Sometimes the hassle of tech just isn’t worth it…

IMG_0182There are moments in teaching where everything around you has turned to custard.

Resources arrive late, there’s a big event happening and the technology isn’t playing ball.

Yep you read right.

Even us technology enthusiasts have days where we wonder out loud after having plans and back up plans fall through.

The classroom is in disarray and we seethe.

Technology was supposed to make teaching easier but it is throwing up more problems than solutions.

Is it really worth all this hassle?

And there’s that kid.

The kid who you spent a lot of time on restorative conversations, the kid who is often in ‘trouble,’ the kid who puts in the bare minimum on a good day.

Yep that one.

At 8pm that kid emails through a video created not because it was on the homework sheet or because you said so.

But for the joy of it.

This kid is doing things you haven’t taught and using resources you hadn’t gotten around to showing the class.

You realise that one teaspoon at a time there’s a shift in this kid’s perception of learning.  The tech is helping that kid in ways you don’t know because you were too busy being stressed by what wasn’t working today to notice what was going well in the classroom.

After that you know you’ll go another 10 rounds of classroom madness just to get that something awesome out of that kid…

“How can we do research if we don’t have a computer?”

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Image by author

Every so often a child says something that reminds again that their lived reality is so different from my own.

I had set up the children in my class with a small provocation to ponder during the week, that transportation needs engines to move. The kids and I tottered off to the library with the burning question.

As the children went about replenishing our classroom library with old favourites like Geronimo Stilton, one of the kids came up to me looking confused.

“Ms Stephanie how can we do research in the library? We don’t have our computers.”

It was then that reality whacked me in the face.

The kids in front of me have never known an era where their parents haven’t possessed a device that can give them answers to questions. To look for information in books was so out of this nine year old’s experience that the student wasn’t able to connect library equals books equals information.

I’m sure that many teachers would see this as a further evidence that technology is destroying the fabric of education as a whole, that a child would not think of the books in the school library as a place to find facts.

Yet what is this child’s experience?

Like many adults these days if I’m stumped about something, I will often whip out my phone for the answer.

This is what she knows.

Yes we still read books but when I think of my own choices for reading these days, most of them are a result of recommendations on twitter rather than browsing the library or bookstore. No longer do I need to head down to the encyclopaedia aisle to find the knowledge I’m looking for and fun facts along the way.

My book choices find me.

This is our student’s reality.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use a teachable moment to give nine year olds in 2014 the experience of a nine year old of curling up in the encyclopaedia section in 1989 to learn more about the world.

Several kids in my class had managed to locate books on cars. Others were looking on the library’s date base. Most were milling around. So I we went down to the non-fiction section. I explained that the children who had found cars were on the right track, but if they had looked in the previous section there were a whole lot of books on forces and motion.

Are these the sort of books that might help us?

The covers were enticing and were giving the children messages that they were on the right rack.

Within seconds the kids were busy pulling out books and sharing with others. They glanced and pictures first and then started finding words. I quickly did a series of mini lessons explaining table of contents and that you didn’t need to read reference books cover to cover to find information. Look for chapters that you think might help you first is part of the beauty of these types of books.

The kids were quickly ensconced in new found facts, both intended and unintended.

“Hey Miss Stephanie this book has websites we can go visit.”

Awesome make sure you bring it back to class with you.

It’s time to stop viewing technology in opposition to the strengths of books and paper. All have their place in learning and by bringing the strengths of the digital world with the world of books oh what places our children will go.

And those teachable moments?

They exist to remind the adults in education the importance of humour and humility in helping educate children.

How do you learn if you aren’t a connected educator?

I started teaching in 2003.

In a fit of youthful exuberance I decided to embark on an adventure to teach English as a Foreign Language.  I knew nothing about Korea outside of watching MASH re-runs and my teaching experience at the point consisted of some in school observations as part of my education degree. Yet this didn’t seem to bother my employers. Thus  I winged my way over to the Land of the Morning Calm thinking that teaching a bunch of Korean 5 year olds their ABCs would be a piece of cake.


By lunchtime I had a melt down into a misery. I had no idea what I was doing and there was nobody around to help. So I did what any normal 20 something in need of advice and support in the early 2000s did.  I searched google. From that search I found a message board filled with teachers who were in the exact position as me only with a few months more experience.

Through message board I learned some teaching strategies,  a few useful phrases in Korean, found out where to buy western goods, made life-long friends and at the end of my 12 month contract found a job. On the board I argued about current events and posted stupid videos. We  organised parties and study groups. I know of at least one married couple that met through a party organised by members of the message board.

Again this was 2003 long before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or the phrase social networking had even been uttered.

We had no idea that this sort of learning would still be considered innovative 10 years later. All we wanted was to know where to buy western goodies in a land of unfamiliar groceries and connect with people who quite literally spoke our language.

I bring up this story not to pat myself on the back for being an early adopter but because I have no idea how to be a teacher without having a posse of online friends to help me out.

I wonder where teachers who don’t connect online source ideas and inspirations for their teaching.

I wonder who they turn to for advice in tough times.

I wonder how they decide what books to read and what conferences to attend.

In short I wonder how non-connected educators learn.

Unlike traditional and pre-planned in professional development, being connected to a global network of educators enables me to learn 24 hours a day. This was true even before the popular social networks were invented let alone considered important enough to have a month dedicated to being a connected educator.

After using social networking for over a decade to learn, I can safely say that no  workshop or conference I can attend now is more valuable or offers a greater level of interaction than the network of educators I interact with on Facebook, Twitter or through reading blogs.

This is not to say I don’t find value in face to face interactions, far from it. The instant conversation and connection afforded to me by the avatars I interact with opens the way to a deeper level of conversation when we do meet in person.

However I’ve quickly realised that I may not be the best person to convert others to the world of online professional learning. Connected educators are often too passionate about our learning that we scare off the uninitiated with talk of hashtags, tweetdecks and RSS feeds.

Moreover the culture of how we learn and what we learn is so different. It requires a change in mindset and skill to go from working in the isolation of your classroom or school and having someone else guide your learning to using a device to control your own learning both personally and professionally.

It’s amazing how fast connected educators forget what is like to send out that first tweet or trying to follow a fast flowing chat where everyone else knows what’s going on. We don’t remember a time when our blog posts weren’t read by anyone else. In short we forget about the time and effort required to master this ecosystem and focus merely on the pay off.

For some the pay off isn’t worth the effort.

I think it is safe to safe to say that most teachers are connected to device that enables them to connect to the internet.   If we consider all the different ways teachers have to connect online – facebook, twitter, nings, pinterest, flickr, google+, instagram, active education accounts are a small proportion of active teachers.

What we need is to get more teachers connected to one another.

To be clear I’m not saying that you need to be connected to be a good teacher nor that the unconnected are in anyway bad teachers. However if you are doing something awesome in your classroom couldn’t other people learn from it? Could other people tweak the idea and make it better?

We can’t have the same conversations with the same people on connectedness every October without some expectation for change.

Will next year be more of the same or a different landscape all together?

Google Challenges – Information literacy old and new @GoogleForEdu

Fast paced and frustrating.

A Google a Day challenge is a class favourite. I’ve conducted the challenges with big Year 7/8 kids down to Year 4.

Google has a large selection of challenges available for teachers to use. The challenges include a few sentences that have some clues that the kids can use to search to help find the answer. They then email in the answers into the teacher. To the untrained eye it probably looks like the kids and I are fluffing around on a computer but the classroom is often a hive activity that comes from groups kids trying to nut out the answer.

To be successful the children need to be able to break questions down, find out the meanings of unknown words and decide what the question is really asking through creating search strings. I’m sure a few will probably criticise me for teaching out of date search methods however I’ve found that the children are starting to make links from these challenges back to reading groups, skimming and scanning for information, using key words to help with comprehension, discussing purpose and intent that make these challenges worthwhile.

I’ve also been tweaking the format to suit my needs.

Many of the challenges on the google site now included hacks where people are answering the question directly online.  While I love the idea of promoting greater information literacy in class, the challenges themselves often were random facts rather that were competed unrelated to the unit of inquiry or topic we were studying

So I started writing my own.

This is a challenge related to last years unit of inquiry into the rainforest.


Google challenge

The image provided a magical teachable moment. The kids recognised the bird as a toucan and started search for ‘proof’ that the toucan produced a weapon. They were outraged that the image had led away from the answer. However I was able to show that our world is full of images, some of them enhance the writer’s message others will distract and it’s up to us to decide about the purpose of the image.

Images can also be used as a way to find information.

In this case the children were able to use the picture of the girl in this google challenge to help them find the information they needed to identify Adora Svitak.


Sometimes I’ve used Google challenges as a way to spark kid’s curiosity.


The challenge on Ruby Bridges quickly had the kids curious about the era of segregation. The idea that people shouldn’t be able to mix based on the colour of their skin seemed alien in my international school classroom. They were also curious as to how art and music can bring about social change. The children quickly located the song and the Norman Rockwell painting provoked further interest in the intensity of the protests Ruby Bridges faced on her fist day of school.

We’ve yet to explore how video, newspapers and news can be used to help us and I’m sure as google’s tools become more sophisticated the potential for teaching information literacy actually becomes more important not less.

Weekly Reflection: Inertia


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My knowledge of physics ends at barely scraping through a pass in high school. However over the last week I’ve been thinking a lot about inertia, the principle that every object has to preserve its present state whether in movement or not. The bigger object, the more energy there is needed to get moving.

What on earth does that have to do with schools?

Schools are large, organisations they go from being at rest to a hive of activity very quickly. Getting that moving requires huge amounts of energy usually powered on adrenaline and large amounts of caffeine.

As the school year moves on from being ‘new’ to established classroom there’s new sort of pressure. To get all those reading and maths programmes up and running, at a time when the body hasn’t quite gotten over the shock of coming from vacation back into the frenetic world of school.

There are assessments to be done, groups to be formed, interim reports to be written, meet the parents evenings. Meetings seem to crop up.

Once the programmes get going, and the routines have been established things seem to even out, your body gets used to the pace. Coming to a halt at the end of the year? The same problem but in reverse.

As we start the year, I’m already behind. I have tendency to linger on building classroom culture which comes into conflict with the cold hard reality that I’m only six weeks from the end of term. Have we done enough writing? Those spelling groups need to be formed.

However the most important job for a teacher at this point is getting to know the kids and their families , the kids getting to know you, which sets the scene for learning.

Yet perhaps part of the problem is that our traditions in schools take us away from those goals not further to them.

Why do schools keep passing students on from one teacher to another year after year?. I’ve looped students before and see so many benefits. You know the kids. The kids know you. Classroom routines can be built on and relationships enhanced. Teaching siblings already puts me at ease with some of my parent community.

Keeping meetings and administrative tasks to an absolute minimum to focus on building relationships. Our team has items we talk about if there are questions, rather than talking over every single point. I’ve also had a few meetings cancelled at the start of the year and oh what a difference that extra hour makes. Which leads to wonder, how many meetings do we call just for the sake of calling them? Instead of coming together information shouldn’t it be for collaboration?

Maybe we could do more with less and that object wouldn’t be so heavy and so hard to get moving?

Weekly Reflection: A new school year

Essential agreement - process as well as product.

Essential agreement – process as well as product.

A new school year starts.

If finishing a school year in June was weird, beginning one in August is even weirder.

A new year brings with it new challenges and opportunities, some expected others not. There is no such thing as the perfect class, just a group of kids you hope leave wiser and happier after spending time in their classroom.

I’m moving down another year level to Year 4 with a bit of Year 3 and Year 2 thrown in for good measure.

There are new names to remember, routines to establish.

It’s also been the first time in a number of years where I’ve been forming a class from scratch. Previous years I’ve had students I’ve worked together with previously or come into an already established classroom. This time around it’s a fresh class though having taught in the school I’m now teaching siblings of previous students.

Looking back on my previous attempts to make the start of year more awesome some things still remain the same.

Welcome to a new school year video. I find video a fantastic way to set the scene for the year ahead kids.  It is a way to show your personality and in this case introduce the PYP learner profile to the class. It was also a fantastic way to reach out to parents and really shouldn’t every year start with the opening crawl from Star Wars?

Lollypop moments – In 2012 I stumbled onto this awesome TED Talk by a guy called Drew Dudley, who argued that true leadership was in the little every day things that we do to make each others lives better which he called lollypop moments. I used this metaphor throughout the year and I think it really added something special to our classroom culture.  While I won’t be divving out lollypops with as much frequency as I did in the past, the moments will continue to be there. I’m also recording who nominates and who gets nominated as a way to start looking for patterns in the class. Who needs help, who is not being recognised?

Whimsical and fun challenges The BP tech challenges have some fantastic challenges for kids to solve challenges based on supplies commonly found around the school. Building a tower out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti is my personal favourite mainly because the kids usually end up eating the marshmallows at the end of it.

Augmented reality tour  Forget the usual school tour. Let the kids loose with an iPad and a list of places to go visit to find the secret clues. Great way to ‘meet’ specialist teachers without having to bother the specialist teachers.

Essential agreement/class treaty  Whatever language having a common understanding of how we all should be treated in the classroom. Show the process of getting there rather than just a nice picture otherwise the words are just classroom wallpaper.

A lesson in effective communication

Flight delays.

Like many small set backs in life the attitude you take determines your experience.

In attempt to make hay while the sun shines, I sent out this light-hearted tweet.

As this conversation was taking place, Tripit was quickly sending push out notifications of gate changes and delays to the flight to my iPhone.

At no point did I ever feel lost. In fact I was spending time dropping in on #satchatoc and #educampakl while waiting for my flight.

Aside from extra professional learning time, my biggest takeaway from being delayed in Dallas is that in an era of instant, personalized communication the traditional models schools use to communicate with students and their families – newsletters and reports – are relics from another age.

In pre-email days school communication was mass produced, one size fits all, periodic and lengthy. All parents received the notice containing details of the Year 4 cross country date in the weekly school newsletter whether they had a child in Year 4 or not. The piece of paper containing the newsletter might make it home in time or languish in the bottom of the school bag until the day before, or after, the Year 4 cross country.

In the era of email we’ve gone to newsletters on a slightly smaller scale, year group or syndicate. Delivery has become more accurate and content more relevant. Yet this system has added to teacher workload without really giving parents what they want; timely, relevant and personalized updates about their child’s learning.

Unfortunately I’ve yet to find a way to balance the need for report comments to be timely and relevant for each child in the class while at the same time teaching a full course load and attempting to have a life.

Non-teachers can find it hard how time consuming writing reports are. To put things in perspective, my last batch of report comments was just shy of 12,000 words – the same length as my Honours dissertation. Despite my effort my comments were inherently flawed.

As I was giving my end of year reports a final proofread, I remember thinking how out of date many of the comments seemed. Goals reached, extra effort by the kids in the last few weeks of school went unacknowledged in their report. It was too late to change each child’s report then have the updated comments proofed and checked.

Information cycles in the real world have sped up considerably in the last few years. Guidebooks are out of date the moment they go to the printer, newspapers update their websites after the morning edition. Yet in schools our information cycles stare from another time.

Which is where the problem lies.

Like many teachers I operate in two eras of communication. I’m still creating the mass produced, lengthy, periodic, just in case communication from the industrial age while at the same time attempting to create responsive, timely, brief and personalized communications that are characteristic of the digital era.

I’m sure there will come a day when the time consuming process of creating industrial communication in schools will come to an end. However despite the technology already being here, communication systems for educators still aren’t up to scratch. I’ve yet to find a learning management system that does exactly what I need it to do.

The closest I’ve come is doctopus with the goobric extension which enables me to quickly push out content to kids using google apps for education. The students can share their content with others, I can give personalized feedback to each child yet still maintain an overview of where the class is at. It’s personalized to me as a teacher and to each of the kids.

However parents are the missing component from this ecosystem unless the child or I share with mum and dad. In the past I’ve subscribed parents to their child’s blog as a way for home to get automatic updates without adding to my workload.

And that’s the key, automation and mobility. Technology should make communication for teachers more timely and effective. It should not add to our workload through needless logins, cutting and pasting information between windows and terrible user interfaces.

However most learning management tools require teachers to do just that.

I often joke that any learning management system without an iOS app is dead to me.

Instead of turning somersaults to make bad information systems work we need to be more demanding in our technological needs. Not just for own sanity but for the experience of our students and their families.

In an era where an app on my phone can push out personalized, relevant announcements faster than the airport departure board, we need to rethink what effective communication looks like in schools.

And it shouldn’t involve anyone needing to login into a browser to look for their communication.

It should just be there just when we need it.

PostScript. The flight to Chicago was accompanied with a midair proposal that even had the cynic in 18F smiling. Despite all the advances in technology there is some communication best done in person.

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