Monday, February 5, 2018

4 EdTech Ways to Differentiate in a Student-Centered Classroom

Co-Written with my friend and business partner Shaelynn Farnsworth

In all the work that Shaelynn and I do with teachers across the US and beyond we see educators creating amazing learning environments for students. From the use of 1:1 technology to enabling students to learn authentically, these really are incredible times to teach and learn.

However, among all the flash and pageantry there is struggle. Educators are looking for ways to personalize the learning environment for every student while trying to find ways to differentiate; it can become paralyzing. On the one hand, they have the traditional methods of accessing content and assessing what students have learned. On the other, they have rooms full of technology but aren’t yet taking full advantage of that that technology can do for each student.

Carol Ann Tomlinson said it best:

“At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.”

Differentiation isn’t just something that some students need or some teachers have to do, differentiation is responsive teaching and a part of every classroom. Each student comes to the classroom with a variety of past learning experiences, prior knowledge and individual learning needs and styles. Whether it is to help a student who struggles to understand basic content, a student who just needs a little push to go deeper or a student who far exceeds our expectations and needs the opportunity to go further, differentiation should be and must be a part of every classroom.

Differentiation comes in many varieties. Teachers can differentiate in four classroom components based on student readiness, interest, or learning profile:
  • Assessment – Understanding what students know and still need to learn
  • Content – What the student needs to learn or how the student will access the information
  • Process – Activities in which the student engages in order to make sense of or master the content
  • Products – culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit

(There is also some evidence that differentiation of the classroom environment, the design of the learning space, furniture used, etc, can also help with differentiation. If you want to learn more learning space design check out the work of Bob Dillion.)

When we layer technology into these 4 components, the process of differentiation becomes less daunting and more accessible to each student. Here are 4 Edtech Ways To Differentiate In The Student-Centered Classroom:

Assessment-Sometimes seen as a four-letter word in the world of education, assessment, if done correctly, can provide a mountain of valuable information that can help teachers determine where students are in their learning and where the teacher needs to go in their teaching. Particularly, formative assessment is the driver of differentiation of assessment. Formative assessment acts as a GPS, providing valuable information both the teacher and the learner. It provides timely feedback to inform instruction and make adjustment. When assessment is used to adjust instruction it crosses over into the “formative assessment” realm. This crossover helps teachers and students to see it, not as a test, but more as a process.

Technology isn’t necessary to do any type of formative assessment. However, if we layer in the effective use of technology into formative assessment we can not only reach students where they are in their understanding but look at trends over time and respond accordingly in our teaching.

Some Of Our Favorites:
Poll Everywhere
Recap App

Content-When many teachers consider differentiation they look to content as the way to do it for most students, and rightly so. Content is the foundation of learning and skills are applied. Therefore, if we can provide a way for students to access that content at their level, we can better meet their learning needs. Each student is (and should be) held to high standards. But we know not every student is on the same path for their learning. Through the differentiation of content we can level the playing field for each student.

Technology has made it much easier and frankly more possible to differentiate content in new and exciting ways. In some cases, students can be given the same content, however it is tailored to their individual needs either through raising or lowering the reading level, providing more visualizations or still meeting standards but providing content that is interesting and exciting for students.

Some Of Our Favorites:
CK12 Flexbooks
The Kid Should See This

Process-Differentiation of the processes by which students learn is another traditional way that teachers provide different learning paths for students. For many students the instructional practices are outdated and do not meet their needs. If we want to create an environment where each student can find success no matter their learning profile than we have to look beyond traditional pedagogy and meet students where they are at and how they want to consume information.

Technology makes the differentiation of process easier. Accessibility tools built into modern devices make it easier for us all to use those devices more effectively and efficiently. And many of those tools can benefit all students. In addition, the idea of gamifying learning is gaining steam to provide an environment that is familiar to students, but also is fun, challenging and rich with varied learning opportunities.

Some Of Our Favorites:
Breakout EDU
Read & Write For Google Chrome

Product-Ultimately, students need to demonstrate their holistic understanding of the content. Traditionally that is done through a summative project. However, this method is flawed when we produce a list of items that students must include, the specific font to use, the number of cited sources, etc. That isn’t a project, that is a recipe. And recipes don’t belong in the classroom. Students need freedom of choice in how they demonstrate their understanding. That doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. We can provide creativity, choice and freedom within boundaries.

Technology is truly transformational and students should be able to demonstrate understanding through a variety of transformational ways. This differentiation of product can look different for each student, however, at the heart are the same learning goals. Through the effective use of technology students can do incredible things while still demonstrating what they know and how they know what they know.

Some Of Our Favorites
Instagram and Snapchat

Want to learn more? You can grab a copy of our resources from our FETC 2018 Presentation or inquire about a workshop on EdTech Ways to Differentiate in the Classroom by contacting Steven,

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Work With Me! Enhancing Leadership For Administrators and Teachers

Last week I had the honor to work with educational leaders and teachers from Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. Our goal was to examine the role of technology leadership in and out of the classroom and to better understand how technology can enhance learning. It was a unique opportunity for me because normally when I do professional development like this I work with one group or the other. However, over the course of 2 days I was able to meet with just leaders, just teachers then bring them together to facilitate conversations and provide guidance so they can continue to grow.

There were four main areas of focus for our work:

Key Indicators of Highly Effective Technology Use-I’ve been working for nearly 5 years, in my former role as a Director of Instructional Technology and now as a consultant for schools and districts across the country, on how leadership can better understand highly effective, high quality technology use. However, it’s not just leaders. If teachers can plan lessons that use technology appropriately, they can make their jobs not only easier but gain more depth in learning from their students. If both leaders can see and teachers can use technology to create new knowledge and products for a global audience or provide choice in what technology students use, than the learning that takes place has the potential to be more high quality and more impactful.

A Deep Examination Of The ISTE Standards-What came as a surprise to most of the participants was the existence of the ISTE Standards. During our time together we did an in-depth look at what the standards mean. But more importantly, we embarked on a period of self reflection. Since I had both leaders and teachers from the same schools and districts together we were able to look at what standards they were meeting. Moreover, they had to be able to show how they were meeting them (just as we would want from our students). Then we looked at the barriers they faced in meeting the standards and how they could overcome them. We used the collective wisdom of the room to come up with action plans they could continue to work on for the rest of the school year.

Tech-Savvy Administrators and Tech-Savvy Teachers-One of the more important things I have found in my work with leaders and teachers and their ability to understand high quality technology use is if they aren’t modeling effective use for their students or each other, it makes it difficult to know how to use it with students, or evaluate its use on a walkthrough. For leaders we looked at technology through their lens. How can they use technology in their role (the same technologies they might see in the classroom) to build stronger School:Home Relationships or be more productive. This builds on the work found in my book The Tech-Savvy Administrator. For educators, we looked at the 6 Areas of Development for Tech-Savvy Teachers. Better understanding the use of technology in areas like collaboration, formative assessment and reflection can go along way to understanding more fully how to embrace the higher quality implementation of technology in the classroom for learning that students deserve.

Distributed Leadership-In order to grow leadership both from the front office and the classroom there has to be an understanding of true distributed leadership. Both leaders and educators have to understand that everyone is both an expert and novice. Or that everyone has to know the vision, buy into the vision and share that vision often. Or, like just in the classroom, assessing what is working and what isn’t (formative assessment) and reflection should be a routine part of the process.

But don’t take my word on all this. Here is a great write up from the local paper:

Educators Learn About Leadership, Technology

Or here is a spot from the local news:

Are you interested in having your educational leaders or teachers enhance their leadership ability, better understand high-quality, highly effective technology use or in helping them be more Tech-Savvy? Maybe it’s something else? Get in touch with me and let’s plan some awesome PD!

Friday, January 5, 2018

3 Ways Leaders Can Support Ongoing Professional Development

When I was leading an Instructional Technology program, one of the hurdles my team had to overcome was the lack of involvement from our leadership on the professional development we were delivering. In the feedback we would get from teachers we would hear that the learning was good, but that their Principal, AP, Curriculum Director, whom ever, didn’t know what they were learning, or why they were learning it. Even worse, when leadership came to do walkthroughs or evaluations, they didn’t know what to look for to ensure the professional development was effective and implemented correctly.

We can’t just throw learning against the wall and see what sticks.

One of the best ways to judge the effectiveness of professional development by leadership is to conduct regular walkthroughs of classrooms to specifically look for what was learned and how it was implemented by teachers. However, if the leadership doesn’t know what to look for, because they weren’t involved in the professional development, then how can they truly judge the effectiveness? Or worse yet, if they aren’t involved in the professional development planning cycle at all then how do they really know what type of professional learning needs to take place in their building or their district?

The key is for school and district leaders to be involved in the complete process of professional development. At every step of the way these leaders need to come out from behind their desks, open their doors and participate, not only in the student process of learning but in the educator process of learning as well. In order for professional development to be seen as providing a value to the learning all educators must do, school and district leaders must be involved in the cyclical process of learning.

Professional Development should impact every single staff member in a school and district to improve overall learning targets. From the Superintendent on down there has to be not only buy in but involvement from Curriculum Leaders, Technology Leaders, Principals, etc, to ensure that professional development is carried out is a systematic and cyclical way. If we want professional development to be effective then leaders need to be involved so that everyone can continue to hone their craft and develop professionally.

Here are 3 easy ways for Leaders to support ongoing professional development.

Be Involved In Planning-School and District Leaders, at all levels, need to be involved from the very beginning in professional development planning. Ultimately, the Superintendent should know the learning needs of the district and provide a guiding hand in to how ongoing professional development will look each year. This is then replicated at the building level. Taking cues from the Supt., the School Leadership Team needs to be directly involved in the plans for professional learning for their teachers.

This was important when I was working with my schools. I could have easily created a district-wide, technology-learning plan for educators that touched on what I wanted them to learn but we know that learning needs to be individualized and tailored for the learner (In this case, teachers). I needed my principals to meet with me on an ongoing basis to look at where their teachers were and where they needed them to go. What specific needs did the teachers have that my technology program could help them meet? How was the professional development we were going to provide align with their School Improvement Plan and help them meet their overall learning targets?

The bottom line is, school and district leadership needs to be involved from the very beginning of the ongoing professional development planning process to ensure the learning is going in the right direction and stays on track throughout the professional learning cycle.

Be Involved In Learning-The biggest failure by leadership I see in supporting ongoing professional development is the lack of involvement in the actual learning. I saw it all the time when I was leading professional development and still experience it to this day. How can a leader best evaluate the use of technology or a literacy program or implementation of a specific pedagogical technique if they weren’t somehow involved in the same learning the teachers participated in? This doesn’t mean leadership has to learn how to use the Chromebooks or Flipgrid or PBL to the same extent as the teachers but they do need to have an understanding of how they are used and implemented with students so they can identify strengths and gaps.

Teachers also want their leaders to not only be involved in the same ongoing professional development that they are but they want to be led by their leaders as well. I hear this time and time again, school and district leaders are a valuable source of knowledge and experience and staff needs them to take the lead. Time needs to be set aside for them to lead specifically targeted professional development that brings everyone closer to their goals.

The bottom line is, school and district leadership needs to be involved in the participation and delivery of high-quality, ongoing professional development that shows educators their understanding of what they are learning and their capacity to lead these programs.

Be Involved In Reflection-In order to make professional development truly effective there has to be opportunities to reflect and evaluate its overall impact. Those that deliver the professional development need to be open to the comments on feedback forms and evaluations to learn and grow. Equally important is the reflection done by the participants on their own learning during and after the professional development sessions have ended. School and district leaders must lead and participate in these conversations to ensure learning is on track and on target but to also decipher where the learning will go next. These reflections should help determine next steps (either additional resources, or the next aspect of learning) thereby making the the professional learning cyclical.

These conversations might ask questions like:
  • What are our strengths now that we’ve had this learning and are implementing it in the classroom? 
  • What weaknesses do we still have? How do we overcome them? 
  • This professional learning will be successful because...
  • What support do we still need? 

The bottom line is, school and district leadership needs to be involved in the reflection process of professional development to ensure that educators and leaders alike are doing what is best for their students.

There is no doubt the role of school and district leadership is tough. And considering adding “one more thing” might not seem appealing. However, if we want professional development to be ongoing, meaningful and something teachers look forward to then leaders need to be involved in planning, be involved in learning and be involved in reflection.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Give Yourself The Gift Of Learning This Year

Unless you just haven’t noticed, trees, lights and ornaments are going up on businesses and homes all over the place. Commercials on television highlight sweaters, coffee and fireplaces. It’s hard to ignore we are in the holiday season.

And, if you are like me you mind turns to the long list of things you have to get for everyone in your life. Gifts for kids, family, friends, the mailman, bus driver, front office staff. You can start feel pretty overwhelmed. It's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and forget about that one person on your list that you need to take care of the most.


Educators spend all year taking care of everyone else. Students in the classroom. Leadership in the office. Parents. Community members. It can become physically and mentally demanding. Late December is a great time of year to rest, spend time with family and friends and recharge your educator batteries. It’s important for every educator to take some time to mentally, emotionally and physically reset before you go into the new year.

Here are some ways you can recharge your professional self before the new year starts and give yourself some gifts that really matter.

Anytime Learning
One of the best gifts you can give yourself is the gift of making time for professional learning. Schools and districts just simply don’t have the means to personalize your PD. But you do! There are so many great options out there to take control of you PD and learn what you want and need anytime, anywhere.

Edweb- I’ve said it once and I’ll keep saying it. Edweb is amazing. Free webinars nearly everyday. Archives of everything they’ve done. There is no reason not to be checking out what Edweb has to offer for your professional learning needs.

Classroom 2.0 Live and Archives- Every Saturday there is a free webinar for educators over at Classroom 2.0. They cover all sorts of topics and their archive and resource list is extensive. Best of all you can subscribe to their video podcast feed and never miss an episode.

Edchat Interactive-Most webinars are passive. Sit and get. Edchat Interactive aims to change that. Everyone is on video and you can create small groups to discuss and debate. Check out their archive too. (A little shameless promotion with this one as I am one of the founders.)

I am lucky. Spending lots of time on airplanes (or waiting for delayed planes) gives me lots of time to read. I mix up my reading between the latest educational research and stuff that I just find interesting. Here are 3 books I read this year that are a good escape and can still influence you as an educator.

Confessions of an Advertising Man-It might be unusual for a book about advertising to end up on a list for educators but if you are at all interested in creativity then this book should be at the top of your list.

The Life Changing Magic Of Not Giving A _____ -I know the title of this one will give some pause and even some of the language used in might be offputting to others, this is a book that should be in your personal library. If you want to figure out what really matters in your personal and professional life (and what educator doesn’t?) then definitely pick this one up.

Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder-I am a huge fan of the Little House series and this book was a fascinating read into the reclusive author and why her stories of pioneer life are even more important today.

Here are more books that you might be interested in.

Mindfulness and Reflection
While not new, meditation and taking time to look inward can be one of the best gifts you can give yourself. And it using mindfulness and reflection can also boost learning in the classroom.

Headspace-This is the app I use and works great. It is free to use but you can pay to unlock additional features. Download it to your mobile device to get a little reflection time where ever you are.

Smiling Mind-Here is another app to take a look at as well. What I like about this one is they have a specific series all about how to get started and use mindfulness in the classroom.

TED Talks
A list on gifts to give yourself wouldn’t be complete without some TED Talks. We’ve all probably seen one or several of these but have you sought out the more obscure ones? The funny ones? Sometimes a little humor (and learning) is what we need to get going again.

This Is What Happens When You Reply To Spam Email
The Story Of The 404 Error Page
How To Use A Paper Towel
I Got 99 Problems...And Palsy Is Just One
A Theory Of Everything

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Stop Blaming Social Media

Recently most of the world has become familiar with the term “fake news.” These alternative facts are pervasive and infect all facets of our lives. From our twitter streams to talking heads on television it seems like we can not escape facts being outright fake, or the perception that they are. What’s worse is most students can’t determine whether what they see or read is real or fake.

We can’t blame those that create the facts.

We can’t blame the media that reports them.

We can’t blame social media or the tools used to access them.

We have to blame ourselves.

Social media didn’t create fake facts and the media didn’t invent fake news. Our lack of understanding of the power and reach of all of these is at the root of the problem here. Social media has long been the scapegoat for adults to blame the ills of kids and students on. Kids can’t focus because of social media. Kids stare endlessly at their devices because all they care about is their social status. Kids today won’t know how to engage and communicate because they only can talk in 140 character chunks or 7 seconds of video.

It’s clear social media has the power to engage students in ways adults do not understand. My 8 yr old daughter can watch kids her age go to the water park or visit Disney World for what seems like hours. And she can comment and engage on what seems like something so mundane and useless.

But to her it matters.

And because it matters to them, it should matter to us.

Social media must be embraced by educators and used in the classroom so we aren’t raising a society of users that doesn’t understand the power, potential and reach it has to both be a positive driving force for change and a technology that can divide and change fundamentally who we are. Moreover educators and adults must be fluent in the language of fake news and alternative facts so that our students understand and are aware of what lurks in their streams and posts.

It’s because of the engagement my daughter has with video and other kids have with other social media and most adults lack of understanding why they do what they do with social media we must redouble our efforts to be better knowers of all aspects of digital literacy. We can no longer blame the technology. Just because we don’t know how to use it doesn’t make it bad. All educators and adults need serious help in being digitally literate and identifying fake news and alternative facts.

So let’s stop blaming social media and fake news and alternative facts. Let’s instead work to better understand for ourselves how to spot what’s real and what’s not so that when students come in the classroom and we empower them to use social media to connect, they are being empowered by an adult who understands the power of social media but also helps them distinguish the real from the fake.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Protecting Your Technology Investment With @Rug_Ed

My daughters, Reaghan (8) and Chesney (4) are like your average kids. They love to play and pretend and have all sorts of fun, especially when it comes to technology. And just like your average kids they are hard on the technology they use. Reaghan has had an iPad since she was 2 years old, using it to learn letters and shapes (although these days its for YouTube, coding and Osmo). Yet she is on her third device because she, well, has a tendency to drop them. A lot.

Chesney is the same way. She has an iPad mini that goes with her everywhere so she can practice her reading or be in control of the world in Doc McStuffins. Like her sister, I've had to replace her device as well.

I've spent lots of time, money and frustration trying to find a case that will allow them to do all the things they like to do like Osmo or Sphero or LittleBits without getting in the way, while also providing me the peace of mind that my investment is finally protected.

Then the folks at Rug-Ed reached out to me to see if I would like to try one. They have a case specifically designed for K12 and the way that kids use devices. I was in the market so I thought I would give it try. In the 3 months we've been using them I have been very impressed.

Rug_Ed iPad Case
The case is made of hard plastic but flexible and designed in a way that provides cushioning around the most vulnerable areas, the corners and the sides. A built-in tempered glass screen protector disappears on top of the device while still providing maximum protection.

When I was working in schools one of the challenges we had with cases for tablets was that students often removed them because they needed to position the device in a way that the bulky case wouldn't allow. This then removed the protection we were trying to provide. The Rug-Ed case barely adds any thickness to the devices so it stays out of the way. The case also locks in around the device so it can not be removed. There is a nice carrying handle at the top and you don't notice the weigh because the case is so light. And because the case isn't bulky you wouldn't have to change your configuration in a charging cart or box. They would slide right in.

The cases are only made for iPads and iPad Minis. So there is a drawback if you use another tablet device like an Android or Surface. There is also a stand included which Reaghan said it was a little small and it caused her iPad to tip over the first few times she used it. But once she learned how to position it, she didn't have a problem again.

Overall, I am a fan of these cases. And after having my kids use them for a while I can say they have definitely been put through their paces. If you want to learn more you can visit their website, and if you want to purchase (which you should!) you can use the coupon code "web20classroom" and save 10%.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Creating Learning Centers in a Blended Literacy Classroom

Written with Shaelynn Farnsworth, post is sponsored by ThinkCERCA, an online platform designed to empower teachers to personalize literacy instruction across disciplines.

There has been no greater impact on differentiation and student achievement in recent years than the effective integration of technology in the classroom. Traditionally, literacy educators spent long hours gathering resources, developing tasks and extensions, and reading and analyzing assessment to determine if the instruction was meeting the needs of students. Now imagine doing this same routine 3 or 4 times over to cover all Lexile levels in one classroom; exhausting. Technology has not only provided text access at students’ differing instructional levels, but has streamlined formative assessment, and has given back precious time to teachers to work with small groups and individuals.

The most effective blended learning model that literacy classrooms can utilize to meet the needs of all readers is the “Rotation Model” in which online engagement is embedded within a range of face-to-face forms of instruction. While this blended environment could look many different ways, we believe that the workshop framework provides the instructional vehicle that makes differentiation most successful. Technology or a blended model is not a component of the workshop framework, but utilized by a skilled workshop teacher, platforms such a ThinkCERCA, and an understanding of each student as a reader is when achievement is maximized.

In a workshop framework, there are 3 main components: Mini-lesson, Independent Practice, and the Share. The mini-lesson is whole group instruction. The teacher targets a learning objective, models it with a mentor text, actively engages the students in similar work, and then sends them on their way to apply the new learning to their own independent books. It is during the independent time that teachers experience the greatest challenges as well as the largest gains made by their young readers in the form of conferring. At the end of the time, the whole class is once again gathered to partner share or large group share out the important work they did during the day.

The question we often receive is centered around the Independent Practice. Teachers witness the benefits of small group instruction but are less certain about the learning taking place by the rest of the class. While there are many different ways to implement and manage independent routines, it is here where technology can best support young readers. During the independent time, centers are one way to keep students learning, not just completing busy work. Literacy Centers, infused with a blended environment is an example of rotation model at it’s best.

  1. Student-centered, active inquiry, open-ended
  2. Purpose is to learn, offering opportunities for a variety of levels
  3. Center should be applicable to what you are teaching and what students are learning
  4. Established routines, organized materials, and dedicated space

Managing independent time in the literacy classroom is an area that teachers must address directly. Independent time, centers, or stations should not be busy work or only used sporadically. It does not have to be an either/or in regards to technology, instead, it is BOTH and supports students with all types of reading and writing they will consume and create in their lifetime.  It is a time for students to take ownership in their own learning. Integrating technology into independent time routines or centers is advantageous for both students and teachers and help to move all readers forward.

Want to learn more? Check out the Administrator Guide to Personalizing Literacy Through Blended Learning from ThinkCERCA! There is also a great webinar on crafting Scalable Blended Literacy Programs worth a watch as well.

Blended Learning Models (Friesen, 2012)
Guided Reading, Fountas & Pinnell

Shaelynn Farnsworth is a Digital Literacy Expert in the Iowa. You can follow her on Twitter @shfarnsworth

Steven W. Anderson is a Digital Teaching and Relationship Evangelist. You can follow him on Twitter @web20classroom