Reflecting on Presenting at #NAISAC13

One of the things I love best about learning is sharing that experience with my students. After all, learning is what I ask them to do each day. I learned so much from presenting at the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Annual Conference, and it’s great to share the process with my second graders.

Today, for example, two of my students had to present something to the class. One shared with the class the adventure of her Flat Stanley, and the other presented a book report. It was important to let them know that what I am asking of them isn’t arbitrary, but something their own teacher engaged in last week. I didn’t talk about the topic of the presentation as that wasn’t pertinent to them, but I did briefly talk about the process.

The session at the conference was called “Revolutionize Your Professional Development.”

Description of session from conference program.

Description of session from conference program.

I presented with Kim Sivick, Liz Davis, and Shannon Montague. We all teach in different states, met initially through social media, and all had different reasons for wanting to present on this topic. One thing that we all had in common, though, was that we were passionate about this model of professional development, and wanted others to bring it to their schools.

Kim is a founding member of edcamps and on the edcamp foundation. Liz was instrumental in getting edcampIS to happen and has been involved in many other unconferences. Shannon and I have both helped organize edcamps, and Shannon recently organized PD in her school using the unconference format.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of risk involved when collaborating with four educators from four different parts of the country, but we trusted each other and we trusted the topic.

I remember that we all had this grand idea that we’d run a mini un-conference in order to inform, persuade, and have participants experience the process itself. The beauty of unconferences is that people get to partake in the conversation, not just sit and listen. We wanted to model good teaching practices and move away from the ‘sit and get’ lecture format that large conferences and other professional development workshops tend to favor.

During our first google hangout, about halfway through the meeting, after we had talked about resources, chart paper, and getting people moving out of their seats, we realized that we were possibly headed in the wrong direction. We needed to think about who our main audience was, and what our space would be like.

We all worked on what we thought our strengths were and started there. Liz suggested the framework: “What, So What, Now What.” We worked on our parts and played with google presentation, so that we could collaborate on the same document. Then once we were more or less agreed on our slide deck, we transferred them to Power Point and shared it through our dropbox accounts.

I was happy to give the ‘So What’ part of the presentation as I am a person who will dive head first into anything if there is a clear and meaningful purpose. I can list many reasons why I believe in this format of professional development, but I’m not an expert, so I pulled experts where I could. Daniel Pink for motivation, Carol Dweck for mindset, Roland Barth for collegiality, and Sir Ken Robinson for teacher leadership and bottom-up approaches to things (in which he used the word ‘revolution’). We couldn’t be happier. Just for good measure, I threw in a quote by Albert Camus for people to reflect upon when they were leaving. I knew it might have been a little much, but there are those who love philosophy. Besides, the quote fit, which was what was important.

“Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”

I also agreed to try and go through our slide deck and try to give it a uniform look, while respecting the content of my colleagues. I’ll share my thoughts about Power Point in a later post, but all four of us came from the same place, so that was easy.

The four of us met several more times virtually, gave each other feedback, revised, edited, and finally met in person the day before to make our final tweaks.

I have to say, I was anxious. Public speaking is not my strength, but I believe strongly that I  have to push myself to do what I ask my students to do. I also believe that in order to get better at it, I have to do it.

Well, I’m glad I did it. To spread the word of something I believe in, to collaborate with such amazing educators, to push myself to try something new, to have my school recognized, and to learn, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m glad to be back in my classroom, but glad to know when I say to my students, “I know what I’m asking you to do is hard, but it’s rewarding,” I can say so truthfully.

Thanks to Kim and Shannon for uploading our slides.


Tech Tools are Great, but Nothing Beats Face to Face Interactions

I remember at time when there were classes for specific products like MS Word. Apart from very specific programs that are fairly intricate, those days have long past. With new tools and apps arriving daily, and new ones getting updates by the minute, the idea of teaching a certain technology seems a little dated. Unless of course one is talking about coding, but even then, the most industrious and resourceful student will be able to figure out a lot on her own. 

Students need to know when and how to use technology that is appropriate to the work they are doing. They need to learn how to find out on their own, be discerning of the information they get, and try things out several times until they get it right. 

It’s not that google, bing, yahoo, or something else is better than the other, but which one you’re more comfortable with or which one has more features that you personally use. Same with web browsers, office documents, creative platforms, and others. It also depends on the group of people you’re working with and what tool set they’re using. 

If a student needs to use a spreadsheet for whatever reason, they should be able to figure out whether excel, google docs, numbers, or another program would be right. They would then most likely teach themselves how to use it. 

I’m really excited about the opportunity to present at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference in a few days. I’m presenting with colleagues from Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. 

Being from different regions, we relied on various technologies to plan and communicate. I was beginning to think of the different ways we have interacted and the different tools we used up to tonight. 

Twitter – Before meeting my colleagues in person, I found them on twitter first. It wasn’t until 3 months after that I met them in person. 

Email – This is a pretty standard form of communication, but we rarely used this as we wanted to share documents and it was easier to house them somewhere (we used google drive and dropbox) rather than send version after version back and forth. 

Google Hangouts – Video Conferencing has been around for a long time, but for people like teachers who don’t have boardrooms or expensive equipment, google hangouts is free and worked like a charm. It even worked on my smart phone. 

Google Presentation – when we were first building our slides, we wanted one single document for our draft. This let us create the bones of our presentation without having to worry about several of us working on separate documents. This helped reduce any redundancy in our collaborative efforts. 

Power Point – While most people shudder at this tool for a presentation, it’s not the tool’s fault. Most people don’t use it well. The slides are there to enhance your presentation. To help make what you say clear. Any text on the slide is for your audience to read, not your written outline. Text needs to be big enough for people to read. Graphs have to enhance the data you’re describing. Power Point is a great tool, it’s just that too many people fall into the trap of using its built in templates. Start with a blank canvas and know what you want to say. 

iMovie – we just needed to trim a video by a few seconds.

image editing – we needed to make some images appear less pixilated, shape others differently, remove backgrounds, etc.

I’m sure there were other tools we used, but the point is that none of us went to a class to learn any of these tools. We picked ones that worked for our group – for most of us, google hangouts was new. We used the opportunity, not only to video conference, but to learn how to use some of its other widgets by playing. 

And of course, none of this replaces face to face interactions, which is why I’m excited about seeing everyone I’ve collaborated with on Wednesday when we make our final revisions before Thursday’s presentation. 

I think the same goes with kids. Face to face interactions are the most important. Technology is just a tool to help get a job done. Nonetheless these tools are crucial to extending the learning process and teachers have to be judicious in discerning when to use them for maximum benefit to students. 

What Is EdCamp IS?

Earlier this summer, I met with some educators from Boston, Philly, and Raleigh who had attended and organized EdCamps before. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of them until we met. Since this year’s National Association of Independent School’s Annual Conference was going to be in Seattle, they thought it would be great to have an edcamp with a focus on independent schools (IS) on the Saturday following the big national conference. Those I met, the ones who have done this before, were from out of town. They needed a few local people to help and organize the event. Once I learned what edcamps were about, I had to say yes.

So what is an edcamp? I learned that edcamps are ‘unconferences.’ Don’t worry, I also had to look up what the term ‘unconference’ meant. Basically, unconferences are free participant driven conferences where (in this case) educators come with the goal of sharing and presenting something they’ve learned. They also have the option to attend sessions and learn from others. There are no official keynotes. Teachers assemble in the morning and time is given so people can write down what they’d like to share (perhaps it’s an innovative way to use a tech tool in a meaningful way, a reflection on what is considered a best practice, a discussion led by many different teachers on a hot topic in education, perhaps a response to one of the featured speakers from the official conference). These are posted on a schedule. Then everyone moves to the sessions that interest them most.

One hope, is that by scheduling EdCampIS after the NAIS conference, we can get educators from across the country who are here for that to attend. How are these conferences free? Often they involve sponsors to provide space, lunch, t-shirts, etc., however, we are going to have participants lunch on their own as there are lots of great eateries and one of our association schools is providing the venue. We may just need to find a coffee sponsor for the morning gathering. It is in Seattle after all.

Save the date: Saturday, March 3, 2012 at The Northwest School in Seattle (a ten minute walk from the Washington State Convention Center). For more information go to our wiki page.

It’s too soon to tell how many people will attend, but hopefully word will start spreading. In the meantime, you can check out this video of EdCamp Philly. It’s a great overview of an EdCamp event.

You can also check out other EdCamps around the country at the official EdCamp Wiki.

Don’t forget to click on the NAIS conference link above. It’s an official conference, so there are some great topics covered, and a diverse array of featured speakers including: Bill Gates, Amy Chua (Tiger Mom),  and Sarah Kay (I didn’t know I liked poetry slam until I saw her TED talk). I haven’t had much time to post lately, so I’ll include it below. Hopefully both the NAIS conference and the EdCampIS ‘unconference’ will bring many of you to Seattle this winter.

Is the “App Gap” the Next Achievement Gap?

What is too much screen time? An article in today’s nytimes tries to address some of the concerns, as well as point to the divide that some are saying is the next achievement gap.

I’m a huge proponent of technology, but if you visit my classroom, you may see me or my students using it as a tool from time to time. More often than not, we are usually more engaged in the physical world around us rather than the virtual one. Screen time is concern that many parents and teachers grapple with.

Like everything, technology has to be meaningful and purposeful, it needs to be used as a tool that helps with learning, and it has to be limited.

When thinking about how kids use technology, it should promote critical thinking (Do they know how to analyze their search results, or do they just trust the first thing that Bing or Google produce?). It should promote responsibility (Are they using it to learn?). It should also promote digital citizenry (Are they leaving a digital footprint that may help someone else?). Kids should be producing things more than consuming them. Students should always be asking more questions. Children should also be engaged by their curiosity.

When a child asks, “How do I change the font?” one should encourage them to explore. “If you were to design the program, how would you change the font?” is often how I respond, leaving them to experiment, “play,” and find out for themselves. There are often students who are more than eager to show others how to do things, and it’s really this kind of social interaction (in the real world) where great learning occurs.

There’s a huge difference in type of screen time such as TV, where children are passive compared with writing a final draft on a computer screen. Computers aren’t going away, and kids need to see how it can be used in ways to create and be curious. How we do this needs to be carefully thought through. As a teacher, when introducing a technology component, one has to ask: What skill is being lost (if any) when introducing a new tech tool into the classroom? What are the trade-offs?

There was a great article last week about the Waldorf School’s philosophy of “no tech.” My philosophy is that using technology is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. One needs to be thoughtful and deliberate about its use. If I thought an app could teach kids how to read, I’d be spending my time trying to create that app.

I have many more thoughts on this, but one thing I’m trying to do is not only teach my students how to evaluate the technology they use, but also to teach them how to turn it off.

Start With Simple Purposeful Tech Tools

One problem of web-based or other tech resources for teachers or students isn’t really how to use them, but that there are often too many tools. There is no way to really keep up with them, nor should one. If you subscribe to a few websites or twitter feeds, the lists resources can be overwhelming. Some of the tools are amazing, but may be start-ups that will be gone just when you get comfortable using them. Still, it’s great to know so many people are thinking of innovative ways to make the web more kid friendly. Two of the three tools below I got from Tech & Learning. Warning: most will be overwhelmed with that site.

Take youtube for example. There are amazing, short videos that are great for launching units, independent study, and other kinds of learning. Unfortunately, for every great video posted, there are hundreds of terrible ones. If a child simply uses the youtube search window, there’s no guarantee what they’re going to get (teaching kids how to search better is also a key).

If you have a specific youtube video in mind that you want a young student to visit, try It allows you to enter the youtube URL, and then gets rid of all the unwanted ads, and additional clutter.

There are also some great websites out there, but they are just too cluttered with ads that get in the way of the real content you want your students to view. Thankfully, most browsers have settings you can turn on to block banner adds and content that may be too irresistible for a second grader. “Click Here to Win an iPod,” for example. Yes, you want to teach kids how to avoid ads, but especially when they are working independently, a little help goes a long way. Along with the browser settings, there are some third party tools such as which is a website where you can enter a url and have it come back ad free. There is also the software you can download, like AdBlock which is also a browser ad-on to help eliminate those ads. I know many websites rely on ads to survive, and I know most adults can live with them. For very young kids, though, sometimes, it’s just nice to remove clutter.

It’s often because the web is so overwhelming that many don’t even want to think about it. But, as much I overuse this word, it’s a mindset. Think of your goal or purpose, find a tool, and start.

Do We Really Need Technology To Learn?

When I first picked up this Sunday’s New York Times, I was delighted to see a photo of kids standing in front of an interactive whiteboard. A whiteboard which was mounted to a wall with the children’s height in mind (Many of my students have to use a stool. It’s unfortunate, but at least I’m lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard in my classroom). Then I read the article that accompanied the picture which questioned the necessity of technology in schools, and how districts are spending a lot of money on state-of-the-art equipment with very little effect in terms of higher test scores and student results.

Unfortunately, the question shouldn’t really be whether technology is needed to learn. The question should be “Are you teaching kids to use technology to learn?” I am a huge proponent of technology, but it is merely a tool. It’s not about the ‘state-of-the-art stuff’ one has in a classroom, but how the kids are using it. Technology is a mindset and until teachers start to understand that, technology just takes away time from other curricular activities. Rather than see technology as a separate subject or skill, it should be integrated into what you are already doing.

I had kids head to our computer lab yesterday, our first day of school. Of course there were certain things I had to show them, like how to save a file to a particular folder, but the idea was to engage the kids in the writing process. Earlier in the day, we had generated ideas for our poems. Then the kids wrote a draft using pencil and paper. As they were doing this, I provided feedback, and gave them suggestions to help them revise their work. It was only then that we headed to create our good copies. Many of my students have not had a lot of exposure to computers, but its the questions the generate that excite me. “How do I move the cursor to the next line?” “Can I change the size of the letters?” “What does that red squiggly line mean?” It’s then that you start to give individualized instruction to each child. Another great thing that happens is the dialogue that happens between kids. “How did you do that?” “Oh, let me show you.”

We don’t use a lot of tech in my class, but when we do, the kids need to see a purpose to it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a mindset. It’s not about whether or not the computer is running Apple or Windows 7 (I’m actually writing this on an Apple running Windows 7). It’s not a question of Google vs. Bing. It’s not about whether they are using MS Word, PowerPoint, or Google Docs. Twitter is an amazing tool, but who knows if it will even be around in 5 years. Technology should support what the kids are trying to do. And in the case of my class this week, completing the writing process by editing and typing their poem was the task. When kids want to learn how to do something, they will.

So, do we need technology to learn? YES! But we also know how to make it meaningful, and how to use it to enhance learning.

An App a Day: Stick Pick

There are many teacher tool apps out there, but not all of them work well. If you’re an elementary teacher, drawing sticks with kids’ names on them out of a can isn’t a new idea. It’s a great tool to randomize the way you select kids. If this app simply replaced this concept electronically, it wouldn’t be that innovative. The person who designed this app actually put some thought into it so it does much, much more.

There’s no point describing it here when their website does it so well.  It was developed by a 6th grade teacher. I can’t wait to use it with my new class this year.