Daily Student Podcasting

Quality, engaging discussion is the unicorn of the classroom. You’ll know it when you see it but it is rarely seen. I can count on one hand the times my questions achieved this. Which is why I finally stopped asking the questions two years ago.

Students should be the ones asking the questions. 

I wanted my students (6th graders) to be reading the entirety of high quality literature, not just parts of the basal I was given. My first year mentor, Stacy Harris, introduced me to literature circles right away to help us do this. 

If you’re not familiar with literature circles, here are the basics. Your students are in charge of everything. They read the assigned section each day, then they complete a job. Examples of jobs are discussion director, summarizer, connector, illustrator, etc… adding jobs that by the skills that need worked on. The next day, each group gathers to discuss the discussion director’s open-ended questions, share and critique their jobs, and read together. 

My job during this seemed to boil down to making sure they did their jobs and trying to get them to care about the discussion they were having. It was exhausting and I felt like I was physically trying to pull discussion out of them. They didn’t care.

Create is in DOK 4 and at the top of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Our kids should be creating things often. In five years of teaching I had moved away from traditional assessments to asking students to create something with what they knew. So we applied that to the learning experience of literature circles by creating a podcast episode every day.

Our students know podcasts and they know about engaging an audience digitally. You just have to let them. 

Each student’s job in the literature circle is their “segment” of the podcast. As a class we identified aspects of good questions and discussion using Socratic circles at the beginning of the year. After that, we were off. It is chaotic with so many groups talking at once, that’s how we know students are engaged. Students WANT to have high level discussion because they are performing for an audience and creating something. Kids know how to do this. They use humor effectively (and it will get them off topic, but adults do this too, let them learn to bring it back on topic without you jumping on them right away for being off-task), they have serious, passionate conversations, and they are good at creating something special together. The only question I asked them to discuss each day is, “What surprised you?” I learned that genius tip from Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. 

Recording discussions has the added benefit of giving you time to sit down and guest star on different group’s podcasts each day and still be able to go back and listen to others. When students are engaged in creating something together, the teacher spends less time policing and more time engaging in feedback and dialogue with her students. By changing the structure and segment expectations, podcasts can happen in any class where students are discussing their learning.  Which should be all classes, and they should not be an end-of-unit project, they should BE the unit.

Here’s the practical stuff:

On iOS, iPads or iPhones, use an app called Opinion. Students create an account that gives them their own podcast site. Up to 10 minutes is free. If a group needed longer, they would upload and start over with part two of that day’s episode.

Opinion workflow

On Mac, use Garage Band for the ability to edit. QuickTime will record audio but won’t allow you to edit. On Chrome, Vocaroo is good for recording and Twisted Wave allows recording and editing.

If you use Opinion, have students post the link to their podcast site to a shared Google Spreadsheet or your class site. For the others, have them save the file to their Drive and share the public link to it with the class.

Stop killing yourself trying to craft questions. Kids can do this, focus your time and energy on learning with them and pushing their thinking with quality and timely feedback.


Challenge Accepted (My Teaching non-Negotiables

A colleague from Buhler, USD 313 (#313teach) challenged us to list our top five teaching non-negtoiables. I put this off because I hadn’t gotten the inspiration I thought I needed. So I finally just started typing on my iPhone in bed.  Originally I thought I would have to take some time sorting through possibilities, but it turns out these were all on the tip of my tongue already. 

It is truly insane to see where I have come from in six years of being an educator. My top five my first year probably would have been:

  1. Quiet students during work time
  2. Harry Potter as a read aloud every year.
  3. Do cool things with technology
  4. Don’t make parents mad
  5. Play games in PE with my class, and win

Ok so number five is still one that I care about. Especially the part about winning. 

Obviously those aren’t exactly the most impactful things to focus on as a teacher. I am glad I have grown!

Here are my current top five non-negotiables.

  1. Relationships with people come first. It is impossible to gain traction with students, colleagues, initiatives, as a leader, etc… without first developing a relationship with the people you are serving.
  2. Constant growth. I refuse to settle for my abilities right now to be as good as I ever get. Lack of growth on my part is not good for my students, colleagues, leaders, family, and mostly myself. As a competitive guy, looking back on my past self without it being obvious that current me would crush past me in a teaching competition*, (is this a thing?) would be devastating. (Does this sentence make sense? I feel like maybe it doesn’t but I’m leaving it.)
  3. Solid pedagogy comes first. As an integration and innovation guy, I readily admit I have skipped this in the past because I saw something new and shiny. I firmly believe those in my position have to have adult ADD to bounce from new thing, to old thing, to somewhat new thing, to “hey, what if this was a thing?” etc… but the quality learning has to be there first. Sometimes it may be theoretical, but if what I am advocating has no clear alignment to objectives or standards we should trash it.
  4. Treating kids like kids, but also like adults. Our students need us to be that one caring adult for them. They need us to accept them for who they are and realize that they are learning and will make mistakes, but we will be there the next day, hour, or minute with a blank slate. They need us to treat them like adults by not selling them short on their abilities. Expect more of them and help them get there.  When a kids forgets their pencil, provide it for them without judgement, just like you do for adults. 
  5. Family time. My wife and I will have our first little one in October. In order for me to be the best educator I can be, they must be my priority. I don’t function at my best if Kelsey and I aren’t spending quality time together and they deserve my best self at home as well.

Let me know what you think. Is there anything I left out? Thank you, Samantha Neill for challenging us to do this. We should probably all look at this each year so we know what we’re about. 

*Seriously, teaching competitions should be a thing. Pick a standard to teach and a panel of judges scores each lesson. There could be categories for co-teaching, blended, small group, etc.. Think about it

ISTE 2017

I just returned from ISTE  in San Antonio. There are a TON of practical tools and ideas that we are bringing back to share with colleagues and students. They will make us better teachers, media specialists, integration leaders, administrators. However, sharing those tools is for future posts. This one is to reflect before I forget.

It was a blast and we got to meet some eduheroes while we were there. We had #coffeedu with Alice Keeler,(Tara Martin, #booksnaps creator, was also there) hung out with some #leadupchat leaders, talked Sketchnotes with Wanda Terral, (Sylvia Duckworth was just sitting casually learning with the rest of us) and heard from George Couros  (my personal biggest eduhero!) to turn our students into digital leaders.

Interacting with bonafide celebrities of your field is amazing. However, my favorite thing was hanging with fantastic educators from Buhler. We talked shop, passionately, about the best new ways to use technology for students. Our conversations regularly revolved around our attitudes and beliefs about teaching in general, and we raised the heat about core issues in our district and in the landscape of education today.

Each night and on the way home we reflected. We shared our best learning from the day and the one practical thing that we think needs to be shared with our colleagues this year. Sometimes these were the same, but many times they were not. At the heart of these discussions was an obvious desire to create growth in ourselves and Buhler. To never settle for the status quo, because our kids deserve our growth mindsets, and our best teaching practice. Scheming is one way I would describe our discussions about how we are going to pass this learning onto our colleagues in #313teach.

So my reflection from ISTE 2017 is that these conversations need to continue and need to happen often. I am committed to questioning myself and others in order to move forward as an educator. Hold me accountable.



Here are some pictures from the week




The Chicken or the Egg?

I recently had the chance to visit the high school in my district and work with some geometry classes. I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous, as this would be my firsimg_0366t time working with high schoolers during my teaching career, having worked exclusively in an elementary school for five years. I wasn’t intimidated by these older students, as I may have been early on in my career, and as some are who have only taught primary their whole career. I was nervous because I knew high schoolers to be compliant on the whole, but extremely hard to engage, and I cannot stand a disengaged class.

Thankfully, the teacher had asked to work with Spheros one day and to do a Breakout the next, which are two highly engaging activities. When you introduce Spheros to elementary students, all you have to do is show them the clear, round, ball that lights up and you get instant buy-in. I wasn’t sure that would be the case with freshmen and sophomores, and I thought the enthusiasm might be there for some initially but wane quickly.

I am happy to report that I was wrong. We started with Spheros the first day and, funnily enough, I heard many of the same things from high schoolers as I do from 4th and 5th graders. A few things that I heard when I brought one out and demonstrated its functionality were; “Woah!” “Cool!” and my favorite, “These are the coolest things ever!” I had them tackle the same activity I stole from a friend, coding them to hit progressively more targets with one program, that I do with younger students and they remained engaged the whole time.fullsizerender

Breakout was up the second day, which I could only attend during first hour, and it turned out similarly well. Mr. Sides, the geometry teacher, actually texted me later in the day to say that the later classes were even more into it than the first hour. Mrs. Couchman, our assistant superintendent, covered the last class for Mr. Sides and had more groups successfully break out than any other hour that day.

All of this is to say, I am not sure I continue to subscribe to the notion that older students are impossible to engage and don’t care about anything. Generations of teens have decided that the non-verbal communication of boredom is how to look cool and normal. This stoicism can be easy to mistake as disengagement, and often is! I think this is a bigger mistake than we realize and is highly unfair to kids.

The critical mistake of attributing the absence of outward excitement to disengagement is that we then assume that high school students cannot be engaged in school and so we cease striving to. It’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” question. Do we stop providing students with engaging activities as they get older, so they become bored with school, or do they become bored with school, so we stop trying to providing engaging instruction because it doesn’t matter anyway?

So I think it is important that we all try to dispel of this notion that the older kids get, the less they care. They will likely care more about social relationships than they do school, but who doesn’t? Rough home environments will depress them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. Sports and activities may distract them, but they distract us too. (March Madness anyone?) And they probably won’t give you a standing ovation no matter what you do, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a fantastic teacher.

We have to stop assuming that the non-verbal communication of teenagers is boredom and start striving for engaging, innovative practices in the upper grades. In the end it doesn’t really matter if the chicken came first or the egg, just that somebody continues the quest for the perfect omelet.



Google My Maps

Maps are perhaps one of the oldest tools for teaching. For years they were hung above the chalkboard for easy access by teachers to point to with their long wooden sticks. Globes were required classroom tools and they are printed in the front of every student planner available.

(Side note: Can you imagine teachers in the 50s asking their administrators for the latest in long pointer technology? That makes me laugh considering the tools teachers ask for these days.)

I have a new favorite tool and it is My Maps, from Google. Most people have used Google Maps and Google Earth. Think of My Maps as something of a mashup between the two.

Here’s what it looks likescreen-shot-2016-11-01-at-8-17-10-pm

On the left is the legend. Here you can name your map, add layers, add collaborators with the share button (just like Google docs, sheets, slides, etc..), and preview the finished product. You can turn off and on layers and select individual pins from this menu.

This is a map that I collaborated with some fellow teachers on at a Google Apps for Education conference last weekend. As you can see, we were given the narrative that a zombie outbreak had occurred. The house pins are the locations of our schools where we are sheltering. There is a layer for resource locations, an escape route, and infected areas. This is one fun, engaging way to teach this to teachers but there are hundreds of use cases for this too.

At the top is a search bar for finding specific locations. Just under this from left to right is an undo and redo button, selection tool, add marker button, line drawing tool, direction tool, and scale tool.

Here are some screenshots that show the workflow of adding a marker/point:

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First, give the marker a title and description. The description can be as long or short as you like. You can then change the color, make it a different icon, and even create a custom icon from an image you have or a Google Image. After choosing your icon, click save, then you can upload a picture that will show up when that marker is clicked on.

The other option that is important to share here is the “draw a line tool.” You can draw a line or shape (shapes can have different colors and be transparent, and even their own pictures), as you will see below, or directions using whatever mode of transport you choose. Watch the gif below to see how to draw a shape covering Greenland. Beware, the end is shocking..


That’s right, Greenland is very small. About the size of Algeria. Our session facilitator, James Sanders, showed us this little gem. I recall my teachers telling me how the top and bottom of maps are blown up since they are on a sphere that has been made flat, but nothing prepared me for this!

So, you can see how Google My Maps creates new opportunities to interact with our world and new ways to learn about it. Maps will always be a large part of our teaching and this is a great example of a 21st century map tool.



Bonus! Antarctica is not that big either!


Teach Like a… Scientist?

When I was in school, science was not my favorite subject. It was fine as a break from math problem after math problem, or from short sections of a basal and an accompanying worksheet. Sometimes we did projects! But other times we read from the textbook and answered questions about some really cool stuff that I didn’t understand because it was nonfiction text and I was bad at reading nonfiction text. Although, I was pretty great at skimming for the answers to the after-chapter questions. Now, though, it’s clear to me that this wasn’t science.

Science was a little better in high school, mostly because the department had money to buy cool materials to complete labs with. I still don’t know if I would call what we were doing science though… We still read the book a lot, which I would say made those classes nonfiction comprehension class. When we did experiments, it felt like we were doing experiments, not answering questions about the world around us. Which, isn’t that what scientists do? They try to find answers to questions about the world that are know yet known?

The scientific method, and the engineering process, are the tools that humans have used to come so far since we were put on this earth. Throughout our whole existence we have had problems and questions, had ideas for how to solve them, tested those hypotheses, gathered and analyzed data from experimentation, and come up with conclusions to our questions and problems. Literally that is the process that has led to each and every advancement in human civilization ever, whether it was followed explicitly or not.

So, here is my soap box. If scientists and engineers ask questions and try new things to solve problems, then why are so many teachers unwilling to do the same? Why do so many of us continue to use the same methods we have before, and the same methods that were used for our education as children?

I think the challenge ought to be for every teacher to ask themselves a question before planning every unit they teach. That question ought to be, “What is the best way to help my students learn this?” I would think that every year, if teachers are reflective, there would be a brand new hypothesis to test. Some years or lessons will not yield much in the way of data that shows us a more favorable conclusion to that teaching method, but many times that new wrinkle in our unit will provide incredible amounts of new learning and you will have a new “best practice.” These changes in teaching every year could be called iterative refinement.

I think iterative refinement is best illustrated by the evolution of the iPhone. Think of all of the iPhones Apple has released. Have they changed much about the phone? No, it is still a rectangle with a touch screen. But, through camera improvements, operating system improvements, faster connectivity, 3d touch, and many other “hypotheses” that they have tested on their consumers, they have created something that is MUCH better than it was before.

So as teachers, our “rectangle with a  touch screen” is our continued leadership of the classroom culture and learning environment. But our camera improvements are, perhaps, using project-based learning rather than lecture. Our new iOS is creating a podcast to discuss in small groups, rather than whole group discussion, and our faster connectivity is a flipped classroom.

There is one other thing that I always taught my science class that all scientists do. After they have a conclusion based on their hypothesis and data collection, they share their findings. Whether they find something brand new, or nothing groundbreaking happens, they share. Why? Because if someone finds something new, others need to try it too, to prove its worth. Over the last couple of centuries the collective knowledge of the world has increased exponentially because of the act of sharing what we know, aided by the fact that global communication has increased so drastically.

Teachers must begin to follow the lead of scientists using the scientific method. Ask yourself, “How can I best help my students learn this?” Each year create a new hypothesis, test that hypothesis and come to a conclusion. Finally, share your results, positive or negative, so that colleagues around the world know what to try, and what has already been tried and is not worth their time.

Never be afraid to try something new that may have a profound impact on your students.

An Awakening

I am currently experiencing a bit of an awakening. I think I am just realizing that I love learning. 

Maybe this is a bad thing to admit to after having been a teacher for five years. All teachers are supposed to love learning, right? 

Growing up I wasn’t much of a reader (Harry Potter not withstanding). I pretty much never faithfully read assigned novels or textbooks, but I made it through ok. I was so focused on sports and friends in high school and a certain girl, now my beautiful wife, in college that I was never fully awake in class. I had some really good teachers, teachers that cared. It’s just that things rarely nudged me enough to want to devour the information presented to me. I was too distracted to realize all the great things there were to learn.

Now I find myself endlessly devouring the information I am bombarded with every day that I am interested in. I feel addicted to my phone, but maybe it’s the information I am addicted to coming to my Feedly app. I have just started my new job and I have learned so much, but I want to know more. How can I work with teachers to innovate? How do we get high schoolers excited about technology that’s not new to them at all? How do you help 2nd graders understand Google Drive? 

It is pretty clear to me that this love of learning I have awakened to is the direct result of my life taking a direct turn toward my interests. I am directly involved with two of my passions, education and technology, and it has made me hungry for more information to guide our innovation. 

So I currently believe that is our task as teachers. Stoke their curiosity, make them yearn for more. Provide opportunity after opportunity for them to experience new things that may interest them. Then really, truly, use their interests to guide their education. And shift your focus from YOUR teaching, to THEIR learning.

Permission to Innovate

As I start this blog, I am also preparing to begin a new role in a new place. For the last five years, I taught 6th graders in Manhattan, KS. These just so happened to be the first five years of my career in education. Throughout those five years I developed and nurtured a passion for integrating technology into my curriculum. I realized a deeply held belief that teachers should be looking for ways to innovate in their classrooms daily, and not sticking with traditional teaching methods or strict curriculum just because we are told that they will help our kids pass a test. Our students deserve our best, most intriguing, and engaging pedagogy that we have to offer.

My final year as a 6th grade teacher came to an end this May. This coming school year I will be starting a new adventure as the District Integration Technology Specialist for Buhler Schools in Buhler, KS. I am ecstatic to be starting a job that centers so perfectly around my passions for education and technology and the successful marrying of the two. During my interview for this position, I found out that Buhler has three pillars that drive what they do. These pillars are innovation, collaboration, and culture.

Not all districts and school leaders so readily and apparently encourage constant innovation. Who could blame them, with the environment that high-stakes testing has created? We read stories all the time about the strict curriculum that teachers are asked to follow in order to prepare their students for these tests. Obviously these expectations squash innovation and creativity that teachers may have to bring into the classroom.

So, here I am, my colleagues in Buhler and I have been given permission to innovate, and if I might be so bold, I give you permission to innovate as well.