Bringing Attention to Your Efforts

Jan 30, 2012 by

I attended the always fantastic Educon conference this past weekend in Philadelphia.  One of the issues that came up in several conversations was about educators getting better at “shameless self-promotion.”  There were lots of people doing terrific and inventive things with kids, ranging from using World of Warcraft as a learning tool along with the narrative of books like the Hobbit; Kids taking on really terrific project-based learning initiatives; schools experimenting with everything from digital office hours (using Skype) to self-publishing with students.  But the problem is that many of these really great ideas are isolated to the classroom or even to the conference.  Not every administrator or teacher even within that particular school district knew what other teachers were up to, or what their results were, at least outside of the grade level or building.  And often teachers noted that parents seemed to be out of touch or not understand what was going on in the classroom.  The answer to this problem is helping teachers engage in a little shameless self-promotion.

For example, after elementary school, the bulletin boards and hallways in our district, outside of some large display cases, are much less engaging than they were earlier on.  Moreover, there are fewer parents and visitors throughout the building, and less time between classrooms, so I wonder how many people are really seeing and appreciating the work kids are doing day in and day out.  From a teacher’s perspective, if we expect students to take pride in their work and have a sense of audience, is there another way in which we can share and publicize what’s happening in class? How about what the goals are or take away ideas from units or projects?

It made me begin to think of ways classroom teachers, grade levels and even whole schools could start doing a little more shameless self-promotion to the community.  Since often things like school newspapers are being cut or squeezed into other electives, what would happen in once a month, a grade level in middle school got together and published an email newsletter to go out by email to all parents and families?  This could highlight what teachers are doing, a preview of upcoming projects or areas of study, examples of student work, and it could even be written by the students themselves.

By looping parents into all the great things teachers are trying or experimenting with, goals for projects and lines of inquiry, and more, the more likely the school is to get support from its parents, and the more cohesive the community will be.  Too often once kids begin middle school, the sense of belonging to a class and a larger group gets lost and reduced down to the kids in any individual section of algebra or history.  By sharing out successes and goals with the whole grade or school, everyone will be more on the same page.  The pro-active communication will help make parents feel more in tune to what school is trying to accomplish, rather than rely on their students for reporting, which too often is limited to discussions like this:

“What did you do in school today?”   “Stuff.”

“Did you learn anything new? ”    “Not really.”

“Do you have any projects or tests coming up?”  “I don’t know.  They haven’t said.”

“What is interesting to you?”     “I don’t know.  Not much.”

I know if I had a better sense of what was going on in the classroom, I could do a better job as a parent helping students find connections between subjects, or placing their learning in a larger context.  I could help them see the big picture.  But too often, this gets lost in the shuffle and a general sense that as the kids get older, the place for parents to be in tune with the classroom becomes less and less relevant.  Yet the need for students having a sense of the bigger picture and metacognition does not ebb, in fact it may increase over time.

I know this is yet another thing to fit into an already clogged curriculum.  But I think it’s an ide that has merit, and can help teachers garner support from families and administrators for their efforts, if they were just a little better at showing off all the great work they were doing, and the great results they see from the kids.  We all need a little pat on the back from time to time, and sometimes, we need to learn to ask for it.  Providing notices to folks about all the hard work you do every day is one way to ensure it happens a little more often, especially since teens are notorious for underselling what they’re doing.  Yet everyone deserves to take a bow for their hard work, especially teachers.

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Assigning and teaching Presentation Skills

Oct 14, 2011 by

One of the the important 21st century skills we want students to master is the ability to present information in multimedia formats. One of the tools commonly used is powerpoint or keynote- the basic slide presentation. But often, to make these presentations easier to grade, we set metrics for presentations, such as a certain number of bullet points per slide, etc. However, this is probably only teaching students to give the same dull powerpoint presentations we all have to sit through, rather than teaching them to separate “show” and “tell” in their presentations.  Even if we switch students to things like Prezi, all they “eye candy” in the world won;t make up for poor content or poor presentation skills.

The point of asking students to do a presentation should be to allow them to demonstrate their thinking and mastery of subject matter, as well as the ability to communicate that information to others.  These are the key skills they will need later on in life, and teaching them to make meaningful and engaging presentations early on in school will save them from having to re-learn these skills later on in life.  (Plus think of how much more fun it will be to watch great presentations!)

Seth Godin is a famous writer and marketer, and a great presenter. Here’s an example of his work from the Gel Conference, called “This is Broken” which brings up alot of great points about poor design- give it a look:

Seth Godin at Gel 2006 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

Seth also has a great blog post on doing presentations that engage people that he even put out as an e-book.  I’ve re-posted it below, to help understand what goes into making compelling presentations, and why  a great presentation accompanied by a handout explaining stuff in detail is probably a much better way to teach kids great presentation skills while  producing work that you can assess and grade.

Seth is a marketer, so his expertise comes from making compelling content people want to pay attention to- I think we can learn a lot from this, to make our classes more interesting, and help our students better communicate their ideas as well.

Really Bad Powerpoint –  Seth Godin

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to champion at a church or a school or a Fortune 100 company, you’re probably going to use PowerPoint.

Powerpoint was developed by engineers as a tool to help them communicate with the marketing department—and vice versa. It’s a remarkable tool because it allows very dense verbal communication. Yes, you could send a memo, but no one reads anymore. As our companies are getting faster and faster, we need a way to communicate ideas from one group to another. Enter Powerpoint.

Powerpoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it’s not. Countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.

Communication is the transfer of emotion.

Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are.)If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report.

Our brains have two sides. The right side is emotional, musical and moody. The left side is focused on dexterity, facts and hard data. When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain. So they use the right side to judge the way you talk, the way you dress and your body language. Often, people come to a conclusion about your presentation by the time you’re on the second slide. After that, it’s often too late for your bullet points to do you much good.

You can wreck a communication process with lousy logic or unsupported facts, but you can’t complete it without emotion. Logic is not enough.

Champions must sell—to internal audiences and to the outside world.

If everyone in the room agreed with you, you wouldn’t need to do a presentation, would you? You could save a lot of time by printing out a one-page project report and delivering it to each person. No, the reason we do presentations is to make a point, to sell one or more ideas.

If you believe in your idea, sell it. Make your point as hard as you can and get what you came for. Your audience will thank you for it, because deep down, we all want to be sold.

Four Components To A Great Presentation

First, make yourself cue cards. Don’t put them on the screen. Put them in your hand. Now, you can use the cue cards you made to make sure you’re saying what you came to say.

Second, make slides that reinforce your words, not repeat them. Create slides that demonstrate, with emotional proof, that what you’re saying is true not just accurate.

Talking about pollution in Houston? Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not read me the stats but show me a photo of a bunch of dead birds, some smog and even a diseased lung? This is cheating! It’s unfair! It works.

Third, create a written document. A leave-behind. Put in as many footnotes or details as you like. Then, when you start your presentation, tell the audience that you’re going to give them all the details of your presentation after it’s over, and they don’t have to write down everything you say. Remember, the presentation is to make an emotional sale. The document is the proof that helps the intellectuals in your audience accept the idea that you’ve sold them on emotionally.

IMPORTANT: Don’t hand out the written stuff at the beginning! If you do, people will read the memo while you’re talking and ignore you. Instead, your goal is to get them to sit back, trust you and take in the emotional and intellectual points of your presentation.

Fourth, create a feedback cycle. If your presentation is for a project approval, hand people a project approval form and get them to approve it, so there’s no ambiguity at all about what you’ve all agreed to.

The reason you give a presentation is to make a sale. So make it. Don’t leave without a “yes,” or at the very least, a commitment to a date or to future deliverables.

Bullets Are For the NRA
Here are the five rules you need to remember to create amazing Powerpoint presentations:

No more than six words on a slide. EVER. There is no presentation so complex that this rule needs to be broken.
No cheesy images. Use professional stock photo images.
No dissolves, spins or other transitions.
Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never use the sound effects that are built in to the program. Instead, rip sounds and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have. If people start bouncing up and down to the Grateful Dead, you’ve kept them from falling asleep, and you’ve reminded them that this isn’t a typical meeting you’re running.
Don’t hand out print-outs of your slides. They don’t work without you there.
The home run is easy to describe: You put up a slide. It triggers an emotional reaction in the audience. They sit up and want to know what you’re going to say that fits in with that image. Then, if you do it right, every time they think of what you said, they’ll see the image (and vice versa).1

Sure, this is different from the way everyone else does it. But everyone else is busy defending the status quo (which is easy) and you’re busy championing brave new innovations, which is difficult.

After seeing Seth present in person, I totally changed the way I present.  I follow these rules as closely as I can.  People still ask for copies of my slides, even though they don’t help very much without me there, and I do make slides available on slideshare. I think the slides act as a souvenir of the presentation, or as a template for others to try to follow.

But the secret here for everyone is that people can’t take in two language inputs at the same time- just think how hard it is to talk on the phone and write an email at the same time- you can’t do both.  So likewise, when you are speaking, if you have too many words on the slides, people read the slides and don’t pay any attention to what you are saying.  We need to teach everyone, especially students, to use slides as illustrations, and demonstration points of a talk- the “show” portion, and leave the “telling” to the person presenting.

Give it a try, and see how much of a difference it makes.  And let us know how it works out for you!


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The iPad in the Classroom and 20 favorite Ed Apps

Sep 27, 2011 by


iPads are undoubtedly cool, but are they just another gadget, or can they be used meaningfully in a classroom setting?

I should preface this by  saying both my sons are currently using parent-provided iPads as their school computer and as part of 504 plans.  The advantages of the iPad over a traditional netbook or laptop computer include:

  • Instant on- there’s no waiting for the computer to boot up at all.
  • Long battery life- with 10 hours of battery life, a charge can last a day or two, and certainly throughout the school day.
  • Lightweight- it’s very lightweight and portable, even if you add on external keyboards for better typing with either a standard bluetooth mac wireless keyboard or a case that includes a bluetooth keyboard like the Zagg or Logitech case.  These essentially turn the iPad into the equivalent of a Mac Book Air.  You can literally take the iPad anywhere.  While 3G is needed to allow internet access outside of wi-fi areas, we’ve found that wifi only is just fine for everywhere we use the iPad outside of the car and ebing on the road with athletic events or field trips.
  • The Apps Themselves– a variety of apps have great functionality for kids in school- some of the ones my kids have had the most success with include:
  1. iHomework- a great agenda program that helps them keep track of their work, due dates and managing assignments and projects.
  2. Flipside HD- a flashcard app that lets kids create their own flashcards, mix them around, and even share them with others as needed.  Much more fun than making traditional flashcards and trying to keep track of them all. Goodbye 3 x 5 cards!
  3. AudioNote- This allows a student to take notes in class and record the lecture at the same time, syncing the audio and the notes together.  For kids who are learning to take notes, or simply cannot multi-task well and aren’t great notetakers, this means they can review stuff they may not have been fast enough to take down, take more outline notes, and focus more in class on what the teacher is saying.  While some teachers seem to dislike the concept of being recorded in class, I do have to ask whether during a lecture you are trying to test their note-taking ability and ability to listen and write at the same time, or are you more concerned with them learning the information you are imparting?  In which case, shouldn’t a student be able to rewind you to try to take in everything you are saying?  Certainly, the rate of your speech and the rate of their transcription are bound to be out of sync at least some of the time….
  4. Idea Boards- a great app for helping students to gather ideas and organize information
  5. Comic Life- a fun way for kids to experiment with making cartoons- editorial cartoons for social studies, and more.
  6. Lab timer- great multi-timer app for labs in science
  7. imemento – another flashcard app, but we tend to prefer Flipside
  8. Pearson education has a bunch of SAT prep apps, and there are some great algebra tutorial apps from the Florida Virtual School which can help reinforce concepts with kids
  9. iThoughs HD: a mind mapping app, also good for projects, organization of information and studyinh
  10. Paperdesk- allows students to create their own notebooks of ideas, organize them and export them when needed
  11. The Apple iWork Apps- Pages, Keynote, Numbers, Garage Band, iMovie, etc.  All of these apps are available for the iPad, and are fully compatible with the same applications on the Mac.  You can even email the documents created to yourself, a teacher- whomever, allowing for quick turning in of assignments, along with a date stamp, meaning teachers know exactly when the assignment was completed and mailed.
  12. Storylines- an app where people can essentially play the old fashioned game of telephone and pass a story back and forth, each adding something to the narrative.
  13. Word joust- a vocabulary building app/game, available for different age groups.  The SAT Vocab builder has been great to play with, and I’m excited that they’ve come up with one for younger grades as well.  This is the best vocab app game I’ve seen, using both definitions, spelling and inverses to reinforce the words.
  14. Morris Lessmore- the first truly interactive and captivating storybook I’ve ever seen.  Amazing.  Makes you feel like you are in the book, and if you want to see what the future of children’s literature will be, look no further.
  15. Google Docs- you can access gmail and google docs easily from the iPad, and this makes it equal, often, to the computer.
  16. The Kindle, Nook and iBooks apps- turns the iPad into a walking library, and let me tell you- letting kids get the books they need in a few seconds over driving to the bookstore makes me happy.  Not all titles are always available, but enough are that it has been a life-saver and convenience for us.
  17. The iPod functionality also lets us purchase audiobooks through Amazon or
  18. Dragon- allows kids to dictate to the iPad and have it converted to text.  Not perfect, but pretty darn good.  Just make sure to export those files, so they don’t vanish.
  19. Skype- my child has run study sessions with his friends over skype, using the iPad at home.  The mobility of it means he’ll always be able to find a quiet place to study
  20. Prezi- one of  many teacher’s favorite presentation applications, Prezi, is now also available on the iPad, helping kids and adults to create better looking presentations.

What do you think of the iPad as a personal learning tool?  I think it has limitations as a classroom only tool, since it’s not really possible to set up different user accounts on an iPad, meaning the work of many kids may be mixed up, and it would be hard to guarantee each child got the same ipad in class the next day.  However, as a personal hone to school to home computer and learning tool, the iPad is proving to be a great asset for my kids.

Have I missed any of your favorite apps?  What would you include on this list?

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Video review of The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists

Sep 27, 2011 by

I’m an education geek, so when friends have looked at my book, I don’t exactly expect them to be as excited about it as they might be over a novel that would appeal to a wider audience. When my friend, Diane Brogan, got a copy, I was flattered, but just like she said, I didn’t expect that it would be bedtime or pleasure reading. So when she called me up very excited and then showed me this video she did, I was thrilled!

Likewise, Chris Penn saw a copy this past weekend, and said we should put it out with a new name: Simply – “How to Teach Kids”. He thought it looked like a perfect teaching guide for the homeschooling families and parents as well as teachers. Of course, that’s what Jenifer and I hoped when writing it, but it’s much more powerful coming from others. Diane says it all 🙂

Making Homework Matter- Differentiate The Homework

Sep 11, 2011 by

In our book, Jenifer and I knew we’d have to address homework.  It’s one of the issues that constantly puts teachers, students and parents at odds.  The real issue with homework is that kids often don’t see the point and it seems like busy work, rather than something that seems to have value.  Can you blame kids? I can’t begin to tell you how many times my kids have said things like “She never checks the homework, so really, why should I do it?”  It’s not that they don’t understand the value of practice, but they do look at it as the teacher assigns homework, but seems not to care or be invested in whether the work is actually done or not.  Is it any wonder why they see no real reason to complete it and stop caring as well?

The New York Times wrote about the topic, in a great opinion piece entitled “The Trouble with Homework.”  One great quote is the following:

In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair or poor, and 4 in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork. A new study, coming in the Economics of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has “little to no impact” on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.) Enriching children’s classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.

In the first chapter of our book, Jenifer and I came up with many ways teachers can differentiate the homework, making it more personally relevant for each child in the classroom.  In the best of circumstances, homework should be work that should be done individually, whether it’s practice, reflective work, or other work that frankly doesn’t require the audience and collaboration of the classroom itself.  By using homework to prepare for class discussions the next day, to make sure that students have critical pieces of projects dine and ready for group work and the like, makes it more likely that the homework will get done, and that it has meaning.

Making homework meaningful also means making class time more meaningful.  If you are together with thirty other students, shouldn’t this be a time to share ideas and collaborate?  To learn from and with each other?  If kids are spending class time doing things like sustained silent reading, this is in some ways wasting the purpose of spending time together in the class, unless the purpose of the exercise is learning to read in a library or public setting.

Assessments can also be part of homework,  Instead of looking at assessments as tests taken during the day, how about trying to give kids open ended questions or novel problems where they have to take what they’ve been learning and apply it to solve a bigger problem?  This gives kids more time to really display what they know, and show mastery (or lack thereof) on assignments in a way that  a multiple choice test in class never will.

We also encourage teachers to try to make homework interactive.  Sometimes this can be reading an article and commenting on it on a classroom blog or wiki.  It could be assembling artifacts about a topic on their own wiki, or with a group.  It could be participating in a discussion through Skype.  Any of these assignments give kids an opportunity to express themselves as well as serving as a jumping off point for classroom discussions the next day.

Homework shouldn’t be a punishment.  If a teacher adds extra homework when the kids are bad, kids will naturally start to associate any form of homework as a form of punishment, not just “discipline”, which in its most authentic form means To Teach.  Homework should  be an opportunity to extend learning, to make connections with the outside world, and start to see how the classroom learning connects with their larger lives.

Now I know full well that some kids need more practice than others, or may memorize things faster than others.  In which case, why do all kids need to do 35 math problems when some have mastered the concept in the first 5 or 6?  The rest of those problems, for those students, is mere repetition and sheer tedium, teaching them nothing new.  Teachers need to help figure out which students need more practice, or perhaps even a different kid of practice than blindly assuming repeating the same procedure over and over will make a kid smarter.  In fact, it seems to me Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same task over and over again yet expecting different results.  Maybe there’s room here to start thinking about homework, and what we want kids to get out of it.

Let’s not forget one of the options all teachers have is to ask their students not only how they feel about homework, but why.  If they say it’s stupid and boring, then you need to ask the next question- Why?  What about it is stupid and boring?  How could we make it better?  If you were in charge, how would you change the homework?  Most teachers will be surprised that the majority of kids will give you thoughtful and insightful answers to these questions, and will take them seriously.

I think both teachers and students (not to mention parents) deserve to have more thought and purpose put into homework, and for homework to become a more collaborative process for everyone.


What do you think?

Could you differentiate the homework in your classroom?  Why or Why Not?

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