Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Teaching Scientific Thinking Across the Curriculum in 21st Century Classrooms

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking.” Carl Sagan
Judging from headlines and media chatter about our students’ performances on international science assessments for the past several years, the United States has been doomed economically for at least a decade. A New York Times headline in December 2012 most recently prognosticated our economic demise with, “US Students Still Lag Globally in Math and Science, Tests Show.” In that article, the Times declares economic doom by stating, “As those with superior math and science skills increasingly thrive in a global economy, the lag among American students could be a cause for concern.” According to the Times, we are doomed economically because our international science test scores tell us that is the case.

Back  in 2007 another New York Times article forecast economic doom at the hand of Asian countries with better science scores. In “Study Compares States’ Math and Science Scores with Other Countries,’” the Times stated, “Our Asian economic competitors are winning the race to prepare students in math and science.” That article, which compared state science scores to the scores of other nations, even declared Massachusetts, with the highest state science scores in the land to be doomed economically at the hand of Asian nations. That same year, the Washington Post joined the chorus with, “U.S. Teens Trail Peers Around the World on Math-Science Test.”  The Post again declared economic doom because of 2006 math-science scores on the Program for International Student Assessment. Former Governor of Colorado, stated at the time, “How are our children going to be able to compete with the children of the world?” Once again, economic doom is declared.

Finally, in 2009, it was CNN who made another economic doom declaration in, “U.S. Students Behind in Math, Science, Analysis Says.” In this article, the news network declares, “American children aren’t necessarily getting smarter or dumber, but that might not be good enough to compete globally…” In other words, we’re doomed economically because of our science test scores. Every time a new set of international test scores are released, this pattern is repeated, and the same theme is reiterated: The US is doomed economically because we did not get the highest scores in the world in math and science. But should our concern really be with whether or not we’re ranked first in the world in math and science tests? Shouldn’t we be less concerned about whether our students have the number 1 science scores in the world and more concerned about whether our students are actually learning science and how to think scientifically?  Perhaps what we really need is a framework of fundamental assumptions to guide the teaching of science as a“way of thinking” across subject areas.

Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, argues that science is the means for discovering what is true based on facts.  It is with this process of discovery and inquiry with which our students need the most help. What they need are help understanding  fundamental principles of science that guide true scientific thinking. Based on Sagan’s ideas, here are four assumptions about the the nature of scientific thinking that should inform all our teaching across content areas.
  • Science involves being willing to accept facts even when they contradict your current views. As Carl Sagan points out, “Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions.” Too often, science is used to simply confirm currently held worldviews. In the process, facts that don’t fit are either tossed out or made irrelevant. But science isn’t about confirming our beliefs about the world; it’s about discovering the world we don’t know, and that means accepting sometimes things that contradict our worldviews. I call this being comfortable with contradiction. Teaching our students to be comfortable with contradiction is one of the keys to scientific thinking.
  • Science involves holding our theories, hypotheses, and beliefs about the world as tentative. Beliefs can change, when facts change. What is true today is subject to change when facts change. The job of science is to constantly examine facts, and adjust views when the facts warrant it. It is what Sagan describes as carrying “alternative hypotheses in our heads and seeing which best fits the facts.” Teaching students to embrace the “tentativeness of what-they-know” is an important part of scientific thinking too.
  • Science involves questioning “arguments from authority.” Carl Sagan states this much more clearly than I can: “Authorities must prove their arguments like everyone else.” Teaching our students that “no one gets a pass” on proof in their argument is vital to scientific thinking.
  • Science involves engaging fully what Sagan calls its “error-correcting machinery.” Our students need to understand the processes of error-correcting, such as peer review and critical questioning. They need to understand that our beliefs and our conclusions should be subject to these processes so that any errors made at arriving at those conclusions are made evident. For science to work, this “error-correcting machinery” must be utilized. Like an error purification system, the ideas that can’t stand up to peer review or criticism are at least looked upon with skepticism, if not rejected. Teaching students about science’s built-in-error correction system is important to 21st century scientific thinking too.
  • Finally, as Sagan points out, “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge.” Our students, in the process of engaging in scientific thinking, need to understand its limitations as well. They need to know that there are questions to which science may not be able to answer. Absolute beliefs, even in the infallibity of science, result in a kind of fundamentalism not too different that found in religion. Teaching students scientific thinking’s limitations and pitfalls is an important part of scientific thinking.
While the predictions for American economic doom based on science test scores is probably going to continue, what is of greater concern is whether our students are actually learning how to think scientifically. Our students need to be engaged in scientific thinking, not just in science either. They need to engage in science across the curriculum. In order to do that, all of our teaching needs to be informed by basic guiding assumptions about science like these five. Otherwise, our students will be ill-equipped to engage in scientific thinking.

Monday, February 25, 2013

5 Top Blog Posts of All Time on the 21st Century Principal

One interesting ability of blogging is the ability to see which posts have gotten the most views over time. There is obviously a great deal that can be learned from this kind of data. For example, you can see the kinds of content readers most want to see. What's interesting to me is that a post I did over two years ago is still the most popular post on this blog. Here's the Current Top 5 21st Century Principal Blog Posts.

1. Top iPad Apps for School Administrators. This list has been revised and changed over time, and I must confess I do no use all of these apps any longer due to better apps being developed. Evernote and Dropbox are still at the top of my list of iPad apps, though I would add Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive, and iCloud as other cloud storage options I now use. Evernote is still going strong as my iPad note taking app, however. It has only gotten better since this original post.I don't use Docs-to-Go any longer. It has been replaced by Google Drive. My favorite E-Reader is still Amazon's Kindle, mostly because that is where all my books reside. My RSS reader of choice for the iPad is now Mr. Reader. I published an updated revised List of Top iPad Apps for Administrators in January of this year. However, this list has moved to a more generic app listing.

2. 10 Things a School Leader Does to Kill a Teacher's Enthusiasm for Technology. This post was actually inspired by the teacher in me. Over my 16 years in the classroom, these were the kinds of things I witnessed that made me want to give up efforts to engage in using technology in my classroom. Administrators have a powerful role in fostering technology use, and their actions and policy can tank excitement quickly.

3.  Top 10 Signs Your School Is Caught in a Time Warp: List for School Leaders. I can't remember the inspiration for this post, except for the quote at the beginning. Our schools are still stuck in the past. Many of those 10 signs are still relevant, however, I would perhaps add a two others.
  • Technology is purchased for bragging purposes, not for instructional potential.
  • There's still talk of textbook adoptions.
4. 5 Indications Your Leadership Is Obsolete for 21st Century Schools. This post was more direct than number 3. I attempted to directly state those actions and proclivities of school leaders that actually prevent schools from moving to 21st century learning models. Leadership requires action, and many of the actions described in this list are in direct opposition to 21st century learning and teaching.

5. 6 Key Personal Learning Network Literacies Every Educator Needs. This post attempted to capture those things that every educator needs to make the most of Personal Learning Networks. Being able to use social media to foster professional learning is a key 21st century educator competency. We need to be able to engage in Personal Learning Networks, not only because they are efficient and powerful, but because our students learn that way.

That's it. The Top 5 21st Century Principal Posts. Blogging has been and continues to be an adventure in learning and sharing.

Friday, February 22, 2013

4 Immediate Steps Teachers Can Take to Re-engage the Dis-engaged Student

“If tomorrow, every teacher in America spent 20 minutes of class time asking each student what her or his passion was, and then later used that information to understand each student more deeply and differentiate their instruction accordingly, education would take giant positive steps forward overnight.” Marc Prensky, From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning

Sometimes the solutions that have the biggest impact on the most difficult issues our schools face aren't complicated, scientific solutions; they are solutions staring us right in the face. One of those issues with obvious solutions is how to deal with disengaged, disconnected students. Because our education system asks students to “check their interests and passions at the door” widespread student disengagement in our schools is stubborn and persistent. Our education system stubbornly hangs on to the “impersonal, assembly-line-approach” of the 20th century that did not concern itself with students’ interests and passions. Such a system cares not what students think, nor what students care about. That same underlying, obsolete philosophy is the reason why we struggle constantly with students who see what we are doing in school as totally irrelevant. In the 21st century, if we want to reach all students, we should take Prensky’s advice. Let’s pause today, and talk with students about their passions and interests, then use the new understanding to engage them in classroom learning they care about.

The truth is we don’t have to wait for waves of reform and experts on high to have a big impact on student disengagement and disconnection. We can begin to re-engage and reconnect students immediately. In From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning, Marc Prensky offers teachers a list of what he calls “Easy to Do---Big Impact Actions Teachers Can Take to Connect with Students.” This kind of list gives teachers an immediate list of actions to begin the process of re-engaging and reconnecting with students. But to implement these kinds of actions, our schools must set aside their “Just-take-your-medicine-approach-to-education” in which students are told your passions and interests are irrelevant.  At the heart of the "educational medicine philosophy" is the belief that, “Education is done to students; it doesn't matter if they take part or not. It’s for their own good.” With that kind of thinking it is no wonder we can’t get a grip on the drop-out rate and our students see our schools as the most boring places on earth.

What do we do? Is it still acceptable to just accept those disengaged, disconnected students as casualties or collateral damage of an education system that destroys passion, imagination, and creativity? Not if our goal is to bring back the disengaged students and lower drop-out rates and ensure all students are ready for life in the 21st century. We can begin today by doing little things that reconnect our classrooms and schools to students’ passions and interests. Marc Prensky’s list of “Easy to Do---Big Impact Actions to Connect with Students” might be a starting point. But, inspired by Prensky, I would like to offer my own list based on my own 16 years in the classroom teaching everybody’s favorite subject, English language arts. (Said with obvious sarcasm!)

To immediately begin reconnecting with students, teachers can:
  • Listen to students more, and do less “professing” and “telling.” The old myth that “students are going to sit on the edge of their seats and eagerly await your words of wisdom and knowledge” was never true.  Begin today by taking an “almost-vow-of-silence” and let students do more talking and sharing of what they think. Of course you are going to have to resist your eager impulses to butt in and share what you think too, but giving students time to share and discuss will go a long way to re-engaging and reconnecting them to your classroom and your content.
  • Make it relevant---connect content with current events and the real world. If students come in chattering about the latest happenings in town, the country or the world, find a way to connect that interest to content, but do it subtly. If students know they are being railroaded into learning something, they disconnect faster than I do when getting a phone call from a telemarketer. If you want students to reconnect, you have to bring your content back to the real-world and that means bringing in the things they are passionate and care about.
  • Prensky says to reconnect students, we “treat them like learning partners." I agree. Throw out the window the whole idea that you are the “Lord-of-the-Realm-of-Knowledge” and be with students as a fellow learner. The best example of this one comes from my days in the classroom. If I asked students to write an essay, I did it too. There was total surprise when I pulled out my handwritten response to an essay assignment and shared it with them, just before they did theirs. I did caution them though, “Anyone caught stealing my ideas” would be doomed to an endless lecture in their most hated subject, and I would arrange it. Treating students like learning partners means “YOU ARE A LEARNER TOO!" You have to get your hands dirty too. You can re-engage and reconnect with students by treating them as partners in learning, not as empty vessels in which you will pour forth your knowledge.
  • Get students using their tools of choice and don’t get hung up on the methodology. If they want to draft their essay on their laptop or iPhone, let them do it. If they want to want write out their first draft in purple ink, let them do it. We all remember those teachers who demanded that we meet painstaking standards such as write only on one side of the paper, in blue or black ink, only on the night of a new moon. In fact, if I were totally honest, when I started teaching I found myself making those same impossible demands. No wonder so many of my students didn't turn in their essays or bothering doing them. I still remember one of my high school English teachers throwing my first draft away because I put my name on the top-left instead of top-right. When I began teaching, you would have thought I would have shown more mercy, but I suppose the adage, "We teach as we were taught" is hard to break. But using these kinds of classroom practices today will push a student to place you and your content in the dead zone for eternity. Letting students choose their tools and tactics will go a long way to re-engaging and reconnecting them to your content and your classroom.
If we want our schools and classrooms to effectively deal with the disconnected, disengaged student, we don’t have to wait for the experts to come up with complicated, research-based solutions. We can tackle the problem of disengaged, disconnected students immediately. We might have to repent and give up the mantra that says, “It’s my job to teach, so if students don’t get it, it’s their fault,” but there are immediate steps we can take transform our classrooms and schools into places where we engage students’ passions and interests, not turn them into Zombies.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Stickyboard 2: Simple-to-Use, Now Free Sticky Note App for iPad

Stickyboard 2 is an interesting app because of its simplicity. Users might find this app quite useful in note-taking situations, mindmapping, or brainstorming. With Stickyboard 2, users can use a combination of "stickynotes" and handwritten text to do any of these things.
Here are a list of features of the Stickyboard 2 iPad app.
  • Create multicolored sticky notes on your Stickyboard. You can also choose from 3 different fonts for the typed text.
  • Handwrite notes or draw using multiple colors. Ideal for using a stylus.
  • Email your whole stickyboard to someone as a PDF or as Text.
  • Create multiple storyboards and save them in your gallery.
Though short on features, Storyboard 2's simplicity and features offer a great deal of possibilities for both the classroom and for other educators looking for a simple app for note-taking. Best of all, Stickyboard 2 is currently free. Click here for more information on Storyboard 2.

Standardized Tests & Comparing Student Scores: Relics of 20th Century Ed Systems

“Developing better tests of student learning in the 21st century is as futile as attempting to find a faster horse and buggy would have been in the 20th century.” Douglas Reeves, “A Framework for Assessing 21st Century Skills”

After last night’s #ncadmin chat about “21st Century Teaching and Learning” I could not stop thinking about questions regarding 21st century skills and assessment.  One question continues to haunt me: "How can we devise an assessment for 21st century skills?" That question made me recall an essay I once read by Douglas Reeves entitled, “A Framework for Assessing 21st Century Skills.”

According to Reeves, It is “not possible to reconcile the demands of 21st century skills with the realities of the traditional testing environment.” The very conditions demanded by our current testing regimen is antithetical to the 21st century skills we want our students to have. As Reeves points out, our assessment practices lag behind “because they are bound by three destructive conditions: standardized conditions, secrecy of content, and individual results.”  These three testing conditions are destructive to our efforts to teach and assess 21st century skills because they were designed in a different era of education. To assess our students' 21st century skills we need an entirely different set of tools. I realize the new testing consortia are exploring "new generation assessments" but I fear they will not let go of those 20th century obsessions with student score comparisons and standardization that make current testing inadequate for assessing 21st century skills.

According to Reeves, there are three qualities of assessment that form a framework for any 21st century assessments we need.
  • We need assessment conditions that are variable rather than standardized. The whole idea behind the 20th century idea of standardization is having the ability to “compare students.” Policymakers and politicians, in their demands for accountability, consider the only way to have that accountability is by being able to compare students’ scores. So, in order to make those comparisons, students are herded into the same kind of room environment, given the same kind of pencils, the same scrap paper, the same bubble sheet, and the same amount of time to complete the test. Standardizing the test conditions take precedence over everything, even the needs of the kids. As Reeves points out, in these kinds of conditions “students are rewarded for memorization and following established rules,” not for being creative and being innovative. These standardized conditions worked well in 20th century assessments designed to sort and classify students, but 21st century assessments need to allow for the variability inherent in the messiness of creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Students need to be able to demonstrate that they can solve problems, not in the “manufactured, controlled” environment of a standardized testing room. They need to be able to demonstrate they can solve problems not limited by the conditions standardized testing impose. Being able to draw a diagram, collaborate by speaking to experts, watching videos, read books, and access web databases are not possible in standardized testing conditions, but in the real world, those are the tools people use to solve problems. If we are going to assess students’ 21st century skills, we are going to have to give up the obsessions for comparison of student scores and standardized testing conditions to provide assessment conditions akin to the real-world environments that people use to solve problems.
  • We need assessment of students as teams rather than as individuals. Since collaboration is a cornerstone of 21st century skills, we need to stop testing students in isolated silos, and assess their skills the way real world people solve problems, through collaboration. If our students are asked to engage in creativity, problem-solving, and entrepreneurial thinking in the manner that real-world people do, our assessments may need to move from the individual to the collaborative. Instead of passing out bubble sheets to each student, cutting them off from the real world, and demanding they choose the "correct" answers to problems, 21st century assessments need to have students work in teams to analyze and devise solutions to multi-layered problems that do not fit in the confines of answers A,B,C, or D.  Once again, doing this means giving up the obsessions with comparing student scores and standardization.
  • We need assessments whose content is public rather than secret. I can’t speak for other states, but my own state of North Carolina protects test content almost obsessive-compulsively as Milton Waddams protects his stapler in the movie Office Space (See Photo Below). Teachers and students are kept totally in the dark about what is going to be on test, leaving them to scrounge around and make all kinds of wild speculations about that content. Teachers are forced to play a game of Concentration as they try to guess what the state is going to ask next. North Carolina testing experts claim their test is derived from the state’s curriculum, but that curriculum is so broad, it makes this kind of testing a game, trying to decide which part of the curriculum will be on the test. As Reeves points out, 21st century assessments require that the kinds of learning we want students to do, be public. Students must be able to study those assessment ideas, and they may even devise their own assessments, or demonstrations of learning. But once again, being open about test content means giving up this obsession with comparing student scores and standardization.

As Douglas Reeves argues, our insistence on comparing students test scores and standardization are serious obstacles to developing 21st century skills assessments. The old standardization model demands too many conditions that are antithetical to 21st century learning. School leaders need to have the courage to ask the tough questions of those who advocate for the “testing status quo.” As Reeves points out, “Educational leaders cannot talk about the need for collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity and at the same time leave teachers and school administrators fenced in by obsolete assessment mechanisms, policies, and assumptions.”

Too many politicians, policymakers, school leaders, and educators are protecting the “testing status quo” and refuse to relinquish those very conditions that keep us from fully transforming our schools. We have fenced ourselves into having 20th century schools by our own 20th century assessments and obsession for standardization and comparison of student test scores. Letting go of the “testing-status-quo” is an enormous step toward a 21st century education system.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Let’s End the Administrator War on Mobile Devices

“Mobile phones enable anytime, anyplace, anywhere engagement.” Scott McLeod & Chris Lehmann, What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies

We’ve all worked with them, educators who have made it their mission to rid the classrooms and schools of this world of those infernal, disruptive devices called “cell phones.” Those on the front lines in this battle collect cell phones from students as badges of honor. Their goal is to be ever vigilant for violators who sneak peeks at their iPhones and Galaxy Notes as they sit at desks or stand in hallways between classes. They are a force to reckoned with and feared by any who engage in the unauthorized use of personal devices within the confines of the school building. They believe fiercely that cell phones are nuisances and have no place in education. These individuals are, however, badly misinformed and out-of-touch with realities of 21st century students lives. The days of complete mobile device bans are numbered, and administrators who want students to engage in authentic learning with those devices, are ending the war, and embracing their place as a learning device.

But why should we end this war on mobile devices? Cell phones can be nuisances and disruptive, especially if one rings in the middle of a class. In addition, they can be used to text threats, sext, and access Facebook when students should be otherwise engaged. They can even be used to take unauthorized photos and video and then plastered all over YouTube and the Web. The possibilities and potential for mischief is endless. Yet, it is that same possibility and potential for mischief that make mobile devices powerful tools for learning and powerful tools for the classroom.

Those who embrace banning the devices believe the balance more in favor of nuisance and mischief rather than potential and possibility. Those who argue for allowing mobile devices see only their educational potential. But if we are going to declare a cease fire in the war on mobile devices, we must be prepared to negotiate the terms for their place within our schools and classrooms. We must direct their use from ill to good. To begin the process of declaring our terms in the ending of this war, school leaders might consider the following:
  • Focus on the behavioral issues and how those might be addressed instead the devices. For almost every problem caused by mobile devices, there is a 20th century equivalent behavior. When I started teaching, passing notes was the norm. Now, students text. Once, students were distracted by baseball cards, now they are distracted by watching YouTube videos on their smartphones. The old remedy was not to declare a complete ban on baseball cards, notebook paper, and pencils. We focused on the behavioral issue, not the device. In our 21st century classrooms let’s set expectations for proper use of mobile devices and have students live up to those.
  • Think about devising policies and structures that teach and foster healthy use of the devices that capitalize on their educational potential rather than the potential for mischief. If we want students to learn how to use mobile devices properly, we have to give them the opportunity to do so. Of course, that also means giving them the opportunity to use them for mischief too. But what better place is there for students to learn these things than the school? We must provide students with experiences that ask them to engage in using mobile devices for educational purposes, and we must equally give them the opportunity to make poor choices as well. It is from those poor choices that learning happens.
We can declare an end to the war on mobile devices in our schools and embrace them for their educational potential. But as we do, let’s engage our teachers in conversations on how these devices can enhance teaching and learning. Let’s use them to transform what we do in our classrooms.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

5 Baby-Steps for Using Twitter to Begin a Personal Learning Network

“Social media has offered us a platform where we can learn from and with the smartest people we ‘meet’ from around the world, whenever we need to or are ready to go.” Scott McLeod & Chris Lehman The School Leader’s Guide to Social Media

Personal Learning Networks existed long before there was an Internet. I am perhaps showing my age, but my first “Personal Learning Network” used very little of the technologies we use now. It basically involved colleagues down the hall, perhaps a teacher or two in other buildings or other schools, and my yearly subscription to the English Journal. That learning network was rounded out by the occasional book title I picked up at the bookstore or at a conference. One summer that “Personal Learning Network” extended to other educators during a two-week participation in the National Writing Project at Appalachian State University. The connections made in those days were primarily face-to-face, through-the-phone, and through print. The quality of my “Personal Learning Network” then was as dependent upon my efforts to make connections then as it is now. Sharing with other teachers was a central part of that networking system too.

Many years later, educators now have at their disposal, the most powerful tools for developing and maintaining professional learning networks in history. Yet, many educators---principals, teachers, and superintendents---have yet to fully utilize these tools. Their “Personal Learning Networks” are globally-atrophied and non-vibrant because they either are afraid of engaging in using these 21st century tools of PLN creation, or they have convinced themselves that it is all a fad and will fade in a few years. While individual tools may come and go, the notion of “connecting with others, instantaneously and globally," is here to stay. Humankind has tasted the fruit of being able to interact with others globally with technology, and will only demand better tools and better ways of doing it.

For those school leaders who have not yet taken the plunge into the 21st century world of social media and “Globally-Vibrant Personal Learning Networks,” here’s  baby-steps to get you started today. No need to be afraid. Trust yourself and that natural, inner-thirst for wanting to learn, to guide you in taking your first steps in connecting with other educators globally.

Start by setting up a Twitter account. I realize even saying the word “Twitter” immediately sends some administrators, educators and other school leaders into fits of “near-profanity” and disgust. I can sympathize. After you have dealt with 15 incidents in one day of students and perhaps staff members using Twitter, or Facebook, in a less than acceptable manner, your view of the medium can be just a bit tainted. Still, Twitter, despite its “cutesy and dare I say less-than-dignified sounding name,” is the easiest social media tool to begin using. Besides, mention Facebook to some administrators, and they go into convulsions of disgust, so we won’t stretch it that far. Here’s some pointers in getting started with your “Personal Learning Network Development Program” using Twitter.
  • Set up your Twitter account first. I would suggest finding a “Twitter-enthusiast” in your school, because I get there's just about one every school by now. Have them help you set up your account. Perhaps they can even suggest some educators you can begin following.
  • Once your account is set up, begin simple. Respond to a few Tweets-of-Interest. Participate in a “Twitter Chat” such as #edchat, satchat, or #ncadmin. Don’t be afraid to join in and share your thoughts, but keep in mind the 140 character limit. This is actually good: hard to be long-winded when you only have so few words to do it. You can’t hardly show off that complicated vocabulary either. You have to think concisely and be direct. Over time, the more you Tweet, the more you will build what I call your “Twitter-stamina.”
  • Occasionally, share out a “juicy quote” from your professional reading. The really good quotes are the ones others can’t help but reply to.  A “well-tweeted” quote will immediately get others to connect with you. Blast it out! See who responds.
  • You can’t be a “lurker” for the rest of your life. Get out there in cyberspace and share. The currency of Personal Learning Networks are ideas. You have something to contribute, so get off your lurker-cushion and share how your school has solved a particularly thorny issue.
  • Finally, when you hear the “social media horror stories” don’t react with a vow of social-media celibacy, after all, we don’t swear off phones when someone uses them irresponsibly, nor do we take a vow against writing when someone writes a threatening note. Realize that social media is a way to connect with others. Like all media designed for fostering connections, it can be used for good or ill.
As educators we no longer have to be stuck in the stone-age when it comes to developing and maintaining Personal Learning Networks. Every educator---teachers, principals, superintendents, college professors---can have a vibrant, global learning network. It’s time to take your first steps into the 21st century where social media tools make connecting easy.

Monday, February 18, 2013

5 Tablet Apps and Browser Extensions That Make Evernote More Powerful

Today, I had the pleasure of conducting a training session with education professionals regarding Evernote, the note-taking software. Evernote is a “must-have” app for any educator these days.
But in order to get even more from Evernote, I suggest obtaining the following apps and Chrome/Firefox Extensions.
  • CamScanner: CamScanner is a fully functional document scanner app for your iPad. (Also available for Android users.) With this app, turn your iPad or Android tablet into a document scanner, then upload that document right to your Evernote account. There is a free version with limited functionality, and a paid version as well. For more information about CamScanner, check out their web site.

2013-02-18 19.16.46

  • Skitch: Skitch is an app that allows users to annotate photos with shapes, images, and text. Use Skitch to mark maps, screenshots, and photos. The photos can then be synced to your Evernote notebooks. Skitch is available for download for free in the iPad App store or Google Play store. For more information about Skitch, check out their web sites.

2013-02-18 19.12.57
  • Penultimate: Penultimate is an app that allows users to take handwritten notes on their iPad. Create notebooks to organize your notes. Then, sync your handwritten notes to your Evernote account.

2013-02-01 05.46.36
  • Evernote Web Clipper: Evernote Web Clipper is a browser extension that allows users to clip articles and web pages and send them to a notebook in their Evernote account. Clip all or part of a web page and save it to your Evernote notebooks. This extension is easy to use, and a must for those who find themselves stumbling on articles that they want to read later. Check out Evernote Web Clipper on their web site.

Evernote Web Clipper
  • Evernote Clearly: Evernote Clearly removes unwanted advertisements and other web page clutter and reduces web articles to “just-the-text.” Users can highlight key points, then upload to their designated Evernote notebook.  Use the text-to-speech feature and allow Clearly to read your articles to you. Check our Evernote Clearly’s Guide for more information.

Evernote Clearly

Evernote is a powerful web-desktop-tablet application on its own, but add these five apps and browser extensions to make Evernote even more powerful. You can almost collect everything with Evernote with these additional applications and extensions.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

7 Steps to Optimize Your Social Media Presence as an Educator

In his book, The New Rules of Marketing & PR, David Meerman Scott perhaps captures why a number of us so heavily engage in using social media:

“ It’s fun to blog and tweet, and it makes you feel good to get your ideas out into the world.”

It is fun to blog and tweet, and there is satisfaction that comes from “getting your ideas out there.” But for me real satisfaction comes from making “connections” with other educators and growing my personal learning network. This real satisfaction  also comes from developing an “online presence” that authentically represents who I am. Making personal network connections to learn and interact with other educators is both personally and professionally satisfying, and this is best done when we do so as real people.

Making the most of  social media presence for most educators means one thing: growing and maintaining a strong, vibrant network of other educators. The best way to do this is to optimize your social media presence as an educator. Optimizing your presence, as I see it, is a process of becoming a real person, a real educator on the web. It is announcing to the cyberworld, “I am an educator, and I have something to share!” There are some things you can begin to do now to make the most of social media by becoming an authentic, real person with whom others want to connect.

Here are seven steps to optimizing your presence as an educator on social networks.

1. Just as if you're writing a book or a journal article, when engaging in social media use, know your audience. When engaging in social media for the purpose of connecting and growing your personal learning network, know who want to connect with and make their interests, needs, and wants a consideration in the content your share over those networks. In other words, the content of your Tweets, Facebook posts, Google+ posts, and blog posts do matter if you want to connect with other educators. Posting about what you learned during your last project-based learning workshop might get you connected with another teacher, but posting about your reactions to last night’s Superbowl may connect you with fellow pro-football enthusiasts. Know who want to connect with, and make that the focus of your social media content efforts.

2. Be a “thought leader” as Scott suggests in his book, The Rules for Marketing and PR. If you want to engage fellow educators, provide them with information that is valuable and interesting to them. If you want to engage fly-fishing enthusiasts, post information valuable and interesting to fly fisherman. Be willing to share your ideas and thoughts through the media. Yes, it does make you feel a bit vulnerable, but is that not what leadership is sometimes about? Be a thought leader in the area of education and share your area of expertise.

3. Be real and transparent. Authentic personal learning network connections happen between real people, not people hiding behind fake Twitter names or Facebook profiles. By being who you are on social networks, you don’t risk making others angry and wanting to disconnect with you should they find out you’re a phony. Being real means sharing your experiences. It means being the person and educator in cyberspace that inhabits your classroom or your office. No one likes a phony. Being transparent means not overinflating who you are. It means not hiding anything. Being real and transparent in social media channels makes others feel as if they are conversing with another real person, because they are.

4. Share links and resources. Educators love links and are always "on the prowl" for ideas to make their classroom and teaching run smoother, or their schools operate more effectively. When you find an excellent resource to share, send out the link on Twitter, on Facebook, and Google+.  When you are reading a particularly engaging book, share out quotes, especially thought-provoking ones. I keep my curating tools on standby all the time in order to capture these resources pouring constantly to me from Twitter. If you want to connect and grow your personal learning network, share links and other resources with other educators.

5. Participate in online social media discussions. This means joining a Twitter Chat such as #edchat, #satchat, or #ncadmin. There are quite a few of these occurring during a week’s time. You can probably find one in your main area of educational interest too. Participating in a chat means more than lurking. It means sharing out your thoughts on the topic of discussion. It means engaging a conversation where what you say is limited to 140 characters or less, which means your words are as valuable as gold. Choose them wisely. If you want to connect and grow your personal learning network and optimize your social media educator presence, engage in online discussions with other educators using social media.

6. Make it easy for others to contact you. If both of you connect through Twitter, direct messaging makes it easy. If they can’t contact with you that way, provide an email address on your blog or web page. If you want to authentically connect with other educators, you have to make it easy for them to do so. Providing an email address through which others may contact you might mean you'll get a bunch of junk email, but it is well-worth it. You can delete and dump those junk emails, but if other educators can't connect with you directly, it's hard to have an online presence.

7. Make it easy for other educators to find you. Cross-link all of your social media accounts to your blogs, web site, and other social media accounts. Playing hide-n-seek in cyberspace only frustrates others who are trying to connect with you. They are not going to work hard trying to find you. Use your social media accounts and web presence to make it easy for other educators to find you by cross-linking everything.

It is fun to Tweet, blog, and post on Facebook. And I do get a great deal of satisfaction from “getting my ideas out there.” The greater satisfaction for me, however, comes from connecting and sharing with other educators. I can do that more effectively if I have optimized my personal and professional social media presence. Optimizing your social media presence as an educator is no more than making yourself available and being who you are in cyberspace.

Friday, February 15, 2013

When Interactive Boards and Tablets Aren’t 21st Century Classroom Tools

I think most educators would agree that interactive boards are not always 21st century classroom tools. In fact, when they are only used to reinforce lecture, worksheets and other 20th century teaching and learning methodology, they are little more than chalkboards with computer chips. The iPad is not necessarily a 21st century classroom tool either, if students are only using it to read e-texts and complete e-worksheets. It is only when students and teachers are engaged using interactive boards, iPads, and other devices, to collaborate, create, and problem-solve that they become 21st century classroom tools.

Too often, anything labeled "technology" is immediately construed to be a 21st century learning device, but that quality never lies in the tool itself, but in how teachers and students engage its use in the service of learning.  Going back to the interactive boards example. How many millions have schools and school districts spent on these devices to simply be able to brag publicly that they now have "an interactive board installed in every classroom?" Because there’s only one in the room it often becomes a device that only the teacher interacts with and uses. This kind of thinking betrays a belief that technological devices are inherently 21st century learning tools, but they are not. It is a maddening thought that a teacher would simply use a very expensive interactive board to only do the same things he used to do with an overhead projector.

In order to keep in mind when technologies are truly 21st century classroom tools, 21st century school leaders should perhaps consider the following as they think about new technologies for their schools or districts:
  • If you are buying technology so you can brag about it, you are probably buying it for the wrong reasons. There is nothing magical in the simple presence of an iPad or interactive board in the classroom. Just because it's there does not mean students are engaged in 21st century learning. Being able to boast about the number of iPads, laptops, and interactive boards in your school or district does not mean the claim of being a 21st century school can be made. Rather, it is what students and teachers are doing with the devices that matter the most and the kinds of learning they are engaged in while using them. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask the tough question: How is this technology going to fundamentally transform the kinds of teaching and learning in my classrooms or schools? The expectation when it comes to technology purchases should always be that students will be doing 21st century learning tasks, not 20th century learning tasks. These tasks include: collaborating, creating, and problem-solving.
  • Be prepared to support teachers when introducing new technologies into your school or district. This means providing them with professional development, additional resources, and time to collaborate with colleagues as they try to integrate the devices into their classrooms. Providing technological devices without support from school leadership might as well be giving teachers a paperweight or doorstop.
  • Be wary of sales pitches that focus primarily on what the technology will do rather than what students can do with the technology. Bells and whistles do not make a device into a 21st century learning tool. What is more important is how the device will empower students to engage in collaboration, creation, and problem-solving. It is important to ask, "What kinds of work can students do with the device?" not “What can the device do?” Force salespeople to do more than show features. Ask them to show what kinds of learning students can engage in while using their devices.
As indicated earlier, interactive boards and iPads are not always used as 21st century teaching and learning devices. They can be used to perpetuate 20th century learning or they can get students collaborating, creating, and problem-solving. It is only when there's a fundamental change in what students and teachers are being asked to do with the devices that they can become 21st century learning tools.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Inspiration Maps for iPad: Excellent Mapping Solution for the iPad

Inspiration is an excellent choice for concept mapping because its features make it useful as a classroom tool and as a tool for anyone who uses mindmapping techniques. Now, Inspiration is available for the iPad with its Inspiration Maps for iPad app. (Inspiration Maps for iPad)

Some of the features of the iPad app version of Inspiration include:
  • Create maps or outlines. Convert a map to an outline or an outline to a map.
  • Start from a template or a blank map when using Inspiration for iPad.
  • Navigate around your map by sliding your finger.
  • Add concept bubbles by tapping a simple button, and to add text within that bubble, simply double-tap.
  • Print your maps or outlines.
  • Email them.
  • Save them to photos.
  • Send it as a PDF or PNG.
  • Send to Dropbox or iTunes.
Two more interesting features of Inspiration Maps for iPad app include:

1) taking your own photos to insert in your maps
2) using your own photo collection on your iPad 

These two features offer a great deal of possibilities to the classroom teacher regarding the use of concept maps as classroom projects or assignments. Students can take photos to represent or symbolize things in their maps. These are then inserted right in their maps. The former English teacher in me loves this feature because the possibilities for mindmaps as projects is endless.

Inspiration Maps for iPad Main Screen

One final feature of the Inspiration Map for iPad app is the ability to customize your map shapes, lines, background colors, link shapes, etc.

Mapping with the Inspiration Maps for iPad App

The Inspiration Maps for iPad app is a bit pricey when compared to other apps in general, but when compared to some of the other mindmapping apps on the iPad it is comparable at $9.99. From their website, I understand they offer some deals tied to their desktop software license purchases too.

For the price, it is a fully functioning mindmapping solution for the iPad, and for those who use the desktop software, you can bring your maps down to your iPad. It offers great potential for students in the classroom.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Tests Matter More Than Students: Test-Prep Learning Cultures in Action

"Who would want to teach in a system that measures your worth as an educator by how much your students can regurgitate on a two-hour multiple-choice test and that has reduced much of the curriculum to tedious test-prep exercises?" writes Tony Wagner in his latest book entitled Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

Who, indeed, would want to teach in the kind of education system Wagner describes in this question? Perhaps a better question would be, "Who would want to learn in such a system?" Yet, with all the increased emphasis across the country on test scores as part of both teacher and principal evaluations, the kind of education system Wagner predicts is already coming to fruition, and my state is on the fast track to such a system.

North Carolina schools have had a "Learning Culture" characterized as "getting students ready for THE TEST" since it began rolling out state tests in the 1990s. Now, North Carolina has moved from using those same tests to determine student proficiency to determine teacher and principal proficiency. And, for subjects that do not currently have a standardized test, they are creating a TEST, to not measure student learning, but to measure educator proficiency. The end result  of these measures will obviously be that the state that once proclaimed proudly "First in Flight" on its license plates, can soon declare "First in Test-Prep." 

Sadly, though, one can but wonder if all this emphasis on test scores is going to totally destroy or keep us from developing very kind of "Learning Culture" that we should be fostering for 21st century learners. That culture should emphasize, collaboration, multidisciplinary learning, thoughtful risk taking, trial and error, creating, and intrinsic motivational learning. Test-Prep learning cultures are an anathema to each of these.

In my experience, schools and districts with "Test-Prep Learning Cultures" are characterized by some of the following:

  • Student learning is reduced to what can be fit within the confines of A, B, C, and D on a bubble sheet. There is no time for independent exploration and learning. Students spend their days taking endless quizzes and tests in multiple choice format. Projects? Forget it! They take away valuable time better spent getting students to bubble-in right answers.
  • Teaching is reduced to "only the essentials found on THE TEST." Nothing else matters. No room for student curiosity. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing tests and test items and build learning around what they find.
  • Teaching is about "covering the curriculum" not about whether students actually get it or find it relevant. Teachers end up repeating to students many times, "You need to learn this because it will probably "be on the test" not because it will help you be a better 21st century citizen or even help you get a job one day.
  • Signs and posters on the walls remind everyone "Days to Test Day" as if on that day, the most important event of our students' lives is going happen. What a let-down, to have the most important event of the year be one, big "Bubblesheet Fest" at the end of the year. Also, one can only imagine the pressure these kinds of things add to kids on test day. These posters and signs are a clear indicator of what Test-Prep Learning Culture Schools value the most.
  • Students and teachers participate in "Test-Prep Pep Rallies" or other similar events to fire them up to take THE TEST. In "Test-Prep Learning Culture Schools" principals and teachers will go to great lengths to motivate students to get engaged in THE TEST. These kinds of events also communicate the message to students who do not score well on THE TEST that they are somehow unworthy. 
  • Students are judged in every way by their TEST SCORES. The are classified as smart and proficient based on their last End of Course Test or End of Grade Test. Students who are creative and talented in the areas of art and music and not test-takers are at worst de-valued. At the least, they have no way to engage these interests.
  • Subjects are separated into silos, each with its own test. There's no time for multidisciplinary learning. There is only time to teach the content that is on THE TEST. The superficial boundaries between knowledge areas are reinforced in a Test-Prep Learning Culture.
  • Getting the right answer is more important than anything else. There is no room for experimentation, and the only thing you learn from a wrong answer is that "you were wrong, period." Questions that do not have only one right answer are irrelevant or ignored. Failure is not a learning experience; it is to be avoided at all costs.
I am sure there are other characteristics of "Test-Prep Learning Cultures" I have omitted. When THE TEST rules nothing else matters. Schools where "Test-Prep" is the central focus can hardly be considered desirable places to teach and learn, but our undying devotion to THE TESTS under current education policy has created Learning Cultures where nothing else matters.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

3 Principles to Guide Your Social Media Debut

"While principals and superintendents are rearranging their organizational charts and agonizing over budget proposals, important conversations about their schools are being held all around them. These conversations used to take place at the grocery store, around the swimming pool in the summer, and at community events; now they take place on the web---on the neighborhood digital bulletin boards, on Twitter, in blogs, and on YouTube."   Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes, Why Social Media Matters: School Communication in the Digital Age

I am amazed that in my conversations with other administrators and teachers, there are those who still refuse to engage in using social media. As Porterfield and Carnes point out, school leaders are working hard on their budgets, their policies, and meetings, and many of them are oblivious to the conversation that goes on Cyberspace about their schools and districts. According to Porterfield and Carnes,"It is more than foolish for school leaders to pretend that education is somehow untouched by this new media; it is negligent, and it reinforces the image that many Americans have of schools and school leaders---that leaders keep their eyes on the rear-view mirror as they run our schools, and that our schools are just not in step with the times." There are administrators who still refuse to engage in connecting through social media. They see it as a nuisance, and fight to keep it out of their schools, even though it is impossible to do so.

For those school administrators and teachers who are thinking about making their "Social Media Debut," here's three simple principles to get your started.

1.  Choose multiple tools for your "social media toolkit." You need to consider using tools like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and blogs. Multiple tools means being able to engage your constituents and other educators on multiple levels and in multiple ways.

  • Twitter gives you the ability to get information out quickly and concisely.
  • Facebook has the most users, so it gives you the largest audience. You can also share out photos and other media on your school or district Facebook page.
  • Blogs give you the ability to post a variety of content and engage others in a conversation about that content.
  • Google+ allows for the dissemination of a variety of content. Like Facebook, users can post photos and other media. It allows users to use "circles" to sort audiences.
  • LinkedIn allows users to connect professionally with others.

2. Make your home web site homebase for information. As Porterfield and Carnes point out, your web site "should focus on service and the product it provides is information." Use social media tools to direct constituents and others back to your web site. Monitor your web site for traffic to gauge the effectiveness of your promotional efforts. Your web site's purpose should not simply be to have a presence. It should function as information central about your school or district.

3. Use social media, not as a cyber-announcement system, but as a means to engage others in conversations. To use social media as simply a way to make announcements ignores one of its fundamental qualities: it allows for multi-way conversations. Use social media to engage others and get feedback.

Twenty-first century school leaders and educators who still resist social media and getting connected, seem to think they can ignore the conversation about their schools in cyberspace. Keeping social media out is impossible. Ignoring and hoping it will go away is looking backward. It is time for school leaders and educators who have yet to connect to make their social media debut!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Educational Blogging Is About "Earning Your Readers' Attention"

"Content may rule, but your online content must be the right sort of content: Customer-focused. Authentic. Compelling. Entertaining. Surprising. Valuable. Interesting. In other words, you must earn the attention of people." Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman in Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business

Educators blog for a number of  reasons. Self-reflection, conversation, and sharing ideas are just three of those reasons. Ultimately a decision to blog is a commitment to engage your readers with content. Deciding on what that content should look like is an important consideration for education bloggers too, not just businesses, and Handley and Chapman's advice has some application to educators trying to find content for their blogs. They point out, your content "must be the right sort of content." To be the right content, your content must:
  • Focus on your readers and readers' needs. If you have blogged for any length of time determining this is rather simple. Those posts that get a great deal of page views versus those that don't are an excellent clue to the kinds of content your readers want. For example, readers of this blog are often looking for information regarding iPad apps, because two of the blog posts that have received the most traffic were about iPad apps for educators. Another indicator are comments readers leave behind. Those posts that receive the most comments are also an indicator of what blog readers are interested in. Oftentimes, I also have readers leave comments that lead to ideas for information they are seeking. Of course, if your goal is to simply journal and reflect, then focusing on the needs of your readers isn't necessary. But, if your goals include gaining readership and engaging others, then you must focus on your readers' needs and wants, which means giving them the kind of content they are looking for.
  • Be authentic. Being truthful, honest, and open with your readers is important.For example, I simply do not blog about things that I have not read, nor do I blog about web tools or software apps I have not personally tried. I receive numerous emails requesting reviews for new web tools and reviews for books, but I have not yet written reviews of products I have not tried myself nor books I have not read. This is my commitment to authenticity. My blog content must be extension of my own life and practice as an educator. This means I post from the perspective of my own experience. Being authentic in blogging also means opening up to your readers about your own experiences and thoughts as well as opinions. But if you want to engage readers authentically, you can't deceive them by promoting products you haven't  used yourself, nor can you promote books you haven't read. Finally, being authentic means leaving a bit of yourself in your blog posts too and being vulnerable.
  • Be informative. Handley and Chapman talk about making your content entertaining. Educational blogs can be entertaining, but in my experience, most educators are looking for information: they are looking for ideas and content that will help them in their educational practice. By being informative, you provide readers with timely, useful information that they can either taken back to their schools or school districts immediately, or you give them something to really think about that they share with other educators, thereby sparking a conversation. Being informative means giving your readers the kinds of information that they can use.
  • Be interesting. It has been pointed out quite often that web content readers are very selfish, especially those who read blogs. If readers are not engaged rather quickly, they lose interest and move on. In my experience, if I do not engage readers quickly, I notice that those blog posts get very few page views. Often, those posts that I perceive as well-written, thoughtful, and engaging, sometimes are the very ones that few read. I have learned to reign-in the English and literature teacher in me in order to engage readers, who aren't usually looking for literary finesse, but who are looking for content they can use. Being interesting means writing about topics of interest to readers, and giving them information they find interesting and useful.
Handley and Chapman offer some very interesting advice to those who would engage in not just blogging, but in providing any kind of web content for others to consume. Content is important. In the end, we have no choice but do what Handley and Chapman suggest: "we have to earn the attention of people," and that is done by providing them with the kinds of content they are looking for. That maxim is true for those who are educational bloggers too.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ideas for Establishing & Revising Your School or District's BYOD Policies

A Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy is a necessity in a 21st century school. I am not sure deciding whether or not to provide wireless Internet access to students is even optional anymore. With more and more of our students getting technological devices with WiFi capabilities, they come to our schools with the expectation that they are going to be connected. Add the fact that municipalities like our own hometown of Newton, North Carolina are working to set up city-wide WiFi, and lower costs of cellular hotspots, educational leaders are quickly finding it difficult keeping schools a "WiFi dead-zone."

Our school district recently updated our Bring Your Own Device Policy and Procedures (Newton-Conover City Schools BYOD Policy). This year, our BYOD policy expanded to include all our schools, but it is primarily just middle and high schools that are actually utilizing it. It also covers guests who come to our school buildings who want to get connected as well.

Some of the most pronounced changes in our BYOD update included the following:
  • Change in the definition of devices. Two years ago, so few of our students had tablets, we had not included that in our policy. We now include any device capable of connecting to our wireless network under our BYOD. While we haven't had many students bring  Xbox 360 or Ninetendo game systems into our school buildings, we need to make sure all devices using our wireless Internet connection are included.
  • Clearer definition of user. This was a key revision since our original focus covered mostly students. Our new policy covers anyone who connects and uses our wireless network.
  • Clearer expectations about the devices. In our revision discussions, we wanted language to make sure all of our users understand that our wireless Internet's purpose was to support instructional use. We also wanted language that covered when those devices become a disruption. In addition we added a clear connection back to our district acceptable use policy.
  • Revised consequences for violations. Under our old policy, the consequences were clear enough, but the new policy more clearly explains those consequences, and there is some flexibility. In addition, we clearly spell out the offenses for which immediate and permanent loss of wireless Internet privileges could result. Those are: accessing web sites of a clearly pornographic nature and web sites with illegal content. We also include cyberbullying and harassment as an offense that could result in loss of privileges and any activity of a malicious or illegal nature.
  • Finally, we updated our disclaimers section to make it very clear that users would not have access to network hardware and resources. Also, our district does not provide tech support for personal devices, nor is our district responsible for any damage, theft or loss of these devices.
Now that we are in our third year of BYOD implementation, there are some more lessons we have learned. Those include:

  • Review and update your BYOD policies and procedures at least once a year. You may also have to update sooner should tech trends demand it.
  • Clear definitions are a must. This is a no-brainer for those who write policy, but it is vital that definitions of devices, users, and violations as well as conseuqences be written with clarity. Revising these definitions regularly is important too.
  • Make sure your policy includes disclaimers. Our district technology department does not have the resources to support personal devices, and as I understand it, our state does not permit state employees to provide that support. Disclaimers regarding theft, loss or damage is important as well, otherwise, more resources may be consumed when these things happen.
Having a Bring Your Own Device policy and procedure has moved to the mainstream. As more and more of our students get personal devices, and come to our schools with the expectation that they can be connected, we must make sure we provide that access or they will get it elsewhere. Having a current BYOD policy in a 21st century school is a must.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Knowing When Not to Say Anything: 4 Times Silence Is Better Than Words

"While embracing the value of straight talk, school personnel also need to realize often there is one communication tool that is even more powerful and effective: no talk at all," writes Robert D. Ramsey in his book How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating Well with Students, Staff, Parents, and the Public. Because we are all teachers, we always seem to fall into the trap of thinking that we are obligated to make a point, teach a lesson, or "impart 'wisdom." The problem is, as Ramsey clearly points out, such thinking ignores that communication is 2-way. Sometimes, "silence does speak louder than words" and knowing when to just be silent is a leadership and teaching skill like any other.

But when should we resist this temptation to speak with our words of wisdom? The art of "not speaking" is an important part of communicating. Ramsey offers us some advice on when not saying anything is better than speaking.
  • You have already said too much. It's not hard to know when you've reached this point. This is the "open-mouth-insert-foot" point of communicating. When you have said more than you should have already, usually trying to make it better by saying more makes things messier. Being able to recognize that you can't say anything else that will help the situation means telling the teacher inside that this is one time to teach means to be silent.
  • Someone comes to you to vent. We've all taken these phone calls and had these conversations. A parent calls us to vent their frustrations, even though they aren't really just upset about a decision we have made. Or, a teacher is frustrated with how things are going in their fourth period class. Deep down, they know you don't have the answers, and they know you did not hand pick those students to terrorize them for a semester. They just want to vent. Being able to recognize when someone comes to you in order to vent means telling the teacher inside that his wisdom will probably not help in this situation.
  • You are mad. This is common sense. Things said in anger are often rash and counterproductive, period. Just like you shouldn't respond to an emotionally charged email immediately, you should recognize when you can't be objective and get beyond your own feelings. Being able to recognize when your feelings are an obstacle to clear communication means telling the teacher that now is not the time to respond.
  • Finally, you don't know what to say. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being silent, especially when we don't know what to say or how to respond. Perhaps it might be beneficial to just say, "I don't know what to say" if you just can't stand the silence. Trying to fill space with inane words and language doesn't help anyone. Being able to recognize when you don't know what to say means telling the teacher inside of you, silence is OK, or just admitting that you don't know what to say is acceptable.
There is truly power in silence. While the teacher in us feels like we should always be ready to impart wisdom, the truth is, the best wisdom imparted is sometimes done so by not saying anything.

NOTE: Robert D. Ramsey's book How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating Well with Students, Staff, Parents, and the Public is full of advice and lists of making the most of communication with everyone. It is an excellent addition to your administrator's library.

Cover Image

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

2 Favorite Tech Tools to Save Web Content for Later Reading

Here's a common tech problem those of us who read a lot of web content encounter: You encounter three articles on the web, and you don't have time to read them. The old fashioned solution would have been to bookmark them and return to them later when you had time. But let's throw in a wrinkle. You are going someplace where you will be unconnected for a day or two, but you would still like to be able to read those three articles. In that case, a browser bookmark won't help.

The problem of wanting to save content for later reading is a common one and easily solved with two easy-to-use tools.

Evernote and the Clearly Browser Extension: This combination makes grabbing content for later reading easy. If you have an Evernote account, you can clip articles for later reading using the Clearly Browser extension. With the simple click of a button, you can send an entire article, including graphics straight to the Evernote Notebook of your choice. You can easily read these later through the Evernote app on your iPad, Kindle, or desktop, but make sure you sync your Evernote app before you disconnect, otherwise the article you clipped may not be available on your devices.

Clearly Screen Shot

Evernote with Clearly Clipped Article

Send to Kindle Browser Extension:  The Send to Kindle Browser Extension is a button in your browser that allows you to immediately send, or preview an article before you send it to your Kindle app. Once an article is sent, you can access that article on your iPad or your Kindle reader. If you have multiple devices with the Kindle app, you can decide which one you want to send it to, but the article will be available to download on all your devices. There is also a free Send to Kindle Desktop application available as well.

Send to Kindle Screenshot

Article in Kindle

Links to Resources Described in This Article

Evernote and Clearly Links

Send to Kindle Links

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

5 Ways Schools or Districts Can Immediately Use Technology to Engage in Authentic Learning

"Opportunities brought about by the recent developments of technology have been almost completely missed in education," writes Yong Zhao in, World Class Learners; Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. Take a quick look in schools, and you will see that there are a great deal of "missed opportunities." You are still likely to see students sitting in rows, teachers at the front of the room lecturing, or students flipping pages in a textbook and answering questions at the end of  chapters. This is happening, while across the room sits four or five desktop computers, fully wired to the world. Or, safely tucked away in many of the students' pockets are smartphones with more computing power than the first PCs many of us owned. These missed opportunities exist for lots of reasons. Failure to provide training and support for implementation. Lack of technical support for the devices. Leadership that discourages innovation and experimentation. The list is endless.  Nonetheless, these are missed opportunities for engaging students in authentic, 21st century learning.

What, then, are ways schools and school districts can turn these missed opportunities into the means to engage students in 21st century learning? It simply involves looking at the technologies and using all of their capabilities, not just those that support the ways we've always taught. Here are five ways schools and school districts can immediately use technology to engage their students in 21st century learning.
  • Use the technology as a media creation tool. Desktops, laptops, netbooks, and can do so much more than type research papers. While that is certainly a legitimate educational activity, our technological devices will do so much more. Educators and their leaders need to see them as tools to create media products, such as books, artwork, photos, movies, music, web pages, and blog posts. The list for media creation possibilities is limitless. In the end, you can recognize a school that gets it technologically by the media products students are asked to create.
  • Use the technology as a communication tool that enlarges your school campus. Instead of using our devices to just email parents and communicate with each other in the building,  we can have students email experts, and engage national and international leaders in conversations that constitute real learning. When it comes to communication, you can recognize a school that gets it technologically by the extent of its use of global connections.
  • Use the technology to engage global audiences. Instead of seeing devices as a way for students to publish and share in the classroom, use them to engage students in India, Japan, and Australia as authentic audiences. Use the world as an audience, not just the students in the classroom or the teacher. When it comes to engaging authentic audiences, you can recognize a school that gets it technologically by who their audiences are.
  • Use the technology for global collaboration, not just for in-class cooperative learning. Instead of students only partnering with their peers in desks across from them, have them partner with peers in India, Argentina or Germany. Effectively engaging technology means having students work with other students on the other side of the world, rather than just the other side of the room. When it comes to collaboration, you can recognize a school that get its technologically by where the students with whom they are collaborating are located.
  • Use the technology to forge partnerships with other educators in other parts of the world. Use the devices to make connections with educators and students in areas of the world that are seeing first hand what you want your students to see and what you want your students to learn. Technology offers the opportunities of global partnerships. When it comes to partnerships, you can recognize when a school that gets it technologically by whether it engages in international partnerships for learning.
One only need look around his or her schools and districts to see if there are missed opportunities for engaging in authentic learning through technology. Are there missed opportunities sitting on tables, resting in students' pockets, or sitting in storage carts? Are students still primarily learning through textbooks and chapter questions? Authentic learning can happen when we engage in learning that capitalizes on the capabilities of our technologies rather than simply using those technologies to enhance what we've always done.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Equipping Students with a Baloney-Detection Kit in the Information Age

According to Michael Shermer, "Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims." He also points out that skeptics aren't "closeminded or cynical;" they are "curious and cautious," and their beliefs are open to revision when the facts change.

In an information-rich world where we are bombarded with all manner of fantastic claims and ideas, one would do well to adopt some degree of skepticism. For our students, being able to evaluate extraordinary claims, and be skeptical, is a vital skill in the 21st century. 

In January, I posted "8 Must-Have Skills for Spotting Misinformation for 21st Century Students" in which I pointed out a starter list of "baloney-detection skills" based on Loren Collins' book Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation. In a more recent post, entitled "What Is Skepticism, Anyway?" author Michael Shermer reviewed a "Baloney-Detection Kit" produced by Skeptic magazine.This kit captures some additional important "baloney-detection skills" our 21st century students need. Below, I have taken the liberty to adapt this "Baloney-Detection Skills Kit"  for educational use and teaching.

When students encounter any claim made by someone either in or out of cyberspace, here's a list of questions they might ask:
  • Does the source of the claim often make similar claims? According to Sherrmer, "Pseudo-scientists have a habit of going well beyond the facts." They also tend make numerous fantastic claims. It is important to recognize when an individual makes a habit of making radical claims, because that is perhaps a good sign their claims are bogus or suspect.
  • Have the claims been verified by other sources? Pseudo-scientists and others often make statements that are unverified or only verified by those within their own belief circle. It is important to teach our students how to "check on those who are checking the claims" being made.
  • Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought? In other words, have efforts only been made to seek out evidence that confirms the claim, not dis-confirm?  Our students need to be able to recognize when a claimant is caught up in confirmation bias. They need to understand that science emphasizes checking and rechecking the evidence. Verification and replication are vital. Being able to recognize when someone is trying to falsify a claim is the key to detecting misinformation.
  • Has the person making the claim given a different explanation for what is happening, or are they simply denying the existing explanation? Those engaged in misinformation often resort to criticizing the claim they oppose and the arguments, but not affirm what they believe. Students need to be able to recognize when someone is only attacking at explanation but not offering any alternative. This is a sign that a person's claims are possibly suspect.
  • Does the person's personal beliefs and biases drive their conclusions or vice versa? It is important for our students to understand how biases and personal beliefs slant interpretations of data. Also, students need to understand the importance of engaging in a "peer-review" process in order to detect those biases and beliefs, and to determine how those have affected the claims being made.
When it comes to teaching our students to be skeptical, I like the aphorism Shermer offers. It is an excellent guide for ourselves and our students in an age of misinformation. He writes:

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

In the 21st century, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching our students to demand extraordinary evidence when they are faced with fantastic claims. Critical evaluation of information is a 21st century survival tool our students can't live without.