Saturday, September 20, 2014

An Unexpected Journey

Three weeks in, and I'm doing things I would have never thought I'd be doing at this point.

That's right...I've entered the Matrix. I'm the balding guy up there in the corner.
This school year, I began a new position as a Technology Training Specialist. Coming from being a classroom teacher, I had no idea what I was getting into. I'd hoped my job would include plenty of integration and time with teachers and students, and obviously lots of time playing with tech. It has been some of that, but other things have surprised me.

Courtesy of 8th grade teacher Meghan. Wish it was in my office 

First - I've spent a lot of time on Google Scripting.  And I'm not done yet.  I was approached by the middle school looking for a way to facilitate their new Academic Recovery system, where students would go to get help on homework they were missing.  The system was to help track for data purposes, as well as a way for teachers to communicate with the academic recovery team.  The first iteration sent an email to the team each time a student was sent (via Google Form). But, an issue occured when trying to maintain the spreadsheet and remove the students who had finished. Not that it is that hard, but it is one extra thing and certainly something that is time consuming.

So, with the help of an amazing guy David Tess, we made a system that, using Google Scripts, allowed teachers to type in the name of the student on a different form, and it removed them from the Academic Recovery list.  This then led to requests to have students removed by assignments, because the current method only supported a student name.  We added that in.  Finally, at the end of a long road, we went for a long shot.  With the help of David, we combined old sheets and FormRanger with custom scripting to generate a dynamic drop down on the removal form, eliminating the need to spell both the student name and assignment perfectly as it was on the spreadsheet to remove a student.

I plan on tinkering with this over time, finding new ways to make life easier for teachers. But ultimately, I'm happy with what I learned there and am thankful for the knowledge of Google Scripts and the friends I have that can help me on a whim!

Secondly, I've done a LOT of public relations work for technology.  The attitudes towards technology are very negative, and most teachers are in a whirlwind with the constant changes.  Because of this, I've poured a lot of effort into trying to simplify things for teachers, and show them ways they can achieve results without necessarily losing functionality.  It is scary to live in a world where things change so fast AND they affect your job. It has also helped my rapport immensely once teachers realize that I have taught. I was a teacher.  

Undoctored email. My heart is warmed by stuff like this.

Third, I've got some awesome student connections going. I've transformed the middle school announcements into a daily morning semi-live activity using Google Hangouts on air. I had two boys from last year loving coming in every morning and making this happen. Grand visions exist of a fun and vibrant "news-like" experience where my two veterans can produce the show without much input from me, and we get weekly guest anchors.  The possibilities are there and I'm pumped to see where they go.

Along those lines, I also get to do a similar once a week announcements with students at the intermediate school.

Most promising, though, is a coding club. My assistant principle Luke has been a champion for this club from the beginning and is going to be taking this to our superintendent to make the case for a paid extracurricular. Whether or not it is doesn't matter to me - I'm loving the support and can't wait to get that off the ground this year.

After three weeks of live school (and another two weeks of prep work prior to the school year) I am loving my new position and feel that I am thriving on the fast paced and multi-faceted role I am in.  As the year progresses, I'm hoping to be in classrooms daily and making an impact on each child through some amazing tech integrated projects.  Our TTS team is planning an awesome schedule of workshops for teachers.  De Pere will have an exceptional year of growth in this area.

Oh, and there's this Minecraft after school club I'll be doing on occasion throughout the year.

And we just started a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the intermediate school.

Life is good. I love supporting teachers and connecting with students.

I'm in my element, and it feels great.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Concerns with Educational Conferences

Let me start by saying that I LOVE attending conferences.

They are inspiring, empowering, and always leave you with a boatload of connections and ideas to aid in becoming a better educator.

They provide an opportunity for individual teachers to share their learning and the things they are trying with many people in a face to face environment. It is a way to celebrate what great teachers are doing.

So don't get me wrong, I love all of those aspects. But ultimately, they are very isolating and limiting, which is a bit ironic. Let me explain.

First of all - how many conferences are there throughout the year that are in the middle of the week?  For most teachers, it is challenging to get administrative approval to take time off for conferences. In my experience, teachers get somewhere around two personal days a year.  I attended a conference last year that would have eaten that up. If I didn't have support from my district technology budget, I wouldn't have attended any of the conferences that have inspired me thus far in my career. And I'm not sure where I'd be if I hadn't attended them.

Secondly, and this is the big one, is they are so incredibly cost prohibitive.  Once again, if you are lucky enough to be in a school or a position (as I have been) where you can be covered by the tech budget, then you can go to these things.  But how many teachers can a district afford to send? Coming up in November is the Midwest Google Summit. The registration is nearly $300, and then you have to travel there, and if you attend both days, likely stay two nights in a hotel.  That comes out to over $500 once you factor in food and hotel rooms, even if you share a room.  If teachers aren't supported to go, $500 and blowing two personal days is a lot to ask to learn when...

You have Twitter. You have edcamps.  You have G+.  Now I don't know about you, but the main reason I've heavily involved in those things is because I heard about them...AT A CONFERENCE!  So once again, we have a case of the haves and the have nots.  It is great for those of us who have experienced those powerful opportunities to laud the connections on Twitter. But if you haven't had a great launching experience, as much as someone praises the values of something like Twitter, it is hard to convince them how great it is.

I wish I could tell you what the solution is. I know the venues, and the food cost money. I know it is probably only fair to compensate those who plan the conferences. But, I know hundreds of companies pack the expo hall at some of these events, and I know they have to pay for that floor space.  I know I've attended Edcamps where I learn as much as big conferences, make twice as many connections, and they are cheap and covered through donations in most cases.

Big conferences have name recognition.  They provide a platform for those that are trying to influence education.  But too many teachers are left out because of the cost. Because of the timing.

I am probably a hypocrite, having given presentations at several paid-for events.  But I would never limit what I have to share to just those people that attend.. That is one of the only ways in our current structure to make this work. The few that get to go need to share with the rest.

My wish is that more people could experience the career changing moments I have at this events.  I just worry that a majority of educators are unable to go because of restrictions, cost, and time.  The goal of these conferences shouldn't be to improve the few, it should be to improve education for all. Yes, those of us that get to go are charged with sharing what we learned. But it just isn't the same as experiencing it for yourself.

That brings me to another conundrum.  I love edcamps. They provide a great solution to this problem. However, that still isn't catching even a sizable fraction of teachers. At least in my state, I know it isn't for a lack of location opportunities.  So on one side, teachers can't get to conferences because of cost. On the other side, when cost isn't an issue, teachers don't show up.  Why not?  

I don't know. It is hard to give up a Saturday when you are putting in 70 hours a week.  How can you possibly think of incorporating something new when you have the one million standards you have to cover by next Tuesday in time for three weeks of standardized testing?

There has to be a middle ground.  There has to be a way for teachers to get invigorating professional development, but in a way that meets them where they are at.  My experience today at the Google for Education Online Summit (and in the past at Edcamp Home) gave me a glimpse of what that could look like.  But even if these events were free and held weekly, how do we get teachers to participate? Adminstrators and schools need to support these opportunities, and see them as ways to level up their staff and improve the learning.  They need to attend edcamps, connect on social media, and give their staff TIME to do these things.  

The problem may be with big conferences. The problem may be with edcamps. The problem may be with schools and administrators. The problem may be with teachers.

But ultimately, the only way to get everyone learning and applying new things, we have to get those operations and stakeholders working together.  All teachers deserve high quality professional development.

It is about time we get it to them.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Quick Analogy

So tonight, I decided I would be the culinary chef of our kitchen and make dinner for my wife and me.

All class

As a began to put this nifty concoction together, I went to find a flipper as I browned the ground beef. Before I got started, my wife rushed over, opened the drawer of cooking tools, and proceeded to show me this beauty:

I didn't get the idea to write this until after I started cooking
The point of this tool?  It is made specifically for mixing up and chopping up food as you cook it. Perfect for browning ground beef when you want small portions.

The tool in action
But Josh, this is a technology blog, so what are you talking about cooking for?  First of all, I am a well rounded person, and I also enjoy a lot of things (see what I did there?). Secondly, this is technology.  All technology means is applied scientific knowledge.  Somebody was frustrated and annoyed at how ineffective flippers were (or any other tool) at browning beef, so they came up with this.

So does it do everything a flipper does? No.  Does it have many uses? Depending on your creativity, maybe, but ultimately, it has a very specific purpose. So why on earth should we use this tool?

Because it performs the tasks more efficiently that other tools.  Because it allows me to think of other creative tools I could use in my kitchen to increase my productivity.  Because it, combined with other things I already have and know how to use, can make for a stress free dinner.

Technology is just a tool.  Remind101 is just a tool. Google Apps is just a tool.  Prezi is just a tool.  Edmodo is just a tool.  Padlet is just a tool.  However, these tools allow us to do things more efficiently, more creatively, and more enjoyably than we would have accomplished the tasks prior.  Along the way, using those tools can lead to more critical thinking skills as we strive to apply the best tool for each job.  Combining some of these tools together can lead to some very powerful experiences (Posting a Padlet link to an Edmodo group, taking a screenshot of the results with Snagit, and tweeting the resulting picture, for example).

The flipper is a great kitchen tool with many uses. But from now on, I will always use that weird new tool when trying to brown meat, because it gets the job done and is fun to use!  Plus, it is simple. 

And a tool is only as good as it is user friendly :)

NOTE:  Above comment meant for educational technology integration purposes only