Make your parent emails more meaningful with @adobespark

In this age of instant communication, the old paper newsletter that often ended up scrunched up at the bottom of the bag is a relic of the past.

Each week I send out a ‘warm fuzzy’ email where parents learn more about what’s going on in class as well as important dates coming up.  As the drafter of the emails, I had several needs not being met by email

  • No information on how many parents had read the email – Am I sending notices out into virtual void?
  • No ability to add a large number of photos or video to the email.
  • The emails didn’t look visually appealing – particularly if reading on a mobile device

Thinking from a parent’s perspective I knew that the parents wanted

  • Visually appealing information – no large blocks of text
  • Lots of photos
  • The ability to access readable content on multiple devices
  • A chance to show they’ve received the information without necessarily sending a reply

Enter Adobe Spark.

Adobe Spark is a free digital storytelling platform. Whether you’re viewing Adobe Spark Page on your phone on your computer, the results are beautifully designed and readable multi-media pages.

You can use Spark in a web-based browser or on iOS Apps. You do need a sign to access Adobe Spark, but you can use your Google Account. The bonus of the App feature is that you can create on the go, I often write my newsletters on the commute home from school. Being able to send out beautiful updates from school camp or out on field trips is another possibility.

What I love about Spark as a creator is the simplicity of the interface.

I use pages for my Newsletters.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 9.30.17 PM

You then build your content using a simple interface – the only things you must include is an image, headline, and sub heading.

The rest is up to you.

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You can add text, links to videos, Photo Grids, a ‘Glide Show’ ( text is overlayed on a photo). Spark turns all your content into well-designed multimedia stories that you can then share via a link with your parents. Here’s an example of a recent newsletter from my class.

When you are finished hit the share button and you’ll get a notice like this.

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You do need to select a category. Be careful to turn off the ‘get noticed’ if you don’t want your email to be promoted on the Adobe Site.

I then share the link out via email to my parents.

One of the great features of Spark is the ability of readers to acknowledge that they’ve read the newsletter through giving some love.

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As a creator, I have access to the number of views and hearts each update received on the ‘My Projects’ page. This lets me know, at the very least, my messages are getting through but I also like seeing the hearts.

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I could see Adobe Spark being used for digital storytelling. In particular, I think it could be a great platform for digital portfolios for learners which is something I may trail with the learners next year.


iContastic scavenger hunt – getting up to speed on iPads

Disclaimer: I stole this idea from Pana Asavavatana – please give her all credit.

I had three kids start in my class this semester. Keen to get the new  kids up to speed on iPad usage and also give some of my less confident kids a bit of a boost, I held an icon scavenger hunt.

The kids were given a list of icons and had to go into their iPads to find out where they’ve seen them and what they do.

The catch was the whole class had to know, so the quick kids had to help the small ones.

Knowing the visual ‘language’ of the iPads helped the children to make connections between apps. Having their own cheat sheet, the kids go back and start problem solving for themselves rather than running to an adult in the room enabling them gain more independence and confidence using technology.

I’ll definitely be reusing this idea at the start of the year so the kids can spend more time understanding the ‘language of the symbols’ rather than ‘how the app works.’

On community versus broadcasting

During my Cambodian sojourn I took part in a food tour through the markets in Siem Reap and out to a rural village.

Talking with the guide we got on to the topic of social media.

I casually mentioned that I found the business through a contact on Instagram.

While I enjoyed following this business’s Instagram account as a user I find it far more gratifying to take part in a hashtag.

A hashtag enables me to:

  • Participate beyond a like – I can contribute my own photos to the experience
  • See other perspectives
  • Interact with people I met on the tour
  • Inspire others to learn more about the business

Online participation is more effective when we are truly connecting, not broadcasting.

Luscious #green and #purple #siemreap #cambodia #instatravel #travelgram #eatsiemreap #foodie #market

A post shared by Stephanie (@traintheteacher) on

Where great learning with iPads really starts…

Today was like Christmas at school. Each member of the primary school teaching staff received an iPad mini. For the amount of time and effort we put into technology, the most important person who needs the device first is the teacher. They need to understand what it does, play with it. Then start thinking about how it can be used to transform learning.


Is online sharing about the journey or destination?

Picture by me

Picture by me

When I started personal blogging back in the early 2000s, I used to bookmark the blogs I enjoyed reading and visited the sites daily to see if they had been updated. It was the digital equivalent of walking down to the store to buy a magazine.

Then I found out about RSS feeds – a system which enables you to pick and mix what updates you want to receive from websites, blogs, youtube delivered all to one sport. It’s a great system – basically Facebook without all the algorithms.

Because those algorithms have made us lazy.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I watched people on teacher group I’m a member of on Facebook ask for links to content that a simple google search would easily locate. We’ve all gotten so used to operating within the walled garden of Facebook that even a google search seems too difficult these days.

I worry that we’ve got to the point we’re all so used to being spoonfed content, that we’ve lost something along the way. Genuine conversation.

One of the things that drew me into blogging was the ability to connect, as you followed a person’s writing over a period of weeks, months and years you got to know the writers as people. There are so many people I’ve met, reconnected with and stay in contact with through blogging and tweeting.

And I feel like that community has been lost.  

We’ve become less attached to conversations and people and are now much more likely to turn to quick fixes.

The rise of the expert bloggers and tweeters with thousands of follows has permanently changed the tone of edublogging and not for the better. A lot of the content showing up online isn’t conversational in nature – they are standalone pieces designed to be re-shared through vast social networks.

  • 5 ways to have the perfect twitter account/set up the classblog/iPad apps to use in reading/questions to ask your team leader/
  • Inspirational quotes without or without pretty quotes
  • Infographics that look pretty but say nothing
  • Tweetbait from conference keynotes – ‘no kid comes to school to take standardized tests’ that then gets endlessly retweeted.

It looks pretty and on the surface it seems collaborative but are we sharing the journey or the destination? There’s far less scope for a classroom teacher to share what worked (or didn’t) for them when there are whole bunch of edu-experts who have that problem solved in 10 easy steps.

And for me, that what isn’t what authentic learning is about.

There needs to be more conversations, vulnerability and critical eyes.  It does educators no good to be stuck in an echo chamber of personal branding.

We aren’t brands. 

Our classroom stories don’t need to be stylised to be shareable.

If teachers really want our kids in our classes to be using the internet to its full potential, we need to be using it for more than just ‘connecting.’  The best learning outcomes for kids have been when I’ve had an established and authentic relationship with the teachers involved and mistakes have been made along the way.

Share the journey, not the destination.


Why I banned Google slides in class

I love Google Apps for Education the services keep getting better. There are oodles of scripts and extensions to further enhance the experience for both kids and teachers. As far as ease of use, ability for children to collaborate and a teacher to give feedback nothing beats Google.

Yet there has one been one tool that has been a niggling problem in class.


The first thing that most of the kids in my class do when faced with a classroom task is open a presentation. Despite modelling and guiding the kids in design principles, showing them other creation tools, I was still receiving multiple poorly designed slide decks.

Lots of information, bad photos, poor design and a couple of YouTube videos embedded with no context.

When the kids were giving presentations, they were reading off the slide decks. More problematically they weren’t demonstrating a high level of understanding of the concepts they had been learning.

So I took a step back and observed the children’s use of slides.

Lots of copying and pasting, not much analysing and thinking. Moreover the kids were losing sources of information unless it happened to be a YouTube video.

The problem wasn’t slides.

The problem was that slides were being overused and used as a curation tool rather than for the purpose of creating presentations. There was a need for the kids to a break up ‘research and thinking’ and the creation rather than doing a bad job of both at the same time.

So I took an unusual step – I banned the use of slides in class.

The kids were free to use any other tool. I also introduced the kids to Pintrest as a means to curate content.

It was like a light went off in the kids heads – research needs a different set of tools from creation.

The children started using their bubble catchers, they started talking about concepts with each other and were suggesting websites for their friends to visit.

When it came time to think about how they were going to ‘show what they know,’ all those other tools and apps the kids had learned were utilised. Better yet, they were planning what their content first on docs taking pictures from their bubble catchers of important ideas to remember.


Transliteracy in action

Yet as we sat down for our class read-aloud, I fired up a google slides which I use as a modelling book for our novel discussions on the class projector.

“Hey Ms Stephanie I thought you’d banned slides in our class.”

I love that the kids tripped me up on my hypocrisy.

We discussed purpose of using slides during read alouds, the kids were able to identify that slides were a good tool because:

  • Everyone can see the words in the board when we’re discussing and reading the story.
  • We can refer back to our thinking and predictions as we read the story.
  • Children can access discussions easily online via a link on our blog when working on literacy tasks or discussing the novel on our classblog.

Then I challenged the kids to think of how they were using slides and how much clearer their thinking was now they were using tools appropriate for the purpose.

A little voice popped up.

“So slides are good, but you need why you are using them.”

Yes that’s it.

Attracting the ‘best and brightest’ into teaching…

If you want an explanation of the gulf of mistrust that exists between the teaching profession in New Zealand and the Minister of Education, you need only look at this article

Teaching needs to attract the best and brightest.

It sounds nice.

Saying you want to attract the best and brightest people into teaching is a bit like saying you want to raise educational standards.

Nobody is ever going to argue against higher standards or not having highly competent people employed in classrooms.

But much like the deeply unpopular national standards, how you define ‘best and brightest’ and more importantly how you reward ‘best and brightest’ play a very important role in determining how you build educational culture.

So for a Minister of Education to be quoted as saying if teaching is a higher-performing profession “it will attract more men” you are already off to a miserable start.

Firstly because are implying the profession isn’t performing well especially in comparison to the fields of law, medicine and engineering. More importantly, this underperformance is due to teaching being a female-dominated profession.

When you walk the halls of the Schools of Education around the country, you definitely notice that there aren’t as many school leavers as you’ll find in the other professional courses.

Teaching often attracts ‘mature’ students.

There some are second-chancers who didn’t do well in school and then rose up through foundation courses to start their degree.  There are also a number of students who have been out in the workforce for a number of years and are looking for a change of scene as well as those whose career priorities have changed as they’ve had kids.

I don’t see this as a bad thing.

Teaching is a job where interesting life experience is definitely an asset. Being inspired into teaching through your own children is is important rite of passage for many teachers, as you’ll spend most of your day interacting with children.

Not everyone is cut out to work with kids when they are 20 but might have a lightbulb moment at 35 once they’ve had their own children.

Which leaves the elephant in the room, teaching is for those not smart enough to gain entry into law and medicine which is why so many women are attracted to the course.

If we are going to narrowly define teaching quality in terms of passing exams, then our Schools of Education probably come up short. But passing exams is not the true measure of a teacher, the potential to inspire learning in children is far more important.

Often it is those who experience failure in the education system who go on to to be the most amazing teachers. They understand struggle, to bounce back from adversity and how those ‘hard to reach kids’ tick far more than the academic high fliers simply because at some point they were one of those kids.

To incentivise those with high grades at the exit point of high school into teaching through cutting off places to drive up demand as the Minister seems to be proposing may very well deprive the educational system of vital expertise.

So how do you attract people, especially young school leavers,  into teaching?

Rather than look to compete on ‘incentives,’ which the public sector will never be able to do, look for the strength within.

The best ambassadors for recruiting people into teaching are teachers.

Yet if I was a secondary student watching the teachers in my school would I be inspired to go into teaching?

I don’t just mean in terms of qualifications and teaching competency , although those are important, but do my teachers look like they are happy with their lives?

I suspect the kids see in too many of their teachers what New Zealand-based educators see in themselves and their colleagues, long hours, stress and tiredness.

Maybe the problem is that the ‘best and brightest’ have looked in their schools and seen there are far too many unhappy teachers.

No amount of new teachers will save a bad culture in education.

That’s evident by the number new of teachers who leave the system within the first few years of teaching. 

It is contradictory to say you want the best people possible to enter the classroom and then set up a working environment that micromanages those within it to the point where all creativity, innovation and passion is progressively squeezed out of them.

If we look at the current educational policy environment in New Zealand, that’s exactly what’s happening.

National standards, PaCT, a code of teacher conduct rather than ethics and stripping teachers of the right to democratically govern their profession goes against teacher opinion.

Don’t demand a cordon bleu chef to flip burgers at McDonalds year after year and then act surprised when they look elsewhere for opportunities.

The best advertisement to get people to enter teaching and stay there long term are happy teachers.

At the moment, teachers in New Zealand aren’t happy.