Excitement is Building

The eve of another school year is an exciting time.  As a classroom teacher, and edtech enthusiast, I always have big plans and new ideas for how I am going to develop my teaching strategies and classroom practices.  This year is a bit strange for me because it is the first time in 8 years that I am not returning to the classroom in September.  Instead, I will be starting in my new role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, and will likely spend my first week in meetings and professional development.  Although different school boards use various terms for this type of position, the mandate of the job is simply to work with classroom teachers (and schools in general) to build the capacity of teachers with the use of instructional technology.  In practice, this could mean anything from helping a teacher get acquainted with a particular tool (such as a Smart Board, document camera, etc.) through to helping teachers redevelop their assessments to engage and empower 21st century students.

If you have read my blog before you will likely know that the ITRT position is very well suited to my interests in education, technology, and leadership.  But, what makes this job so exciting for me is that I feel lucky to be transitioning into this leadership role at an amazing time.  There is an enthusiasm building in my school board, and teachers are embracing the concepts of 21st century classrooms now more than ever before.

Last week, I was a conference put on by the Peel Board called Teaching and Learning in a Digital World (#TLDWpeel).  The amazing thing was that the organizers were planning for 350 attendees, and over 600 teachers came!  I have been to many edtech-y conferences over the years, but this one had a different energy in the air, and there was an enthusiasm that many people commented on.  I believe that energy came from the fact that the attendees were not “edtech enthusiasts”, but were teachers who have slowly been recognizing that an evolution is taking place, and they want to be a part of that change.

The conference reminded me of the Technology Adoption Cycle shown here from Wikipedia:

While it may still be too early to tell, I believe we are at the beginning to see the wave of the “early majority” rising up.  And for me, in my new role, that is very exciting!

Thinking about this blog post, I went online to watch this fun video from a few years back:

Watching the video I was reminded about the risk-taking involved in being an innovator/leader, and the important role of the early adopters who give credibility to the leader’s vision.  But, what really stuck out to me this time was seeing the enthusiasm of the early majority as they run into the scene to be part of the action.

Now, if we can only get a room full of teachers to dance around like this … that would be something!

Image credit Jim Renaud

Fear of Technology

Often I hear teachers say, “technology never works for me,” or “every time I touch a computer, it breaks.”  I can’t even count the number of times a teacher has asked me to help fix a computer problem, and when I perform the same action with them, the problem seems to have gone away.  They say, “of course it works now that you’re here!”

No doubt if you are the resident go-to person for technology at your school, you have heard similar proclamations.

It is understandable why teachers develop a fear of using technology, as there are many things that can go wrong!  Computers and technology actually do a fantastically good job of pointing out the gaps in our understanding.  Moreover, when technology fails in a lesson, you have 30 pairs of eyeballs watching you fumble your way around!  It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to have your lesson fall apart on account of a simple computer issue.

However, my ability to resolve tech-related issues quickly has little to do with my inherent skill with technology, and more with the fact that I have already experienced an incredible number of mistakes, mishaps, and malfunctions using technology.  As it is with learning any new skill, the only way to get good at something is by making all of the mistakes that make you feel like you’re bad at it!

Integrating educational technology is not easy:  It requires innovation, patience, and tenacity.  Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to teachers about a technology that may be new to them, I like to start by emphasizing the role that resilience will play in our eventual success.  By reminding teachers (and students) that some failure is a necessary part of the learning process, we encourage them to embrace the challenge of it, and not lose sight of the end goal.

Of course, sometimes technology even fails for so-called experts.  If lesson 1 for integrating educational technology is to be resilient, then lesson 2 must be to always prepare a backup plan!


Photo Courtesy: Bjorn1101


A lot of wonderful things have changed in my life in the past few years, both personally and professionally.  Most notably, I now have a little baby girl with whom I can’t seem to get enough of.  Consequently, I have had far less time available to continue writing this blog.  Although life is as busy as ever, I’ve been thinking it was about time to take another run at blogging.  For those who are still subscribed, thank you for your patience!

As part of my renewed commitment to blogging, I have changed the theme.  You may not even notice the difference as it’s not a major change, but it’s something, and I like it!

I really look forward to sharing my thoughts and experience and I continue to learn and grow in this amazing profession.

Limits on Creativity

Creating something new is challenging.

The way I see it, there are two major obstacles to “creating.”  The first is having creativity – you actually have to think creatively to create!  The second is skill – you need certain skills to go from an idea to a product.  For example, if I wanted to draw a picture, I need to be able to envision what I want to draw in my mind (creativity), and then I need to have drawing ability to actually produce the work (skill).  The same can be said for producing music, or writing a short story, or landscaping your backyard, or designing and building a shed, or preparing a delicious meal.  Each of these examples requires having creativity and skill.

I have often felt that I have a desire to be creative but lack the skills to actually produce quality work.  Recently it occurred to me that technology has improved my ability to create because it lowers the barrier on skill.  Technology makes creation more accessible.  For example,  with only a rudimentary level of skill in digital photography, my DSLR camera helps me take (some) great photos.  In addition, programs like Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom have allowed  me to turn great photos into stunning images that I am incredibly proud to share with friends.  These technologies help me to produce a level of quality that I never could have attained with my limited skills.

Over the past 2 years, I have been thinking a lot about fostering the creativity of my students.  I continue to look for opportunities for students to be creative in my lessons and assignments.  Since technology lowers the barrier to creativity, it has often been the conduit through which my students express themselves.  For example, I have had great success with student blogging, film making, and designing infographics.  My students have started poking fun at me saying,

“Sir, none of our other teachers have ever used the word ‘infographic’, and you say it at least twice a week!”

These days, I am excited to explore  more low-tech forms of creativity in my classes (such as creative writing and drawing).  Sunni Brown gave a great 5 minute TED talk called, “Doodlers, unite!”  In it, she explains the benefits of doodling for brain processing.  I found the talk inspiring  and I am already making plans to incorporate doodling into my Physics lessons on a regular basis this coming semester.  My hope is that doodling encourages a deeper (or more concrete) understanding of concepts in Physics.  And, as a bonus, I might be able reuse some of their cartoon gems to teach concepts to future classes!

Photo Credit: Kim Petersen

Thoughts on Plagiarism

As you can imagine, teenagers often look for the best way to maximize results, while minimizing time and effort.  This is no surprise because it’s what we all do.  However, when it comes to academic integrity, the “easy way” can often get students in trouble.

This is not to say that students plagiarize maliciously, only that copy/paste is often too easy not to do.

In an attempt to cut back on plagiarism, many high schools have started using turnitin.com as a way of comparing student work to assignments submitted by other students and to sites across the web.  The truth is, turnitin.com is effective in reducing plagiarism, mostly because it makes students scared.  In my opinion, making students fearful every time they submit an assignment leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, which I think is harmful for inquiry-based learning in the long run.

Just to be clear, what I am talking about in this post is the type of plagiarism that most high school teachers deal with, namely copy/paste.  I am not talking about more serious issues of academic integrity like paying other people to do your work for you.

I think that the problem of plagiarism in high school stems from two bigger issues:

  1. We are not taking the time to teach students how to conduct research properly.
  2. Assignments that teachers give are often too simple to be called “research.”

In general, we need to be doing a better job to educate teenagers as to WHY referencing is so important.  Most importantly, it needs to be taught, not from a place of fear for getting caught, but from a place of character education.  It is important to be academically honest because it is the right thing to do!  In my experience, appealing to students’ sense of right and wrong is actually quite effective because everyone has been on the receiving end of “wrong” before, and knows what it feels like.

I also think that students fail to site their work, simply because it’s a lot of extra work to do it.  I remember being in university and being told that my APA formatting had to be perfect or I would lose marks.  But who can really remember if you’re supposed to put a comma after the date or a period, or whether or not the title should be underlined or italicized?  Even for someone like me, who wants to be academically honest, referencing properly is annoying.  The inconvenience of creating citations is one of the reasons why I like the web tools so much (easybib, bibme, Citation Maker, etc.)  Although these tools are not perfect, they make the process of creating references so much faster and and easier for students.

The second reason that students plagiarize is because they have been asked to do meaningless work.  The teachers who are teaching now did not grow up in the same type of world our current students are living it.  We grew up in a time of information scarcity; our students have an abundance of it (and maybe an overabundance!)  Finding the name of the Prime Minister and a list of his duties is now so ridiculously easy that the task becomes a joke.  Even looking for more complex information, such as the pros and cons of nuclear energy, may have been difficult at one time, but can easily be found these days with a simple Google search.  No wonder students copy/paste from the internet!

Teachers need to be redesigning their assignments to make them plagiarism proof.  One of the key ways of achieving this is to ensure that the method of output is not the same as the method of input.  That is to say, requiring that students transform their learning into a new format or medium.  For example, if students are researching the pros and cons of nuclear energy, don’t ask them to write a report (text in, text out); instead, ask them to put together a public service announcement, or write a song about it (text in, audio/video out).  Even more important though, is asking students questions that are not easily googlable.  If the answer can be found in one of the top sites in a Google search, then the question does not require any higher order thinking skills and should not be considered research to begin with!

Photo Credit: Nisha A

Getting Kids Excited About Books

The post that follows is a guest blog from Elaine Hirsch.  Elaine is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames.  This makes it difficult for her to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

I was happy to see the topic that Elaine chose because I think that it is a nice compliment to the last post I wrote about how I struggle reading books in an era of blogs, twitter, and TED talks. Elaine offers some insight into the value of having kids become avid readers, and offers some suggestions of how to encourage them to read. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

In an era of unprecedented access to digital texts, it’s becoming less and less common for young people to actively engage in reading books. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Books require a level of attention and long-term commitment absent among the growing variety of digital media sources such as Facebook, online schools (including even PhD programs) and the Blogosphere. While this is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book as an literary medium, it is also one of the factors contributing to young people’s aversion to them.

Easy access to internet-based text media has created both an explosion of access to information and a convenient way for people to distract themselves from information they are not necessarily interested in. This fact, coupled with the unfortunate truth that the American school system has consistently undervalued literacy in its educational focus, has led many young people to completely abandon recreational book reading in favor using text for online social interaction with peers. It’s not hopeless, however, to get young people to read books, and the benefits for doing so are immense.

According to Kim Medaris of Purdue University, children who read books recreationally display superior writing skills. Greater writing ability leads children to higher achievement academically, and professionally later in life. The question we must ask is: what is the most effective way to interest children in books?

Introducing books to children in their earlier years can be extraordinarily important and not terribly difficult. Before children achieve basic literacy, it’s a huge benefit to read to them whenever possible. Children are masters at learning by imitation, and if you read aloud to them on a regular basis it will encourage them to follow your example. It is also greatly advantageous to acquaint children with libraries at an early age. With a library card, books are one of the few sources of absolutely free entertainment, and this can help encourage children to continue reading later in life.

Some libraries have had success organizing children’s book clubs, and these can provide a fun environment where children not only develop literacy but also socialize with peers. another important factor in developing a child’s interest in reading is simply having books around the house. Books can inspire curiosity in young children, and even before they can read there are great benefits to exposing children to the look and feel of books. After literacy has been developed, however, the strategies for keeping children hooked and reading change from merely encouraging learning how to read to encouraging children to find reading exciting and stimulating.

Getting children hooked on popular book series has proven very successful in the past. Young readers develop relationships with characters as the series progress that lead them to be more interested and keep them reading further. As children’s reading skills improve this will lead them to explore other, more challenging books to seek ongoing literary satisfaction. Like any skill, literacy becomes stronger with practice and continuing to read opens access to successively more rich and valuable texts. Knowing this, it is certainly not impossible to elevate a child’s comprehension from Harry Potter to Hamlet over the course of a few years.

Ultimately, however, the decision of whether to become an active book reader lies with the children themselves. It is the responsibility of parents and communities to develop environments where reading books is encouraged and rewarded. If good reading habits are instilled in children early on, particularly in a sociable and fun way, it will be nearly impossible to stop them from becoming engaged readers for the rest of their lives.

Image Credit:  ooh_food

Books are a Pain

Recently I realized something about myself.  I don’t like to read books – at least not as much as I used to, and definitely not in the ways that I used to.

When I was growing up, I really enjoyed reading books.  As a young boy I usually read for at least an hour before bed each night.  Nowadays, I find it hard to get through many non-fiction books and I find myself wishing that the book would “get to the point.”

So, what changed?  The Internet.

I often feel privileged to have been born when I was.  I feel like I had a good foundation in the pre-internet era, but I was still young enough to be heavily influenced when the internet really started to bloom.  In my house, we didn’t get the internet until I was in grade 10 (1996) and by then I was really starting to feel left out.  I can recall a time in grade 9 when a classmate of mine was bragging about how fast it was to surf the web with a 28.8 kbps modem; “that he could never go back to 14.4!”

Back then, there was no question that books were better for reading.  You could carry them around, you could write on them, you could easily share them, and you could admire them on your shelf.  By contrast, reading on a computer screen was the opposite in every way.  But a lot has changed since then.  Now I find that my hand cramps up holding a book between my fingers; I find that the reading light by my bed casts an annoying shadow on the pages of a book; I find that the text in a book is smaller than I would like it to be.  Books are more annoying to me than using a computing device.

The reality is that I probably read more now than I ever have in my life – I’m just not reading books.  Instead, I’m reading tweets, blogs, and websites that are filled with an abundance of ideas to stimulate my brain.  And, I know I’m not alone.

High speed internet and web 2.0 have promoted an ideas explosion.  If you’re hungry for ideas (and I am), the web often pulls you in far better than a book.  The web provides ideas instant gratification.  It’s no wonder I want books to “get to the point.”

At first blush, ideas instant gratification may sound like a bad thing – like drive-through fast food – but I don’t think it is.  These ideas have transformed my teaching and, in many ways, my life.  For example, these TED talks alone have had a huge impact on my classroom:

Sir Ken Robinson, Dan MeyerDaniel PinkCharles LeadbeaterSir Ken again, Clay Shirky, Sugata Mitra, Chris Anderson, Tom Wujec, Diana Laufenberg, and many, many others.

In the 3 hours it would take me to watch all of the videos listed above, I might be able to finish one short book.

Now, I recognize many people might say that ideas instant gratification can have a down side.  They might suggest that I’m losing my attention span, or that I am missing the opportunity to explore the depth and nuance of a topic.  But I don’t think so.  I think the internet has just raised my level of expectation for a books because we are surrounded by an abundance of compelling ideas.  If an author wants me to use 5-10 hours of my life reading their book, the ideas need to be intriguing, the text needs to be well written, and the argument needs to be very thoughtfully crafted – otherwise I have to move on.

Final thought:  My students have never known a world without the internet.  What do they think when they see a book?

Image credit:  pasukaru76

Default Settings

Computer programmers make choices on your behalf.  Usually the “default settings” are configured in a way that most people would want them, or at least are set so that the computer program is the simplest to operate.  Advanced computer users are quick to start making changes to the default settings:  they want programs installed in specific places, they want different programs to open certain files, and they want programs to behave in a precise way.  Altogether, they take control of their computer and tweak it to improve how it operates.

As I prepare for the first day of a new school year, I have been thinking about the “default settings” for a classroom.  When students enter my classroom each day throughout the first week, I feel like I’m installing a new program on my computer.  As I install the program I make choices on how the program will run – I can modify the default settings.  This process of modifying the default settings of a classroom is what makes teachers into “advanced users.”

Students already have default settings pre-programmed from day one.  In my case, these settings are the result of over 10 years of formal schooling, and from the social pressures of being a teenager.  Here’s one example:  Grade 9 students don’t like to share ideas publicly.  Why?  Because in their 10 years of learning, they have had relatively little opportunity to do so.  In addition, they have learned that it is best to protect yourself at all costs from looking awkward, vulnerable, or different.  As an “advanced user,” I know that if I hope to have discussions, debates, and active participation in my class, I will need to change this default setting.

These are some of the new default settings that I want my classroom to have:

  • contribution is always valued
  • struggling is okay – readiness, resilience, and resourcefulness pave the road to success
  • collaboration is key – working with new/different people is useful and interesting
  • character counts (“it’s nice to be nice”)

In my first week of school, the emphasis is not on curriculum but on building community.  Expose your students to the type of learning environments you want to use throughout the year.  Provide time for students to learn each others’ names; Get students to talk and share their experiences; Make them form groups – many different groups; Get students to move around.  Each activity that students participate in slowly changes the default settings.  Here is an example of activity I use to create a classroom expectations video with my students.

After a week of moving around, sharing, praising, and collaborating, I have changed the default settings of my classroom.  Students then come to class with a different mentality – A mentality I can really work with!

Image Credit:  Lollyman

High Scores

When I log into my school board email system I am presented with a news feed that is received by all the teachers in the district.  Usually there are short stories about the accomplishments of different students/teachers in the board.  A few weeks ago I saw a “news release” that told about two students in our board who graduated high school this year with an average of 100% (based on their best 6 grade 12 courses).


What kind of assessments are these students exposed to such that they are able to score 100% on EVERYTHING?!

I can see how it may be possible for a student to demonstrate all of the knowledge requirements in a course, but as teachers we are responsible for far more than knowledge-based assessments.  I can only assume that if a student can finish with 100% in all her courses, then there has definitely been an over-emphasis on traditional tests and projects.  This is disappointing to me.

As teachers in the 21st century we need to create engaging learning environments where students are challenged to be critical and creative thinkers.  We need to develop assignments that encourage students to be resourceful and self-directed.  We need to provide opportunity for students to have meaningful collaboration and teamwork.  And we need to be aware that we are preparing our students for a world where the problems that need to be solved don’t fit on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, nor will they be solved with “test taking skills.”

Over the past few years, I have been trying to make the following changes to my classroom:

  1. Students learn from each other as much as possible.  Nurturing a classroom community is very important.
  2. Developing assignments that absolutely cannot be completed by copy/paste, memorization or “cramming.”
  3. Creating some projects that are broad in scope to allow students to “make it their own” in meaningful ways.

Personally, I think that the tradition of publishing the names of the students who have achieved the highest overall average in the board is an obsolete practice.  It comes from an era in which marks were emphasized above all else and the marks were based on old-school assessment practices like traditional tests, quizzes and homework checks.

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world, achieving high marks in high school will only be one predictor of future success – and not the best one by far!  Instead, look for students who are intrinsically motivated, who are creative thinkers, who are self-directed learners, and who are able to build and maintain personal learning networks.  These are now (and have always been) better indicators of future success than a student’s graduating average.

Image Credit:  clspeace

Google Cloud Connect

I am always coming across new web tools that help me in my life or in my classroom. With so many web tools popping up all the time, it is difficult to find time to evaluate all of them. In most cases, I will experiment with a new tool and drop it right away. However, every once in a while a tool comes out that makes a significant impact on how I “do things” because it allows me to do something entirely new, or make something I already do faster and easier.  This year I have fallen in love with Google Cloud Connect.

Here’s the situation – I am constantly updating my teaching resources: I create new assignments, I update rubrics, I tweak my templates, I redesign my presentations, I change my writing style. Even when I assign my students an assignment that I developed last year, I always take the time to modify it. Does it need a picture? Is the question confusing? What did students get stuck on? Is the document well laid out?

The reason that “tweaking” is a problem, is that it becomes very difficult to keep my class website updated with the latest versions of each document. Many times, I have made significant changes to an assignment but forgotten to update the web version. This can lead to a major problem when I have some students who lose their assignment sheet and decide to work from the web version of the document, not realizing that the assignment has changed.  Google Cloud Connect is the perfect solution to this problem.

Here’s how it works:  Google Cloud Connect is an add-on for Microsoft Office.  Once installed, it uploads every document you open (automatically or manually) into your Google Docs web archive and keeps the changes you make in sync with the web version.  More importantly, as soon as the document is uploaded, Cloud Connect creates a unique URL for accessing the document online.  By default, all documents are available only to you when you log into Google Docs, however you can also change the sharing permissions on the document right from inside Microsoft Office.

This service has been a huge time saver for me.  From now on, when I update my class website, I create links to the web version of each document stored in my Google Docs account rather than uploading the file to my server space.  Now, every single time I make a change to one of my assignments, the change is immediately synchronized with the web version, so my website is always up to date with the latest version of a document.  No more uploading – It’s automatic!

This service has also come in handy many time for sharing files with other people.  Often other teachers ask to have a copy of something I have created.  In the past, I would have to attach the file to an email, which can be very slow for large presentations with lots of images.  Now, I can simply share the link to the file in an email message.

Cloud Connect has also allowed me to do more marking of student work digitally.  For example, I can open a rubric file, fill it out, save it with a unique name, and email the link to a student without having to mess around with attachments.

Finally, Cloud Connect simply backs up every document I start working on so I never have to worry about losing my work.

As a Google Docs user I have considered transitioning away from Microsoft Office entirely.  I do love Google Docs, and it has a place in my life/classroom, but I am not yet ready to abandon Word and PowerPoint altogether just yet. The reality is that I am a master at word processing and formatting, and there is a lot that I can do in Word that I cannot yet do in Google Docs.  For now, Cloud Connect acts as a perfect bridge between Microsoft Office and Google Docs.