Just back from a crazy trip to Austin, TX for SXSWedu. I admit I was beyond excited to get a chance to go to the legendary conference.

Here’s the highlight reel:

Reading digital text

There is much controversy about the efficacy of reading on a device. In the past few months, a couple of “studies” have come out showing that students don’t learn as well when reading digital text. This session took issue with these studies, and I applaud them. I am oversimplifying their points here:

  • One major point was that comparing reading on a device to print is like comparing apples and oranges. It is not the same type of reading, usually. Device reading is often for a completely different type of content.
  • Point two: it is crucial that we teach students how to read on a device. The skills of digital reading need to be taught.
  • Point three: digital text offers advantages including immediate feedback.

For someone who builds digital materials, it’s important to note that we need to use digital text to enhance the reading experience. Things like customizable fonts/sizes, audio narration, highlighting, taking notes – all these things are important.

The founder of Curriculet was part of the session. It was very interesting to hear why he founded the company in response to what he saw as a lack of good digital content when he was a teacher/principal.


Tile map activity from

Went to a fun playground booth by National Geographic. Great activities and demos about using geographical concepts with kids.


What can I say about Kahoot besides that I love it? They are coming out with some new features in the next few months that will make it even more useful for my needs.

Student Data

Student data and data privacy were big buzz topics at this conference. I should have attended more sessions about this. I need to do more on this topic. Hoping there is some of this conversation at ISTE as well.

Final Keynotes

The last day was 4 keynotes.

The first was the director of the Grammy Museum talking about the importance of music education. I agreed.

Sal Khan spoke. I have never heard him speak at a conference, and he was awesome. He’s very funny, a great speaker, and has a great story to tell. I knew lots about Khan Academy, but it was great to hear from him about their recent things and plans for the future.

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 2.23.25 PMHowever, the best part was the tech fail. He was showing a video about a kid who used Khan Academy to not only catch up in high school but get ahead. The kid just accepted a full time job at Khan Academy (he has gradated from college now…) The video didn’t work. The audio did, but not the video. The tech guys tried three times, nothing. Sal just gracefully plugged through and kept going. Fortunately, the audio was the most important part, but the lesson here was watching him deal with the potential melt down of his talk. He rolled with it and was inflappable. I will remember that for the next time my tech fails — fortunately, it will not be in front of hundreds of people!

Overall Thoughts

This was only the 5th SXSWedu, building off a very successful brand for the Music and Film events. I believe I heard there were 8,000 people for the EDU event. After ISTE with 15,000+ people, this one felt small – but that’s not a bad thing. I was able to get in to sessions with no problem and the venue was easily accessible without being overwhelming. Attendees were an interesting mix of some teachers, more administrators and lots of edtech company folks.

Sessions were a mixed bag, but that could be because of the sessions I chose. I naturally gravitate to the technology sessions, but with one exception (the digital reading one), there was nothing new or even that interesting. I started attending sessions that were far more out of my normal subjects (such as the student data session), and that was better. Still, the sessions I attended were not all that inspiring.

As I’m learning, the best experiences come in more direct connections. The most valuable conversations happened in the Playground, where a handful of vendors were set up. It wasn’t an Exhibit Hall (which was oddly open only during one afternoon???) although it was people with commercial products. It felt more like a demonstration area. There was a space for short talks and another for hands-on interactive experiences. This was where the folks from Kahoot and National Geographic were located.

Overall, I think SXSWedu has great potential, but at this point, it feels a little unfocused and it needs to find its stride.Not being quite as teacher centered at ISTE, the conversations were bigger and more theoretical.  Unlike ISTE, SXSWedu has potential to have a bigger museum presence. We felt that conversations about informal learning and how museums are a great partner option would be welcome here. Next year we’ll propose a session!

Choir and Technology

I’m currently at a conference, although not really. My daughter is singing in a national honor choir (congrats!) and I’m here as her “chaperone.” Basically, it means I have a ton of freetime while she is in rehearsal!

As chaperone, I can go to sessions and concerts. I was excited to see a fellow blogger Chris Russell presenting today. (To be clear, Chris is truly a blogger with useful information. I just happen to vent on a WordPress site from time to time….)

I’ve seen Chris present number of times at education technology conferences, but really enjoyed seeing a presentation in a music conference setting. Many different kinds of jokes from this perspective!

It’s pretty clear that choir classrooms are not the first to jump on the technology bandwagon (except for Chris!) He did a great job setting up why it’s crucial to be using technology. He points out (very accurately) that the kids are using technology in your class already, whether you like it or know it.

I especially appreciated two thoughts. One was a phrase I haven’t heard before — but just loved and will use (with credit, of course!) The concept of technology integration vs. outtegration. He feels that most of the tech use in music/choir classes has been outegration — a recording made outside of class, or listening outside of class. Instead, the use needs to be in class.

Second, was attributed to someone I neglected to note – but the quote was, “Are you here to learn or are you here to change?” This is a great way to think about technology in classrooms. We should never be using tech in a classroom just for learning the same way we always have. Does the choir classroom look the same way it did 50 years ago? Instead, technology allows us to change  the way the classroom looks and the way the learning happens.

The rest of the session covered 9 excellent strategies for stepping in to the shallow end of the SAMR model: substitution and augmentation. This is a great way to approach a group of people who aren’t comfortable with tech. There were definitely a few of those people sitting by me.

The audience asked some great questions. It seemed to me that it was a group of folks hungry for information about this topic. It is definitely scary to some, but this wasn’t a group that seemed resistant – quite the opposite. It was clear that some of them were familiar with the concepts, had used some of the tools. They were there because they were excited by the possibilities and wanted to learn more. I left feeling very positive about the direction this is going. I think there will be many more opportunities for Chris to share his knowledge with this group!

Maverick Superintendent

My local school district is looking for a new superintendent after a long tenure (17 years, I believe). The current sup is much loved and revered by some — he’s done a great job keeping the district fiscally sound and has weathered the ebbs and flows of student enrollment. He closed schools early on and is now having to add space. He’s led the district through significant demographic change and is responding to the changing demands. He saw the introduction of the first 1:1 iPads in the district this year.

I did have the opportunity to participate in a focus group to give input on the new hire. No idea if they’ll listen to anything we said…. Just saw this great article about a maverick sup in NJ — THIS Is what I’d like!

Why? Highlights:

…we’ve redefined what public education should look like, to include creative problem solving and social and emotional well-being to be as important as academic success.

…we reframed what teaching and learning looks like by focusing on project-based learning.

I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it? Because we have so much information today. How do you help kids navigate that? That’s critical thinking and creative problem solving.

[businesses] want kids who can solve problems and think critically.

I am not anti-testing. I’m concerned about the policies associated with the testing regime and how they may detract from the quality and purpose and the use of tests.

Let’s bring this guy in!!!

E-Learning Affordances

I’m taking a MOOC called E-Learning Ecologies. At first, I wasn’t sure it was interesting or applicable, but I am finding it to be a fantastic experience. I don’t take MOOCs to get the certificate — I take them to get the knowledge. I don’t have time to do the level of work for the certificate, but I certainly enjoy being exposed to the new ideas and concepts. This is just a place for me to jot down some notes from this week’s conversations.

The 7 E-learning Affordances

The 7 E-learning Affordances

This course is putting forth 7 E-Learning Affordances. (See image). These are completely applicable to my work and to my shifting views of education.

Today, I’m watching video lectures about students as content creators as opposed to content consumers. The concept is quite basic.

  • Traditional learning: hand a student a textbook, asking them to read a chapter and spit back the info on a test.
  • Content creators: assign students to report on a topic. They talk about a report, but it could be a written report, a video, a poster, etc.

Assessment changes, too. It becomes irrelevant to be able to recall a series of facts. If you did all the research, you learned how to find the facts — a much more valuable skill. The  capacity/ability to produce a scientific artifact — becomes the evidence of learning, not the memory. “The test that just assesses memory is not as important as the test of what you actually did.”

While this concept is not at all new to me, I liked how they explained it. There is, as well, the need for me to find others who reference this type of thinking. For example, when I talk to people at my kids’ schools, it always goes better if I can cite a professor or academic work.

Balance of Agency

Here’s a great example in the shift of balance of agency — many years ago, there was Casey Kasem’s Top 40. We were told the top 40 songs. Now, everyone has music on their phones, create their own playlists — create their own top 40.

This is a shift from centralized agency to distributed, where people build their own.

Another great example is video games v. film/tv. In a video game, your actions have an impact on the narrative. In a film or tv show, you have no impact on the narrative. And — the video game industry is now apparently larger than Hollywood!

How does this impact education? This shift to active learning has to be reflected in schools. Kids are used to defining their own narrative, be it a playlist, a video game or learning. If learning does not adjust, we have problems.

Communication vs. Writing

This blog is a great place to story some of my other writing. Here is another response I wrote for the MOOC, “The Art of Teaching History.” The prompt in this case was, “What are the obstacles to teaching writing?”

Communication isn’t just writing

The prompt this week is about obstacles to helping students become better writers. I certainly support helping our students become better writers, but I feel there is a gaping hole in the conversation in the videos. Our old definition of writing is the obstacle. We must think about communication, not just writing.

The videos solely address formal, academic writing. Journals, when assigned, are still an academic writing exercise. As a few threads here have addressed, the world has shifted, and students are exposed to many different types of communication media: Twitter, blogs, videos, Tumblrs, Instagram, etc. The list is endless and ever changing.

I am glad to see a few threads here addressing the issue I see. Some of the threads here are disturbing, because the blame for students not being able to write is being placed on our students and their use of technology/digital information. That is simply not fair to our students, and shows a lack of being able to think forward. We cannot continue to live in the past and expect students to perform in school the way we, as adults, were taught. We — the adults — need to also learn from where the world is going.

I am not saying students shouldn’t learn to analyze and evaluate. They need to learn to communicate their thoughts and knowledge, including this analysis and evaluation. It is our expectations of how they communicate this that must change. Is the standard 5 paragraph essay still necessary? What about a 90 second video? A powerpoint/prezi or some other presentation? It takes more skills to communicate visually. They must still get their ideas out in an orderly manner. They must make a thesis and support these ideas. Using visuals, doing a presentation, or some other mode of communication is JUST as valuable — and perhaps in our increasingly visual world — MORE important than just being able to write.

Teaching other modes of communication also allow us to differentiate the classroom, and perhaps allow students to shine in different ways. We cannot limit our world to text. Students with certain learning disabilities or those who are creative/artisitic may show you a different side of themselves when presented with the opportunity to use other modes of communication. Students who are well versed in writing are done a disservice if they are not encouraged to explore other modes of communication.

Writing is merely the beginning. By limiting ourselves in teaching history to this mode of communication, we limit our students.

“Successful” Students

The following is a response I wrote for a Coursera MOOC I’m taking, “The Art of Teaching History.”

In the video I’m responding to, the instructor talks about what he thinks makes a “successful” history student. I admit I bristled at this a bit. Who defines a “successful” student? I’m sure there are many definitions/thoughts about success. What is “successful” for one student is different than might be for another. I tried to watch the video with an open mind.

Anyway, here is the response I posted on the course forums:

A “Successful” History Student

I struggled with the definitions given for “successful history students.” They were:

  1. Knows history/significant knowledge of history
  2. Reads and writes well
  3. Thinks analytically and historically

I do agree with #3, but the first two give me pause. In my work, I teach and develop content about state history primarily for 6th grade students. Perhaps these definitions of success apply better at an older age — more like undergrad — but I can’t apply them to 6th grade, middle school, or even to high school.

If the knowledge of history was the measure of success, we’d be testing facts. We don’t want to do that. We want to engage students in history, give them a sense of their place in the world and how the past has influenced where we are — where THEY are — today. For 6th graders, we strive to build a base of historical knowledge, of course, but our measure of success is not that they know the date of statehood. We want them to understand the factors that created the state, what were the positives and negatives about how the state was made. Who were the players? How do past events impact them today. We want them to understand the “So What” questions — why does it matter that we study history. We want them to know HOW to find historical detail and information. It is not necessary that a 6th grader memorize minute details, dates and more.

I also feel strongly that teaching history is part of the process of creating readers and writers, but this is a text-centric approach. Students today need to be able go beyond text and into visuals, audio and more. Our culture is moving from only text into communicating strongly through visuals (images, art, video) and sound. Students of today need to be as fluent – if not more so- with these modes of communication. They also need to be able to express their knowledge through these modes. Producing a video requires many skills: organizing information, determining important and non-important information, creating a thesis, writing a script, choosing appropriate visuals and audio and more. This, to me, is far more than writing, and we as educators and parents are responsible to see that students can do all this. Focusing on the academic historical essay is doing a disservice to all students except those planning on graduate work in history — and can be saved for the high school or undergraduate work.

A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned

This is a fascinating article. It is sobering, and as a parent, makes me incredibly sad. The comments are, as all comments are, mixed. Some make me furious, some are insightful.
To those commenters who blame the students for not learning, I ask you to talk to students. Those students in your class who “don’t care” may actually have serious issues at home, have a learning disability or mental health issues, or a myriad of other issues that interfere with learning. Or, maybe, one too many teachers rolled their eyes at them, and the kids no longer feel valued. I hope my kids never have you for a teacher.
I happen to be a parent of one of these kids. She is intelligent, creative, thoughtful and caring. She started school as an enthusiastic student. She will hopefully graduate this year, but she is a different person after being part of the factory school system that rewarded rote memorization over creative analysis. She has ADHD and works 10 times as hard as other students to maintain interest in topics that are not naturally interesting to her. Do not blame her for not being interested in every subject in school. I bet you weren’t either, and that’s why we – as adults – choose to be attorneys or scientists. We don’t study everything.

To those who support lectures, I hope you realize that the world has changed. While some lecture is still valuable, our entire world has shifted to a far more visual place. We access information differently. We process information differently. And that’s ok. It doesn’t all have to be the same as it was 20, 30, 60 years ago in order to be valuable. How dare you say you can teach if you are unwilling to learn new things?

After watching our daughter hammered down by a school system that does not reward her learning style, we purposefully chose a different school for my son. His class periods are long, but he says he never, ever sits for the whole time. He never goes a class period without interacting (verbally or physically) with the teacher and other students. His school builds in daily opportunities for students to move around the building and engage in learning other than classroom. He is given ample time to complete homework in school, and rarely has more than an hour of work at night. This means he can continue with his outside interests, which includes singing, composing/arranging music, piano, and reptiles. His learning at home is as valuable as his learning at school, and school supports this.

Granted, and...

The following account comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid and sobering I have kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different than my own experience in sitting in HS classes for long periods of time. And this report of course accords fully with the results of our student surveys. 

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching…

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To AP or Not?

Another interesting article about the move away from AP classes: “Is it Time to Reconsider AP Classes?” from Mindshift.

I’m not shy about my dislike of AP classes (there are a few posts about AP classes on this blog. I’m not going to restate them here.) This post raises some very good points about why AP is being reconsidered in many schools.

Recent issue in my daughter’s school: an AP Music Theory class is being proposed. Comments from the administrators were that they didn’t want to offer it because it wouldn’t appeal to students of color/low income/ELL. Wow. Horrifying.