Expertise worth paying for

As I get older, it's fair to say I'm becoming a bit more frugal. I realize how hard I work for what I earn, and I am constantly balancing the benefits of paying somebody else to do work that I know I could do on my own. (My maker mindset hasn't made this any easier -- a YouTube video, some tools and we can do just about anything!)

Recently I have had the chance to work with true experts in very different fields.

In my work life, I've had the chance to work with representatives from Qualtrics. This is a company that has invested millions in product development and testing, that has hired some of the brightest minds in the fields of research, computer science, data analysis, and that has brought all of that expertise together to develop a great product to help companies, schools, and students make accurate, data informed decisions. They have staked their reputation and the livelihoods of each of their employees on being the best at helping clients make the right decisions. It is quite a company, quite a product, and their expertise shines through in every interaction I have with the company.

In another part of my life, the home remodel of our kitchen, I have had the opportunity to work with a true craftsman. Randy is a person that is generations deep in his family knowledge and tradition of construction, both in rough and finish carpentry. He has spent his entire life deepening his knowledge, problem solving through projects, and honing his skills as a carpenter. His expertise and attention to detail day-in, day-out is the key to his ability to pay his bills, feed his family, and earn a living. His expertise shines through in every way as you watch him work.

This is not unlike the school systems we work in as educators. Educators and educational systems have a ton of expertise within them. We have people skills, content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, creativity, problem solving abilities. If school systems were companies for hire, there would be no competitor for many of the projects for which they were hired; the talent pool, expertise, and know-how of schools systems is just that rich. 

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True Expertise...

sometimes you get what you are willing to pay for!

However, even in schools, there are blind spots and areas where our lack of expertise shines through.  Perhaps it is realizing where these blind spots are within our systems, acknowledging where our weaknesses and  lack of expertise  shines through, and then finding/hiring those who can fill our gaps that is one of our greatest responsibilities as educational leaders. Why spend time writing surveys that won't yield the data we most need when there are people who can help us get the right answers out of the gate? Why throw darts at understanding the complexities of our relationships with our customers when there are people can help us understand the science of client wants and needs?

Or as my wife asks me: Why spend unnecessary time and money on materials putting in the finishing trim, when we can hire somebody who will make it look better than we ever would be able to?

She has a point.

Simple tools, deep impact

Mental "ruts" are tough to escape!

Some ruts can be tough to escape!

Sometimes we get into a rut (a pattern of thinking/behavior that has become dull, unproductive, and difficult to change), and it takes a little push to help us get out.

When it comes to thinking about how to use technology in our classrooms, we can get into some common ruts as well.  Here are some common ones.

  • We may get in the rut of always searching for a new app to do something we could easily do with other apps we already have. 
  • We may get stuck thinking about only using technology as a culminating, end-of-unit, large project.
  • We may get stuck in the rut of making student demonstrations of learning more complicated than they need to be.

If you are stuck in any of these ruts, here are some tips to help nudge you out. 

Stop looking for new tools and apps. Use what you already know and have available.

As an example here, we will just use the camera that is already built into the iPad.

The "Time Lapse" mode on the iPad camera is a powerful way of seeing change over long periods of time. Any kind of change that can be viewed.  Have the students turn on their time lapse feature on the camera, hit record and start seeing the world in a very different way (a way we often do not get to see).

  • Brainstorming and mind mapping
    • Want to see the thinking process? A whiteboard, markers, an iPad camera in time lapse mode will give you a full (and quick) run down of the thinking a student or group does.

 

Using the photo mode on the iPad camera is a great way to capture snapshots that students can later reflect upon.

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  • Capturing and annotating over printed materials and written work
    • We do not advocate a paperless work environment. Paper is a tool in our learning process. But using the camera to snap photos of our work gives us the ability to "archive" teachable moments. And with the newest updates to photos, students can now "annotate" or draw right over the top of these photos. Using the Markup tool in iPad's photos app (learn how to markup photos), students can synthesize their thinking around that photo today, or in the future!

 

Using the slow motion mode on the iPad camera allows us to slow down time (the opposite of time lapse). If you are something that happens very quickly, using slow motion will give your students a chance to see what happens when we can slow things WAY down. And you will definitely get a laugh at it!

  • Inquiry, anybody? 
    • Instead of a list of ideas, I'll let your imagination run wild on this one. Just watch the inspiration video of everyday slow motion films, think about your students, and know that they can create videos of this type with their iPad. What questions would they ask? What answers would they find if they created these kinds of videos in slow motion?

Do not wait until the end of a unit to find ways to utilize technology. Use technology throughout the process of learning.

iPads are great for culminating projects. But they can be great for daily use, for capturing the process of learning, and to prepare for a culminating project as well.

Using the iPad to record and then later review thinking can be  a powerful way to help students get ideas flowing. Using the video camera on the iPad (even if the student's face isn't in the shot) is one way to just get kids talking about their thinking or ideas while maintaining a record for their later review.

  • Pre-writing: Just hit record
    • Flip to your camera app and select the Video mode. In this case, what is on the screen isn't important. It's the audio we are using here. Have students talk to a partner about their research, their ideas, their questions for an upcoming non-fiction topic they are just beginning to explore. What is the storyline of their fiction piece? Be sure to have an iPad nearby, listening intently, recording their every thought.  And when we get to the next phase of the writing process, have them go back and listen. Now they can synthesize their initial thoughts. We know that this metacognitive task of thinking about our thinking is at the core of meaningful learning. We are just employing our iPad's camera and microphone to record, hold, and replay those thoughts for our students.

Aim for simplicity. Too many expectations, too many rules/details, and too many limits will only allow students to give you what you asked for, but not what they are capable of doing.

 This one does not tie to a specific tool or idea. In fact, just the opposite. Often we spend so much time outlining the "must do" and "must use" of anything we ask students to do that we actually end up limiting our students' potential. Instead, let them know what they must show us they know or are able to do, and then make them choose HOW they will show us.

Sometimes you will be underwhelmed. Sometimes you will be amazed. And in both scenarios there is something to be learned by our students!

 

How outdated are your paradigms for how work gets done today?

About a month ago I had an opportunity to attend one of the most wonderful, most student centered days I have witnessed in a long time. My friend, Nancy Roncke, organized a Young Author's Conference for our district. It was inspiring and energizing to see an auditorium full of sixth grade students who have identified as writers. I had the distinct privilege of serving as a writing coach for a wonderful team of students. 

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In preparation for the day, I did some up front planning. We would need paper. Lots of paper. And highlighters. And post-its. Pens. Definitely pens.  I let my English teacher brain really process through the way I taught writing. The way I write. The way my students have written. By the time I loaded my car to leave for the conference, I had a bin of supplies full of the necessities writers would need to be successful.

On the way I thought some more. We are a 1:1 iPad district, and I know some of the kids will far prefer to draft on their iPad. Being thoughtful and empathetic to their needs, I made an unplanned stop at the tech office to pick up physical keyboards for the writers. They would certainly appreciate my efforts, as we all know that writing on a glass surface is inferior to typing on snappy keyboard.

I truly enjoyed my day with the students. They did a lot of writing. More than I expected they would. They were successful, productive, active, and focused. We truly achieved our goal of just being a community of writers.

Yet, things didn't go exactly as I had planned. By the end of the day, I was left with two things: 1) a trunk full of unopened writing supplies and untouched keyboards, and 2) the realization that I was still thinking about and planning for writers as they used to work, not as the presently work.

It left me wondering how often we do this as educators. How often do we mistakenly plan for things as they once were, instead of reflecting on how they truly are? Are we holding on tightly to practices, topics, and ideas that are grounded in the way we used to do things? Perhaps we cling to the way we feel most comfortable working?

My team of writers gently nudged me to question my own paradigm for how work gets done. Without saying a word, they reminded me that they have been typing on glass screens since they first started typing. They reminded me that a Google Doc, an Internet connection, and an iPad are the tools of writers; these are the tools the students have self-selected, and these tools do everything that is necessary for the intended outcome. They reminded me that printed copies for revision and editing are inefficient and can slow down the process. Sharing a doc with another person, allowing them to comment, and then meeting to discuss their feedback is the way that they most commonly receive critique from others.

It made me wonder how many other paradigms I naturally embrace that are outdated. It is unnerving to think that even in our best efforts to prepare students for the life they have yet to live, that we can all fall victim to the assumptions of what life is really like. I am taking this as my reminder to always ask the question: "So, how do people really do this today?" And when I stop to ask the question and really think about it, I am reminded that the last time I had somebody critique my writing with highlighters and post-its was back in graduate school. Apparently some habits and experiences truly do stick with us far after they are useful.

Twitter Tag

Just started playing a fun new game on Twitter to promote our district day of professional learning focused on technology integration.  I am calling it #TwitterTag!

Twitter Tag has taken off for our event. We are seeing all sorts of people playing and it is generating a huge conversation around the event. 

So basically, here is how you play.

I started the game with this tweet:

Here are the key pieces you will need to start your own Twitter Tag fun.

  • hashtag for your event or chat (ex. #sdwone)
  • Twitter Tag title (I think the hands emojis help separate this out from "tags" on Twitter)
  • Sentence stem -- "At the One Conference I hope..."
  • And then "You're it!" and you name three people that are now to complete the sentence stem and pass the game along

I'm sure there are folks out there who might have better ideas for doing this. If so, feel free to share them with me.  However, it is key that you limit the number of people that can be tagged at once. Too many and you defeat the point of the game, which is encouraging people to engage in a conversation on Twitter.

Enjoy #TwitterTag everybody!

 

Far beyond the tools

I continually make decisions thinking I know so much, only to learn within a few short years how little I actually knew. Today I realized just how little I understood about becoming an instructional tech coach when I first started down this path eight years ago.

When I decided to leave the classroom to pursue a technology integration position, I felt I had given myself ample time to grow, to reflect, and to mature in the craft of teaching, as well as in my use of technology. I was adamant that I was not going to leave the classroom until I felt ready to support others meaningfully. When I left the classroom, I "knew" I had invested the time needed to get there.

Even with that measured, mindful approach, I still feel as if my first few years were centered around evangelizing those who had not yet encountered the wonders of the technologies I had discovered. I wasn't aware of it at that time, but reflecting on my practice, the tools were undoubtedly the focus of my work.

Today I was fortunate to attend a powerful session on the instructional coaching offered by Tammy Gibbons. It was a marvelous experience for me, interweaving the perfect mix of thinking, learning, and doing.

As I reflect on the activities, the conversations, and the messages that Tammy so masterfully delivered throughout this workshop, I realize just how little of my work today is focused on the tools we employ.  Yes, I talk about technology every day with educators. I march out new tools and offer ideas for ways to utilize them. However, that is the least important of my interaction with teachers. 

Today, the central focus of my work with teachers is on them. I focus on their readiness to take on a new challenge, to take a risk, to shift their thinking, or to challenge long held beliefs and practices. My focus is on providing just enough support to enable them to make a lasting change, while walking delicately along the line that allows them to be doing the hard work of growing.

My practice today is so far beyond the focus of tech tools that I sometimes wonder if I am really doing the job I was initially hired to do. Perhaps I am not spending enough time exploring all of the newest services, tools, and sites that are constantly coming online. Maybe I am not exploring and scouting the booming educational technology industry sufficiently. These are ongoing considerations for me as I reflect on my performance in my role.

The message that was hammered home for me in today's workshop, though, was that coaching the human being in front of you, helping them to become the best educator that they can be, really is the workthat I should be focused on doing. And that is the work that will have an impact on students far beyond the tools that utilize.

Setting the table for technology adoption

Technology coaches all know that heading back to school begins a bustling period of activity as we work to support the technology needs of students and teachers. Classrooms that have been dismantled for summer cleaning are wrought with disconnected or misconnected cables, misplaced remotes and adapters, and accompany high anxiety as teachers attempt to get up and running with technology on the first few days of school.  Obviously this is not the high leverage instructional work that tech coaches aim for when working with teachers; setting up technology is simply a necessary evil to truly begin to use the medium in which we help to shape teaching and learning.

For me, this year feels different, though. While plugging in cables and re-connecting cords is a staple of the work, my first few weeks have been filled with really meaningful connections with teachers asking for support in practices that climb to the highest reaches of the SAMR framework. Teachers are asking me to support them as they try to use technology to record student goal setting, offer students immediate feedback, track and utilize formative data from teacher/student conferences, and having students create to showcase their understanding. It feels as if we have somehow turned the corner as an organization and are finally at a point where the question isn't, "What's possible with technology?", but instead is "How do I make my vision reality using technology?" 

While it is hard to pinpoint what the secret ingredients are to begin to make the shift that I am seeing in my district, there are a few key items that we have employed in our district that play a critical role.

Teachers Empowered to Self-Manage Technology

Our teachers update their own technology. They install their own software. They maintain their devices and troubleshoot many of their own problems (with the support of our help desk when necessary). We have created an environment of self-sufficiency for our staff, and in doing so, we have empowered teachers to be self-starters, taking ownership of their essential tools, rather than viewing them as the district's responsibility.

Reliable and Ubiquitous Technology

Our Technology Director once stated, "Wireless internet access should be as reliable for students and teachers as electricity. When we turn on the lights, we are only surprised when they do not illuminate. The same should be true of our digital tools." He has delivered on that promise in many ways throughout our district, and in turn teachers who may have otherwise avoided technology because it is "unreliable" have overcome a major barrier to technology adoption. Further, it does not matter where you are located within our system. The technology is present, supported, and consistent. Learning how to AirPlay in one location on one network is a skill that our teachers can transfer to any location in our district. Apps available in one building are available in a building they transfer to the next year. This creates a sense of stability and reliability that urges use of these tools.

Consistency of Tools

 Holding back the swell of new tools and updates in the world of instructional tech is a weighty and sometimes overwhelming proposition. We have worked diligently to do exactly that, choosing a few high quality (and somewhat costly) tools over a plethora of free or free-for-now type tools that are all abuzz across social networks. The payoff has been a toolset that staff members continually hear of, learn about, and see in action. The consistent messaging around and availability of these tools has offered teachers and students an opportunity to use the tools meaningfully, to get better in their use of the tools, and to apply the tool in new situations for new purposes. The self-discipline it has taken our team to not jump every time we have heard about an impressive new tool is hard to imagine. We get as excited by these tools as every other tech geek, but knowing that consistency is the key to helping teachers achieve their instructional goals makes it easy to say, "Let's hold off on that one for now."

SAMR as a Framework

While Instructional Tech experts can get buried deep in the weeds of frameworks and terminology, the reality is that many educators struggle to develop a consistent vision of how technology can be used most meaningfully and effectively in their classrooms. In our district we have promoted understanding of the SAMR framework with our teachers and leaders. We have done so to provide a common, easy-to-grasp language that helps all educators to define when technology is used well to support learning, and to encourage conversations and questions when it is not being used well. The SAMR framework has empowered district and building leaders, who may not always feel confident in their ability to utilize the wide variety of technology they see in a day, to ask instructionally focused questions (with the support of the SAMR framework as a guide) to determine if the tool is supporting the instructional mission and goal. Having that framework evens the playing field for all educators and re-centers the conversation on the teaching and learning, not on the tool being used. I am hearing more talk about the SAMR framework organically this year than I could have ever imagined. That is an indication that educators in our system are finding it a valuable tool for talking about what we are doing with tech, and that is exciting and powerful!

Availability of Support

Support is essential to growth, but it is also expensive. No district ever says, "I think we have too many people supporting this work." However, plenty say, "We do not have enough support, but we don't have the financial means to add more support." While more people may be desirable, improving the support that is available is the only immediate solution. The addition of a truly positive, supportive and compassionate Help Desk attendant was a game changer in our district. The re-districting of the support team that we did have to balance school numbers and staff sizes was a necessary shift. Incorporating tools like Google Chat, Google Hangouts, and Autocrat for speedy automated responses has provided a sense of immediacy to requests when they do come in. We have not been able to grow our support team, but the data we collect in our district suggests that people feel more supported when they use technology. This correlates directly with our intentional decision to improve the support we do offer to staff. And feeling supported is the first step to removing barriers to risk taking for staff members who are nervous to give new tools a try.

 

None of these things on their own were silver bullet solutions to the challenges of technology adoption in the classroom. More honestly, these were slow changes that we intentionally engaged in and supported as a team. Consistency was the larger key, though. These were core beliefs of the technology and coaching teams, and as such we have not wavered in these key tenets. Over time, and with consistency, these are the types of actions that have shifted beliefs, culture, and practice in our district, setting the table for meaningful technology adoption by staff members and students.

Consider What Students Need -- It May Not Be What They Want!

Every teacher and parent knows one universal truth:

One role adults play in children’s lives is directing them toward that which they need, even if it isn’t necessarily what they want.

That is the kind of thing that you can say to almost anybody that is responsible for children and they will nod in agreement.

This week  I had several conversations with educators who shared that something they were trying out in their classroom wasn't exactly what their students wanted to happen. With my lens in technology, you can be sure that these issues revolved around pushback from students in using tech for teaching and learning.  I believe that we should take our students opinions and ideas into consideration when developing our learning environments and plans.  However, my challenge to these teachers, and to all of us is to ask two simple questions:

  • Why are the students pushing back on this practice?
  • Are they getting something they need, even if they don't want it right now?

I'll use an example of one of my former students.  I did a lot of project-based learning in my English classroom, and we used technology quite often (NO, not every day! And that is okay!).  She was adamant that my teaching style and use of technology did not fit her learning style, that she learned more in other classes, and that she hated having to use technology in her classes.

I spoke with her regularly about what I could do better, what I could change, how I could better meet her needs as a student. I asked her why it was not working, and I even made some of those suggested changes. But I did not back off of my students taking greater ownership of and responsibility for their learning. I also did not back off of my belief that learning to use the tools we had available gave my students a voice beyond the footprint of my classroom walls, and taught my students how to use technology to be creative, collaborative, productive, and efficient.

In her senior year (when she was no longer in my classes) we were talking and she shared with me the underlying issue to why she complained so often (and loudly) about my class. In summary, she was frustrated in my class because I changed the routine of school. She was really good at playing the game at school. She sat attentively. She showed up on time. She took the notes and completed the homework. She answered questions when asked. 

Her frustration with my class was that those things alone were not enough to get her the results she wanted -- an A in my class.  She was good at writing papers and taking tests. When she had to learn how to use iMovie to make a movie trailer in class (it was much harder then than it is today), that stretched her skills.  When she had to moderate her group book discussion and record it for a podcast, that was a new skill that she had never developed before. When she had to write reflections as she read a novel on the class blog, and then comment on other people's reflections by challenging their thinking, that intellectual discourse in a public venue was new and uncomfortable. She said, "Your class was really hard. I actually had to think about doing what I was doing before I did the work."

The lesson I took from that student is that sometimes our students push back on what is happening in class, and we need to listen and consider what they are really saying. And sometimes we need to weigh that against what they are getting from the activity, use of the tool, or instructional method we are using. 

When the instructional benefit to students is essential your students' success or growth, sometimes we have to offer students what they need, even if it isn't exactly what they want.