Sunday, August 9, 2020

Cameras in the Classroom? What to Do Instead

Some school districts have the short-sighted idea to put cameras in the classroom this fall so that students learning remotely have access to the classroom. Not only is this a bad idea, it is a colossal waste of money.

To find out why, check out my "Cameras in the Classroom" article in Tech & Learning magazine. 
Screenshot of "Cameras in the Classroom" article in Tech & Learning magazine

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

We're All Digital Citizenship Teachers - Here's the "How To Guide"

As schools around the globe rapidly transitioned to remote learning, it became apparent that it is the responsibility of all teachers to engage students of all ages in a dialogue around responsible digital interactions. Most schools will not go back to ‘normal,’ and the importance and benefits of a digital education have become clear. School leaders have finally taken more seriously the work of bridging the digital divide. They are ensuring their students and staff have the technology and internet connectivity needed for success in modern times. 

Along with this shift comes the responsibility of ensuring every educator understands the importance of, and knows how to teach, digital citizenship at every grade level. While most schools taught students about digital citizenship prior to the pandemic, a designated teacher was usually responsible for this, often the technology teacher or librarian. 

Today, students need to have a better understanding of their digital footprint, how to effectively communicate, the tools they can use, strategies for when they feel unsafe online, and what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior. We don’t want inappropriate digital citizenship to impede sound teaching, learning, and relationship building. In some cases this has happened when students acted inappropriately online, resulting in teachers who responded by discontinuing their online instruction altogether. A Bronx middle school teacher shared why in a recent New York Post article: “There are a lot of us who aren’t comfortable with it. You never know where your face is going to end up right now.” 

Moving forward, it’s imperative that educators don't use these mistakes as a reason to stop engaging with students online. Instead, these incidents can be teachable moments. When students’ make poor choices, we can take the time to help them understand their actions and how to make more informed and responsible choices. 

We also must ensure teachers understand that they are role models online just as they are face-to-face. As stated in the New York Post article, teachers are routinely monitored online by their students. “They see us on Twitter, on Instagram,” one school staff member said. This is no surprise. Our students are growing up digital and they look to see how their teachers are behaving online.

All of this may feel new and even uncomfortable, however, our students deserve better. 

Learn how to get started. Check out my article on How to Teach Digital Citizenship in Tech & Learning magazine. There you'll find how to establish norms, assign roles, determine best practices, involve families, and select a curriculum.

Screenshot of "How to teach digital citizenship" article in Tech & Learning magazine

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Breakout Rooms: Best Practices

clip art of a computer with breakout rooms

Breakout rooms are a great way for students to work in small groups.  Here are some best practices to ensure your--and your students’--success using them.

Create breakout rooms

Just like in your physical classroom, setting up the small groups in advance wll solve some of the management issues involved in small group work. If your platform allows, you can create the breakout rooms in advance and pre-assign students to them.  How to decide which students go into which rooms?  You can group them by:

  • Topics
  • Tasks/Assignments
  • Students with complementary skills
  • Students with similar skills
  • Alphabetical
  • other

Record sessions

As the breakout rooms begin, hop into each one and start a recording. Stop it at the end. This will enable you to:

  • Jump into a session if requested by students after it happened and get an insight into what happened.
  • Have an artifact of student work.
  • Monitor participation of students as needed.
  • Support students afterward if there was inappropriate conduct.

Determine breakout room structure

Determine the breakout room structure you will create. You can have breakout rooms that are:

  • Semi-structured. These are great for when a task is given but there is no need for a facilitator. 
    • Semi- structured breakout rooms might be good to elicit ideas on a topic or to reflect on learning. 
    • These rooms are also great for when random groupings are being used
  • Highly structured. These have both a task and a facilitator. 
    • Structured breakout rooms are great to use with a protocol (like a Glow/Grow feedback protocol or Hopes, or Success Analysis Protocol)  when working on group projects. 
    • These rooms work best when you have already assigned a project or larger on-going task.

Establish classroom norms with your students

Just like in your physical classroom, you should discuss with students and plan together to establish the norms for learning--and reinforce that they apply both in the larger classroom as well as to the smaller breakout rooms. Be sure to address:

  • What is responsible behavior?
  • What is inappropriate?
  • What students will do when they encounter inappropriate behavior? They can:
    • Name it and state that it should stop
    • Exit the breakout room and return to the larger class session
    • Tell you/other adult in the class

Save and share

These norms should be captured in a collaborative document (like a Google Doc) and shared with all students. 

  • You should treat this as a living document and add or remove parts agreed upon by the class as a whole.
  • Make sure to visit, and revisit, this document frequently with students. 
    • During the first few breakout sessions go over the established norms before heading into the rooms. 

Assign roles

Assign roles to your students such as:

  • Notetaker who takes notes
  • Moderator who ensures the group is on track and can report any issues back to you
  • Researcher who finds sources and resources for the group  to use
  • Timekeeper who make sure the group is on track and gives updates on how much time is left

Before assigning roles, make sure to review and model these roles with students. It’s also good to vary who does each role. Have a system for rotating roles, so that students get a chance to practice each role at some point during the unit/project assignment. 

Prepare materials in advance

You should set up spaces for each of the following: 

Note Taking: Create a system and space for note taking. Organize the notes in a way that makes sense.  You may want to have a section for a student who was assigned as a researcher to place links to sources and resources.   

Q&A or Backchanneling: Your students will have questions for you--or their classmates.  Set up a place--and process--where they can ask these questions without leaving the group. Can they:

  • Tag you in the chat?
  • Message you directly?
  • Add to a Q&A channel?

Help & Support

Create a way for students in breakout rooms to ask for help (to everyone) and a way for them to report any negative behavior (that goes just to you). 

  • Asking for help can be done using a collaborative document that all groups share with the facilitator, a chat feed, or some tools have an “ask for help” feature. 
  • Students should also have a direct line to you/other adults in order to raise or report issues privately. 

Practice makes perfect

Before doing a true breakout session (where students are expected to do work or collaborate with other students), practice a few times in the larger classroom space. 

  • Have students complete an ice breaker activity or other fun activity to get used to the expectations of a breakout session
  • Debrief what was easy/difficult about getting into a breakout session
  • Address any concerns or issues that came up during the debrief and add them to the established norms/expectations.

Share your drop-in protocols and notes

Let students know you may be dropping into breakout rooms to see how students are doing.

  • Know that depending on the sessions and the type of feedback you’re giving, you may not be able to visit every breakout room, every time.
    • In these instances, it may be helpful to have a schedule for yourself. For example, if you have 6 breakout sessions, you may visit 3 sessions one day, and the other 3 sessions the following day. 
  • Have a document set up to capture your observations and any feedback you gave to students.
    • Share common/unique findings/issues with all students once you’re back together as a whole class.
  • If possible, try to have another person help facilitate this process and bounce between the various breakout rooms. 
    • Some ideas for having another person drop into break out rooms include using an aide, student teacher, co-teacher, para-professional, or parent. Another idea is partnering with another teacher for this work. You may even have a student who might be good in such a role (but ensure that student changes so they also have an opportunity to participate

Breakout room duration

  • If a breakout room is used during a lesson, it should start out being used for short (approximately 10 minutes or less) brief activities. 
  • With secondary students, you can extend the amount of time spent in breakout rooms. In fact, they can eventually take the place of “work on your own/outside of class” for group project work.
  • For students working on group projects outside of class time breakout sessions will likely be longer.
    • If students need teacher support, set a time where you can join, for at least part of the time. 
    • If students don’t need support, set up the breakout room in advance for the students at their specified time.

Format and sharing

If you are doing a breakout room as part of class, you may want to bookend the use of breakout rooms with whole group instruction/discussion

  • Students can share the work they did in their breakout room with the larger group. This can include::
    • Sharing something they felt was important, new-to-them, Interesting, funny 
    • Sharing the part of the process that they:
      • Found easiest
      • Struggled with the most
      • Didn’t have a need for
      • Had to add/create
    • Sharing a document they collaborated on (new or on-going)

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Tips for Running an Accessible & Affordable Virtual Conference

As a result of the CoronaVirus Pandemic, we were faced with the choice of canceling our large yearly conference, or figuring out how to do a virtual conference. We opted for a virtual conference and decided to use Microsoft Teams and YouTube Live for our platform.  

The Format

Traditionally, at our conferences we have opening remarks, a keynote speaker, vendor floor, workshops all day, and at the end we have closing remarks and awards. We kept some elements of the traditional conference, and scrapped or added others. 

What we eliminated: Keynotes & workshops

On the chopping block were keynote speakers and workshops. Instead of a long-form, 45-minute keynote, we decided that short featured speakers and inspiring speakers would be better for an online format. We also eliminated workshops. This was because, once we moved online, we were providing dozens of workshops each day. Participants didn’t need a conference to access workshops. 

What we kept: Vendor floor & awards

We kept the vendor floor, but had to figure out what it would look like were it to be virtual. We also decided to keep our traditional closing remarks and award ceremony, but with a twist. This year all staff received an award for their heroic efforts during our move to digital education. 

What we added: Watch parties!

We added watch parties. This is because we knew that staff most wanted to connect and network with other like-minded individuals. We had more than a dozen watch parties grouped by affinity such as librarians, computer science teachers,special education teachers, or geographic location. In the watch parties, hosts were armed with a variety of interactive elements including polls, quizzes, discussion topics for each speaker, and more. Visit Tips for Hosting Watch Parties to learn more.

Screenshot of the watch party team with several channels such as Brooklyn, Bronx, CS4All, librarian


Our first order of business was to determine what the focus of the conference would be this year. We wanted to address some of the biggest issues happening right now. We decided on the following tracks:

  • Equity 

    • As we moved online it became more important than ever to address the digital divide. This means ensuring all students and staff had access to the technology that would result in effective teaching and learning

  • Digital Citizenship

    • As nearly all content moves online, it is of utmost importance that every educator takes on the role of understanding digital citizenship for themselves and their students. 

  • Diversity

    • In our school community more than 50% of families speak a language other than english at home. This means we want to create content that is appropriate for the diversity represented among staff, students, and families.

  • Digital Accessibility

    • Approximately 20% of our students have a disability. It is imperative that staff understands and knows how to create content that is accessible to all.


We brought in featured speakers to represent the areas we wanted to address at our conference, however, we also wanted to bring in other voices. This included the staff that often connected with our audience such as those who provided professional development opportunities. We also brought in the voices of students, educators, and families.  

The Platforms

We chose platforms our district already had available. This enabled us to run a virtual conference without having to purchase an expensive technology.

YouTube Live

We choose YouTube Live as our platform for several reasons.

  • Unlimited audience

  • Automatic Closed Captioning after the event that can be edited if there are errors

  • Moderated commenting for an interactive experience

Microsoft Teams

We selected Microsoft Teams for our watch parties and vendor floor. 

Vendor Floor

We created a vendor floor that launched during the conference, but would be available afterwards for ongoing support. We created a “Digital Education Partners” Team with dozens of vendors. Each vendor had their own channel. We encouraged vendors to add videos to their feed that showed teachers and students using their platform. We also encouraged them to add files and tabs that included things like contact information, link to their website, purchasing information. We also encouraged them to set up a live meeting where participants can drop in, have a chat, and learn more. 

Watch Parties

We set up a meeting in each themed channel, for the watch parties. In each channel participants had the ability to interact in many ways. 

  • Chat

    • During the watch party participants can respond to what they are seeing in the chat. The chat also has interactive elements including: 

      • Reactions: Participants could react to what was happening in the chat with emojis and gifs.

      • Feelings: For any comment, participants can respond with a thumbs up, heart, sad face, angry face, laugh, or surprise. 

  • Video and voice

    • The host can invite participants to come off mute and engage in conversation with voice or voice and video. Multiple participants can speak at a time. 

    • If need be, the host can mute or remove participant.

  • Polls

    • In the channel, the host can create polls using Polly or forms for increased interactivity and engagement.


One of the benefits of Microsoft Teams is that participants can select closed captioning during meetings. We also had a sign language interpreter available for anyone who needed those services. 

The Hashtag

We also provided an interactive experience by encouraging folks to use the hashtag #NYCSchoolsTech to share what they were learning in social media. Social media was abuzz with information and our hashtag even trended on Twitter. 

The Summit Video

Below is the post-video of the livestreamed event enjoyed during the watch parties.