A New Start

This was originally posted last year at this time.  I enjoyed writing it at that time and would like to take the opportunity to share it again.  I think it’s just as relevant now as it was when originally posted.  I know that there are also some new readers since then.  I hope it resonates with you.


One of the true benefits of a job in education is that you get a chance to reinvent yourself every school year.  There are a lot of careers that you might have chosen otherwise that just don’t give you that luxury.  Things may change in terms of products that you build, tools that you use, projects that you’re involved with, etc., but it’s only in education that you get a fresh batch of faces and an opportunity for a total refresh every year.

It’s not just K-12, higher education gets that opportunity as well.  A brand new set of faces; perhaps new curriculum; a new chance to establish learning routines; an opportunity to try out new tools.  These are the parameters that make teaching the profession what it is.

You’ve got the curriculum that needs to be addressed but typically, you’re asked to rely on your professional discretion as to how it will happen in your classroom.  While there is the lore of people who have taught a course so often that they have lesson plans laminated and dated, that has to be the stuff that needs to be taken with some scepticism.

It can be difficult to bring in massive change in the middle of a school year, but starting on Day 1 in September, new routines and approaches can be implemented to motivate both teacher and student.  Judicious use also can deliver on the promise of engagement and differentiation.

Think of the possibilities.

Textbooks – Do you really need to dig out and assign those moldy old static content deliverers?  Does your science textbook still have Pluto listed as a planet?  Learning and research is more robust and transparent on the web.

Software – The bane of teachers and IT Departments is ensuring that all of the applications that are installed on classroom computers is done properly and working as it should.  Even when they are, they’re only available at school.  Ironically, computer use and javelins may be the only things that can’t be sent home as homework.  (OK, just kidding about the javelins)  Student workspaces are configured and permissions properly assigned.  A slip and it leads to frustrations.  Change your thoughts from applications needing to be installed to applications web-based that just work.  It opens up a whole new world.  There are even classroom management environments if you’re in search of one.  Flexibility is also required for times of slow connections or maintenance but that’s the world that we live in.

Blogging – There are so many Rs that effective blogging can address.  Reading, writing, reflecting, responding.  The only challenge will be making the decision about whether it’s a classroom blog or whether each student has her own.  Or both?  It’s not just a language tool.  Think of it as an introspection opportunity in all subject areas where students can dig just a little deeper and comment on the thinking of their peers.

Connecting – Can you remember when an expert might be a short term event with a guest appearing in the classroom?  It might happen once a year if the students are lucky.  With the proper connections, everyone has the potential to be an expert.  Instead of collecting monies to hire an expert for a day, make the connection with another class doing the same thing where they are the experts.  Sessions can be as long as they need to be rather than a timetabling nightmare.

Storytelling – There are awesome tools available that allow for remixing, reshaping, and constructing the new story.  The tools can also be used in very trivial ways.  When I talk, I warn against the “low hanging fruit”.  Used properly though, these tools can go far beyond Friday afternoon activities to being a crucial tool for engaging stories to support curriculum.  Look for innovative ways of using tools like Google’s StreetView, for example.

Home and School Connection – The use of online tools open the home/school connection in ways never before possible.  Rather than a paper newsletter that goes home monthly/weekly, web communication can become a true communication enabler.  Find out early if anyone is going to be disadvantaged.  You may be surprised at the various ways that parents and students are connected outside the school.  Consider this a message to go and make all of the online learning transparent to everyone.

Connections – The personal iPod, iPad or cell phone can be the elephant in the room.  It’s going to be a fight that you’ll lose so embrace it.  These are really powerful devices and formally banning them leads to under desk one handed texting.  Have them out and on the desktop for all to see and establish a protocol for their use.  There are times when they are clearly inappropriate but also there are times for learning and active use and discovery.  Use them to expand the connectivity in your classroom.

Amalgamating Content – It’s also important that access to all of these resources is easily available to all involved whether it be students, parents, other classes in your school, collaborating classes world-wide, and principals.  Make it easy on yourself by creating a class wiki that’s easily updated without extra tools, FTP, etc.  Remember that the wiki isn’t just about you.  The more collaborators, the richer the content.

Movies – There was a time when making movies in the classroom involved high-end equipment and specialized lighting, sounds, etc.  There still is room for that as a discipline but the world has moved on.  Online movie sharing has made this activity available to everyone.  Cell phones and mini-cameras bring movie making to the masses.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Even if you aren’t ready to move in that direction, your students are!  Don’t forget that screencasting can be equally as compelling.  The cool educational thing – making a movie requires a lot of thought, scripting, and research!

The News – There was a time when current events was an important component of every day but that has faded in some quarters.  The connected classroom can bring that back with a vengeance.  Subscribe to news feeds or content and you’ll be amazed at what’s available daily.  Imagine a click and you’re watching a movie about something relevant to today’s lesson.  Or, use any of the earth viewing tools to zoom in on locations and put studies in context.  You don’t necessarily have to do the work for yourself.  Follow some great blogs or online bookmarking feeds.  There are lots of people documenting the best of the best.  Why start from scratch?

Do Some Good – As the world becomes smaller when connected, so does awareness of global and local issues.  Good global citizens are aware of these issues and can direct their fundraising or benevolence efforts toward them.  Once students are aware of the need, it may be difficult deciding where to direct their energies.

Make Something – The availability of all of the reading can lull you and students into being passive consumers of it.  You’ll never read it all anyway so don’t try.  Read enough and then get moving.  Write a program; solve a problem; develop web content; solve a puzzle; take and analyze some measurements; build a birdhouse…

Professional Growth – Before this turns into a book, take time to do something for yourself.  You can’t beat going to a conference or other Professional Development event but I would urge you to think of them differently.  Instead of a place to go to learn something new, think of them as a place to make connections and consolidate your thoughts.  Get yourself a Twitter account and follow some great educators and others, read some blogs, grab some RSS feeds and do the reading and thinking daily.  Don’t just subscribe to people that you can easily agree with.  If you consider yourself a liberal in thinking, latch on to one or two conservative voices.  They’ll make your blood boil but open up windows to new sides of the discussion.

Yes, it’s September and classrooms and lecture halls can be exactly what you want them to be.  The first lessons establish the norms and expectations for the new year.  It’s a chance to be exactly what you want to be.  So, what do you want to be as you get a fresh start?

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OTR Links for 08/31/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

When Jerks Comment

A few years ago, I had purchased a piece of software to do professional development registration for my employer.  We had put it into place and I had kicked the tires and customized it so that it was unique to us and our requirements.  I was scheduled to do a demonstration to the director of education and her superintendents first thing in the morning.  As was my custom, I was in to my desk by 6 and fired up my web browser to do one last minute check to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten things over night.  To my disgust, the opening screen didn’t appear.  Instead, a solid red screen with a white logo showed. 

I fired off an email to support and he got back relatively quickly.  “Oh, you’ve been hit by a Chinese hacking group that looks for unpatched Apache servers and then defaces them.  Give me an hour and I’ll reload things for you.”  I still remember my reaction.

  • How did he know it was a group of Chinese hackers?
  • If he knew immediately that it attacked unpatched Apache servers, why didn’t he have all the patches applied for us?
  • But, most of all, I remember how violated that I felt.  This was “my baby” – soon to be turned over to the system where it would become “our baby”.

I had done what I thought needed to be done but the ultimate event was determined by someone else and it was completely out of my hands.

Today, I think of teachers who attend one of those quickie summer workshops to catch up on 11 years so they can become 21st Century educators.  “I’m going to blog with my kids”.  Great – it’s absolutely one of the best things to do.  But, are you ready for everything?  How will you and your students react — when jerks comment!  And, if you are making these blogs public, they will comment.  How will you and your students handle this?

The easiest away to avoid this is to just not make your blog public.  However, that takes away the whole point of blogging.  You want your students to reach the end of the writing process and to publish for an audience.  Blogging is the ultimate because you can publish for an audience that you don’t know.  It is so powerful when someone on the other side of town or the other side of the world takes the time to comment.  Comments can be supportive of the premise, they can challenge the premise, and they can be just plain caustic.  I think most people are prepared for the first types but the last one can be a challenge.  Now, I’m not talking the little bit of spit that a Peter might throw my way.  I’ll get him back for that.  I’m talking about profanity, phishing, personal comments and everything nasty that ill-wishing people elect to throw your way.

Was that covered in your summer course?  The situation can be minimized by your platform choice but more importantly, how you configure it.  I won’t go into my preferences but I would think that you should be looking for at least the following settings in whatever platform you are thinking about using.

  • Spam protection – ideally, your system catches the spam before it ever sees the light of day.  Is this a legitimate concern?  Absolutely.  Using this blog as an example, I have added 2,487 posts but my spam catcher has caught 22,648.  I just can’t keep up!
  • Approval – you need to configure your student blogs so that all replies are reviewed before they’re made public.  In a perfect scenario, the teacher alone should see them first;
  • Verify – while it may seem like a good idea that people should have a voice, it’s particularly important in education that that voice isn’t anonymous.  Make sure that visitors are identified with OpenID or the like so that you have a sense that they’re legitimate people;
  • CAPCHA – those annoying little images that have a couple of words obfuscated are tough to deal with but ever tougher on robotic programs or people that just want to do a quick deface job;
  • Geolocate – part of the power of blogging is knowing where people are coming from.  Tracking by location is nice but at least ask for their blog so that you can track back to get a sense of where they’re located;
  • Spell checking – of course, you want your student work to be as perfect as it can be but so should be the responses.  Spell checking makes sure that students are not going to be exposed to bad spelling and make it their own;
  • Dashboard – don’t forget that your time is valuable too.  If you have multiple bloggers and multiple classes, you need to be able to manage things.  Having a single point of entry to see and manage the blogs can be a great timesaver.

But, can there be a bit of sunshine in the process?  Absolutely.  Depending upon the age and preparedness of the students, it can be an education to spend some time looking at a couple of the comments that didn’t make it to the blog.  After all, this is the reality of the blogging world.  If they’re excited about blogging and understand all aspects, we may have a new generation of great bloggers.  Don’t be put off about what possibly could go wrong – deal with it and focus on the benefits when everything goes right.

And, above all – if your students are blogging, don’t forget to ask the Twitter community for a little help.  Let us know and use the tag #comments4kids to seed the process.

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OTR Links for 08/30/2011

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Making You Smarter

Now, when a product comes out with a claim that it can make me smarter, how can I resist?  We all know I need all that I can get.  That’s the claim of a new news reader called Thoora.  The opening pages claim that Thoora will cut through the clutter, taking you to the good stuff, and thereby making you smarter.  I’m a sucker for a news reader and so I gave it a shot.

I’m a real fan of Zite on the iPad and the way that it reaches out and grabs articles for me that I would never have found if left to my own devices to find.

Thoora does the same sort of thing, only in your web browser.  You create an account and start a topic search.  Once the topic has been determined, you supply the sort of keywords or tags that would generate content for your topic.  I’ve said it before – the ability to tag is a skill that’s so valuable.


Then, sit back and let Thoora do its thing.  The site goes out and finds relevant stories based upon the keywords for your topic.  The topics are assembled into your own little reading portal.  Pick a topic and start reading.

Topics may be private or public.  I believe in public and so what I’m reading is available to anyone who cares.  At present, this is what I’m reading.  Apparently, you could subscribe to any of these as well, if you want.

I’m not sure that I’m any smarter yet, but Thoora is giving me new sources of information for my online reading.  It works on computer and portable devices which means everywhere I happen to be connected.  So far, I’m enjoying the new reading.

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