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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Summer 2019 PD: IFL, Tech Teach Learn, KET Multimedia

Starting this summer, I made a personal pledge to stretch my professional development horizons and present and/or attend conferences I have never attended before.  Two of the three Kentucky conferences discussed in this entry fit that definition!   I left all three with some great takeaways.

Innovations for Learning

I have been attending IFL for several years now.  This free annual PD is organized by Fayette County Public Schools (Lexington) and happens every June.   IFL has some of the best presenters from around the state, and the educators that attend also come from all corners of Kentucky.  For the last few years, Frederick Douglass High School has hosted the event, and walking around the innovative building is almost worth the trip in itself.  I presented "Google Tools: The New, the Overlooked, and the Quirky."

Here are some highlights:

  • David Kitchen shared his experiences from the first year of flipping his classroom.  Kitchen's accountability structure is to have students watch a video at home (often with EdPuzzle, which provides tracking and assessment analytics) and do Cornell Notes (powerful reflection, and hard to "cheat").  His process of gradual release sounds very useful to emulate.  Kitchen first models what the flipped work will be like at home by showing a video while doing Cornell Notes in front of the class.   Next, he has students do Cornell Notes on a video while in class, providing feedback.  The last stage is having students do Cornell Notes on a video at home.
  • Kelli Reno and Louise Begley shared stories from the libraries and how they are addressing the new AASL standards.  Reno mentioned how FDHS clubs and organizations periodically "sponsor" a shelf in the library and provide book suggestions.  I love the way this gives the school community both ownership and voice!
  • Kelly Fischer introduced me to a free edtech tool for student content acquisition and assessment: Deck Toys.  Teachers can create an interactive lesson using an easy drag and drop interface, which creates a game-like "board" with activities and dashed line pathways.  For differentiation and personalization opportunities, you may give students multiple paths to choose from.  One activity can be a slide deck, either independently viewed or synched and controlled by a teacher's pacing (much like Nearpod); other activities include puzzles, crosswords, "Lock" (think mini-Breakouts), match, sequencing, and more.

Tech Teach Learn

TTL is hosted by Kentucky Country Day school in Louisville every June.  Anyone can attend for a nominal fee.  Not only was this the first time I have attended and presented at TTL, but it was the first time I have been on the KCD campus.  It's beautiful!  I have to give a shoutout to Sarah Shartzer, a teacher at KCD who is not only a leader of edtech for her own school (and TTL!) but presents far and wide.  This year was the first time that registration for TTL was sold out in advance of the event, and I can easily see that happening again as more people hear of this useful and impactful conference.  I led a workshop titled "From Bland to Blended: Best Practices for a Transformative Classroom."

Here are some highlights:

  • Ms. Shartzer shared edtech tools for accommodation and differentiation.  Several were new to me, including a particular standout: Visuwords.  It's a interactive way to not only see a definition of a word and its part of speech, but a webbed relationship to other words and concepts.
  • Jerry Broyles taught us about Google's geo-related tools such as My Maps, Google Earth, and Tour Builder.  Tour Builder in particular has a lot of potential for being a different way for students to share and present information that is location- or travel-based.

KET Multimedia

KET Multimedia PD Day happens annually in July, at the KET studios in Lexington.   Registration requires a small fee.  I have never attended before, and was flattered to be asked to lead a workshop on digital citizenship with the purpose of attendees revising and creating their own school/district DigCit curriculum.  The KET building is a fun, state-of-the-art facility to present and participate in a PD day. Special thanks to Brian Spellman for the invite!

Here are some highlights:

  • Emily Northcutt (our newest Shelby County librarian!) talked about the usefulness of KYVL, a valuable repository of tools and databases.  Like most districts in Kentucky, we pay an annual fee for staff and student access both at school and at home.  As a classroom teacher years ago, I was ashamedly ignorant of how helpful KYVL can be, and I need to do better to publicize its wealth of resources with our Shelby staff.
  • Vanessa Hutchison (a teacher at Louisville Central High School) shared her website full of resources and lesson plan ideas for students to create film projects on a limited or zero budget. 
  • Whitney York and Mechelle Morgan enthusiastically discussed makerspace materials and tools used by teachers and students in Murray Independent Schools.   One new find I'm excited to try out: Sphero Specdrums, which combine music making, programming, and possible accommodative assistance (for example, helping students who struggle with learning colors).

I look forward to applying and sharing some of my new knowledge and edtech, and hope to attend all three of these conferences again in the future!

Full disclosure: KET paid me an honorarium to present at their KET Multimedia PD, which I attended on a non-contract day.

Monday, July 8, 2019

BIg Transitions and Changes

It has been four months since my last blog entry!  I've had gaps between entries before, but that's a pretty long one.  I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what has been going on as well as look ahead to the future.

In order to be transparent in my sharing, I need to first flash back to July 2018.

April, my beautiful wife of 16 years (we have actually been together since 1995, if you're keeping score at home), was trying to schedule a procedure when her doctor's office stopped her in her tracks. 

"It says here you are over 40?"

"Barely," she replied.

"Well, you've never had a mammogram."

And I don't want to start now, she thought.  "I don't have the slightest symptom and I'm very healthy. Can't we just put it off for a few months and do this other stuff instead?"

"Nope.  Insurance won't allow you.  Sorry."

With that, April had her very first mammogram -- which discovered an abnormality.  Surprise turned to concern and disbelief as a biopsy revealed Stage 3 breast cancer.  And for April, myself, and our two daughters, the long fight began.

I am pleased to say that we are at a happy crossroads.  My brave, persistent wife -- one of the grittiest people I've ever met -- has recently completed treatment of chemo and radiation, and although we have a few surgeries ahead, we feel the worst is behind us.  It has been an agonizing, exhausting year, and I suppose this is a very long winded way of saying that as the school year wound down, I rationed my energy and I took a step away from things that could go into suspended animation -- like this blog. 

However, if you're not willing to give up on me, I'm not ready to give up on Edtech Elixirs just yet!  I know there will definitely be major reasons to blog in 2019-2020 on new edtech tools and the occasional pedagogical discussion.   To take one example, I'm sure I'll talk a time or two about Empower Learning, a new learning management system we piloted last school year and as of July 1 has replaced Schoology in our district.  However, Empower is much more than just another LMS.  Its ability to reference standards and track mastery learning for students over time gives us a powerful tool to help Shelby County Public Schools reach our competency-based education goal in 2022.

While personal interests of mine have previously crept into this blog, I imagine I will surprise most readers with sharing our family's struggle in such a public way.  For those concerned I will make Edtech Elixirs into an online diary, I promise that I will return fully to the world of edtech in the entries to come.   That said, I do want to end this entry with a sharing of gratitude as well as a plea.   Firstly, there have been dozens of family and friends and co-workers that have given our family such unbelievable support over this past year.  We simply would not have survived without you -- thank you from the bottom of our hearts.  Secondly, as my wife's story illustrates, putting off a mammogram, or any regular cancer screening, can have tragic consequences.  In a real way, we got lucky.  Please make sure you and your loved ones don't rely on luck to keep healthy!

If you are looking for cancer organizations to support:

Norton's Healthcare (serving Louisville and Southern Indiana) has been an incredible healthcare partner and resource in our fight against cancer.  Here's ways you can give time or money.

April is passionate about, an organization where tattoo artists donate their time and material to breast cancer survivors, particularly in covering up or beautifying mastectomy scars and breasts both unreconstructed and reconstructed.  More about their organization is here.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Google Jamboard

In the same way that it took a while for me to get around to Google Keep, I am a little late to the Google Jamboard party! Better late than never, I suppose.  This new-ish tool is a welcome and free addition to the Google Suite of tools.

How does it work?    Think of Google Jamboard as a digital corkboard, where you can add "sticky notes," images, and doodles.   Like most Google tools, you have the ability to collaborate with others on the same "Jam" in real time, and export the results as a PDF or image file.

You can add viewers/editors or create links to Jams -- here's a sample one I created shown in the pictures above -- but for Google Education or Business users, you can also share a Jam with others via a "Jam Code" which will only work with people inside your own domain. 

For a walkthrough of how to make a Jam, watch my screencast video (10:39):

How could you use it?  Students could use Jamboard as an informal discussion tool (much like a simpler form of Padlet), as a way to graphically organize notes, or to keep track of the planning and completion of a project.  It should be noted that the mobile app version of Jamboard allows for more features, such as the integration of Google Drive files, as well as making drawing easier with your finger rather than with a trackpad and cursor; there are also some options to integrate Jamboard with remote presentations

Downsides?  I have only a few quibbles.   The select tool does not allow you to choose an entire doodle for easy removal, which means you have to manually erase them if you are several edits down the line.  I'd also like to be able to upload images from my hard drive instead of only from Google searches, your Drive or Photos.  But for a free tool that is so easy to use, it's hard to complain!

What are some creative ways you could use, or are using, Jamboard?  Share in the Comments below!

Monday, March 18, 2019

KySTE 2019

Every March, I make my edtech pilgrimage to the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky to attend the KySTE Spring Conference.  It was a record attendance this year (nearly 2000 registered!).    It's been a few days since the close of the conference, and I wanted to share several highlights.

1.  I did presentations on Shelby County's Digital Citizenship curriculum as well as some recommended digital equity tools to help personalize learning.   I was pleased to get attendees for both, but in particular, I hope to continue conversations with several people on how we can collaborate on digital citizenship for Kentucky students in the future.

2. Much like I missed TodaysMeet and was thankful to find YoTeach, I have missed Storify since it shuttered, as it was an easy and useful curation tool...but now I think I have a replacement!  From Stella Pollard, I learned of a new tool, Wakelet.   It allows you to make "collections" that can consist of images, PDFs, texts, Tweets, YouTube videos, and of course hyperlinks.  Wakelet is very user friendly, and even allows the ability to search tweets and YouTube videos from within the tool much like Storify did.  A social aspect of Wakelet is that you can have followers, and there is a beta feature where you can collaborate on the same collection.  I created a profile page here.

3.  URL shorteners like and have three main issues: a) your audience has to type a complicated URL where upper and lower case letters make a difference, b) you can personalize the URL to make it more straight-forward, but the more simple it is the more likely it's already taken, and c) both A and B may seem like a lot of effort for what often amounts to just a one time hour-long presentation.   That's why Yellkey is fantastic!  Simply give the URL to shorten and choose the duration you need it, anytime from 5 minutes to 24 hours.  You will get a shortened URL in simple language, such as Note these are both disposable and reused; a few days or even a few minutes from now, will point to something else. (Thanks Leslie Fisher!)

4.  As a former high school English teacher, it is easier for me to imagine a librarian to help collaborate with staff on literacy and not numeracy needs.  Obviously, I am short sighted!  One of the best KySTE sessions I attended involved Sarah Zender (math teacher) and Amanda Hurley (librarian) from Henry Clay High School (Fayette County).  They talked about their work together, and it was impressive: scavenger hunts, geometry animated STEM projects, Math Inquiries that connected personal interests (such as guitar playing, MMA fighting, and fantasy football), and involving students in library renovations.

5.  Last but not least, it was a highlight of not just the conference but of my career to receive the KySTE Outstanding Leader of the Year award for 2018-2019.

As I've already said in various social media posts, in a life there are hundreds of people who give you wisdom, teach you a lesson, or model by example.  Whoever I may be or accomplish is the accumulation of all of those people and moments.  Thank you to all of my friends, family and colleagues who I have had the privilege of sharing a part of my educational journey.  And of course, thank you to KySTE for the award!  I'll always treasure it.

I'll end this entry with a video of my acceptance speech.  Special thanks to Cyndi Skellie for recording it!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Project Blocks, Not Bells: PBL in an Expeditionary Learning School

I'm currently reading the last chapter of a book recently published by ISTE: Learning Supercharged: Digital Age Strategies and Insights from the Edtech Frontier (Lynne Schrum with Sandi Sumerfield, 2018).   It's highly recommended, not only because it shares helpful narratives of edtech integration by real teachers and schools, but also puts digital tools in the context of effective pedagogies and popular areas of focus such as gamification, STEM, digital citizenship, and Project Based Learning (PBL).

PBL has been a particular passion of mine since my first training on it nearly four years ago.  Schrum and Sumerfield correctly point out that PBL predates digital tools and access. Still, there is no doubt that technology enhances the depth and reach of such projects, and teachers should embrace it despite possible misgivings: "Although incorporating technological tools and online resources can often feel overwhelming, the use of digital resources can strengthen student interactive experiences, facilitate more complex thinking about challenging topics among peer groups, and often streamline the assessment of student progress for teachers" (103).   Precisely!  Since PBL is based on solving problems or questions that have more than one answer/solution, and therefore have culminating products that can vary in type, digital tools can make this more manageable and multi-modal.   That aside, the authors caution us to avoid simply creating a 'technology rich" end-of-unit project instead of an experience where students truly have agency, learn with an end in mind throughout, and create something to share with outsiders.  It is not transformative learning if the end result of PBL is merely a well presented aggregation of researched bullet points instead of a new idea or creation that shows real reflection and growth of student thinking.

Finding more ways to support teaching in an "edtech frontier" was mulling around in my brain when I recently went with several Shelby staff members to visit districts near Denver, Colorado.  A common denominator of the schools was their belief in a competency-based education system.  One in particular still sticks out for me even a month later:  William Smith High School, a part of Aurora Public Schools.  They are officially designated an "expeditionary learning" (EL) school; the defining characteristics of students in EL includes high quality authentic work, demonstrating proficiency and deep learning, and the importance of character and ethics.  On a more pragmatic level, that translates into WSHS having students experience learning beyond the four walls of their building and having a daily schedule driven by "project blocks" of PBL work, not bells.  All students had access to Chromebooks, but it was clear that PBL pedagogy, not technology, was the driver of their education.

The schedules of WSHS students are particularly innovative.  Grades 10 through 12 basically have two "classes" a day -- one block in the morning, one in the afternoon.  Student choice and needs keep the schedules unique and personalized.  (It should be noted that Freshmen began building their student agency culture and necessary "soft skills" to succeed in such an environment in the summer prior to starting at WSHS with highly structured "learning bootcamps."  Once school begins, they have a more traditional period schedule at first and gradually release into the same kind of block schedule as the upperclassman have by the end of their first school year.)  Some of these project blocks last as little as three weeks while others are as long as two months.  Not surprisingly, the project blocks are frequently cross-content, and the teachers and admin work hard to ensure that students choose their classes wisely in order to demonstrate mastery of all their necessary core standards by graduation.

But the innovation at WSHS isn't merely the logistics of their scheduling.  The project blocks themselves are classes you would beg to take if you were a high schooler.  Imagine learning exponentials and logarithms while living inside a "Zombie Apocalypse."  By building their own "Escape Rooms," students learn both geometry and art/interior design.  In "Wild Wild West," the study of transportation and weaponry teaches you both U.S. history and quadratic equations.   By reading non-fiction text and a fictional novel on climate change in "Playing God," students learn evolutionary and developmental biology while applying literary analysis and debate.   We were provided a list of project block choices just for spring 2019 that included these four classes and several dozen more, with most of the titles and class descriptions sounding more like college offerings than what you would see in a typical 9-12 school. The WSHS staff also made sure we knew that the classes offered are a constant reflection of the continual feedback of what both teachers want to teach and students want to learn.

Framed examples of past project blocks line a hallway at William Smith High School.

A closer look at the upper left section of "Bean to Bar." 

As you can see in the examples above, it is clear these PBL's are very well designed.  These PBL planning document "posters" include the following sections:

  • Class Description
  • multiple Connections (to Academics, Habits of Excellence, and/or Community)
  • what Field Work is necessary
  • what Experts will be consulted (in people and/or anchor texts)
  • what the Product in the end should or could be
  • Guiding Question
  • Sequence of Learning
  • Core Content Standards Met
  • examples of student work
WSHS were kind enough to provide a Google Doc example of one of their PBL "Project Panels" on Native American Studies, as well as a blank version that you can copy to your Drive and make your own.

As we met both staff and students at William Smith High School, it was evident that their structures were vastly different than the typical high school experience.  Student engagement was strong and palpable.  I was thankful to see specific, concrete examples of how innovative PBL can be to transform a learning culture, and grateful to meet teachers so willing to be pioneers in the frontier of education.

Note:  Buck Institute for Education facilitated my first PBL training highlighted in the blog entry linked above.  They have recently rebranded as PBLWorks, and remain a rich treasure trove of resources, workshops and articles on PBL.

Update 3/16/19:  I added the links to the WSHS Project Panel example and blank template.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Share Fair 2019

The rain did not damper the enthusiasm of the presenters and attendees at the fifth annual Share Fair on February 20!  Special thanks to both for not only braving the bad weather, but for their willingness to volunteer time after a long school day to learn and share their knowledge. As usual, we had educators outside of our district come to visit, and that is always a source of pride for us to provide sessions worthy of the trip.

And now, be prepared for a repetition of the word "first."  While we have had principals, teachers and even students present in the past, we now have had our first classified employee co-lead a Share Fair session. This is Seth Reinhart's first year as a building tech at Martha Layne Collins High School, and he's already made news for launching a student e-Sports team (the first of its kind in Shelby County) and coaching them into championship play from the get-go.   Seth was instrumental in helping Collins art teacher Matt Cockrell connect via Twitch for "art throwdowns" with classrooms as far away as Oregon and Cambridge, Ontario.  (Speaking of getting your name in the paper, Matt's efforts made international news recently in several places, including at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation!)  That's what I love about the Share Fair -- it's a place where you can hear stories on how technology and new pedagogical strategies can truly transform teaching, and it showcases how ALL of our Shelby staff and students can be leaders.

Matt Cockrell and Seth Reinhart (l. to r.) checking their archived Twitch video as they wait for Share Fair to start.

This also marked the first year for the new Share Fair website.  Even if you couldn't come, be sure to check out the session descriptions and email the presenters for more information; for now, that Doc is still on the Event Page before it will eventually move to the Archive Page.   Check out the Multimedia page which is updated with new pictures from this year's Share Fair.   And of course, you can still catch up on (and add to!) the social media conversation by following #SCsharefair.

In closing, I was flattered recently when a Kentucky district reached out to me, interested in potentially holding their own Share Fair later this year.   If any district or school is curious in doing the same, please reach out.  I would love to answer questions and share helpful resources.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Read Aloud: Text to Speech Extension

Recently, a teacher asked for a recommended text to speech tool for Chromebooks.  Of course, a Chromebook means it has to be a Chrome extension and can't be a program to install.  While there are many to be found, most text to speech extensions fall into one of two categories.  The first: they are very useful but cost for their full capability (a popular example is Read & Write for Chrome).  The second: they are free but offer limited usability and/or functionality.

I hadn't looked in a while, so I was glad to take a peek at the Chrome Store to see what was available now.   After playing with several and reading Chrome Store reviews, I found one that I can easily recommend: Read Aloud.  It is free with no hidden charges.

Note the bullhorn extension icon for Read Aloud in the upper right.

While some text to speech (TTS) tools may excel in an area or two, Read Aloud ranks highly across multiple aspects:
  • It is easy to use!
  • It grabs text from the website, simplifies the font/formatting, and puts it in an easy to read “box”; it then highlights text as it reads (although in settings, you can turn highlighting off).
  • Multiple male and female voices are available in a fairly normal “American” accent.  These are included at no charge.  (Many TTS tools have only one voice with an English affect, or additional voices cost additional money.)
  • It works on Google Docs.  (Many do not!)
  • You can adjust speed and pitch.  (Many only have this option for a premium/paid version.)
  • It is one of the few TTS tools that can read a PDF that is opened inside a tab of your Chrome browser. 
  • It is important to note that while typical websites should be fine, Read Aloud will NOT work inside a learning management system (LMS) such as Schoology or Edmodo.  However, this is true of nearly all TTS extensions (such as Read & Write), paid or free.

You can get to the settings (gear icon) by hitting the bullhorn icon, then hitting stop to end reading the text aloud. Here you can change the voice with dropdown choices, use the sliding bars to adjust speed and pitch, and turn text highlighting on or off.  You can also test what this sounds and looks like without using an actual website page.

Do you recommend a different text to speech Chrome extension that is free?  Share in the Comments below.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Student Journals, Personalized Learning Plans and More: The Power of HyperDocs

Happy New Year 2019!

Are you needing students to make a journal, as well as see and possibly comment on each other’s blog?  Finding a tool with easy visibility and simple user interface inside of some kind of protected space can be difficult to find, in addition to doing all of it for free.  (While Blogger is an excellent free Google tool -- obviously I'm a fan! -- I know it is blocked by some districts due to monitoring and privacy concerns, or considered to be too complicated for their younger students.)
One way to have safe, free, and easy blogging, especially with younger students, would be to utilize and organize Google Docs in some kind of “HyperDoc” stylized fashion.*  How much you do, versus how much the students do, will determine the amount of heartache and labor involved to set it up.   The steps below assume a higher capability/age of student, perhaps upper elementary or older (which will make the least amount of work on you); adjust and scaffold the work flow for K-2 students as needed.
  1.  Create a Google Doc that serves as a journaling “template.”  Be sure to make a space/field at top for them to type their name and a way to date each of their entries. Make it a sharable URL as "view only."  Copy the URL.
  2. Do the “force copy trick” with the URL so that, when the URL is clicked, it forces the user to copy to their own Drive.
  3. Provide this “force copy URL” inside of your learning management system (LMS). As students click the link and save the copy to their Drive, make sure they change the words “Copy of” inside the title of the Doc to “First and Last Name” (for example, “Copy of Journal Log” becomes “ADAM WATSON Journal Log”).
  4. Have each student open the sharing link on their new Doc.  Make sure the permission is “[District Domain] Users Only, view and comment.”  The student should copy this URL.
  5. Create a simple Google Form for students to submit responses; again, link the URL in a LMS.  Ask for their names, but make sure the Form automatically collects their email addresses.   The students should paste their journal’s sharable URL as an answer to one of the Form’s questions.  (Note: organizationally you may want to create a different Form for each class; the reasons why will become obvious in the next steps.)
  6. Within the responses tab of your Form, make sure you create a Sheet to go with the Form’s responses.  You now have ONE spreadsheet that has links to ALL of the journals of the students.   Now, make the Sheet “view only” and provide that link inside a LMS for your students to access.
  7. By clicking on the Sheet’s URL, you now have an easy way for students to access each other’s Journals and read them (without the students, or you, creating hundreds of sharing permissions).   Additionally, if they Comment, they will be identified (no anonymous comments allowed) and some privacy is maintained as students have it restricted to visibility only within your domain's users.   By having “view and comment” instead of edit rights will also prevent students from intentionally or unintentionally writing over each other or even nuking each other's journal with deletions.   Of course, multiple Sheets also make it easier for you to look at the various journals class by class.  Bonus #1:  collecting the journal URLs in this way avoids receiving all of those inbox-cluttering sharing email notifications.  Bonus #2: the Form and Sheet  automatically organizes the journal links without you spending time creating multiple Google Folders and organizing all of the student journal Docs inside them.
  8. One last step/tip: if students are to respond to each other's journals, make sure students understand not only what a valuable “uptake” Comment is (beyond “that is great!”), but also make the expectations clear.  Should they Comment on someone else’s journal twice a week?  Two different journals, or two Comments on the same journal ok?  Should they eventually Comment on all student journals at least once? Do they need to reply to the Comments made by other students?  Will they be assessed qualitatively (do you have a rubric?), quantitatively, or both?

Note that using this same workflow could be applied in other ways you want students to make a copy of a template, share it with you to review, and possibly have others give feedback.  One example could be a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) that students initiate, periodically reflect and edit, and share with you (and their advisors).  And speaking of personalized learning, if you want to really create an intricate, HyperDoc work flow that could track mastery per standard and per student as well as link to archival evidence, I recommend taking a look at my “SCANMoST” directions.   While SCANMoST was originally created to optimize the 2017 integration of Google Drive into Schoology, it could easily be adapted for Google Classroom or any LMS by utilizing the same “force copy”/template work flow. 

* "Stylized" is an important qualifier here.  I should definitely point out that HyperDocs are a larger construction than merely a heavily hyperlinked online document; as this article by Jennifer Gonzalez defines very well, a HyperDoc is a "digital document . . . where all components of a learning cycle have been pulled together into one central hub."  The potential impact on pedagogy and personalized learning go way beyond just providing a helpful organization structure for a teacher.  Nevertheless, the further you read into my entry, the closer you get to the student-centered "hubs" that would meet Gonzalez's definition of a HyperDoc.