5 ways to improve your technology skills!

If you’ve been to Pebble Beach in California, you’ll see the smooth stones. The pounding surf has rubbed off all of the rough edges and made them so smooth. So, they become something collected and touched. They have polish.

Just up the road in a quiet cove there are rocks that no one wants to touch – it is a very quiet cove with no surf to polish down the stones – so the stones are rough and while people may visit, there is no great beauty or anything to share.

The world is clearly divided into two kinds of people: learners and non learners. No mistake, as a professional whose job it is to help learners, learning is hard and requires work.

And yet those who have the best skills for technology are those who have been polished by tough problems. You become better with your computer in one way: by troubleshooting problems. Some people when they have a problem choose to ask me or another. Sometimes I get tweets from people asking me questions that they could find with a quick Google search.

Here are some of my tips for solving your technology problems.

1 – Try to get familiar with the terms

If you want to search for answers on YouTube or beyond try to figure out the terms of what things are called. While the very few pages that come with iphones or computers don’t have much, they do tell you what to call things. With every device I purchase, I review every button and what it is called. I snap a picture of any diagrams and put them in my electronic notebook: Evernote. You could also just keep them in a file.

2 – Be aware of things that change

One of the biggest signs of getting a virus or malware on your computer is a sudden slow down. If you’ve installed nothing and have done nothing on your computer, this usually means something has happened. Keep a current antivirus subscription (like AVG or Avast) on your computer. I also invest in Malwarebytes which you can download and run for free. Malwarebytes snags those little pieces of malware that might download as part of a picture or when you go to a site. On my computer at home it snags 3-4 pieces of malware a day.

3 – Look for answers

If I want to know how to do something in software, I first go to the help button and type in what I’m trying to do. The procedure to do a mailmerge changes quite often, for example, so often I’ll start there in Microsoft Word instead of looking for it.

Secondly, I’ll look for tutorials on YouTube. When I update my favorite filmmaking program, Pinnacle Studio, I’ll watch the tutorials on the program on YouTube first.

4 – Know how to search

One problem is that many of us need to learn basic search engine math.

For example, if you want an exact phrase use quotes: “iPhone 5S” for example will give you that exact phrase. If you want to add something to that search you can use a plus and to remove something you can use a minus.

So, if I want to find out all the latest tips for searching on Google I might type in “search engine” +tips +Google -Bing

5 – Give yourself time

It takes time to troubleshoot. The problem is that many people just want someone to tell them the answer. When they are told the answer, they don’t even write it down or try it for themselves. The problem with this method is that you are promoting dependence on others instead of independence.

The bottom line is that if you want to be a polished technology user, you need to take the time to troubleshoot some lower level problems yourself. You can do this. The funny thing is that technology experts like me are usually not the experts, we just know how to find the answers. We know where to look and we work at it until we find something that works.

With the wealth of knowledge on the web, take time to polish your skills and it may mean taking on problems sometimes.

12 Powerful Project Based Learning Tips!

Project Based Learning (PBL) is using projects to teach. They can be challenging but are the cornerstone of my classroom and have been for many years. Here are 12 tips for successful project based learning in your classroom.

1 – Begin with the End in Mind

Always start with what you want to accomplish – your objectives. Share the objectives with your students so they clearly understand the purpose of what you’re doing.

2 – Always Have Rubrics

Students should clearly know what they are expected to do. Sometimes students want to spend more time on one aspect or another and may lobby for a change in the rubric. It is OK to modify rubrics in response to student requests and feedback. I recommend that this only happen well before the due date and after discussion with the whole class.

3 – Be Flexible

There are times projects take longer than expected or when one aspect doesn’t quite work out. If a project is new, call it a prototype and be flexible if you see you’ve underestimated how long part of the project would take. Then, adjust the project before you run it next time.

4 – Give Choices

Instead of requiring a specific tool, ask students to “create a multimedia presentation” or “create a video.”  Let students choose the tool. For example, if asking students to create a multimedia presentation mention that PowerPoint, Keynote, Haiku Deck, Prezi, Canva, or Emaze are options or they can find their own. You want to encourage students to explore and learn new tools.

5 – Add Intrigue

Add exciting, unexpected experiences – particularly to longer projects. For example, you might have a “guest speaker” via Skype or Google Hangout. You can be your own guest speaker! Dress up as a character or historical figure as you teach an element that will help them on the project.

Longer projects – particularly writing projects – can need a change of pace so have interesting class discussions and special activities intermixed. Put these mystery days on the schedule and create intrigue and anticipation to give students things to look forward to. (See Chapter 13 of my book Reinventing Writing for more ideas.)

6 – Engage with an Audience

Your wastebasket is a horrible audience. When students have an audience, they are more likely to perform at higher levels.(Aghbar and Alam 1992) This can be by sharing publicly or even by taking their best work and putting it into a portfolio that can be shared with parents and others.

7 – Have Ways to Make More than a Perfect Score

Competitions and contests with voting can also be an exciting addition. Have external judges at other schools review work online based on the rubric. You’ll find that they’ll find some hidden gems and performers that others may not spot if you have judges who are part of your school and know the students. You can also have student voting for “student’s choice” awards for best projects. Such competitions can be highly motivating to some students who would normally stop when they met all of the requirements on the rubric.

8 – Use Tools that Appeal to Multiple Senses and Allow Multiple Modes of Expression

Students have different strengths. Ensure that longer projects give students various ways to express themselves: voice, writing, video. Thinglink, Voicethread, Booktrack, Explain Everything and PowerPoint MIx, and many more tools can be used in this way.

9 – Involve Parents

Encourage parents to have dinner table conversations where their child explains what is happening of a topic of interest in class. Challenge parents to help students find their interests and encourage their pursuit. Encourage communication about the strengths of children not just areas for improvement.

Powerful parent relationships can start with you reaching out to parents to compliment their child. When parents know you care about their child, you become partners in helping the child succeed. I’ve never had a relationship built upon finding a child’s strengths turn negative. Projects with multiple modes of expression give students room for their strengths to emerge.

10 – Celebrate the Process

The journey is the destination as you work on projects. Students should be challenged to solve their own problems. Present alternate approaches and let the student decide which one. Have students take photographs and reflect on the process during the project. Conclude with online or face to face presentations where other students, parents, or administrators are involved. Celebrate and enjoy learning. (Some classes with have a Google Hangout or Skype presentation with another class to conclude.)

11 – Participate, Monitor, Engage

As students work through their rubric, check to see where they are. Ask for reports on what they are doing.

Watch to see if a part of the project is taking longer than expected or if a student gets distracted and loses focus. Engage with students in conversation about what they are doing to help them stay directed where they are heading with the project.

12 – Respond Promptly to Student Work with Specific Feedback at Checkpoints and When Done

Long projects deserve specific feedback. I’ve seen students do masterful work on a project just to be crushed when their teacher returns it to them with just a check on the front. Students need audience and deserve constructive feedback.

Projects are an excellent addition to the classroom. I hope that you’ll consider these twelve and add your thoughts in the comments. PBL rocks but it is all in the implementation.



Aghbar, Ali Asghar, and Mohammed Alam. Teaching the Writing Process through Full Dyadic Writing. Reports-Descriptive 141 ED 352808, FL021784, 1992, p. 19. As cited in Wynn, E.S. An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Research on Collaborative Writing, 1999. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED438744.


Set your year up for success: start communicating NOW!

Communication starts with expectations. If you start the year with a strong, clear message about you, your classroom, and your expectations you can be on track for an incredible school year. Here are four suggestions that can get your year off to a great start.

1. Set up your mobile messaging group
ClassDojo Messenger is a web browser and mobile messaging service that will bridge the gap between home and school. ClassDojo Messenger allows you to not only send whole class broadcasts to parents, but also privately and securely message parents about individual students.

2. Record a video introduction
Introduce yourself to everyone via video. The goal should be to instill confidence and communicate your professionalism (as well as your 21st century skills.) If you have certain school supplies, communicate those as well with examples to show. If you want students to come to class prepared, even show them how to assemble their binder. Set expectations about the year. Not everyone will come to open house but many will watch your video.

Create a link to your video after you’ve uploaded it to YouTube or SchoolTube by using a link shortener like bit.ly or goo.gl. Use this link in your emails or letters home. You can also see how many people went to that link, which will help you decide if it is worth the time next year.

3. Create your email list of parents (and students)
While you may not have every email of every parent, if you can have some, prepare to send a message to your group. Use a service like Boomerang to schedule these messages now. For example, you can send a reminder the day you start preplanning that you’re at school and excited. You can go ahead and write that email now and schedule it to be sent on a certain day. Imagine the power of an email that says,
“It is 8:00 am on the first day of school for me this year and the first thing I thought about is my new students!”

4. Send a letter home to your students
Include information on signing up for ClassDojo Messenger, a link to your video, and mention the email list to your parents in a letter that you mail home. Mention any school supplies or other important procedures such as how to schedule a conference.

Set expectations for how you’ll communicate. If this is the only letter sent home for the year, emphasize how you will communicate: bookbags, email, text messages? Let parents know what to expect.

Whether you use these specific suggestions or adapt your own, you should have a plan. The first time families hear from you should be a positive experience where you demonstrate your professionalism, set expectations, and communicate clearly. This can set a positive tone for the whole year. Good luck and start well!

Improving student learning starts on day one!

Some teachers are seen as masters of their classroom. Students come in quickly, get to work, engage, and leave the room tidy. Other teachers seem to be losing their mind amidst the chaos. Why the difference?

Classroom management

In the 1994 edition of Educational Leadership Journal, researchers  reviewed the last 50 years of education research and collected 28 factors shown to improve student learning. When they ranked the factors across various students, classroom management was named as the top way to improve student learning in the classroom. If principals and curriculum directors want to improve learning, they should help teachers become more effective classroom managers.

You can go from chaos to classroom manager extraordinaire but it depends upon your willingness to learn. Certainly books like Harry Wong’s The First Days of School and Fred Jones’ Tools for Teachers give time tested tips, but here are some things you can do to get started.

Procedures are not the same as rules

Harry Wong has a masterful way of explaining the difference between rules and procedures. You should only have a few rules — no more than five. Rules have to do with how we treat one another.

Procedures have to do with how you do things. When you don’t follow procedures you have consequences because you didn’t follow them. Only when it is becoming a real problem should a procedure be turned into a rule.

What do procedures help you do?

Effective classrooms have procedures for everything: starting class, ending class, asking questions, going to the bathroom, what to do when you’re absent and more. If you don’t have procedures, students will create their own and you might not like what happens.

For example, before I put in a procedure for asking to go the bathroom, I’d look up and a student would be gone. I didn’t know where they were or what they were doing. Now, students ask and I have a sign out clipboard by my door as well as a bathroom pass. Procedures do not mean that you are authoritarian or harsh. Procedures just mean that you have ways that you do things.

Every time the teacher speaks it interrupts the class. You can even have hand signals for questions. For example, students can raise their hand with one finger if they have a question or with three fingers if they need the teacher’s help. While this may sound silly, the more students you have in a class, the harder staying on task and classroom management can become.

These techniques can even help the class get back on task. We have a fourth grade teacher at our school who claps and the students respond with a special sequence of claps in return. The class is immediately quite, in order, and attentive when this happens and they feel more like a team.

Procedures can help you in every way!

When do you teach procedures?

The best teachers spend the first two to three days of school teaching students procedures.

As you start school you teach these procedures by explaining them, practicing them and practicing them again. While you’re teaching content and getting started, make sure to reinforce procedures for how work will be turned in. Students should turn something in, or a few things in, on the first day to get a feel for things. On the second day you should have those items checked, recorded, and graded. Then, practice the procedures for returning work.

Practice practice 

As we discussed this in our school’s PLC last week, the first grade teacher says that they even practice getting out their books. They call their math book “big yellow,” so she’d say something like this:

“Now, let’s practice getting ready for a math lesson. First you get out big yellow and look on the board to see what page we’re on. Get out your paper and a pencil and write your name at the top of the paper. After big yellow is open start looking at the book to see what we’re going to be doing.”

What about consequences?

Never interrupt the flow of teaching to discipline a student. My sister, a middle school math teacher, just writes the name on the board. If the student continues or repeats the inappropriate behavior, she will write a check by their name. Students spend time with her after school as their consequence when they had their name on the board.

It is up to you to determine the consequences. Just make sure you are consistent and fair to all students. For example, some of my students have practice after school. Those times of the year students will have to come before school or miss part of break but I make it the same for everyone.

If classroom management is a struggle for you, procedures are just part of the process of getting it together. When your classroom is well run, it will run itself. You and your students can enjoy learning and not worry about the distractions that come from disorganization and chaos. Take time to set up your classroom procedures now and a first day of school script to teach those procedures and you’ll be set to have a great year.

Wang, Margaret, Geneva Haertel, and Herbert Walberg. (December 1993/ January 1994). “What Helps Students Learn?” Educational Leadership, pp. 74-79

Professional Learning Communities

When I heard Clay Shirky say that the only proven way to improve teacher performance is for teachers to learn from each other, my conscience stirred within me. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are a growing trend in excellent schools and we didn’t have one yet at my school.

Shirky went on to say, “Letting teachers choose to opt out of new tools is okay because it keeps the naysayers from blocking forward movement. Let those who are interested implement change.”

The next week I began asking my fellow teachers if they’d like to create a PLC. Within three weeks, eight out of thirty-seven teachers signed up. At our first meeting, eighteen showed up!

Our First Meeting

At our first meeting we discussed Harry Wong’s book, The First Days of School. This meeting was unlike any other I’d been to at our school. Several teachers had already read the book and shared how it had helped them. Teachers who were planning to read it asked incredible questions. I came away with at least 10 ideas for things I could do on day one of the next school year. I got more out of those 30 minutes than I’d gotten from 30 hours of certain professional classes. It was unbelievable!

What’s Next

Our next plan of attack is to have a “lunch and learn” at our school. Everyone is working to finish the book and we’re going to discuss and share ideas. No one is required to do this — we are attending by choice, making it that much more powerful.

Reach Out and Start Your Own PLC

It can be intimidating to reach out to colleagues, but we know that the way to improve schools is to improve teaching. We must do this for ourselves. Although it is frustrating to have an insufficient amount of money to spend on professional development, we can get so much from a PLC — for free! We are so excited to be part of a teacher-led group that encourages sharing and collaboration.

I encourage you to talk with other teachers at your school. See if there are a few who would be willing to start a PLC. Some may refuse to join you, and that’s okay! Don’t be discouraged, there will be other teachers who are just as excited about starting a PLC as you!

If you’re having trouble creating a PLC within your own school, there are plenty virtual PLC’s. In Summer 2014, thousands of educators joined the Summer Learning Series, open to any and all educators (#SummerLS on Twitter). You can also keep an eye out for Voxer groups and book studies that you can join.

When you work with teachers who are willing and excited, change happens. Are you ready to level-up your classroom?