Take another look at Book Creator app: New tools, more options

If you have been looking at the same standard Book Creator app over the past few years, I have some exciting news: It's time for an update!

Before outlining some of the key new tools and changes in Book Creator, let's do a check to see if your Book Creator app is up-to-date. Pictured below is the newest Book Creator home screen. Open up your iPad, start Book Creator, and compare.

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If your Book Creator app does not look like the one pictured above, you will need to do an update of the app (and so will your students). Once updated, welcome to the marvels of Book Creator 5.3.0. This is an opportunity to re-ignite your enthusiasm about Book Creator, no matter what grade level you teach. (Seriously, Book Creator is robust enough to handle every subject and all grade levels!)

New Feature for Teachers: Teacher Resources

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The Book Creator developers and community are committed to supporting educators who use their product. In the newest update you'll see an offer for teachers to join the Book Creator community in the lower left of the screen (it will later be located in the upper left under the menu icon, which looks like three blue horizontal lines).

Signing up for the Teacher Resources is easy, and can inspire new ideas for educators at all grade levels. If you have stayed away from Book Creator because you cannot determine how it could be useful, take a few minutes to explore the sample books made by students and teachers from across the world. These books unveil how the tool is being used to showcase learning in every subject area. These books also show off just how powerful Book Creator really is with a creative mind.

New Feature for Teachers: Publish Books Online

One hang-up of Book Creator has been sharing student work with others who do not have the Book Creator app. The developers have tackled this challenge for classroom teachers. Once teachers have created a free teacher account, they can now publish these books online using the ePub format. This keeps video and media (including audio recordings) in place, and makes them accessible to anybody online, regardless of the device they use to view the book.


Learn more about the free online publishing of Book Creator projects for teachers by visiting this link.

New Tool: Updated Pens and Auto Draw

The pen tool has gotten a makeover in this update. Book Creator pens now come in varying sizes, ink colors, and styles. Draw with the pen, color with the crayon, use the highlighter, change the size of the drawing tip, and add some flare with Magic Inks.

However, the most notable update is the AutoDraw pen. Sketch noting is a powerful method for taking notes intertwined with drawing, but for the artistically challenged, later determining what the drawing was supposed to be can be a brainteaser of its own. Start drawing with the Auto Draw pen and Book Creator will offer some clip art suggestions based on what it thinks you might be trying to draw. Tap the preferred image and immediately have a professional looking icon representing your thinking or ideas. It's hard to believe it is as easy as I have explained. Give it a try to find out for yourself.

New Tool: Include Maps

Geography is hardly something that can be overlooked when studying any topic, but it is also a subject area that is difficult to generate interest in when taught out of context. Book Creator now allows users to embed a map from anywhere in the world that will allow geography to be a part of the showcase of learning. And it's easy.

Tap the Map tool in Book Creator. Then simply search for a location, pinch to zoom, select the layers of the map you want to view, and click Done. You now have a map inside of your Book Creator project. Mix that with the pen tools and you have a way to annotate directly over the top of your maps.

New Tool: Adding Files from Other Apps

Things are about to get very exciting for teachers who want students to incorporate all of their work in one place (this can be read as: "If you are thinking about portfolios, consider exploring this tool!").

Book Creator users can now add Files from other apps directly into the pages of their Book Creator project. This can include files stored in Google Drive, stored in the Files app on the iPad or even stored in iCloud Drive. Teachers will probably want to try this one out before jumping into a full class demo of it, but the possibilities this opens up are quite awe inspiring. Learn more about how to add files to Book Creator projects by clicking here.

New Tool: Embed from the Web 

Want to bring the flashiness of the Web into your Book Creator projects? With the Web Embed tool you can. This actually is incredibly easy to use by simply pasting a web address into the provided box and letting Book Creator do the rest. It is equally powerful, allowing users to incorporate a specific web object using embed code. If your aim is to focus students on a specific website, or point them to unique experience on the web, without having them get lost down the rabbit hole of web searches, this might be a great tool to consider. Learn more about the Web Embed tool in Book Creator by clicking here.

Tool Update: Incorporate GarageBand Recordings in Book Creator

This one is not a new tool, but still a noteworthy feature. Book Creator does have an audio recording tool built in, but in many cases students want to have more flexibility and creativity with their audio recordings. GarageBand will allow them that flexibility. The question for some teachers is, "Where do we go with GarageBand recordings when they are finished?"

There is a method for incorporating those GarageBand recordings into Book Creator projects (quite easily, actually. I'm going to refer you to the experts on the subject here, as the Book Creator team is committed to continually updating their documentation on subjects like these with each iOS update. Take a look at the tutorial available here to learn how to incorporate GarageBand created audio files right into your Book Creator projects.

Honor great teachers: Live and teach their lessons

Coming off of a week filled with wide-ranging public displays of appreciation for teachers, it is heartening to see that there is still regard for the people who spend so much time focused on growing and inspiring young people. The gestures during teacher appreciation week demonstrate the parent and student appreciation for the daily efforts of teachers committed to educating students.

I do not believe, though, that appreciation (including lunches, gift cards, and candy) is the same as honoring our great teachers. Yes, teachers appreciate these kind gestures, but they are not the reason the really good ones show up to work each day. This is not why they arrive early to lead clubs, stay late to help students or meet parents, or work after their kids go to bed to finish lesson planning or grading. Gestures of appreciation are not the reason that teachers go to great lengths to model in their personal lives what they teach their students in the classroom (for instance, being sure to take that extra moment to stop and say hello to families in the store or at the movies, or being mindful to avoid contact with students on nights when they are engaging in certain social adult activities). The really great teachers — they do not live the life of a teacher because they are fueled by gestures of appreciation.

Great teachers are great because they believe in the power of guiding and supporting others as they grow. Great teachers know that every person is born with the potential for greatness, regardless of his/her circumstances. And they know that despite the circumstances a young person faces, that person can make the decision to fulfill their potential. Talk to teachers about kids, about their students — you can truly feel that deep-seated belief within great teachers.

Pictured are two of my great teachers - Don Green and Chris Bichler. These two men taught me more about life at a young age than I was prepared to learn. Thank you!

Pictured are two of my great teachers - Don Green and Chris Bichler. These two men taught me more about life at a young age than I was prepared to learn. Thank you!

This week I will have the opportunity to honor one of my great teachers in his final journey. Chris Bichler was my high school history teacher, football and wrestling coach, mentor, inspiration, and eventually became my colleague and friend. He passed away on May 3 after a long fought battle with cancer. Serving as one of his pallbearers, I will have the great privilege and honor of physically carrying Chris in his final departure. However, it is not lost on me that even though Chris is not physically here with us any longer, the spirit of Chris, and of all great teachers, lives on in all of us who had the distinct pleasure of being formed by them. I carry Chris with me in every aspect of my life.

So, how do I best honor Chris? How do we all honor our truly great teachers who have given us so much? Here are a few ways:

  1. Be your best you every day. Take no days off from giving life everything you have and rising above whatever challenges stand in front of you. Think back to those really great teachers — isn’t that what they were encouraging that younger version of you to do? If they could be by your side every day, wouldn’t they still be cheering for you, encouraging you to take a chance, be your best, and go for it. Use that inspiration, their belief in you, to be the best you.

  2. Help others to rise to their potential greatness. Great teachers believe that every person can be great, even when those people struggle to believe in themselves. Think back to those great teachers. The kids in your class, the ones you did not know the personal stories of at the time, the ones who were facing insurmountable odds, your teacher believed in them just as much as they believed in you. To truly honor those great teachers, take a page out of that same playbook and carry the belief that the people around you today are capable and deserving of reaching their full potential. You can help them get there. Maybe it is having faith in your kids, encouraging your spouse, or coaching a significant other or family member. Maybe it is giving an aging employee at the end of his/her career an opportunity to re-ignite his/her passion by trusting them to learn a key new skill. Or maybe it is just acknowledging great effort (no matter how small the task) wherever you see it, or offering caring feedback when you do not. Own the responsibility to help others along their path in the same way that your great teacher did for you many years ago.

  3. Share their lessons. My daughter loves quotes. She uses them regularly, writes them in her room and on her notebooks. She said to me, “I feel like those quotes are teaching me lessons.” They are. Those are great teachers, people she has never met, sharing great nuggets of wisdom with her. The great teachers you have had along the way have shared great nuggets of advice and wisdom with you. It is now your turn to pass them along in support of others. Talk about your teachers. Tell their story. Share their passion, their wit, confidence, quirkiness, and wisdom. Use their lessons. Great teachers believe that together we can change the world, and telling their story and sharing their wisdom is probably the most important way you can honor them.

  4. Say thank you. Now that I am no longer able to express my gratitude for all that Chris taught me, I am so thankful I was able to tell him how much I appreciated him and his efforts in shaping me. Be sure to seize that opportunity for those great teachers in your life. It does not require a visit to your hometown or a grand gesture. Just simply make a point of saying thank you and sharing how that person helped you to become a better person. Great teachers wonder if their efforts have an impact. Assure them that they do.

Lessons from Chris

In honor of one of my great teachers, let me share just a few of the most important lessons Chris taught me along the way. I am honored to share small parts of his story.

  1. Think bigger than your immediate surroundings

    1. I grew up in a small, rural town. The small size and geographic isolation of our town could have become a limiting bubble of my (and my classmates) world view. Knowing this, and knowing the limitation this could have on us for the rest of our lives in shaping how we thought about the world, Chris challenged us to think beyond our bubble. As our coach, Chris constantly reminded us that we were not competing against each other, or competing against kids in our neighboring towns, or competing against kids in our area conference. We had to think bigger — we were competing again teams from across the state, teams throughout history. In constantly reminding us of this, he forced us to acknowledge the larger world that existed beyond our immediate lives, and he helped us to shape a greater perspective of the world that surrounded us. This has entirely influenced my view of the world beyond my own to this day.

  2. Play hard, but show respect for others in the process

    1. Chris was competitive and we played to win, to succeed, to be the best we could be. He taught me to value personal success. However, a mantra he repeated sticks with me to this day: “Play hard between the whistles. Knock them down. And when the whistle blows, pick them back up.” In doing so we learned to respect others, even people we did not know. Working hard, focusing on goals and aiming to be successful — these are important lessons. Equally important, though, is acknowledging that others are giving their best as well, and are deserving of our appreciation and respect. We live in a time where acknowledging the best in others, respecting our differences, and understanding that we are all aiming toward a better tomorrow (even if our values, opinions, and methods are not all in alignment) could go a long way to healing divisive wounds.

  3. Success requires setting clear goals and continual preparation

    1. Whether it was in his classroom or on the field, Chris insisted on goal setting and hard work. He had a motto one season: “If you want to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.” He acknowledged the importance of setting goals and reminding yourself of those lofty goals. However, his daily routines focused on how goals are achieved: step by step, daily routine, consistency, and effort. Want to do well on that AP History exam? Live the routine of reading the text, making the annotations, and studying. Want to succeed on the mat? Learn to never quit during the grueling practices. Want to be a better teacher? Learn to reflect on your lessons after each day, determine what went well and why, what did not and why, and aim to do better tomorrow. Chris taught us a measured, consistent approach to being well prepared to seize the moment when the opportunity came to achieve your goals.

  4. Teams over individuals - every person brings a unique skill set that can benefit the team

    1. Despite the deepest protestations of many players (and I’m sure some parents) Chris used the platoon system on the field. This means that instead of using the 11 best players on the football field (which was the conventional wisdom of most high school coaches at the time), Chris insisted on fielding a defensive squad of 11 or 12 + an offensive squad made up of another 11 or 12 players. He rotated players, subbed players, and made sure that he prepared the best 22 - 25 players to be on the field throughout the game.

      At age 16 it drove me crazy. I believed that putting the best players on the field was the right approach. Chris stood by his conviction that a team of 25 committed, connected players was always stronger than a team of a few really great individuals. Yes, he taught us teamwork, and he taught us commitment. But thinking about how that lesson has played out over the course of my life, I better understand now the value that each individual can bring to a team. When we rely upon a few key people to make our organization great, we see pocketed success. When we expect everybody to use their talents and commitment to make the whole of organization better, our organization benefits in ways that we could not imagine. Additionally, Chris taught me, through this lesson, that having faith in your beliefs matters — especially in the face of frustrated 16-year-old players and their parents.

If you have made it to the end, thank you. And thank you for considering the ways that you will honor the great teachers in your life, and support and encourage the great teachers who are making a difference in the lives of your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

God bless you, Chris! And thank you to all of those truly great teachers that I have been fortunate enough to know in my own journey. Your lessons live with me every day!

Teaching Students to Become Image Detectives

When we teach students to read, we teach them techniques for finding context clues within a text. We show them how to annotate text, marking it up so they (and we, as their text guides) can visually identify their thought process throughout the text.

In a visually rich world where students just as commonly encounter visual elements (photos, videos, gifs, emojis, memes, etc.), we should also get serious about teaching students how to "read" the clues and context available within visual media. While marking up text-based media has always been far more common in literacy instruction, we now have tools readily available to annotate or "mark up" images in the same ways to help us uncover their thinking as they observe images.

There are tools available on any device to do this with ease with your students. If you are in an iPad classroom, you can use the Markup tool in the Photos app. If you are using Chromebooks, you can just as easily use Google Drawings to do the same kind of activity in class.

Setting Up a Successful Image Detective Lesson

Teaching students to look closely as images is not a new idea. Teachers have long used images to capture a student's interest an attention, to create context, or to encourage students to ask questions about a topic/subject. However, to help students develop the skills of being image detectives, we need to carefully select the right images and utilize the right tools to let students "uncover" the key clues.

The process starts with three key components: a topic, a driving question, and interesting imagery.

Topic and Question

Every content area lends itself to some level of imagery exploration, so this will work in any classroom. The real challenge is asking questions that students will find compelling, and that can truly be answered by the images that you uncover. To begin, develop a generic question you will have students answer, which will give you a starting point to begin your image search. This is the "rough draft" of your question for students to answer. You will need to be flexible with the question, adapting it to fit perfectly once you find the right image.

Selecting an Image

Images are everywhere on the Internet. However, not just any image will do for this kind of investigation. When selecting an appropriate image for this type of lesson, the goal is to find images that have historical, geographical, or contextual clues hidden within them. There has to be evidence within the image to tell a story, which can in turn provide points for students to consider and discuss.

Let's look at an example of two images. The generic question I want students to ponder is this: 

"What is it like for an immigrant to start a new life in a new country?"

The top image is from a wonderful site that teaches students how to become  Image Detectives . The lower image is from a Google search which turned up an  image  from a 2006 immigration march in Washington D.C.

The top image is from a wonderful site that teaches students how to become Image Detectives. The lower image is from a Google search which turned up an image from a 2006 immigration march in Washington D.C.

Both are images intimately tied to immigration. The lower image is far more timely, relevant to our students lives, and attractive to view (color, interesting subject, focused). But the upper image -- there is so much more richness of detail. While we could definitely foster a conversation with the lower image, the upper image lends itself to student exploration. And that is exactly what we are looking for when we select an image for students to explore and uncover.

Once you have selected the right image, you can then tailor your question to the image to promote even richer thinking and conversation.

"This family that has recently immigrated to America.
What issues may they be confronting as a result of this life change?"

Using Technology to Annotate Images

For those in an iOS/iPad environment, marking up images on the iPad has become very simple. You no longer need an additional application. The Markup function on the iPad comes baked in iOS 10 and beyond.

Start by distributing the image to your students so that every student has a copy of the image on their device in the camera roll. This can be achieved in a number of ways. Whether using the AirDrop function (especially if you use Apple Classroom where you can AirDrop to all students with one click of a button), or just placing the image in Google Drive or on a class website, the goal is for the students to save the image to their iPad Photos.

Next, your students will be accessing the Markup tool in the Photos app (yep, the one that came with the iPad!).

A full range of image editing tools will appear as a part of the "Markup" tool set.

A full range of image editing tools will appear as a part of the "Markup" tool set.

  1. Open the Photos app, tap on the image you shared with your students, and "Select" the image.
  2. Then click "Edit" to reveal the editing tools, and select the ellipsis button (three dots).
  3. Select the "Markup" tool.  The drawing tools will appear.
  4. When finished, select "Done" and the drawings/text/shapes placed on the image will be saved as a part of the image.

You will need to teach students how to use some of these editing tools to produce better results. For instance, instead of handwriting on the image with the pen, use the text tool to type to make the writing smaller and more legible. Use shapes and arrows to point out specific details in the image. Use the pinch gesture to zoom in and out of the picture to get close to the details while drawing on the image.

Here is an example of the work a student might produce.

Notice how typed text makes it easier to read. Also, using color can help point out different types of details the student has uncovered in the image they are annotating.

Notice how typed text makes it easier to read. Also, using color can help point out different types of details the student has uncovered in the image they are annotating.

While Markup works in the iOS/iPad environment, there is a similar tool that works on Chromebooks and computers: Google Drawings. (Drawings does NOT work on the iPad at this time.)

This instructional video from Kelly Hollis (@hollis_k) will demonstrate a similar process for marking up images using Google Drawings.

Fostering a Conversation for Image Detectives

Depending on the images a teacher has selected, there can be great clarity and agreement on what story is being told in the image based upon the clues that are available, or there can be considerable disagreement and discussion. As with any deep thinking activity, it is important to find ways to have students share their ideas/perspective and listen to the findings/thoughts of others.

One way to do this in an iOS environment is to have students AirPlay their image to the classroom Apple TV if one is available. Here every student can quickly and efficiently share their ideas.  Another way to do this is to have students select a partner and AirDrop their individual image to their partner for review and discussion.

If you are in a Google environment, you can easily share Google Drawings with another student to start the conversation.

Sometimes the details in an image can be rather limited. There may not be enough details to uncover for all students to have an opportunity to share. This does not mean, though, that any student should be allowed to opt out of sharing their thinking. To be sure all students get a chance to share, you can use Padlet to foster an online conversation. (I know that Padlet has become far more limited since introducing their pay model, but even if you only have three free Padlet boards, you can at least spark a conversation in your classroom. Remember -- for ed tech companies to exist at all, they need to be able to make a profit.) You could just as easily use a Google Doc or Google Slides presentation, though, shared with all students allowing them to upload their images to the presentation or document.

The key is reflection and debriefing. How can you get your students to talk about what they have uncovered? When students talk about their thinking, they learn! And that is the ultimate goal in any activity we do with students.

Feel free to share your ideas in the comments below about how you have encouraged your students to become image detectives. What tools have you used? What have you witnessed for results in student learning?

Students still care deeply; encourage them to tune in!

Not long ago an executive at a large local company said to me, "Kids are truly just different these days. I see it in the young employees that I hire. You must see that all of the time, right?"

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I paused. It's something I tend to hear a lot, but not just from people outside of education. Those words have been spoken to me by numerous teachers over the years. These words tend to reflect a genuine belief and they are validated by some of the ways we view young people today.

Then I responded as I always do.  "No, I don't believe kids are different today than they ever were. Society has shifted. Parenting has shifted. Adult expectations of kids and our focus on nurturing young people's growth and potential has largely shifted. But kids have not fundamentally changed. And I know this because I have seen young people who light up, get motivated, and go all in on those things they truly get excited about, even with topics that wouldn't excite most adults at times. I witness it over and over in my work with teachers and students, and that proves to me that kids haven't fundamentally changed."

Put a student in a river with a kick net and a mission to find out which critters live in the river and what that tells us about the river's health. Place a student on a structured, purposeful web conference call with students from across town, across the country, or across the world. Ask them to identify a problem of significance to them in their world and then find a reasonable solution to solve it. Even more simply, challenge them to solve a series of riddles/clues in an in-class competition or an EduBreakout. Have them argue their side in an in-class discussion or socratic seminar, have them teach other students with an instructional flipped video that others will see, or create a presentation they will deliver to an audience of people that will listen and engage with their ideas. These are all examples of things I have seen in the last few years where students came passionately alive in their work.

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Kids still want to learn and grow...

We have to find ways to engage them!

No, I truly do not believe kids are different today. They may be a little harder to engage at times considering the outside forces we compete with: instantaneous feedback with friends on social media, the ability to binge watch the shows that suit their exacting interest on streaming services, or a constant stream of access to enticing games and music that are their constant companions.

While educators do have to compete with these forces for our students' attention, the kids themselves have not shifted. They are exploring the world, trying to find their place and purpose, and attempting to figure out what type of person they would most like to be. As educators, we have the opportunity to expose them to the things we are most passion about, opportunities and topics they have never experienced or heard of before, and we can be the ones to lead them down paths that they will continue on for the rest of their lives.

However, doing something of such significance might require us all to shift our approach to how we structure these learning opportunities. We have to think more like independent entrepreneurs trying to engage our customers, and less like members of an institution that requires our clients to attend.

Although our kids' ability to dig in deeply and do great work has not fundamentally changed, society has. And it has given ALL of us the opportunity to elect when we will be present and actively engaged, and when we will opt out. We have all benefited from, or fallen victim to that reality. And because we have this experience as consumers of the things we are most interested in, we can use that experience to think differently about how we can best reach our students. The challenge for educators is to find exciting, engaging, meaningful ways to get our students to tune in and give our inspiring "channels" a try.

Can challenge based learning find its way into our classrooms?

Brain research has proven to us that experiences we perceive negatively are far more likely to stay with us as we age. I guess that explains why I so clearly remember the feeling I had as a young person when it was indicated that I was incapable of doing something because of my age and/or inexperience. It often started with an intense tightening in my throat, and nearly explosive rage inside, although I never showed it, of course. It would have been disrespectful to do so.  But I probably had an almost intentional hurt look on my face, and neon red would glow from my cheeks to outwardly show the embarrassment I felt for being viewed as incapable to complete do any task.

Yes, I can remember the feeling well, even though I struggle to come up with specific examples of the things I was deemed not ready to take on.

I think the research overlooks another feeling, though. The feeling that comes along with being deemed ready to take on a major task. The feeling of having somebody clearly putting their faith in you to do something of importance or merit.

Think back. Do you remember those times in your life? I remember them clearly. Like the time my mom trusted me to stay with my younger brother while she ran to the store. Or the time my baseball coach turned over pitch calling to me behind the plate. Maybe it was the day my Dad trusted me to co-coach a little league game with him. Or the time that my principal allowed us to run a new class event that was previously outlawed because another student had made some very immature choices.

As I reflected on those times, something interesting struck me. School, the place that I spent so much of time at growing up, specifically my academic classes and teachers, are relatively void of any such experiences in my memory. I don’t remember too many times when my teachers were the ones challenging me to take a leap, to try something new, and to show that I was capable of something even I did not know I could do.

It seems sad to me that the people in my life who were directly responsible for my growth academically, never challenged me to take a big enough risk that I could recall clear examples. I can even come up with examples where the very same people, my teachers, challenged me in big ways outside of the classroom (in extracurriculars or sports). So, I know it was not an issue of personality that caused them to not offer these challenges to me and my classmates. Instead, it leaves me  wondering if the greater likelihood is that our classrooms were not designed to provide these kinds of opportunities for students. And in that design flaw, we miss an opportunity to connect authentically with our students and to give them skills and experiences where they can prove themselves.

Doesn’t that seem ridiculous?

With all that we, as educators, are charged with doing to help young people grow, the structure that drives what we do with them daily is not really designed to provide students with opportunities to prove themselves in ways that they will remember long after they are with us. They do not get many chances in our classrooms to show us they can handle the pressures and the responsibilities that come with taking on projects, challenges, and real-world struggles. And we KNOW that they would find interest in these types of opportunities, and we KNOW these are the skills that they will need moving forward, even if they forget parts of the content we are teaching them.

If we want to find ways for students to be more engaged in our classrooms, maybe that is where our change needs to start. And no standards or list of required activities can keep educators, some of the most innovative and scrappy people I know, from finding ways to inject those opportunities in our classrooms!

When Philosophers Code

Those of us who have never undertaken the discipline of developing technology at a deep, language-based, "nuts and bolts" level, often see what technology can do as a form of magic. The secrets behind how websites, apps, tools, and solutions are put together mystify us and seem almost separate from us. The skills needed to actually develop the tools seem unattainable.

Recently I had an opportunity to get an inside look at the world of professionals that are solutions engineers and technology developers at SafeNet, a technology consulting company in Milwaukee. Beyond the power of seeing a working environment outside of the educational space (something we see far too little of as educators), what most stuck with me was the diversity of pathways that these employees had taken to arrive on this career path in the technology industry.

One of our hosts was an accountant who had found a way to utilize macros in spreadsheets to make his job a little easier. We met an individual who was degreed for work in the exercise and fitness industry, but after only a few short years found himself returning to Milwaukee and landing in the technology industry. Another developer, now an engineer in charge of developing the cloud strategy for clients, was a philosophy major exploring a masters in philosophy. He took the road less traveled by most philosophers, though, and ended up in the tech industry as a developer.

Throughout the day the same message was repeated — work in the tech industry is not something that requires a lifetime of focus and commitment to the field. Students do not have to be intensely coding starting in middle school and then follow it up with a four year degree in computer science. The reality is that technology, at least in many cases, is an industry built upon the interest, passion, commitment, and self-starting mindset of individuals who learn the skills needed to become a developer.

Preparing Students for a Career in Technology

Over the course of our visit, our hosts shared with us a couple of keys that would ready our students for a career in technology. 

Exposure to Developing with Technology Matters

While educators may not feel comfortable with the deep level coding required to build custom applications, we still need to help students understand that technology is malleable, customizable, and accessible.  Some ways to do this on a surface level of development may be we allowing students to write formulas in spreadsheets, teaching them how to animate drawings or create customized animations in a program like Keynote, or develop websites and utilize embed code. Going a bit deeper, utilizing some basic coding apps or programs like Tynker, Scratch, or SWIFT Playgrounds are great ways to allow students to experience code safely and without a lot of teacher expertise required. Even utilizing resources like the Hour of Code are great ways to provide exposure to all students demonstrating the ab a deeper level of technology manipulation.

While the depth of coding may not be critical, it is key that we begin exposing students to the larger idea that they possess the abilities to manipulate technology more deeply than by simply changing default settings.

Project Work Matters

While some educators would be surprised to hear this, I swear this next statement to be true. One of the key players in hiring at SafeNet was asked what kind of educational background would be most relevant for students to have to be “employable” at the company. Her response was clear. Potential employees needed to have the skills needed to be a developer/coder. How they got those skills, what programs they attended, what degrees they held — all of these were largely irrelevant to her and the company.  “If you really want a competitive advantage, show us your project work. What have you done? What kinds of teams have you been a part of? Can you work on a team? What have you seen from start to finish? That is what we are truly interested in when we hire.” 

She went on to specify that the ability to work in a team, to be a part of the critical thinking process, to bring your experiences and abilities to the team — these were really the skills that they were looking for in a successful consultant. And she said it is largely the belief by many in the tech industry that no degree alone will give you that kind of experience and skill set. That is something that is learned from time-on-task engaging in authentic, meaningful, challenging projects. 

Are we giving students opportunities to build a portfolio of work that would fit this description? Is it work that they value enough to put in the time, energy, and commitment needed to be "all in" on the project. Passion for their work is something we can help students develop in classrooms today, simply by allowing them some choice in what they are working on, what the end product looks like, and the audience for which they are developing the project.

Additionally, do these projects incorporate a team element where each member of the team plays a critical role in the completion of the project? This is another simple shift we can make in classrooms today to make sure that work students do is, at times, reliant upon the work of others.

Fostering Creativity and Enhancing Communication

It is important to know that our focus in education on the four c's (creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking) are skills in high demand by employers. It was continually reiterated that innovative, outside-the-box thinking was the most important valued thinking on many projects in the tech industry. We may often think of creativity as an arts-focused endeavor, and in a way that applies here. More essential, though,  was the ability to take a tool, a programming language, an unrelated concept, and piece it all together in new, creative ways. Several SafeNet representatives talked about experiences where they had a limited knowledge base on the team, yet they were able to rethink how what they had could be utilized differently for a new purpose. This mental agility is something we can begin to develop in our students regardless of the age level or content we teach.

Clear, succinct, and ongoing communication is just as critical. Remember, most of the SafeNet employees we met said their consultants worked in teams, and they worked directly for clients. This means they have to be good at communicating: they have to listen closely, understand the clients needs, and ask questions to clarify. They have to engage in impromptu dialogue, read non-verbal cues, and anticipate needs and potential roadblocks. This is done verbally and in writing. And it is done daily with a wide variety of stakeholders, team members, and project managers.

If this does not fit your traditional vision of a programmer, that is because the technology industry has changed. While there are definitely many times when coders have to intensely work independently to write eye-blurring lines of detailed code, that is not the singular quality required of a programmer. They have to communicate with teams and clients regularly in order to be successful. And these are skills all educators can help to builds in any content area or age level.

Independent Work, Reliability, and Accepting Feedback Still Matter

One of the other keys that the team shared with us is that much of the work that successful employees in technology need to do is complete work that is done independently, on time, and under budget. While teamwork is important, many projects in the technology industry are broken into smaller components that individuals take on alone within an allotted time period. This is called AGILE development. There are other formulas for completing large project work, but the concept remains similar: take a big project, break it into smaller, more digestible chunks, develop, and then bring the work back to the team for feedback/critique.

Often there is a project lead who will give direction. Students need to take that direction and run with it. They will then need to take responsibility for their portion of the project, complete it independently, often within a window of one to two weeks, and then come back to the larger team with the completed work and present it to the team. At that time the team offers collective feedback about the direction of their individual work, assesses how it will fit into the larger app/program/tool they are building, and then the process begins again with the next part of  the project.

This feedback loop is an iterative process that requires independence, flexibility, and a willingness to fail fast and fail forward. Being "done" with the assigned portion of the project doesn't really exist until the project is turned over to the customer in its completed state. There are ongoing changes and tweaks to all code written throughout the development of the tool, and thus students have to learn to take constructive feedback in step if they want to be successful within the technology industry. While these may seem like skills we have been developing in students forever in schools, the underlying question for me is clear: Do the students enjoy the work they are doing enough to put the effort in to create something worth discussing with somebody else? And are they passionate enough about the work they are doing to want to improve it once they receive feedback? If those elements are missing, it is hard to teach them to iterate and continually improve their school work, yet those are the skills that were identified as necessary to a successful career in the tech industry.

Most Jobs Will Adopt the Tech Model

While our focus at SafeNet was talking about jobs in the technology industry, it is clear that technology has impacted nearly all business sectors. Technology will continue to evolve, spread, and root itself into more business models moving forward. According to code.org, we know that we already are not producing enough students to fill the technology and computer science jobs available in Wisconsin. Add to that the spread of technology focused jobs in more businesses, even if they are not jobs requiring deeper, language-based coding, and you have a scenario where many of our students would strongly benefit from having opportunities in school to build skill sets that allow them to feel confident enough to step forward and apply for jobs requiring them to engage with technology at levels beyond just knowing how to work with software and change basic user settings.

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Whether we are ready or not to teach many of these skills to students, our kids will require them as they enter the world of work. The good news is many of these skills are within most educators  wheelhouse to teach, if we are willing to make changes to shift to a more project based, collaboratively focused model of instruction.

Technology is not optional: Students NEED help to develop technical skills

The skills students have traditionally needed to be employable and successful at work are as important as ever. These are often referred to as soft skills, and as reported in this LinkedIn article, for entry level positions they were recently ranked in importance by potential employers in the following order: 1) Communication, 2) Organization, 3) Teamwork, 4) Social Skills, and 5) Punctuality.

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However, with the changing shift in the business landscape spurred by technology, two keys shifts are happening in what employers are looking for in potential employees.  One key shift is that more technical knowledge and skills are being required in ALL aspects of work.

By technical, we mean highly technical. Potential employees are increasingly being overlooked if they do not have skills such as an ability to collect and analyze data, write computer code, strategize how to best reach an audience digitally, and to quickly adapt to new digital tools and skills related to a rapidly changing job description. Many organizations have studied and reported what employers are most looking for, and regardless of who is reporting the findings, these seem to be pretty consistent themes. For further exploration, check out these articles from Forbes and Monster

Further emphasis on how important these very technical skills are to employers can be found from a statement published on Fortune.com, in a 2016 article former General Electric CEO, Jeff Immelt said: "If you are joining the company in your 20's, unlike when I joined, you are going to learn to code. It doesn't matter if you are in sales, finance, or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code.

It is clear that there is strong trend in employment; there is wash between the always necessary soft skills employers have long valued and the technical skills that employees need to do their job in a highly technical society.  Even for employees in roles that are outward facing and customer focused, these people are far more likely to be communicating digitally, meeting via web conference software, and building digital training platforms for clients and customers. A blog post from LinkedIn identifies that these skill sets no longer independently exist, but instead merge together into the skills that employers most need from their future employees (our students). 

And the reality is that these are skills our students do not inherently, natively have by being born in an era of cell phones and social networks.

We Must Make Shifts in Practice to Embrace New Reality

We no longer live in a world where adopting technology as a part of our daily educational practice is optional. Students need to learn academic content, develop soft skills, and develop technical skills that will prepare them for their lives ahead. With the systemic changes made in our district to set the table for meaningful technology use, most barriers to adoption have been removed. The only barrier that still stands largely in the way of adoption, then, is our own decision to shift our teaching practice.

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For educators, it is no longer acceptable to simply opt-out of technology use in the classroom. The stakes are too high for students if we choose not to give them these experiences.

And assuming that students simply have the technical skills they need because they were born with technology -- well, that can debunked within a few minutes simply by asking students to do certain learning tasks with technology that focus on productivity, creation, and collaboration. They need support, encouragement, and advice on how to use technology purposefully and meaningfully, even if they are confident they know how to actually use the software and push the buttons.

Educators are at a point of decision: will we make the productive, meaningful use of technology in our classrooms a priority? Will we prepare our students for college and careers by challenging them to develop the soft skills needed while using the technology that will shape their future lives? The only thing stopping us from doing this today are the personal barriers that we have put up for ourselves. And the good news: when you are ready to take the next step and give kids these experiences, there are people in your communities willing to support you.