How Much Tech in School is Too Much?

I wouldn’t have asked myself the question above five years ago. I’ve been passionate about technology in the classroom for as long as I’ve been teaching. I’ve been fortunate to work in an international school also focused on developing tech resources, and my teaching has evolved dramatically in line with this objective. I heard an ECE colleague make a comment a year ago that made me stop and think, however. She said that she feels our community of learners has such ready access to technology at home that she feels driven to focus on other skills at school. Perhaps, they are viewed as more “traditional”, but students use iPads at home, they don’t necessarily finger paint. Another recent conversation got me thinking about this again. A fellow teacher, and a parent to one of my students, commented that since our fifth grade homework is all on online and her son enjoys iPad games, her idea of “family time” is “no iPads”. Even if they’re watching a movie together, that’s different than the inevitable isolation and screen focus that comes with a device or computer.

On Monday, we’re starting a new school year. My third year teaching fifth grade, and my fifth year at my current school. After spending four years moving more and more of our learning online, I’m wondering if it’s time to take a step back. Do students “need” more tech, or are they so inundated with screen time as it is, that the need now lies elsewhere?

It’s true that technology has changed how I teach. Using google docs, for example, in writing has allowed me to stay in closer touch with where students are in the writing process. It effectively allows me to look over their shoulder in a way that doesn’t intrude, and I can offer feedback at crucial points. Blogging has allowed students to immediately share writing, responses to reading and other thoughts with our class community at large for feedback. It’s opened up the line of communication through writing in a truly authentic way. I’ve had students do math practice on for all four years. This has allowed me to identify specific skills where students need reinforcement and track progress. The benefits have been numerous, and student engagement is, of course, also a great motivator to keep going down a similar path.

In the end, I don’t think I have an answer yet. I see all the benefits, but I’m also worried about the children’s total screen-time in this tech-saturated world. Screen-time at school, screen-time for homework, then screen-time for pleasure. I’ve started to consider going back to journalling for homework. The advantage would be that I’m not requiring more screen time at home, and writing in a journal can be done any time, any place. We would still share journals at morning circle or in lit circles or writing. There would still be accountability. The only downside, of course, would be that my immediate access to checking and commenting on homework would be limited to a paper journal in front of me. Every teacher knows that a major challenge is giving timely, effective feedback when it matters most. Technology has helped me do this, so I’m extremely torn.

This is yet another example of how there are no end to the great things you can do for you students as a teacher. Picking which one to do at the right time, that’s the challenge.

Assessment FUNdamentals

I’m not sure any teacher out there would think of assessment as “fun,” but we all recognize it as a fundamental part of teaching and learning. If students don’t know how they’re doing, what they’re doing well and what they need to improve, then learning is pretty scatty and haphazard, perhaps not happening at all. I suppose, for me personally, I don’t find grading fun – that’s a different animal. But it can be great fun to see students “get it” or more often, slowly improve over time as a result of careful assessment and effective feedback.

After attending the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, OR this summer, my principal has asked me develop a presentation about what I learned to faculty. THERE WAS SO MUCH, and my first draft was 30+ slides. So we decided to break it into two parts: Assessment Fundamentals and Grading Practices.

I’m posting the Assessment Fundamentals presentation I will give in two weeks. Some of the slides are pictures of slides the presenters used, so I need to give full credit to Tom Guskey, Ken Mattingly and Jan Chappuis for their amazing and inspiring presentations.

I’m hoping the presentation sparks some interesting conversation around assessment and what my colleagues do at different developmental levels. What I plan to present is in no way NEW to my colleagues, I’m sure. They’re all mostly seasoned teaching veterans and have explored this topic during their professional careers. However, I find that even if I “know” something is true intellectually, it takes a lot of discussion, reflection and sharing with others to truly see these ideas manifest themselves in my teaching practices. I didn’t hear anything entirely new regarding assessment fundamentals at the conference; however, I was grateful for the chance to review them and discuss practical application in the classroom with other teachers!

Assessment - Faculty Presentation

B- with Recognition for Effort: Examining Grading and Reporting Practices

It’s taken me a while to admit that I’ll never be the perfect teacher. It’s a ridiculous idea, but deep down, a perfectionist personality type will ALWAYS try. Our internal scale goes from “lousy” to “perfect”. Except it isn’t a scale; life is Pass/Fail. We don’t settle for anything less than perfection and will put in countless hours in pursuit.

What you well know, however, is that this is a very unrealistic if not exhausting outlook. Teaching is so complex, involving so many variables, decisions, systems, policies, strategies and circumstances, that you can be “good” one moment and “awful” the next. You just hope that no matter what, you’re always getting better, that you don’t become complacent or unwilling to try new things.

I have a hard time telling myself that I’m a good teacher. Colleagues and supervisors say it, but I find it difficult. I’ll say, “Well, if they really knew what was going on….” But I think, ultimately, that mindset, despite being masochistic and mentally-unbalancing, is precisely what makes a teacher “good,” even “great” eventually. If you’re always questioning, then there’s a chance that you’re always improving.

In the face of a nagging feeling that something’s not quite right, I’ll listen and try something else. I have been slowly adding best practices for a few years now, but something has been missing. Teaching, learning and assessment have been fitting together like puzzle pieces, but report cards? Those are hard. A lot harder than they look. So I decided to attend a conference this summer to see if I could bring something back.

While on the plane flight home, I had time to reflect on things I learned and want to “fix” or at least do differently in 2014-15. I’m so happy that what I heard at this conference made so much sense, and that I have some clear changes to make.

The conference I attended was the Pearson Assessment Training Institute in Portland, OR. Keynote speakers included Rick Stiggins, Tom Guskey, Tom Schimmer and Jan Chappuis. It was about assessment, grading and reporting. The presenters made a joke several times about how it’s a special breed of teacher that chooses to attend an assessment conference in the summer. I tend to agree with them.

My personal motivation for attending came from a feeling that the assessment, grading and reporting systems I have had in place just didn’t always feel right. Sometimes I felt like school was a day at the dog track. I was holding out the rabbit, and some of the students were chasing it, but others were limping around waiting for recess.

Perhaps, I’m being melodramatic, but every teacher has the students who excel at being students. They produce good work; they respond to feedback, and they just want to do well. Holding out a promise of a good grades for achievement to these kids motivates good work habits, organization and personal responsibility. Namely, because these kids already have these life skills.

But every teacher also has the kids who want good grades, but don’t or can’t engage in the behaviors that get them there. Or the kids who are perfectly content with mediocre grades because other things are more important to them. You can teach and encourage positive life skills, still, grades, are not a good motivator for all students.

One presenter, a 7th grade science teacher, Ken Mattingly, said he tells his students at the beginning of the year and thereafter, “This is a great day to make mistakes!”

I loved this! If we truly want to nurture a growth mindset, we need feedback, assessment and grading systems that support learning. Students need to know that the classroom is THE place making mistakes will not result in loss of learning or success but used as information for positive growth in the future.

Assessment FOR learning is the buzz phrase. I felt like I was teaching well and assessing well, but I didn’t always feel it was transparent to students, and I didn’t have any other models for a different approach to grading and reporting that would better support learning. Grading sometimes felt punitive rather than supportive. Generally speaking, the “smart” kids get good grades, and the others don’t. How is that supposed to communicate that success comes from effort? or that learning, not grades, is what we care about?

Well, it turns out that my gut feeling was right. I got some reassurance that I was headed in the right direction, which is comforting, but this conference definitely sped up the process.

On the plane, I read A REPAIR KIT FOR GRADING: 15 FIXES FOR BROKEN GRADES by Ken O’Connor. This book summarized and extended the conference. Here are some fixes from O’Connor’s book and ideas gathered at the conference that have hit home for me:

Don’t use formative assessments in final course grades:

Again, I felt something was wrong in my practice, so I began using only SAs in Math, and in a few other subjects, but in other circumstances, I did use FAs to calculate a final grade. Or, at best, the lines between FAs and SAs were muddy. My reasoning was that it gave a more holistic picture of their performance. This doesn’t make any sense, of course, so I can follow my gut on this and make a change.

The principle idea is that everything doesn’t have to “count” to be motivating. Instead we practice, receive feedback and learn BEFORE it counts. The most important, transformative change I need to make is: reveal this way of thinking to students and involve them more. This necessitates planned assessments well in advance and the standards-based teaching to match.

Don’t average scores when achievement is developmental—use most recent scores, and don’t always use the mean average, but consider other ways to represent data:

Once again, I was on the way. I didn’t always use the mean, but relied on other criteria and professional judgment for final grades. My idea was that I wanted the final grade to reflect the child’s achievement as accurately as possible, and I used a variety of methods to calculate them.

This fix got me thinking about something else though. In the past, I have used an “end-of-year” target for my developmental standards. This means I told parents that their child needed a “3” to be meeting standards by June. This translated into a strange reporting situation, however. At the mid-year report card, I recorded a 2.5 as halfway to meeting, and therefore, on-target. “It’s hard to get a 3 at the mid-year marking period” was the explanation to parents. The philosophy behind this was we’d be able to show growth developing during the year, and this would be motivating to students.

Ok. I know. It was well-intentioned, just not well-thought out. First of all, one parent legitimately pointed out that this policy was not articulated on the report card. The scale still said a 3 was meeting. As her son was leaving mid-year, it then looked like he wasn’t reaching standards on first glance. The policy was stated in the narrative comments, but she was uncomfortable with it, and I didn’t blame her.

Secondly, what growth are we showing again? If they’re meeting mid-year and meeting at end-of-year, they’ve been meeting and following an expected trajectory throughout the year. Saying that there is “growth” between a 2.5 and a 3 seems kind of arbitrary now and a simple “play on numbers.” Besides, why 2.5? We could argue with equal authority that a 2 is halfway to meeting.

Another questions also crops up. Was I really differentiating between the remaining 15 levels of achievement between 2.6 and 4.0 to accurately show growth? I’d like to think so, but as it was pointed out in the conference, differentiating between more than 5-6 categories becomes unreliable. Using the decimals on this scale so precisely means I was trying to differentiate between 41 levels of achievement from 1.0 to 4.0. How accurately was I doing that? In all likelihood, not very.

I’m not saying that a child who maintains a 3 isn’t growing. Quite the opposite, I think originally, I felt it was important that parents understand that expectations change over the course of the year, and there is inevitable growth. However, I don’t think my reporting system adequately or accurately communicated that – it only worried and confused students and parents.

Perhaps, the changing expectations would be better articulated through the narratives, conferences and weekly newsletters, rather than a number that misrepresents achievement according to our own scale.

Don’t reduce marks on late work:

While I didn’t do this, I also wasn’t always clear with my students about consequences for late work until more recently. Again, I felt like something wasn’t right, so with one of my last SS units, I at least got closer. It was closer to a transparent timeline with real-world benefits to motivate students to turn in work in a timely manner. This time I gave students a rolling deadline with a range of dates. I told them that that if they turned it in earlier, I could give them feedback, and they could revise for a better final grade. They would also have time to work on an extension project that would enhance their final oral presentation. This felt a lot better than an arbitrary deadline with penalties for lateness. It worked better too. All but two of my special needs student – who benefitted from the extra time – completed the project with time to spare.

This section in the book helped me see that I was on the right track but need to be more consistent and systematic, using this approach on all long-term assignments/projects when appropriate and possible.

At the conference, it was also stressed that all students should be given the opportunity to retake summative tests or improve papers, projects, etc. after completing some independent or guided practice work. In essence, no final grade is ever final, until the course is over. Teachers even talked about reopening a closed grading period if necessary. I have always had a policy like this, but it wasn’t clearly articulated to students or parents. This, I intend to fix.

This type of policy not only puts the emphasis on learning, and effort=achievement, but will more accurately report a student’s ending level of achievement. The required practice work or time necessary outside the classroom discourages slacking on the first round, but still provides a chance for improvement.

When it comes to achievement, it doesn’t matter if a child took 1 or 10 tries. If they get it, they get it. For those who would argue this is unfair, well, think of all the extra work it took that child to get there.

We don’t punish athletes for training longer to surpass themselves; we applaud them. This warped idea of fairness comes from a fixed mindset, and the concept that intelligence is innate and should be rewarded as such. When students are told they need to always get it right on the first try, we’re discouraging them from risk-taking and fostering defeat in struggling students.

Information about how much time it takes a student to achieve standards can still be noted, but they should be reported separately from achievement. We should never lower grades because a child tries harder or needs support. That is so counter-intuitive to motivating students, it’s laughable.

Another interesting idea that came up in the conference was the idea of “productive struggle” and that we need to teach students that struggle should be expected at times, and it’s okay. The “everything’s easy if I’m smart” mindset is a dangerous one because at some point a child will experience struggle, will feel like they’re not smart as a result, and may not have the perseverance necessary for success.

Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades:

We had quite a few problems with blatant plagiarism in the past. I feel that I adequately prepared students to do what I expected them to do, but some tested boundaries and took the easy way out. I did lower grades for this. I felt that parents even expected it.

O’Connor insists that academic dishonesty is a behavior, and mixing in behaviors with grades distorts the picture of achievement. I’m inclined to agree. A lower grade doesn’t reflect the student’s achievement in that area, but the cheating. The fix is to have them do it over to get an accurate sample of achievement, report the cheating separately and/or impose other consequences that match the behavior.

Don’t include group project scores in grades:

I started to feel this was wrong last year as well, and I began separating out elements of projects students were individually responsible for along the way to the final group presentation. They received feedback, but we’re not “graded” on the group project because it didn’t represent the students’ individual achievement. In O’Connor’s book, he suggests that group projects can be viewed as part of the learning, and individual assessment should come after.

Again, I wasn’t transparent about this with students. They still believed they were doing everything for a grade. I did this out of fear that they wouldn’t finish it if it didn’t “count”. But group grades can feel unfair for many reasons, and grades do not need, nor should be the motivation for finishing a project.

I know not all teachers will buy into this, but I’m going to try it anyway. I hope I can support intrinsic motivation in students – if not, there are always consequences besides grades that motivate students. One teacher at the conference simply put it that every child is required to do the work. They can do it in class or on their own time with lost privileges becoming more and more severe as time goes on – but it will get done.

Don’t include 0s when assessments are missing:

I didn’t technically include 0s, but I have had cases where incomplete work significantly impacted final grades because I allowed the fact of their incomplete work to affect my professional judgment about what grade they deserved. I didn’t feel right about giving them a similar grade to another student who completed their work.

This is still hard to rectify in my mind, but it goes back to mixing behavior with achievement. In fact, in one case, I was particularly frustrated BECAUSE I knew the student’s output didn’t match their level of understanding. However, I felt compelled to represent this in grades because I didn’t feel a narrative comment or poor work habit grades would make enough of an impression. In the rare, extreme cases, I think it will still be case-by-case, but overall, I agree with this fix. One policy example from the book says that if a student doesn’t complete enough work to accurately assess their achievement, then the reporting is “too incomplete to assess”, and the child may fail the course due to incomplete work.

Overall, this conference was really enlightening, and I feel invigorated to move forward and try new things to support students. I didn’t list all the fixes in O’Connor’s book or outline every concept discussed at the conference. But if this has peaked your interest, you can learn more from two book resources I picked up there:

Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis

A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor

Discovery Learning, the Revolutionary War & Colonial North America

I shared a story tonight with colleagues about one distinct period in my life that began when I was a pre-adolescent. As a homeschooler, I had a lot of freedom to investigate topics that interested me. As far as I can guess, I think my fascination with revolutionary and colonial North America came from the fact that I lived in New England – a stone’s throw away from Native American tribal lands, Plymouth Rock, the church in Boston with the two lanterns and Williamsburg. We travelled to Washington DC, did the “freedom trail” and made frequent trips to Mystic Seaport.

I lived in an area of the country immersed in this history with life-size, interactive interpretations of this period in time. I was supposed to follow the traditional scope and sequence of social studies moving from neighborhood, to state, to US then world history, but even if I did explore these subjects, what I remember is my revolutionary and colonial history obsession. It was my passion. I went to Plymouth and took pictures of re-enactors sheering sheep and making horseshoes in a blacksmith shop and turned it into a book about Colonial America. I was so proud to “copy write” my book with the little encircled “C” symbol in MS Publisher. I read historical fiction about the revolutionary war and, of course, wore out the pages with the accounts of revolutionaries in passionate embrace as the redcoats approached. I also read accounts of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and analyzed Washington’s men crossing the Delaware. I even wrote a poem inspired by the Louisiana Purchase.

In any case, this story arose from a discussion we were having about the current unit we were exploring in a Tribes TLC course about constructivism and discovery learning. It reminded me of how deeply torn I am as an educator. As a verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical thinker (thank you, Howard Gardner), I actually really love standards. I like the idea of having a specific list of targets I’m responsible for that connect and build on one another from year to year. The true geek in me really shines when I’m linking lessons and units in our Atlas curriculum – mapping software with cross-curricular standards and then matching them to assessments. It is actually almost relaxing for me. I love the complexity and the simplicity it creates all at the same time.

On the other hand, I grow deeply saddened sometimes when I think of all I’m giving up with my students by taking this approach. It’s all SO orchestrated, so prescribed. The very existence of content standards combined with curriculum scope & sequence charts (and the fact that I’m so into following them) systematically excludes topics of interest and passions my students may want to pursue. It’s as if I’m talking to a 10-year-old version of myself and saying, “I know you’re really interested in this, BUT we have to study THAT.” All of this actually hit home earlier this week. A rather disenfranchised girl (let’s call her Megan), new to Guatemala and learning to adapt to a being in a new school with less than a quarter to go before the end of the school year followed my instructions to share with a partner questions she’s wondering about our current unit in Social Studies – the Silk Road. Her question? “Why do we have to study this, anyway?”

Well, why do we have to study this? The answer? The standards dictate that I teach my students about how societies interacted through trade, why they traded and how it affected their economies. My school has dictated that “5th Grade” Social Studies units are Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and Ancient China. Logical conclusion? The Silk Road! It’s perfect! The standards and school expectations align. But the real question in my mind is, Is it enough? If Megan truly has no interest in the Silk Road, will she learn these standards? Or will she coast through doing the minimum to pass unnoticed in our busy and diverse classroom? Is her question coming from a real place of disinterest? A pre-adolescent’s desire to fit in and make a name for herself by dismissing the status-quo? Will a little more content be enough to spark her interest? In reality, I’m not going to know the answer to any of these questions until it’s too late.

Being an educator is a process of constantly undergoing mind-shifts and taking new directions in teaching to see what works and what doesn’t. Last year, I focused much more on process skills and a lot less on specific, universal content that everyone should learn in social studies. I was coming from the mindset of my own background that it didn’t really matter that I spent so many years focused on one topic because I learned the skills of reading, research, analysis and interpretation of historical events. It’s true that I think I have gaps in content knowledge here and there, but as an adult, if I want to know about something, I have the tools to find out about it independently. Then, last summer, I experienced a shift. I read an article called “Learning in Depth” by Keiran Egan while taking an online course on portfolios. One passage really got to me:

Being able to find particular knowledge in the mountains of information in libraries or on the Internet is educationally valuable, of course. However, the downside of the emphasis on such procedural skills is a disastrous underestimation of the importance of actually knowing things and having access to knowledge in the memory—because the imagination works only with what we know (Egan, 1997, 2005).

After reading this passage, my mind started to race. I had definitely noticed that that most passionate my students became was when the “Did you know that…!?” moments erupted. The moments when students would come running up to me or each other and couldn’t wait to share an unimaginable fact they learned. In my fourth grade class it could be, the team who lost a Mayan ball game were sacrificed to the gods or the Aztecs ripped out the hearts of their human sacrifices. Who would have thought it?! I The passion did not come from how good they were at finding information, but rather this skill facilitated the “Did you know” moments.  

So, last summer, I reorganized my curriculum units to be half content-focused and half research-focused. The first half, students learned specific content and vocabulary related to the unit all together through hands-on activities and reading. In the second half, they researched a question of their choice related to the unit. I thought I had it really figured out, a perfect balance. And then, tonight, another mind-shift. Why do we have to learn about the Silk Road again? I find it interesting, but will Megan?

In our Tribes course tonight, we briefly reviewed the 5Es of discovery learning: Explore, Engage, Explain, Elaborate & Evaluate with the teacher acting as a guide and facilitator. We touched on them with a plan to go more in depth next week, but even this short introduction got me thinking. IF the philosophy of constructivism guides us in believing that students construct their own realities through actively interacting with content and concepts and building on background knowledge…IF a truly student-centered approach necessitates that students are allowed to direct their own learning and elaborate where their passions take them…IF this is how I remember learning and loved it…THEN what do I do with my Silk Road unit?

I was so proud of the fact that this unit covers 6 social studies standards,

1.5.d  Identify and use primary and secondary sources to examine the past and present.  

2.5.c  Explain the major ways groups, societies, and nations interact with one another (e.g., trade, cultural exchanges, and international organizations). 

4.5.e  Explain the elements of culture (language, norms, values, beliefs, etc.). 

4.5.i  Examine cultural diffusion. 

7.5.e  Describe how trade affects the way people earn their living in regions of the world.

7.5.g  Describe primary causes of world trade.

Not to mention countless LA standards and had the potential of touching on more. And not only does it cover standards, it’s following the school’s scope and sequence for social studies topics by grade level – We’re doing Ancient China, like we’re supposed to. I designed the unit as I have before. Content and skill-modelling first, then student research on a chosen topic related to the unit. This time I decided to integrate writing and speaking standards by having them write and present a research paper in a Prezi multi-media presentation.

But now I’m shifting again. I’m not sure it’s so perfect after all. Where is the room to elaborate? In the past, I thought I was allowing students to elaborate when they could choose their own research topics connected to the unit. There IS an element of choice in that approach, but what about real-world applications? What about Megan?

The fact remains that going in a new direction with this unit, and with the whole way I teach social studies will ultimately necessitate letting go of standards we don’t get to and allowing flexibility in topics. The question I would pose to our curriculum director is, “What do you think? Can I try it?”

I don’t have it fully fleshed out yet, but what if, instead of the Silk Road Unit, it was the Trade unit?

It could look something like this…

Theme: Trade


Objective: Explain why, how and what people trade, how it affects economies and sharing of ideas.


Task: All schools supplies are divided up by type, and each table group in the classroom has ownership over a particular supply: glue sticks, pencils, scissors, calculators, erasers, paper, books, iPads etc. Each team is given a task to complete, like make a poster about the Silk Road, and they must trade to get the necessary supplies to complete it. One concept from the Silk Road is the “Relay System” of the road that allowed goods from China to travel long, dangerous distances all the way to Rome. One day, we could impose the restriction that you could only trade with tables next to you. In the process, each team keeps a “Trading Journal” of what they traded, why and for what. Trades can include ideas and skills in addition to materials.


Content/Social/Collaborative Reflection: What did you trade for? Why? What did it cost you? Were some items more difficult to get? Why? What strategies did you use to get the things you wanted? Did you share anything besides materials, ideas, skills, etc.?

Inevitably, at least I hope, in the reflection process, students will be able to identify the why, what and how of trading and in the process perhaps connect to some historical content about the Silk Road. I wouldn’t be able to help but include some reading and research skill modelling in here somewhere, and we would also look at how we interacted in terms of respect, and examine any breakdowns in the process, etc.

Because it’s so much more open-ended and would look totally different with different groups of learners, however, there’s no real telling what the “learning” would be. I constantly question myself when I come up with ideas like this. Will this be valuable? Are they getting enough content and skills? Are we just wasting time? I don’t really know the answer to those questions and perhaps they would be different with different groups of learners. There’s no doubt, however, that the social interaction could potentially spark some really interesting conversations. My hope would also be that through this process students would be able to construct their own understanding of what trade really means and how complex it can be.

Perhaps, this exploration and engaging in an activity from the get go, could inspire Megan and her classmates’ interest in the Silk Road, but if not, the next step would be for groups to develop questions about trade in general and to do further research. Perhaps groups could study contemporary trades or trades between other cultures of the past or why we switched from barter to a money-based system, etc.

Now the standards fan and curriculum follower inside balks at the idea of having the content be so free and fluid. What if they don’t learn what I expect them to or think they should? What if we totally get off the topic of Ancient China? What if students start getting off trade all together and start looking at innovations or fighting techniques or the Mongol hoards (the boys would definitely do this) or how the Chinese made gunpowder. Or it could lead in some other wild, unexpected direction. I wonder, however, if that’s exactly what we as educators should be looking for. Could it get me closer to exchanging teaching for facilitating? Or closer to what I remember about learning as a 10-year-old in love with the American Revolution and Colonial America. Could be.

Too many tools…too little….

My response to Sharon Plante’s very important questions!

“My questions to all educators…. (and yes I am really looking for responses!)

1. What tech tools do you use and why?

2. What tech tools don’t you use and why?

3. What has helped you embrace technology to impact your teaching and your students learning?”

(On “The road to learning”)

Technology I Use:

Kidblog-because it’s easy, kids like it, it’s a great way to give kids an authentic forum to showcase their work to a wider audience for timely feedback from adults and peers (who they care about more:).

Google Drive-because it’s easy, it makes it really easy to track student work (no heavy notebooks, easy-everywhere access), I can leave comments on particulars which can serve as notes for in-person conferences, I can supply kids with innumerable resources, less paper, easy revisions. Typing makes revision faster and easier to manipulate text for students. Embedded links to websites/videos are possible. You can throw out the Manila folders when storing student work. I can see my students working in real time without looking over their shoulders and identify problem spots quickly.

Math/literacy game apps-(IXL, Factor 7, Letris, etc.) because they’re attractive to students and keep them busy on needed practice skills.

Presentation apps-prezi, educreations and iMovie add interest and create easy to reference lessons and shareable projects.

Animoto, YouTube-because my kids LoVE acting and making videos. They can objectively review their work and and identify areas of success and improvement.

Google Sites- Class Website houses our calendar, weekly homework and resources for parents.

Reference websites like Merriam Webster and history websites like because an online dictionary is easier for kids to use and find kid-friendly definitions, and sometimes we just don’t have the books that talk about the subject my students have chosen to research

Technogy I Don’t Use:

Spelling, history, SS, geography and other random “education” apps-I don’t use them because they rarely connect to my curriculum, and I see them as time-wasters.

Any app where the product is easier done on paper-why complicate things?

Why Use Tech:

Because *most* kids love technology, it provides an extended and trackable way to present, reflect on and communicate about learning.

The road to learning

Too many tools…tool little….




It is astounding the number of technology related tools that exist and are on-goingly created for education.  Prior to the holidays I attended the CAIS Too many Tools evening…

It is a great forum for seeing a quick presentation on some tools fellow educators are using in Connecticut Independent Schools and gave me some great things to go home and explore.  Around the same time #satchat (a fabulous Twitter chat that every educator should at least lurk in) had a great session on technology tools, that had me adding to list of what to check out during my December break. Of course break came and went without me pulling out my list.  Sometimes it seems so daunting all the tools that are available for educators.  Twitter, Pinterest, LiveBinders, Edmodo/Schoology/Haiku, Nearpod, Livescribe, apps, Web 2.0 Tools…the list is endless and overwhelming, and I…

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Lit Circles Revisited

This is a video of students discussing questions from the discussion prompts for the novel Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. It’s an example of how students have learned the procedures and are now having rich conversations about what they are reading. In the video, the discussion prompt is, “What is something you don’t understand?” One student replied, “Why are Rachel and Jerry so dumb?” He’s referring to the fact that they haven’t figured out who stole their dog even though there are many clues pointing to the culprit. Each student takes a turn sharing their ideas. In the process, they discuss how the narrator is giving the reader clues that the characters don’t necessarily have.

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I just re-read my post “Lit Circles: Are Roles Needed?“.  Lit Circles have definitely evolved in my class over this year.

I started with my ideas in the linked post above. I didn’t want “Roles”, but planned to have students take notes on what they read, create questions of their own and prepare for meetings using a specific strategy: Visualizing, Inferencing, Summarizing, etc.

The challenges were many:

  • Teaching students how to do the “note-taking” which involved identifying important events and conflicts in the story took longer than expected
  • Students needed a lot of guidance to write questions that incited discussion and not yes or no answers or repeat the same thing over and over
  • Teaching students how to “use the strategy” and prepare their assignment for the meeting took away a lot of time from actual meetings
  • Students didn’t do their homework and were often unprepared for meetings
  • Meetings were taken up with a lot of “presenting” and not a lot of discussion
  • There never seemed to be enough time to teach the procedures and give students time to practice

Ultimately, introducing all the new procedures and skills necessary for them to be successful took a while to get off the ground. Second quarter it got better, but students were still struggling with coming up with questions that would guide meaningful discussions, and I wasn’t completely satisfied with the results. And frankly, the students got bored.

Third quarter brought on a new way of doing things. I made some simple changes that seemed to improve things a lot:

1. Added a day for independent reading and conferences. This allowed me to meet one on one with students who needed help with procedural issues, skills and gave all students time to prepare quality assignments with in-class guidance.

2. I asked specific questions about their work that students then had to reflect on and answer about previous work at the beginning of their independent reading time. This helped them develop the quality of their work over time.

3. I still had students write discussion questions, but I added a bank of questions that helped guide this portion of the meeting. Simple prompts like, “Talk about a part that confused you,” or “Talk about a part that made you laugh,” really spiced up the conversations.

4. I took time to choose high-interest texts for students all within the same genre of mystery and grouped them based on interest. I read them beforehand and took notes to help me guide them in making specific inferences, highlight important vocabulary and identify themes.

These important modifications made all the difference. I also had to add intervention meetings with struggling students where I worked with small groups on things like summarizing, inferencing and identifying themes.

I was very happy to witness the excitement in the classroom when it was time for Lit Circles. Students truly looked forward to presenting their work and discussing topics from the book that intrigued them. The “Research” strategy quickly became one of the most popular. In this assignment, students could choose a topic of their choice related to the text to research background information about. For example, with Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes, some students decided to research information about fox terriers, a main character in the book. With Tangerine by Edward Bloor, a student presented information about sinkholes (a natural phenomenon that occurred in the story).

In reality, the system I used this past quarter, although improved, isn’t structurally any different from the “Roles” that I denounced earlier. Each student is assigned a “job” that requires a specific reading strategy to prepare for their meeting. In the beginning, I had students assign themselves which strategy job they would complete. I switched to assigning strategies rather than having them choose because in the end, students had strategies they liked (illustrating, research) and strategies they avoided like the plague (summarizing, inferencing). I wasn’t able to successfully introduce the choice I wanted for students while also ensuring that they stretched themselves and tried all the strategies.

So…in this last round of Lit Circles, each child received a packet of strategies they had to complete in order for each meeting. This ensured that each students was presenting a different strategy and that they tried them all. Ultimately, however, the preordained requirement that each student is presenting a different strategy really comes from the “Roles” approach to lit circles. What does it really matter if all students want to do background research in a given week? As long as students are engaged with reading and using comprehension strategies, I don’t think this has much impact. In the future, I think the “packet” approach is a good management tool for ensuring that all strategies are tried eventually, but I will probably allow them to pick which order they want to do them in. This reintroduces the choice I was looking for in the beginning.

This is a link to a Google folder that includes every strategy I had students prepare called “Lit Circle Guides“. I created all of the lit circles guides, and the discussion questions came from

Student Portfolio Resources

Student Portfolio Resources

I always appreciate it when people share free resources I can adapt and use in my class. Sometimes, just seeing an example of how someone else did it can spark a completely different idea that will work well for us. In the spirit of sharing, I’m posting a link to a Google folder with all the documents I’ve used this year (or plan to use) for both our Class Growth Portfolios and the School Wide Portfolio Project. (Just click on the link above!)

Resources Included:

Class Growth Portfolios

1. Quality Work Tables for Each Subject We Used to Set Goals

2. Student Guide for Goal Setting Conference with Parents

3. Outline of Portfolio Process

4. Portfolio Artifact Reflection

5. Guidelines for Saving Work in a Working Folder

6. Introduction to Google Drive

7. Guidelines for Using Google Drive

8. Student Guide for Final Student-Led Conference (Sharing Final Portfolio w/Parents)


School Wide Portfolio Project

1. Portfolio Introduction Guidelines and Outline

2. Artifact Selection Guidelines

3. Artifact Posting Guidelines (To a Google Site with Portfolio Blog Tabs)

4. Final Reflection Guidelines and Outline

In the thick of it…Third Quarter Recap on Student Growth Portfolios

There’s so much going on right now I don’t even know what to write about!

  • Student Led Conferences are in two weeks
  • I’m helping to pilot a school-wide website portfolio program that ties to school goals
  • The end of third quarter is a week away
  • We’re finishing up final projects in Social Studies that include Minecraft buildings, Prezis, Hands-on models and more (had to dig up a glue gun!)
  • The Elementary Student Council Sponsored Talent Show auditions start March 17th (I’m a STUCO Advisor)
  • I’m starting the advanced Tribes training on March 12th
  • I’m tutoring once a week and running an Afterschool Drama Club for 2nd-5th graders
  • Personally, just got engaged to be married and…
  • Have started a weekly exercise routine that involves kickboxing, pilates and tennis.


I feel like the pace in my professional and personal life has just gone from 0-60 in the last month! I’m really excited about all these projects and upcoming events, however, it has required some long hours. And will continue to require them in the months to come.

I needed to write that list just to focus my attention a bit. Professionally, at the moment, I’m diving into the first two items: Student Led Conferences and the School-Wide Portfolio Project.

I suppose it’s time to do a Third Quarter Recap on our progress with Student Growth Portfolios. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I think the students have gotten a lot out of the process. Of course, with any new venture, there have been pitfalls and holes where good intentions have fallen through, but overall it’s been good.

Because we’re piloting the school-wide portfolio project, I’ve had to start incorporating elements of that portfolio into our class process. It’s been difficult to see where they align and where they don’t.

Ultimately, I decided to keep the two portfolios rather separate because the fundamental difference is purpose. The purpose of our class portfolios has been for students to set specific, attainable, individual goals, reflect on work and show growth overtime in pursuit of those goals to themselves and to their parents in the March Student Led Conference. The purpose of the school-wide process is for students to showcase work that meets our school goals for graduates in benchmark years of 5th, 8th and 12th grades.

Of course, some student and school goals overlap. My students, at the beginning of the year, set individual goals that pertained to becoming better readers, writers and math problem-solvers. These, of course, are school goals as well. One of the major pitfalls that I addressed in my Second Quarter Recap post still stands, however. Curriculum demands have not always addressed individual student goals in a timely way.

We spent third quarter writing a comparison essay about characters in a book. This is a standard I needed to teach. We used the writing process and focused mostly on organization and building a strong thesis statement with supporting evidence which is something my 5th graders needed. If the child’s individual goal in writing, for example, was to improve in using similes and metaphors to spice up their writing, we didn’t necessarily get to that this quarter. We’ll be working on it in fourth quarter in writer’s workshop, but they won’t have this show their parents in two weeks. I’m not sure how to address this problem in the future except maybe by tinkering with planning and curriculum pacing. Now that I’m aware of this pitfall, next year, I can pace the curriculum differently to match student goals for Student Led Conferences.

One of the requirements for the school benchmark portfolio website is an introduction. Students will have the work and reflections they did for Student Led Conferences to build on and can absorb some of that work into the benchmark portfolios. I also thought, that since it could be an interesting element for their Student Led Conference, I’d have them write the introduction for Student Led Conferences and then modify it later if needed.

I’m using the two forms below to help them organize their conference, address individual goals as well as craft an introduction:


I’m excited to see how their conferences go. One major benefit to our class portfolio process that I’ve seen is that my students have become much more reflective. Being specific is still a challenge for a 5th grader, however, for the most part, students have moved beyond focusing on things like neatness and getting better at their multiplication facts to looking at how much detail they put in an assignment, what they’ve learned that will help them in the future and so on. I’ll share examples after conferences. Wish us luck.


Small Talk That Isn’t So Small

A few days ago, one of my students chose a question to ask her classmates in our daily community circle. Every student would get a chance to answer or had the choice to pass if they didn’t want to answer. She stood in a circle of her fifth grade peers and asked, “If there was one thing about yourself you would change, what would it be?” My jaw dropped a bit because they’ve been choosing questions like, “If you had a superpower, what would it be?” and “What’s your favorite subject?” The juiciest one chosen so far this semester was, “If you could change gender for a day, would you do it?” This sparked heated discussion about gender bias and how teachers treat boys and girls differently.

The question she chose on this particular morning, however, was different in how intensely personal it was. She held the talking stick (we actually use a ball) and tossed it from hand to hand. “I think, there are things I don’t do because I’m afraid of them, and I would change that about myself. I also think that sometimes if I’m not good at something, I just stop trying, and I would change that too.”

I was amazed by her courage. I’d like to say that each child rose to this challenge and shared in an equally personal way, but alas, it’s not the case. She took a huge leap, but not a single student rose to meet her. Now, of course, this speaks to their age, their increasing awareness of and need for peer approval, but mostly, it speaks to the level of trust in our classroom. We obviously have a ways to go.

If I was to answer her question today, I’d say, “If I could change one thing about myself, I would get better at chatting with people and building trusting relationships.” Now, the rest of this post is intensely embarrassing, and I have questioned over and over again if I want to post it at all. The first thing that screams in my head is, “You’re a teacher, and you’re admitting that you’re BAD at building relationships? What are you doing?” Well, I think I’m a good teacher, and I think my students like me, respect me and have been growing enormously. I have evidence for all of that. However, through my own personal observations, I also believe I have work to do to fine-tune, to model what I hope to see in my students, to continue building trust in ways that allow conversations like the one above to move forward.

Now, bear with me. It seems like I’m about to tangent, but I’ll bring it back around. I mentioned something in my last post, namely my aversion to small talk. I don’t like small talk. I generally want to skip the pleasantries and talk about what’s “important”. Discussing what you did last weekend or bemoaning the awful traffic or weather isn’t on my list of favorite things to do. I don’t find chitchatting with people I don’t know well very comfortable or easy in most situations. This doesn’t mean I can’t talk to people or speak publicly. I do it every day. I LOVE to talk, but it takes a certain level of comfort, trust (that again) and, frankly, interest in the topic. Or in the case of teaching, it takes a specific format and the expectation that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.  If I don’t have those things, I can experience an underlying anxiety in conversation.

All of this points to the truth that I am a natural introvert. So? I realized something recently, or rather, put two and two together.

When my friends have asked me, “Why did you go in to teaching?” My response has always been: “I like kids, and I like learning. Simple.”

One thing I love is a child’s natural honesty – their propensity for just saying what they’re thinking. They also tend to have the ability to discuss difficult issues that are important to them without censorship. In addition, the issues they struggle with are largely the same as an adult’s issues in a less diluted form: making and maintaining friendships, achieving self-efficacy, finding motivation, failure, embarrassment, etc.

In other words, a child can cut through the noise and get to the heart of an issue in an innocent and often insightful way. 

This is not the “two and two” realization, however. That realization is that I’ve used this motivation for teaching as a crutch.

In teaching, I can spend all day with kids. I can talk to them straight about things that really matter to them and to me in an academic forum. However, this doesn’t mean I’ve gotten any better at comfortably building personal relationships with people (including children) in informal, non-structured environments. In fact, I have found it difficult to talk to children outside the structure of a learning activity. I’ll ask a child, “How are you?” If their answer is, “Fine.” The conversation often stops there.

So? Another part of the two and two realization is that this is a problem in teaching. I’ve been ignoring it, and perhaps necessarily, focusing on pedagogy and strategies so intently that the one thing – building meaningful personal relationships with students – the one thing that I’ve read is so important over and over – is still escaping me at a basic level.  I think I’m a good teacher, but I also think I could be better at building personal relationships, the kind that have nothing to do with school and the kind that show each student that I care about them as a whole person. This, of course, leads to trust.

Bam. This is where it comes full circle. I wonder if the reason none of my students were willing to answer a personal question that required some vulnerability is because I haven’t been regularly and actively modelling building trusting relationships in a holistic, informal way through talk that reveals their personal interests, dreams, aspirations, and other things not related to the academic topic at hand.

Well, after thinking about this, I asked myself, “Is it really that hard? What’s the secret?” So, I started researching. I like videos, so I scoured YouTube for helpful hints. I stumbled upon videos by Marcus Oakley at

Now, I’m sorry Marcus, but it’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve watched so many of your seemingly endless number of videos. It’s embarrassing because some (and I wouldn’t blame them) would find your demeanor and topics to be quite saccharine. I’m also quite skeptical of the fact that you seem to mostly have “great conversations” with women. Reason for this? 

Anyway, ultimately, what I got from his videos is that talking to people, chitchatting is a skill. It’s not magic. It’s not a secret, even. It’s a skill that can be learned. It can also be the means necessary for building the rapport that leads to deeper conversation.

It may not feel natural or comfortable at first; however, the benefits can be real. People who are naturally good at chatting with others are said to have charisma, something special about them. A gift. If you’re naturally good at it, then maybe that’s true, but I no longer believe there’s some great mystery of confidence or charisma and that’s that.

Tips and Tricks:

  • People love talking about things they’re passionate about.
  • Many people like talking about themselves.
  • People love compliments.
  • People feel more comfortable when you smile and are enthusiastic.
  • As people feel more comfortable, simple, friendly contact builds rapport (handshakes, a touch on the arm).
  • People don’t enjoy the third degree, but simple, short questions that invite them to share opinions, thoughts or experiences will engage people in conversation.
  • Wait a second to reply. Don’t interrupt.
  • Eye contact, but don’t be weird about it.
  • Be aware of people’s body language and let them go when you’ve overstayed your welcome. Needing to go isn’t necessarily personal.
  • Don’t talk too fast. It’s overwhelming.
  • Respond with appropriate, related experiences, but also listen, a lot!
  • Ask question related to experiences you know are positive for them.
  • Repeat one or two words they last said to show you’re listening.
  • Silence doesn’t have to be awkward, but a chance to take stock of where you want to go next in the conversation.
  • People appreciate others who have a sense of humor about themselves. It helps them see that you’re not judging them. 
  • Don’t be afraid to take a ribbing or to admit mistakes gracefully.
  • Be an observer. Use observations about others to start or continue conversation. People like to feel noticed.

The tips and tricks I got from Marcus Oakley’s videos and others are really just common sense, and even those who are uncomfortable with “small talk” are perfectly capable of understanding them intellectually. The real trick is putting them into action. Marcus’ main piece of advice is to practice. It’s that simple. Also, that it won’t always go well, but this is not the end of the world.

After “practicing” for a week, I already notice a difference. Kids and colleagues and others have responded positively. AND it makes me feel good to make them feel good. I’ve also noticed that taking this approach can lead to conversation that is in no way “small,” but is actually building real connection.

So, if there are any introverts out there, know this–it’s not magic, it’s a skill, and if you’re willing to give it a try, you’ll be rewarded in more ways than you can imagine. Not just in teaching, but in life.

If you’re not in the mood to watch Marcus Oakley’s painfully positive self-help videos, here’s a link to an article on the topic:

When TED Talks Turn Evil

When TED Talks Turn Evil

Recently, my dad sent me this link, as he has seen how obsessively I’ve been watching TED lately.

He said,

As much as I enjoy TED talks sometimes the simplification gets my goat.

Maybe I’m not the only one.

I still like them though even if they don’t all pan out.

Notice that they take a swipe at the just give the kids a computer camp.

Apparently there are very few kids that will do course work on their own.

This is my letter back to him after reading the article:

Hey Dad,


Glad you sent this article. I’ve obviously been spending a lot of time watching TED lately. The author’s definitely got a point. There are many talks that I don’t even finish because they are either oversimple, or just boring. One recently featured a model who basically spent 19 minutes apologizing for being pretty and telling us that they retouch photos, which, of course, we all know…


So that’s the thing. I think if you recognize it as a form of entertainment, then you’re okay. Obviously the scientists with no social skills or public speaking abilities are not their top choices. That’s life. It takes a certain amount of charisma to win people over, no matter how important what you have to say could be. Right?


I’m a bit disappointed, however, about the apparent vetting problems they seem to have. I hate to think how many videos I’ve seen where the science is actually inaccurate. I assumed TED only accepted people who have the support of the greater scientific community through experiment duplication, etc. That will definitely make me a bit more skeptical.


I think too, though, that if you’re a thinking person, you can do some vetting yourself. For example, The SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environments) guy from India with his, “Poor children taught themselves genetics on the internet,” never really won me over. As with all theories in education, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and his results seemed a bit too good to be true for me. My experience with children is that they would NOT voluntarily teach themselves genetics on the internet, but rather immerse themselves in a Pokemon game if given the choice. But who knows. It all comes down to a child’s individual motivations for learning.


With other talks, however, it’s not so much the actual content that gets me, but sometimes, I think they raise questions and get me to make connections I would not have otherwise. This week for instance, after hearing ANOTHER talk about how positive relationships with students improves learning (again?), it inspired me to start looking at specific “relationship-building” techniques as I’ve never been one that’s been good at “small talk”. (Apparently, this is a sign of introversion. I’ve always known I tend toward introversion, but didn’t realize that this is a specific feature. It makes me feel less weird knowing that.)
As it turns out, however I feel about small talk, I’ve come to the conclusion that it can be a great tool to help people get comfortable with you, enough to have more meaningful conversations. I usually just prefer to skip it, but others find that a bit off-putting. I found a wealth of information about conversation techniques that I’ve been trying out, and they WORK–on adults, no less. I was really inspired this week in teaching as well and felt really good about improvements I’ve been making in relating to my students. Ultimately, I’m not going to force myself to have mundane conversations when I don’t feel like it, but it helps knowing that I have the skill when I actually need it.


The SOLE guy still really bugs me; (What do you mean kids don’t need teachers? Harrumph.) however, I have seen some REALLY good talks, usually by people who are not scientists or entrepreneurs. For instance, Phil Hansen’s “Embrace the Shake,” was very inspiring to me. Also, I love Sir Ken Robinson, of course, and some of the psychology ones just help you consider things from different angles. Tony Robbins’ talk, however, was probably the worst one I’ve ever seen. Didn’t even finish it.


Obviously, this being a letter to my father, it takes a bit of a more personal/straight-talking tone than my normal posts.