. How do we bring people up to speed while we're forging ahead? Have you seen something that works?

16 October 2011

Conversation Starters

The fall conference season is in full swing here. I've been busy the last two weekends with travel and presentations. A few were sessions recycled from previous conferences, but for new audiences. Science teachers want a different bent than librarians, even if the essence of each set of materials is identical.

But I also wanted to do something different with a conference session...something more personal for participants...something to engender the kind of conversation that isn't easy to have with a group of strangers in a one-hour block of time. As much as I hear people rail about how their PD isn't "engaging," I have to tell you that I've been in any number of sessions over the years where people wanted sit-and-get, and left when I provided more "constructive" sessions. Go figure. Anyway, I built an odd duck sort of session this time, never sure if it would sink or swim, and took it out for an inaugural run. I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

We started here:

I'm sure responses would vary with the median age in the room, but let's just say I had the card catalog, Reader's Guide, notecards, and ink pen age group. And this is okay---because as clearly as they could remember all of these things, it was the process that stuck. The most common response was "outlines" as an organizational device for thinking. As much as I remind people that technology is not (just) about the stuff, setting this personal context to drive the rest of the conversation was powerful in its own way.

I used four video clips from Desk Set to prompt the rest of the discussion. I chose the story arc about putting a computer (a 1957 version that nearly takes up the whole room) in the library and its impact on the people working there. These clips were meant to explore the research process further and have participants think about where they started and how they use both analog and digital tools today.

The first clip introduces Spencer Tracy's character, Richard Sumner, as he arrives to measure the library. But the librarians haven't been told why he's there (and he doesn't tell them).
So, the inquiry process starts with developing questions and determining a plan of action. This was tied to standards for students as their starting place. It was also connected to the lifelong takeaway (the "Essential Understanding," if you're a UbD fan) is that asking the right question matters, because that drives everything that comes next in the process.

We then moved on to a clip where the computer has been installed and the librarians have to face off with it. A question that took them three weeks to answer takes the computer mere seconds.
We then dug into the need to search, catalog, and organize. It's the next information literacy standard for students...and the next part of the process. And the computer (EMARAC) does a tidy job of that.

Believe it or not, this section of the presentation engendered the most lengthy discussion. We could have spent the full hour on this idea. Why? Because how you search, catalog, and organize is very personal. Some like post-it notes and mindmaps. Others like Evernote and Delicious. What tools you choose and how you put information together that makes sense for you is very individual---and yet, how many of us have been forced into the "Thou Shalt Have 10 Notecards" box? Also, as we make a shift from the analog to digital age, how do we accommodate students (and teachers) all over the spectrum? I'll talk about this more in upcoming posts.

Which brought us to this question for discussion:
Uh-oh. Our librarians have been pink-slipped. But the third clip shows that the need for the human element arrives in the form of evaluating information. EMARAC looks for information on the King of the Watusi's and finds a review of the movie King Solomon's Mines, as opposed to facts about the king himself. The computer operator types in "curfew" instead of "Corfu," resulting in even more hijinks. All while the librarians watch from the sidelines. We talked about the need for building a functional "baloney" detector within students. Fair Use is embedded with that, as well.

And finally, we discover the pink slips were a mistake. This solves one problem for our heroines, but they're still going to have to make peace with the elephant in the library. But they start to figure it out when there's a question for them about how much the Earth weighs. Hmmm...maybe EMARAC might be useful.
This question guided us to our final standard for students---one requiring them to share solutions and seek feedback. There's not an "either/or" option with technology anymore. But we do have to figure out where the pieces fit and how to use them wisely.

As you might imagine, an hour was a very tight timeline for things. It got rushed at the end. If I did this again, I would definitely look for a 90-minute time slot. I can even see this as being a 3-hour workshop, with plenty of time for table groups to not only explore the questions, but kick around some solutions for their own situations. What bubbled up a lot in the room was frustration with trying to go back and have these same conversations at school with people who aren't interested in thinking about technology, but who are teaching the research process to students. Those are important things to talk about, but we just didn't have the time or capacity.

I would really like to do more of this type of session. It's sort of a middle ground between a regular conference session and the unconference style. It is a structured discussion about some deeper ideas and personal connections, only the participants don't know that's what they're getting. When program descriptions limit you to no more than 25 words, it's difficult to cue both content and format.

I am always a big fan of conferences. Yes, some presentations are awful. (I attended one eye bleach-necessitating one this month. It was so bad, even the presenter's computer fried itself halfway through the session and refused to cooperate any further). Yes, the formats can be a bit stodgy. But I like that people are coming together to learn. In a time of shrinking budgets, fewer attendees are seen at these events. I think this is all the more reason to make the time that we have in these sessions more meaningful in terms of how people can be conversation starters when they return to their schools.

09 October 2011

Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

Last week, I started using my first tablet device (computer?). It's for work, as with the infusion of these items into classrooms, it's difficult to provide any support or advice without knowing what they are able to do. I'm not an Apple fan. I don't have an iTunes account. I don't use their hardware. So, I'm sporting an Asus Transformer, which has a Droid (Google) OS.

I am looking to interact with this tablet from a couple of perspectives. One is simply from an educator level. If I were a teacher, for example, how might I use this for my own productivity? So, I'm hunting for apps for managing lessons and projects, record-keeping, content, and interactivity with other people and devices. But along the way, I have to learn how to personally deal with this...thing. Do I like to try and touchtype...or is the "hunt and peck" method better? I do have access to an external keyboard/docking station, and a stylus. When are these the best options for input or use? And then there is app management---what items to place where, as well as basic set up. How do I decide if an app is "good"? What role might these play in my work with students?

The other viewpoint I'm trying to take is at a student level. Sure, there's an advantage of having a tablet deliver classroom content over a backpack full of books, but that's only a small part of learning. You also need to able to manipulate information (e.g. take notes on what you read, organize information for papers/presentations) and share it (e.g. upload to wikis or other learning spaces). At this point, I don't really care about the content-related apps. I know they're there, but right now, I want to focus on the output. Can I edit a wiki and add hyperlinks? Can I edit a video clip or create a music track? Draw something and then share it on Flickr or Tumblr or Moodle?

The answer to all of these so far is "Sorta." This echoes what I've seen and heard from people with iPads. The Apple market is much farther along in terms of app development, but considering the Droid platform far outstrips iOS in the phone market, it won't be long until open source apps catch up (and go further). There are beautiful apps for getting information into your head...but the ones for harnessing the real power of the web just aren't quite there yet. At this point, I really hope that schools are proceeding with caution about getting tablets into the hands of students. If your primary reason is to provide access to digital content, you have spent a ton of money on nothing that will actually change instruction. Is that really what the goal should be?

I have a netbook. The battery life has never been great...and the processor struggles with large files. It runs on Windows XP, a soon-to-be no longer supported system. However, it is smaller and lighter than a tablet...runs regular software (not apps)...and has a small, but very functional, keyboard and touchpad. I have loved this little machine a lot. But, it's 2.5 years old and is starting to show its age. I'm going to have to replace it at some point and it will be interesting to see if I make the choice to go tablet. I like the idea of a handheld...but I don't like the idea of not being able to easily access, edit, and use the files that I need most. I understand that different tools can have different purposes, but how many things am I supposed to carry---a phone...a tablet...and a netbook/laptop? I will be watching the tablet evolution very closely. I am hoping that the devices become lighter and the apps more powerful.

Are you using a tablet, either for personal or professional reasons? What's been your experience? What would you recommend?

28 September 2011

Virtual Road Trip

One of my favourite parts of each day is sitting down and working through the posts in my Google Reader account. Like many of you, I subscribe to a number of blogs, news, and websites. An aggregator, like Google Reader, can be a real timesaver---it collects the information.

What I don't like about Reader is the sterile environment. You get content, but you don't get to see the actual sites. You miss the bigger experience---the colours, format, changes, and additions. I don't see what's on the blogroll or the comments others leave to discuss a post.

So, every once in awhile, I like to take a little road trip. I work through the blogs on my sidebar and perhaps a few others from my Reader. Here's what I found on my most recent trip:
  • I like how many of you are using the pages options in Blogger and Wordpress. This looks like a great way to showcase other parts of your (working) life. Most of us are little multimedia moguls these days. We contribute to more than one site, may be active on Twitter, and have a voice in the real world beyond our classroom. Using pages allows the blog to act more like a website and host a variety of content. I'm definitely going to steal this idea.
  • There continues to be a very healthy variety of templates. Sure, a lot of bloggers use default options, but I see a lot of mixing and matching of plugins and backgrounds. Nearly everyone has moved over to the standard idea of content on the left and navigation on the right. I have set up my new blog that way, but this blog is set up with a special template. It's old school...and I kinda like it that way. We'll see if I feel like catching the next wave of web design. The most unusual among the blogs I frequent is Chalkdust 101. Patrick's three-column template with the post tags on top invites you to spend a little time looking around.
  • I try to keep my blogroll stocked with people who post regularly. I know, I know, I'm one to talk after taking some time off this summer---I didn't kick anyone off who's posted at least once in the last three months. But I'm looking for some new stuff, too. Frank, over at Action-Reaction, has a fantastic collection of standards-based grading blogs, as well as science blogs. Jason, at Always Formative, has a nice category of Deserves More Traffic. What a great idea for getting new bloggers some attention and notice. In the early blogging days, there weren't very many of us. It was a lot easier to get attention before Google smart search, Twitter, Facebook, and everybody-has-a-blog. And now there is (thankfully) a lot of diversity in the blogosphere. It makes me smile every time I think of the range of voices out there---ones that didn't have an audience at all a few years ago. The nice thing about the web is that there is room for everyone. However, we still have to work at building community. Suggestions in my Google Reader help, but seeing what you all suss out to add to your blogroll is vital, too.
  • Nearly all of you are using full feeds for your RSS. Thank you! I expect short feeds for sites like Education Week, which just offer headlines. But, I'm not someone who "clicks through" on blogs with this type of feed. So, if you're hiding content, I hope you'll reconsider. Unless you have a good reason for needing a level of control over who accesses your blog or are counting on ad revenue from click-throughs to feed your family (and most of your readers are probably using an ad blocker, anyway), you might be losing a lot of readers/commenters. Put your content out there!
  • Blogs written by men seem to get more attention than ones written by women. I don't know that I have anything empirical to point to. I just find it interesting to see which ones get the most follows/reads/mentions. For example, I've seen any number of retweets from Solution Tree about a book a man wrote or a workshop provided by a man...and not a single one related to ideas from a woman. And for another example---reread this post and see who I mentioned. Apparently, I'm just as guilty as anyone else. I'm not complaining. Good ideas should stand on their own merit, regardless of gender. And I won't say that women deserve special consideration or treatment. When it comes to schools, women far outnumber men (especially at the elementary levels). Perhaps the voices of men are more important in this space because they have less representation. Whatever the reason, I notice an imbalance more now than when I first started writing. Either it was always there and I didn't see it...or it's not there and I'm just imagining it. Or, maybe it doesn't matter at all. Feel free to tell me I've gone around the bend.
 Do you blog or have a website? When was the last time you clicked through your blogroll or other links to see what's happening (or find ideas to steal)? What have you noticed in the edusphere?

Have you visited Excel for Educators lately? If not, come on over to my other blog to read...
Come over and learn with us!

25 September 2011

Cogitating on Metacognition

In my last post, I mentioned that I'm trying to reinvent the 1-hour conference presentation so that it elevates the ideas for the bulk of the session and then rolls around in the mud at the end. I don't know that I can do this for all of my presentations. Sometimes, you just have to get down and dirty with information. The new hotness of a presentation is focusing on the edtech standards related to information literacy. There are four, and they more or less mimic a basic research/inquiry process: asking questions/planning for research, searching for and organizing information, selecting valid information and following copyright, and then sharing/reflecting on the product.

At first, I was thinking about using the transition from analog to digital methods/tools as the backbone of the discussion. We've gone from card catalogs, encyclopedias, and notecards to Google Scholar, Wikipedia, and OneNote. My hunch is that many of us (adults) don't do our work in an either/or state. Sure, I use the computer for many tasks and products, but I am a huge fan of paper and my Palamino Blackwing pencils. I have tried several apps and software options, but I haven't found a replacement for my paper planner (yet). However, I am certainly not ready to turn Luddite and give up my laptop and smartphone.

The more I pondered the language in the standards, the more I started to wonder if the "hidden" goal is really building metacognition. Don't get me wrong, learning to ask a good question is a fine skill to engender. But how you know it's a good question? Now you're getting somewhere. Now you can start to build your bullshit detector for the world at large. Add on the other components in the information literacy part of the standards and you start to wonder if a populace which has a healthy dose of skepticism is possible.

This train of thought has me building a very different presentation. It's not that I don't think the analog/digital discussion isn't important in its own way. This is a wrenching transition we're making. And as much as I might shake my head now when a school tech person tells me a story of having to teach someone that they could change the font in a Word document, I remember when I was at that point in the learning curve, too. I'm not someone who buys the whole "digital native" thing. Heck, I was born into a world with tools, too, but that doesn't make me a finish carpenter or engineer. Thinking about our own pathways and helping others would make for a fabulous discussion with the librarians I'll be presenting to.

But I want to go farther. I think there are ideas lurking even deeper...the things we really want to talk about. Can I do that in a one-hour session? Probably not, but it's a start. I've been looking through my old files to see if I have any additional resources to offer. I have two old handouts (authors unknown) that might fit the bill. The first one has 12 Learning to Learn Skills. The other is about Teaching Students to Think about Their Thinking. Both are intended for a teacher audience. They include considerations for building metacognitive skills in students. They are not, however, "how to" guides. And looking around, there really isn't much out there which resembles such a thing. While I don't expect a magic recipe for metacognition, we also can't expect students to develop their abilities in this area unless we can provide some support and feedback. Maybe the best I can do for now is use my presentation to help us discover and communicate our own strategies.

Do you have methods for supporting metacognition in the classroom or with your peers? What do they look like?

23 September 2011

Deep Dive

I present at a lot of conferences---more now because educational technology has tentacles in every subject area. And while I believe that a single shot of PD will in no way lead to sustainable classroom change, conferences still have a role to play. Much of that is at a relationship level, whether it's getting to hang out with like-minded people or meet someone for a conversation. Sure, there's learning happening, but I think the larger purpose is more along the lines of inspiration and reflection.

Some of my presentations are of the stand and deliver variety. An hour with an audience who is just hearing about something for the first time doesn't leave a lot of room for a constructivist approach. I don't have time (and neither do they) to "discover" the information. What's more, I find I get a large number of walk-outs if I try to have participants do some activities---right or wrong, a lot of them want the sit-and-get approach in a conference session. So, I need to get things into their hands, the most important points into their heads, and then cross my fingers that they'll take the initiative to do more---although the research suggests that 99% of them won't. Why bother, then? Again, I'm not looking for sustainable change as an outcome. I'm looking for building personal connections with others who have similar interests.

However, I'm rarely content with the status quo. I like finding the edge and exploring. Maybe an hour at a conference won't change the world, but it doesn't mean that we can't take a deep dive into thoughts and ideas. So, there will be a new addition to my portfolio this year---a presentation for educators which looks at standards through a more adult lens and focuses on bigger ideas. A way to reflect on the knowledge/skills you practice today, along with where and how those developed, as a basis for talking about how we support students in reaching these same ends.

My goal here is to reverse, or at least reorder, the sequence of events. A traditional session delivers the nuts-and-bolts, all the while hoping that participants are making a personal connection to the content. This time, I want the message to be personal, only reaching the obvious link to the nuts and bolts at the very end. Will it work? I dunno. Do people want to choose a conference session that focuses on ideas rather than concrete take-aways? Beats me. But I'll take a chance and see what happens.

I'll share more specifics at another time, but so far, the presentation involves four clips from Desk Set, a variety of tweets from #phdchat, some work around the analog to digital shift in research, musings on metacognition, and oh---of course, the ed tech standards and assessments. Slide designs include dot matrix paper, chalkboards, and other ephemera to help us take a walk into the past in order to talk about the present. I think it will be good, but if nothing else, it will be different.

17 September 2011

Neither Here Nor There

In my last post, I asked you to think about the purpose of technology in the classroom. Maybe it is not necessary to get students to 21C skills---like critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration. (Heresy, I know...) So, if technology isn't for all the reasons we give school boards, voters, and teachers...what's it for?

Looking back to my start as a beginning teacher (21 years ago...), I would describe myself as eager, but not great in the classroom. That is, I really wanted to do a good job---I was very enthusiastic about working with kids and sharing my love of science---but I was inexperienced (only had 1 pre-service teaching semester) and ill-prepared (very little of my coursework applied to teaching in a high-poverty junior high). I don't remember having students with IEPs, but I'm sure they were in my classes---how could they not be? And yet, I'm sure I didn't pay them much attention. Ditto for ELL students, who spent most of the class time being pulled out. I won't claim that for the first year or two that I did much in the way of encouraging critical thinking in students. Sure, we did lots of labs and activities, but I lacked the skill to help kids pull the deeper meaning from these learning experiences.

What saved me from a career as That Teacher was just a drive to do better. I sought out NSTA conferences and moved into more specialized graduate studies. Technology? Not an option at school. I think there might have been 10 computers in the whole place (school had 1600 8th and 9th graders)---all of them for administrators, counselors, and secretaries. The computers were for student records, not productivity or creation. But to say that my students never engaged in any creative output for their learning or flexed their critical thinking muscles would be a lie. I still have some of their products. I won't claim that I asked them to dig deep into content every day or that I reached every single kid---but I can say that it is possible to provide high-quality learning experiences for students without using technology.

However, I can say with certainty that not every kid had access to the content at a level that they needed or in ways that best supported their learning needs. And to me, this is the role that technology can have in the classroom. This is what tech can do better than I can. I don't have to rely on a single set of instructional materials and media. I can find content that connects a student's learning needs with the standards. If a student needs to access the lesson from home or just needs to see/hear things again, that can happen. Students who need resources in languages other than English or delivered in ways that account for learning disabilities can have them. Sure, the output can be varied, too, but I won't claim that you need the technology to write, draw, collaborate, communicate, or produce. I can get content to students in a diversity of ways. But that's all. I can't make them learn it. And I am still the teacher---I am responsible for instruction, for using assessment data wisely, and for building relationships with students. I think I would have been a much better teacher at the beginning of my career if I could have focused on those things and not had to spend so much energy just tracking down content.

As for the second question I asked, I would have to rely on more qualitative measures. Observations of students and (informal) interviews with them along the journey to check for learning. Sure, it's great if they come to school more often or do better on summative assessments. But if the role of technology is to support the journey, then I need to see evidence along the way. I need to be able to connect the fact that an English Language Learner used a YouTube video that explained a concept in their native language with what they are able to show me in a lab or how they add to a discussion or help another student.

I realize this isn't a very sexy answer. I know some of you believe there is something more to what technology (and only technology) can do. It's not my goal to deprogram the fervent believers, but I do want to start restructuring the conversation.

14 September 2011

What If There is No "There" There?

I love this tweet:

In my head, I can hear the collective gasp of the Hardcore EdTechers. I can hear their claims that we're living in a digital world, dammit...and 21st century collaboration just isn't possible without a computer. An iPad in every pot!

Pshaw, I say.

Other than a classroom, can you tell me of a "real world" workplace where everyone uses tablet computers all day, interactive whiteboards are the focus of the office, and colleagues share their work using document cameras and projectors? If not, why are we insisting on spending millions of dollars each year to outfit classrooms?

Let me make a slightly radical suggestion: Maybe the 21st Century classroom is a myth. If you want to tell me that the tools themselves aren't the outcome, I can buy that. I've said for a long time that it's not about the stuff. However, don't tell me that you have to have the stuff to in order to teach critical thinking skills, innovation, collaboration, etc. All of those skills that you draw from to work with other teachers these days, cooperate with family members, or all of those "real world" functions didn't come from a computer.

So, if it's not about how much silicon and bandwidth you have in a learning space...if you can get to your "21C skills" without 21C tech...what is the purpose of the shiny touchscreens, apps, and LED bulbs? What if technology literacy (learning to use the computer and basic programs) was just a goal in and of itself, with no expectations for anything further? Let's face it, most of what we know about "good instruction" was learned over the years before anything smelling like a 1:1 initiative was on the scene. Does completing a Venn diagram on a computer automatically make it better than one on paper---or do we care more about whether or not a student understands how to compare/contrast as the goal?

A lot has been made recently from Matt Richtel's recent NYT article In the Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores. I would completely agree that the goal of getting computers into classrooms should not be to raise test scores---but tech supporters have no one but themselves to blame for this view. How many school boards have been convinced to put their money into whiteboards and document cameras because they've been told it will increase test scores? Isn't that how we get attention for things these days? If you want to say (as Karen Cator did) that the goal of integrating tech isn't to raise scores, that's fine, but you need to point to at least some sort of value-added. As a taxpayer, how will I know that all these shiny tools actually do something for student learning (not achievement)? ISTE dropped the ball with its (barely) two paragraph rebuttal, refusing to address the bigger issues of the NYT article. Big mistake.

Look, edtech, I'm on your side. I work for you. But the longer I look, the less I like what I see. If you can't answer Garr's tweet in a serious manner...if the head of your organization can't put together a well-reasoned response...how long do you think it will be before the public at large notices that your emperor is running around in the nude? I would ask you to think deeply about the following:
  • What do you need technology to do in your classroom that you could not do using analog methods? Sure, I know that technology can automate some things and increase productivity with other tasks. But that's just basic tech literacy---and still represents items that could be done without a computer. Would your students not learn to read? Write? Draw? Think? Engage with content? Play? Collaborate and communicate? We don't have to go back to the slate and chalk era---old ways aren't always the most efficient or effective. But I do think we need to have better justification than "It's new!"
  • What is the value added that technology brings to the classroom? In other words, for those skills/learning that you think technology is critical for, how do you know? What do you see? It doesn't have to be test scores. But if I asked you to prove its worth---what data (qualitative or quantitative) would you think is appropriate to collect?

12 September 2011

Gradebook in the Cloud

Cross-posted from Excel for Educators

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a "Roll Your Own Gradebook" series for beginners. The advanced version will be available soon, but in the meantime, some of you might be interested in the GoogleDocs version of the gradebook.

I like GoogleDocs for a variety of reasons. "Cloud-based" documents are accessible from anywhere I have an internet connection, collaboration is simple, and sharing information is a snap. Mind you, these are exactly the same attributes which can be deadly for student grades. In the U.S., the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) outlines the responsibility institutions have when it comes to student data. So, even though you can keep your gradebook on the web, please think carefully about whether or not you should.

The spreadsheet feature of GoogleDocs is really not ready for primetime, but it does afford some functionality. You have very few colours to choose from (and no way to adjust RGB values), limited formulas, and no way to pretty up your charts and graphs (even though you have some types unavailable in Excel). However, if you just need a down and dirty way to look at scores, it's good enough.

Here is a link to the unadulterated version of the gradebook. You can copy this to your own Google account and play with it to your heart's content. You can follow (nearly) all of the same steps as I posted for the Excel version (see Part I, Part IIa, and Part IIb). Or, create a new beast.

I have also developed a final version of the gradebook and reporting tool, with all of the steps applied, if you just want to skip ahead to the ending. This, too, can be copied to your own Google account for hours of amusement.

Ow! My eyes!

Keep in mind that many people have created gradebook templates in GoogleDocs and have posted them to share. Look around and see how you can improve on what's there.

11 September 2011

IFRD 2011

It's International Rock-Flipping Day (IFRD)! Get out there and see what's sharing your space. This morning, I was joined by Tomato and Celery, the neighbour's hens. Each morning, they dutifully hike up the ravine (a climb I refuse to even attempt) in order to partake in the bounty of my lawn.

I have to say that while the lawn contains more invertebrates than you can shake a hen at, there aren't a lot of rocks. In fact, I didn't find anything satisfactory and had to resort to a man-made rock (read: concrete). I tried some scattered pavers and the stack of cinderblocks by the garage. Nothing was wriggling beneath. I was starting to feel inadequate when I remembered one more option: the birdbath.

Score! On the bottom of the birdbath was some sort of egg sac. I'm guessing it was placed there by a spider, but I'm really not sure. I've been looking at a variety of online images to see if I can find a match---no luck yet. Anyone know what this belongs to?

But the star of the show was this little millipede. It was about 3 cm in length. (Head is at the right.)

Again, I'm not sure of the classification of this little being. I think it might be some sort of Tylobolus. I found a similar picture here, but the identification for that picture doesn't really seem to fit (there's no way this is a black and yellow spotted millipede). Anyway, it was a very cute little animal. I squeed for good reasons.

I put the birdbath back in the place, refilled the water, and hoped the millipede was able to get back to sleep. Did you find something interesting today? Don't forget to post and share. If you need more information on International Rock-Flipping Day, you can get more background here. See you next year!

Update: You can see the full list of posts over at Wanderin' Weeta's, including one from Jen (of Elementary My Dear, Or Far From It Fame).

10 September 2011

Move It On Over

While my raison d'être for my current position is somewhat moot---the big Legislative deadline was in June---the simple fact is that there is still a lot of work to do. We met our directive to develop assessments (you can see them here...the very first statewide assessment system for educational technology/21st century learning goals), but some need to finish the field testing process. And all of them need some supporting tools and resources for implementation.

There's not any money to do this, mind you. So, I've been pursuing some alternative/tech-based options to develop and provide what I can. There will be a Moodle site containing a self-guided professional development course---as well as materials that others can use more widely (e.g. in-district staff development opportunities). We can do webinars and go on the conference circuit.

The nagging question in the back of my mind is whether or not anyone will use these forms of support. I can build a Moodle site, but will anyone come? Would I, if I were in the classroom this year? I've participated in a variety of online learning opportunities. And I have to admit that I would rather have a face-to-face experience. I much prefer a real-time collaborative session. I like the immediacy and spontaneity of the discussion and presentation. All of that---and I'm more comfortable being online than a lot of teachers out there.

Therefore, it's been a real challenge for me to think differently about delivering PD in an all online format. How do I make the components inviting and accessible...and not make the environment seem sterile and the learning experience lonely? How do I provide enough options so that the time teachers have to spend on professional growth is honored---and yet allow a deep enough experience so that teachers are ready to implement the assessments on their own? The fact is, the online environment is a lot more "sit and get," another issue to try and overcome. How do I "road test" a few of the offline ideas so that school or district personnel can use them with confidence?

Have you had to take your course materials from the real world into the virtual one? What did you learn along the way?

Don't forget about my new blog: Excel for Educators. It will eventually include much more than Excel in terms of applying data visualization techniques to your classroom, school, or district. Come over and check out the latest posts:
I will also be looking for guest posts for this blog. Have a tip or tool to share? Let me know.

05 September 2011

IRFD 2011: Are You Ready?

It's late summer...and you know what that means. International Rock-Flipping Day (IFRD) is coming. There's nothing you can do to stop it. You just have to jump in and grab that flippin' rock with both hands and be prepared to document what lies beneath. Citizen science/naturalism never felt so good.

It's the fifth year for the celebration. Wanderin' Weeta is once again taking on  hosting duties. Here are her instructions for participants:

  • On or about September 11th, find your rock or rocks and flip it/them over.
  • Record what you find. "Any and all forms of documentation are welcome: still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry."
  • Replace the rock as you found it: It's someone's home.
  • Post on your blog, or load your photos to the Flickr group. (Even if you don't have a blog, you can join.)
  • Send me a link. Or you can add a comment to any IRFD post.
  • I will collect the links, e-mail participants the list, and post it for any and all to copy to your own blogs. (If you're on Twitter, Tweet it, too; the hashtag is #rockflip.)
  • There is a handy badge available for your blog, here.
Get your family and/or students ready to flip out. Spend the week finding just the right rock and making predictions about what's waiting for you below. I'm looking forward to seeing what you share on Sunday!

04 September 2011

Roll Your Own Gradebook: Adding Sparklines

It's now time for the big finish for our beginning gradebook: using Excel's built-in chart functions to create sparkline graphs for our student reports. (Just a reminder that you can download the workbook and play along at home.)

To do this, you'll need to create a table in the gradebook for some dynamic data. You could actually put this table anywhere in the workbook that you like. I put it below the student scores because it makes it much easier to associate the numbers with their labels.

Use your INDEX/MATCH combo function from yesterday's post to get things kicked off:

Be sure to make the cell on the "Report" sheet that contains the list of names an absolute reference. Otherwise, when you use the fill option to create the data points for the other cells, Excel will also change the location it references on the report. Not good. All you have to do is click on the "C4" in your formula and then hit the F4 key. This will lock the cell for your formula. Then, add a row of "3" underneath the student data. This will represent the number for "at standard" performance and be useful for the charts.

Now, you're ready to make a line chart using the student scores for an individual standard, and a bar chart (A/K/A "column chart" in Excel) to show growth. You'll need to clean up the starting graphs that Excel barfs up, then lock the cell size and shrink it down to fit in a cell on the gradebook. When you're done, you'll have something like this:

The charts will auto-update anytime you change the student name. They will also update if you add scores to the gradebook. Just set them up once and let 'er rip.

Here's the "how to" video:

This concludes the beginner series of "Roll Your Own Gradebook," but we have certainly not exhausted the options. Some of you are going to want to pull multiple classes, subject areas, or other data sets into a single dashboard. You're going to need a couple more formulas to make this dream come true. But I'll help.

If you've watched the videos and are still feeling lost, you can download a copy of the finished workbook to adapt and use. Don't be afraid to click and play.

I'll get back to my usual rambling here soon. But if data viz and Excel is your thing, be sure to check out my new blog: Excel for Educators. This most recent series of posts is already there, and soon there will be lots more lessons about Excel, Google tools, and other data options with a classroom application. Hope to see you over there!

03 September 2011

Roll Your Own Gradebook: Using INDEX and MATCH to Set Up a Dashboard

Once you have your data all in their places with bright shiny faces in your spreadsheet, you're going to want to have a clean way to extract it. This is where a Dashboard is handy. A Dashboard is a type of reporting tool which pulls together different kinds of data.

In our model, we'll have space for a student's name, a rundown of current scores, an overview of total performance and a space to show progress/growth. There are other things you might want to report---such as attendance or qualitative information. Do what you need to do.

In order to get individual pieces of data from the sheet with the scores to the dashboard, you are going to need two things:

  1. A data validation list in a designated cell. I pick the cell beside "Last Name" for this. In creating this list, you will have a dropdown menu to select any student and the cell will become the "key" that will be used to extract the right data for the student and plug it into the empty spaces in the dashboard. 
  2. A formula that uses both "INDEX" and "MATCH" functions. The INDEX function will tell Excel which column/table of data to draw from and MATCH will tell it which name the data goes with. Your formula will look like this: =INDEX(Column with Data for a Cell,MATCH(Cell on Dashboard with Last Name,Column with Last Names,0))    Why is there a zero at the end? It's part of the MATCH formula---it tells Excel that the match must be exact...no room for error. 
Want to see it in action? Watch the tutorial below. Tomorrow, we'll do the final piece: the sparkline graphs for the dashboard. Remember that you can download the workbook and follow along with the steps.

Update 3/2012: Please visit my page on the Excel for Educators blog for the most recent versions of gradebook and reporting tools. Most have sample workbooks to download and instructional videos.