Monday, August 30, 2010

The 6 Step Plan to Using Your 21st Century Voice to Make a Difference

When I speak with innovative educators about preparing students for the 21st century, some work in schools where they are off and running, but more often than I’d like, I’m met with frustration. It’s as though believing that school should look more like the world in which we live instead of a place students go to power down and disconnect is a futuristic notion.

These educators (and their students) are frustrated reaching out with Tweets like this:

I really really really don't understand banning all social networking between teachers/school staff and students.

and emails like this.

Email: Unfortunately, I will not be using cell phones with my students because: 1. My district bans them and 2. my 4th grade students don't have them. I would love to have access to cell phones especially for things like PollEverywhere, but at this point it isn't going to happen.

Banning everything in school that students need to succeed outside of school is no longer okay. We are not preparing students for the world that existed back when Rip Van Winkle first took his slumber. As innovative educators we need to join, start, and keep the conversation (about how school should be) going. If you’re reading this blog, you’re already there, or on your way, but how can you help others take the steps necessary to start the movement to prepare this digital generation of connected and interactive learner wanna be’s trapped in the past behind school walls?

While there are some educators in leadership roles and policy makers who are thinking outside the ban we need more to become active participants in our student’s digital worlds. When I presented at a superintendents conference about preparing digital learners they admitted they are not adequately prepared to make decisions about today’s digital learners and they were not participants in the Web 2.0 world in which many of our students live (or want to live).

The good news is innovative educators are participants in the Web 2.0 world. Because you are, you have a stronger and louder voice then many of the policy makers and educational leaders making decisions for schools today. If you want to see a change, just start (or continue) using your voice and help others to do the same.

This matters because whether they know it or not. Whether they try to silence you or not, educational leaders, policy makers, other educators, and parents need you to speak up and share your voice and your work. They need you to guide them.

If you’re reading this, you’re already ahead of the game. Whether you realize it or not you are the key to getting the message out, breaking down the walls, lifting the bans and making a change. Just put one foot in front of the other and follow this simple six step plan.

The 6 step plan for using your web 2.0 voice to make a difference.

Join (Week 1)
Start with the biggies. Join each of the following. It only takes a minute and it’s easy. Here’s where you can begin.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Classroom 2.0
  • Blogs you like
Lurk (Week 2, 3, 4)
What are people doing? Find out. Here’s how.
  • Take a look around.
  • Watch.
  • Learn.
Converse (Week 5+)
You’ve had a chance to see how things go and get used to the norms, protocols, and procedures. You’re ready to say something. Here are some ways to get started.
  • Reply on Twitter. Retweet. Participate in a chat i.e. #edchat
  • Comment on or like a status update on Facebook
  • Participate in a Classroom 2.0 discussion
  • Comment on a blog
Initiate (sometime within the first six - twelve months)
You’ve joined, looked around, and conversed. It’s time for you to get something started. Here are some ways to do that.
  • Tweet
  • Update your status
  • Start a discussion
  • Contribute a guest post to a blog
Launch (If you feel ready)
You may be ready to get things started on your own. If you’ve engaged in all the previous steps, congrats! You have joined the conversation. If you are ready to do even more you may want to launch your own Web 2.0 presence in one of these outlets.
  • A blog
  • A learning network
  • A Twitter chat
  • A Facebook Fan Page
  • A movement
Share / Publish / Establish Your Digital Footprint (for the rest of your life)
If you’ve engaged in most of the previous steps, you’re well on your way to establishing a digital footprint that shares your message and tells the world what you stand for. Now you just need to ensure the following are in place.
  • You know what you stand for.
  • You have a clear message to deliver.
  • You find those who might want to hear it.
Once you begin following this plan, ask yourself each day, am I getting the world out? Am I a part of the conversation? Am I changing minds and policy? If you follow this plan, the answer, will be: “YES you are!”

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Is Teaching a “Class” a Big Mistake?

Guest Post by Peter Kent. Edited by The Innovative Educator.


Earlier this year I awarded a National Australian Award that allowed me to work with a school in Napier, New Zealand where this photograph was taken. For 5 weeks I walked on this path everyday, I never understood why this path had a curve in it, there seemed to be no reason for it. However everyone who walked or rode on the path went along as if it was just another bump in the road with few even giving a second thought to what they were doing.

Some things in life that we do that make no sense and could be delaying (or stopping) the achievement of our goals. This post addresses some one of the things we commonly do in schools that may seem like just another bump in the road, but may indeed be counter-productive and not be in the best interest of 21st century students.

Currently in my part of the world down under we are rolling out a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to all schools. As part of the roll-out we had to consider how individuals would be grouped within the environment. All the user accounts (teachers, students and soon parents) are automatically created from the data in our school management system. The default and easiest solution for organising these individuals would have been to also extract the class data from our school management system as well. Another words, every class that existed within our schools would have had an equivalent ‘online class or collaborative space’ created and automatically populated with the appropriate teacher and students.


We believe it does not. Instead we turned off this automatic provisioning and gave each school the responsibility to create structures that suited their own context determined after discussion amongst the staff and students as to what would work best to meet learning goals.


So far in a about 1/2 of our approximately 100 schools it appears there has been no discussion and little thought at the school level. This could be in large part because traditional administrators have no context for this type of discussion. In most cases the school administration just delegated the responsibility to an IT coordinator who has unthinkingly reproduced the existing school class structure in the new online environment. When comparing the emerging results from these schools to ones that have been innovative in their approach in finding new ways to group students, it is easy to see the problems and limitations of a ‘traditional school structure’ – both in the online and ‘real environment.

Four Considerations for Virtual Learning Environments
  1. Learning is social
    Students need to learn from each other. There are many instances that show the great advantages of having students receiving comments and feedback on their work by their peers, rather than just by their teacher. A problem with class sizes of 25 – 30 is the peer group is often too small to be functional. Not everyone is ready to give feedback when a learner needs it. Larger group sizes are needed for peer review to work. From our experience groups of around 50 – 60 students should be considered as a minimum, groups of 90 – 120 or more is even better.
  1. Differentiation vs Personalisation
    Consider two students, one is an “A” student at Maths and a “C” student at English, the other an “A”student in English and “C” student in Maths. While almost all teachers would differentiate their programs to cater for this, it still make no sense to me why both of these both students should spend the same amount of instructional time of Maths and English. While we differentiate, we still have Maths Blocks, and Literacy Blocks.
    Virtual Learning Environments provide a platform that makes it easy to break away from this model, potentially having 3 - 5 maths groups, 3 – 5 literacy groups, and say 3 – 5 other groups in (LOTE, ART, MUSIC) all occurring at the same time….. Well, if there is a teacher who can manage, and provide sufficient ‘expert instruction’ in this context. The reality is few teachers could do this, however put 3 – 5 teachers in the ‘group,’ and it starts becoming practical and possible. Schools would be able to move from ‘curriculum differentiation’ to ‘curriculum personalisation’, which up until now has been an elusive dream in the vast majority of contexts.

  2. Teachers have expertise gaps
    There has been a lot of discussion of PLNs on this blog. PLNs work well when there is a collection of peers to reflect with, and a range of experts who can provide us with targeted guidance over a broad spectrum of topics. A sufficiently sized group of students provides the peers. However the nature student peer groups vs adult peer groups, is that student peer groups will not usually contain the range of experts needed to cover the relevant curriculum areas. You cannot expect students to use a constructivist approach to develop an understanding of calculus, or complex grammar in foreign languages. Teachers and other specialists are often needed to fill the role of ‘expert’ in many areas. The arrangement of 1 teacher / 1 group of students will deny the student PLNs of ‘experts’ in many areas, making their learning inefficient. Remember, VLE are virtual and we’re no longer limited by the artificial constraints of brick and mortar or the physical abilities of teacher-student, student-student, teacher-teacher interaction.. A grouping along the lines of at least 75 students / 3 teachers is much more effective. Teachers might also want to consider inviting experts from their PLNs to chime in as appropriate.
  1. Do students owe loyalty to schools, or should it be the other way around?
    Traditionally, when a student enrolls in a school they must be loyal to that school. That is they must participate in that school’s maths classes, play sport / music only for that school, etc. However shouldn’t schools be loyal to their students? Shouldn’t schools arrange for the most appropriate maths class or music instruction for their students, regardless what school it is delivered in? Can schools get past bureaucratic administrative constructs and allow grouping of students and teachers to happen across schools? This would enable schools to provide more opportunities for students and enable teacher expertise to be utilize effectively. Class materials and resources can be shared and students and teachers alike would be able to build meaningful passion/talent/interest-based learning networks rather than happenstance place-based ones. If we choose to walk through them, VLEs open new worlds and doors just waiting for us if we just take the key in hand and unlock the opportunities that await.
What else?
These are some of the numerous considerations. Scheduling (the largest hand-brake in schools) would be unnecessary and the teacher student ratio during ‘explicit teaching moments’ would fall, ironically gaining all the advantages of the traditional smaller class size initiatives.

5 constructs that would need to change for this to become a reality
  1. Visionary educational leaders
    When deep thinking and strategic school leaders want something to happen it will. Without these people nothing will ever happen.
  2. Burden sharing
    For schooling structures to fully evolve there will have to be some ‘burden sharing’ between the ‘physical elements’ of a school, and the ‘virtual online’ elements of a school.
  3. Physical structure
    If physically the school is divided into small box like rooms, then that will be a problem, and the majority of these grouping would need to take place ‘online’ in the first instance.
  4. Removing the structure of ‘classes’ and a ‘schedule’
    This will require more intense and organisation of student learning in the virtual aspects of the school. If the school does not have a coordinated approach to their ‘online school’ then it will be unlikely to work either.
  5. Schools will need a coordinated learning management system (LMS).
    It is fine for one or two classes to set up blogs on blogger, or document sharing via Google Docs. But trying to get the whole school to work together using anything other than a well-organised LMS will likely prove difficult. This doesn’t mean that students would need to stop using Google Docs, etc, just that there needs to be something that will tie all the various groupings together, and keep track of student learning over life of their schooling.
Is this happening yet in my patch of the world?
Not yet, but we started the journey last March. Some schools are explicitly looking at grouping large numbers of students with multiple teachers in the ‘virtual aspects’ of their schools. Most of our schools are ‘collections of small boxes’, but like many places we are designing new schools that are more open and flexible.

And quite frankly I cannot wait to see how things evolve.

Update: On August 24, 2010: Our VLE surpassed Google as the most hit web site from within Public Schools in the Australian Capital Territory, clearly something is going right with students learning and being engaged within in a VLE

Peter Kent works within a Public Ed Department in Australia. He is currently leading and coordinating the strategic delivery of professional development to support the use of tech in schools in all its different forms and flavours

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Secret To Getting Every Student Excited About Writing

I often lament how infrequent it is that student work is actually published as I did in these two posts.
- Just Say Yes to Publishing! Exposing The Man Behind the Curtain If He’s Still Saying No.
- 21st Century Educators Don’t Say, “Hand It In.” They say, “Publish It!

During a recent outreach to my personal learning network about this issue Susan Ettenheim shed some light on the issue which is close to her heart. Together with Paul Allison, Susan is involved in a site called Youth Voices (a social network where students and teachers work together to create student-to-student conversations and collaborations). She shared this insightful idea which she and Paul had been discussing.

A lot of student writing is of little interest to anyone beyond the teacher.

So, I reflected about my own experience as a writer and teacher of writing and I realized just how on target this insight was. Upon reflection I remember clearly the day I accidentally got extremely reluctant writers enthusiastic about writing. It was 1997 and I was a first year teacher working as a library media specialist. I loved my work. I got to see students all day and help them learn and explore using books, videos, and a lab full of computers I had donated from a company who was upgrading their technology.

On this day Dr. H’s class came to see me. This was a special education class of middle school students in Harlem with below average IQs. Writing was not high on their favorite activities list, yet on this day I had students that were begging for, no, demanding writing mini lessons, engaging in unprovoked peer review, turning to dictionaries and synonym finders, looking up grammar rules, etc. In fact, I just couldn’t pull them away from their writing. Not only that, once I unlocked the key to my new writing enthusiasts, I had them begging to come see me to do more writing all year long...even during lunch, before school, and after school.

So, what got EVERY student so excited about writing?

I helped my students set up email accounts. A revolutionary concept back in 1997 and one that is still elusive in some schools today. I told the students what their email addresses would be and walked them through setting up the accounts with their own passwords. The accounts followed the same format so they easily knew one another’s email address. I had tossed names in a hat to get things started and the students had to write to the person whose name they drew sharing something they either admire about that person or have learned from that person. The person they wrote to should respond in kind.

The next thing I knew I had flying fingers in a silent classroom except for the excited squeal as one student or another was informed, “You’ve got mail.” All the kids were writing to each other and excited as heck when they got mail. They cared what they wrote and wanted it to sound good. Some wrote emails to family members who didn’t live with them and sometimes did not have consistent mailing addresses. Students were able to help their families set up email so they could stay in touch and they knew places in all communities (i.e. the library) where they could access the internet. Sometimes students just wrote to their parents about something that happened n school that day. Students were excited to connect with each other as well as their families like never before and the momentum never died. The rules of written communication followed that of spoken communication and students knew there were consequences for inappropriate behavior. The students didn’t want this privilege taken away and we didn’t have a single issue of misuse.

I then remembered another really popular writing activity. I had a 5th grade class that had a lot of complaints about the school. I invited the students to write a letter that would go to the school principal and district leaders. I wish I had saved this! They all wrote the improvements they’d like to see and submitted those. These became bullets in the letter and as a class we came up with an introduction and conclusion. The letter was sent and a follow up presentation was scheduled to share the student’s proposed ideas.

Both of these writing activities obviously have something in common.
  • They are real.
  • They affect kids lives.
  • They have real audiences.
  • The desire to write comes from the student, not the teacher.
How much of the writing kids do in school has these qualities?
How can we change this?

An idea comes to mind for me. What if we used the real mediums in which kids write to teach literacy in those areas. Perhaps a curriculum could include something like this:

Ten types of writing your students will want to do

  1. Email writing
  2. Facebook updates and comments
  3. Tweeting and replying
  4. Discussion Boards - Replying and initiating topics
  5. Commenting on blogs
  6. Writing a guest post on a blog
  7. Commenting in newspapers or magazines about subjects of interest
  8. Writing an article for a newspaper or magazine about a subject of interest
  9. Writing to persuade someone / some place to do something you want them to do
  10. Writing to teach others how to do something and knowing how to reach those who care
Not every student will want to engage in all of the above types of writing, but what if instead of an artificial curriculum map filled old-style writing that wasn't interactive, we did something different. What if instead we let authentic purpose and passion drive our writing curriculum. What if we let students help decide the kind of writing that is important to them? What if we let students write for reasons they’d need to write in the real world.

While these suggestions might seem to apply to secondary school students only, there is application for younger students as well. In fact my fourth and fifth graders were some of my most avid emailers back in 1997.

However, it seems it may be more difficult to develop authentic writing experiences for younger students, but there certainly are ways. I think back to when I started my blog. Every post had an audience of at least one person in my mind and that was okay. Instead of writing something and emailing it to that person, I wrote something and sent them the link to my blog. Every student has a built in audience beyond the teacher who genuinely cares about what they have to say and that is their friends and family. What if we shifted the idea of teacher as contrived audience and always asked students to think of a real person(s) to think of before they wrote and their writing would be a gift to that person(s). In some cases this audience might also serve as a peer reviewer and someone, other than the teacher, to talk about their writing to. Imagine students talking to their parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. about a piece they’re writing for them. There is a real person who cares. This person in essence also becomes the teacher’s helper and perhaps even an editor for the student. If this person is family, you’re also working to build the home/school connection.

Now, what about the use of social media with young ones? Not possible, right? Well not really. Early childhood students are closely connected to one of the largest group users of social media. Their parents. In fact, this is exactly why first grade teacher Erin Schoening decided to start using Facebook with her first grade students and their families. She has had tremendous success using this platform as a communication tool with students assigned daily to update an authentic audience of families as to what is going on in their class. Ms Schoening and students parents were constant writing guides in helping to share a well-written message to the classes audience.

The key to unlocking writing passion is simple. We must shift our thinking and move from viewing students as people who we are teaching to learn to write and instead move to regarding students as real writers who we are supporting in their craft.

So how will you be doing this with your students this year?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Advice to Teachers from High School Student Who Created an iPhone App On His Own

Editor’s note: I met Blake Copeland at Alan November’s #BLC10 conference and asked him to share his insights here at The Innovative Educator. Blake is an incoming sophomore at Highland Park High School in Dallas, Texas. He is also the developer of the iPhone app DayFinder available at the App Store.

When real learning and creating happens away from school

My name is Blake Copeland. I met Ms. Nielsen at Alan November’s #BLC10 conference last month and she subsequently mentioned me in her blog in a post entitled Just Say Yes to Publishing! Exposing The Man Behind the Curtain If He’s Still Saying No. Ms. Nielsen said her readers would be interested in how I learned to write an iPhone/iPod touch app and how we can use the same learning techniques in school. It is my honor to share with you a few of my thoughts...

Before I dive in, let me give you a little background about myself. I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas (Go Cowboys!) and went to a classical christian school where computers and technology were not part of the curriculum. My interest in computers started at a young age; in second grade, my uncle helped me build a home computer. For me, maybe because it was the forbidden fruit (since I couldn’t use computers at school), I became more interested in technology and began working on our home computer in my spare time. In 6th grade, my friends and I began making movies after school and editing them on the computer. This was when I initially realized the power of technology. I immediately became interested in computers and began using them at home.

Fast forward three years later when I entered Highland Park High School. Halfway through the year, I finally had the idea to make something someone could use on a computer, or in my case, an iPhone app. I went to my high school to see if they offered anything that could help me create an iPhone app but they had no such program. I was alone in trying to build an iPhone app so I went back home and studied. I went online and taught myself the computer language, Objective-C. Two and a half months later, I released DayFinder on the App Store as an app that does date calculations and finds trivia about specific dates in history.

Takeaways from building my app
  1. Self study
    I look at what I did as a self study program, where I gave myself permission to pursue the subject about which I was passionate. In many ways, the school already provides subjects that match up with students’ passions, such as science, math, history, etc. However, where students’ passions don’t match up, it would be great if the school could provide an environment where students could be educated and encouraged in their passions. The biggest challenge is finding enough students to construct a class in that subject.
  1. Applying knowledge
    Real learning takes place at the point of application. In other words, learning takes place when the student takes what he/she has read or studied and puts it into practice in the real world. For example, I personally learned Objective-C not so much by reading and studying it, but by trying to put it into practice. To put this into the classroom, I think students could learn a lot more by having project oriented classes.

  1. School support was lacking
    Part of the struggle I had with my “self studies” was that I had no one to ask questions (with the occasional exception of hearing from a remote blogger). Much of my learning came from struggling with problems and correcting my failures.
What I think happens today in school is that failures are looked down upon. But because we fail at something it can end up being the reason why we learn it so well. I think it could be liberating to students if they felt the freedom to fail as part of the learning process without the consequence of a devastating grade or killing their GPA. I’m not saying a student shouldn’t be assessed on performance. However, in my experience, failures are a big part of learning.

My hope is that educators will strive to provide a learning environment where students are challenged to put their book knowledge into practice in practical real life situations. To me knowledge without application equals wasted effort. I hope some of my reflections and thoughts are helpful and give educators some ideas they can apply with their students. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to share some of my ideas with with innovative educators. I am looking forward to new challenges and applications this year!

Interested in Day Finder? Read all about it.


Ever wished you knew what the day was on a particular date. Doesn't it take forever to calculate that August 6th, 2011 is a Saturday? Ever wanted to know what events happened on a certain date? Well DayFinder is here to help. With DayFinder you can scroll to a date and find out what day it is; you can then optionally go the a website and find historic events and significant birthdays regarding that date. You can also easily find the number of days between two dates or add days to a date. You can even store dates for quick reference. DayFinder is ideal for finding trivia related to a particular date.

- Uses a simple date scroller
- Takes you back to the current date with a simple shake of your iPhone or iPod Touch
- Find out what historic events, birthdays, and significant deaths are on a certain date (requires internet connection)
- Customize the interface

10 Reasons Cell Phones Should Be Allowed In Schools

Vicki Davis shares 10 reasons cell phones should be allowed in schools. Visit Making the Case for Cell Phones in Schools for a description and details around each of the reasons below. Here is a recap of the list. 

Ten reasons to get off the cell phone ban wagon
  1. Cell Phones Can Save Us Money
  2. Cell Phones Can Help Students Be More Organized
  3. It Makes Kids More Safe
  4. It Allows Sensitive Issues to be Kept Private
  5. It Alleviates Strain on the Network.
  6. It Alleviates Strain in the IT Department
  7. It Speeds Up Information Retrieval
  8. It Allows Us to Teach Kids Digital Responsibility and Citizenship
  9. It Sets a Model for Effective Change and Innovation
  10. You're fighting a losing battle.
Davis also provides ideas for dealing with the use of cell phones in schools which she explains simply, that we deal with mobile phones “Just like we "deal" with scissors.” Read the complete post here for just how to do that.

For dozens more articles about using Cell phones in Education, visit this link. For ideas about how to break the ban where you teach and  / or begin using cell phones for learning in your school or classroom, order Teaching Generation Text