A Case For Putting Down Your Phone.

First, watch this.

I showed this to my newspaper staff last week, and then issued a challenge to them: track their tech use for five days. How often were they looking at their phones, how many tabs did their browsers have open that weren’t relevant to the task at hand, was their tech use purposeful or rudderless?

I made a list on the board of all the things I want to accomplish, goals I’ve set for myself this year, and shared how my tech use often impedes my longed-for achievements.

I use two apps to try and wrangle my phone into something to serve me, rather than something I serve. Moment notifies me every 15 minutes I log on my phone and sends me a weekly accounting of which apps I’m using the most. ATracker Pro, when I use it, helps me to see how I’m spending my day, with categories I create. Then I get a pie chart of how much time during the week I’ve spent doing things like working, reading, practicing the piano.

I’m grateful for technology’s benefits. Without it, I wouldn’t talk to my sisters everyday. I wouldn’t be able to see photos of friends far and wide. I wouldn’t be able to stay current with the news I prefer to read. I wouldn’t be able to blog.

But there really is a point where, like I asked my newspaper staff, I have to wonder: are we using the tech? Or is the tech using us?

The bright side, I learned from my own efforts and from my newspaper staff last week, is that we have the power to choose how we use our technologies.

Try it for five days–make a list of what do you want to accomplish, and then honestly assess whether your tech use is helping or hindering those accomplishments. You might be surprised at what you can do when you put your mind to it, and set your phone down.

Make The Thing.

When I was in grad school, my super-tech pal Mike taught me about podcasts. I had never heard of them before, but he showed me some basic ones to start with (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, Pardon the Interruption) and I was hooked. Podcasts became a primary source of entertainment and information.

Fast forward ten years and not much has changed. I now subscribe to 20 podcasts, with another 10 I check in on from time to time. I love listening to people tell stories or debate issues. It makes me feel less lonely at home or while driving.

At the end of last school year, I thought about producing my own podcast. I had an idea, so I floated it to my friends at school. Here is Stueve’s recollection of how it happened. (Spoiler: it’s not entirely accurate. But it is entertaining.)

So we’ve recorded 16 episodes and have released three so far. I edit them–so I’m learning GarageBand better every week–and for now, we’re just hosting them on a free service called SoundCloud. But if we really want to get serious, we’ll have to go pro before long.

Sometimes when I edit the podcasts, I am wracked with the same thoughts that hit me when I’m writing: Who are you to publish a podcast? No one will listen to this, besides your sisters. No one cares what you have to say. And your laugh is annoying.

When those voices invade my brain–and they always do–I come back to this, from the sagely Ira Glass:

“Don’t wait. It’s so hard to make anything, that it’s just easy to put it off, and be like, when I get the right financing, when I get the right this or that — just start doing it now. Because one of the great things about this moment in our culture, it’s never been easier to make something. The technology’s never been cheaper, and honestly the way to get the thing out to people is get your stuff out on the Internet, and get an audience, and get a small version to get you enough backing to do the big version.

“There’s so many fucked-up things in our country and in the world right now, and we live in a very dark climate. But the one place where things are going great is, if you want to do creative work, you can actually make some version and get it to people. And just don’t wait, is what I’m saying. Don’t wait. Just make the thing. Make a version. And then make it better. And then make it better.”

We made a thing. It’s a small version. I hope every episode gets a little better. And I like to think it makes our dark climate a tad lighter.

Subscribe! If you like it, leave a review!

But more important, tonight’s message is this: if you feel like creating something, don’t wait. Don’t put it off. Make the thing. Then make it better.

Technology requires an investment in people.

Today while I was at an iPad training, this article popped up in my Tweetdeck. Read the article, but here’s the headline:

Even Apple is acknowledging that the “iPads in education” fad is coming to an end.

I held back a giggle–I was in a room with 60 educators who teach with iPads, all of us collaborating about how to use them best in our classrooms, who had just listened to our district tech facilitators talk about future directions of district technology. I was in the middle of developing a lesson in which students would use their iPads to answer an essential question in my curriculum–and I was reading an article about how iPads are a fad and on the way out education’s door.

But the article highlights a major problem that education has had with technology dating all the way back the Apple IIe: throwing tech at teachers without any training whatsoever.

When I first started teaching with the iPads, I was terrified. I’ve blogged about the triumphs and failures of the past four years (just look to the left and click on the word “iPads” and you can read all about it), as I’ve tried to figure out how to best use the iPads in my classes. And one thing is certain: without adequate training and time, any technology will fail in a classroom.

Last spring, I wrote about how Bellevue Public Schools prepares teachers to teach with iPads. As our district’s Director of Technology reminded us today, we began introducing iPads in our district with six teachers (I was one of those six). Then we expanded to a few more, and a few more, each time bringing in more grade levels and content areas and each time, the district provided all of us with training and time and freedom to take risks and fail and try and succeed. It takes a special kind of leadership to accept and implement a slow-burn approach with such a high-ticket item as the iPad, but our district leadership was willing to do that instead of the alternative that I read about in so many districts across the country.

What bothers me most about the article’s attempt to spell doom for the iPads, is this:

According to one of the teachers surveyed, tablets provided “no educational function in the classroom.”

I would like to sit down with that teacher and listen to what s/he tried to do to use the iPads to improve student learning. I would like to know what kind of training s/he received prior to using the iPads.

I would like to talk with the teacher from Virginia about how the iPad “undermined her pupils’ conversation and communication skills” and ask if she ever used GarageBand to record her students’ reading fluency, or had her students interview each other using the Camera app and make an iMovie to introduce students to the class.

I would like to ask these teachers who declare the iPad such an utter failure how they manage other behaviors like writing notes, texting, daydreaming, reading books, or doodling, when students should be listening or engaged in learning activities. Because blaming the iPads for behaviors that have been around since the dawn of time is unfair.

iPads in education is no more a fad than SmartBoards were ten years ago, than the Internet was twenty years ago, than typewriters were fifty years ago. If districts continue to throw new technologies at their teachers and students without proper supports, if teachers continue to believe that technologies are to blame for behaviors–thinking that the technology supplants classroom management–headlines that blame the technology will persist.

Once again, I find myself incredibly grateful to be teaching in a district that values training teachers how to use technology in the best way possible. Where I’m expected to take risks and fail. Where I’m encouraged to learn constantly so I can improve my skills and teach not only my students, but also my colleagues.

So I offer my sympathy to the teachers in Maine, California, Texas, North Carolina, or any district where the promise of how an iPad could transform a classroom never quite materialized. It is possible for technology to thrive, but it requires an investment in teachers, an investment that I’m afraid too many districts are unwilling to make.

I’m glad that my district invests in its teachers.


About Technology…

I took a two-month break from blogging, as I was a last-minute replacement for the pianist in the school musical. The show closed 10 days ago, and I’m just now getting my bearings back. And today is a great day to blog about education.

Today was another iPad Academy day. And in the few posts I’ve written about teaching with iPads, I don’t think I’ve ever really explained the iPad Academy model. Since too often, people shout from the rooftops about everything that is wrong in public education, I’m going to shout from my tiny rooftop about something done well.

Often when districts purchase technology, it’s done so hurriedly, because whatever boondoggle an administrator saw (likely at a conference where no teachers were present) carries the promise to raise test scores, improve student engagement, vacuum the carpet and coach the baseball team, all by Christmas break. So the tech is purchased and distributed to teachers on August 9, at which time the teachers receive a 45 minute training in how to use the new boondoggle before moving on to important topics like “please take attendance” and “what you can be doing to raise test scores.”

The boondoggle then rests in drawers or gathers dust on bookshelves, save for an intrepid teacher here or there who caught a glimmer of the vision of the boondoggle’s capability.

When my district decided to start using iPads in the classroom, they did so slowly. Some teachers might argue that the district moved a bit too slowly, starting out with just six teachers. And technology implementation and maintenance hasn’t always been perfect, that’s for sure.

But we are now at 50 teachers, all of whom have received adequate training and coaching, and the district continues to provide training and professional development opportunities. Today was one of those days. We have time to collaborate with other iPad Academy teachers and learn what is working–and what isn’t working–so we can continue to push ourselves and our students outside the traditional educational box.

(Here’s how I pushed myself today, in case you’re interested. Not perfect, but I figured out how to do RSA videos and how to teach my students to do them.)

Three district trainers work with all of us, constantly looking for apps and websites that will enrich curricula, and they help us troubleshoot when we develop new approaches to assessments.

As the district acquires more iPads, they don’t have to sacrifice the cost of training more staff to use them, because so many teachers have blazed a variety of trails already. They have a pool of experts with relevant, practical experience who can train their colleagues how to best use technology. And I know I’d rather learn from someone in the trenches.

There’s so much to complain about in public education. But there is also much to celebrate and promote. I know that public opinion sometimes looks at large technology purchases and thinks, “what’s the point?”

In Bellevue, the point is to make sure teachers are supported in implementing new technology, that curriculum and pedagogy drive technology purchases, with an understanding that shrieking “ooh shiny!” will never yield positive results in the classroom.

Technology: Bellevue is doing it right.

Google Classroom, Week One.

When Google announced it was releasing Classroom nearly a month early for all educators, I became quite impatient. I’ve been preaching the Gospel of Google for so long, I remember when Docs only had five fonts and the formatting changed depending on browser. For all its convenience, it was at times, a train wreck.

So anytime Google introduces a new product, I embrace it and deal with the bugs because history has proved the bugs will work out.

Here’s some basic observations about Google Classroom after one week.

1. Creating Assignments.

I love how easy it is to get assignments to students. I have most of them already made in Drive, so it’s just a matter of linking the assignment–and here’s the best part–clicking the option that says “Make a copy for each student.”

Every student gets a copy of the assignment. Gone are the “I thought I shared it with you” laments, because I gave each student the work. It’s a digital way of handing out assignments.

2. Quick View of Who’s Done.

I can easily see who has finished the work and who hasn’t. This is particularly handy for quick assessments done in class, when I don’t want to move on until all responses are turned in. It also is a nice reminder of how much grading I have…I teach so many different subjects that I often can’t keep track of how many students are in which classes. It’s nice to have a snapshot of the grading load.

3. Easy emailing.

In past years, I had to manually set up a class email group. With Classroom, just one click and I’m able to email my students. I know that seems like a small thing to be happy about, but it really is so much easier than sorting through the district directory to add and create an email list.

So far what I am not wild about is that once students turn in assignments, they can’t do any revising until I’ve returned it to them. I teach writing, so that’s a bit problematic since drafting and revising is so important. What I haven’t figured out yet is if students can turn in assignments a second time, after revising. I’ll figure that out this week.

I also wish it functioned a bit more like Blackboard–that I could post articles and links for students to read, but as far as I can tell, everything has to have a due date, and I don’t want a glaring red “DUE DATE” screaming at me. So I’m still using my class website for that.

Overall, I’m happy with how it’s working so far, and like I said, if history is any indication, it will only get better from here.