Monday, October 8, 2018

Making The Best Technology Purchasing Decisions

In our next collaborative post, Shaelynn Farnsworth (@shfarnsworth) and I discuss how schools and districts can make the best technology purchasing decisions. 

Recently I was talking to a Tech Director colleague that was in the middle of a purchasing battle with a principal. The principal had been approached by a well-known technology vendor wanting to sell the school some hardware and software to help students in literacy and math. The vendor was long on promises but short on delivery. The problem was the principal was blinded by the promises of high achievement and didn’t consider how that one purchase would put a serious strain on the district technology department.

Balancing a district budget is an annual job that has many administrators prioritizing monies to meet the needs of students and staff, as well as the upkeep and daily operations of the grounds and facilities. The increase of technology use in learning has added an element to the budget which has seen a steady increase over the years. In a 2017 report from Learning Counsel results found districts spent $16.2 billion on hardware, networks and major system software. And these numbers will only continue to rise.

With this understanding, many district administrators and technology coaches have found a need to vet the limitless purchasing options out there and make decisions that look past the flash of products to ones that will truly impact student learning.

Questions to Consider Before Making A Technology Purchase

How Are Student Privacy and Data Protected?- Many of the Edtech products available today require some elements of Personally Identifiable Information (PII). This could be anything from their name and grade all the way to their entire student demographic and academic profile. Educators and Administrators have a responsibility to understand how that data used by the products are consumed and ultimately protected. Reading terms of service is a start but asking questions like how much PII is actually needed for the software to run or how is the data stored or is it encrypted in transit and rest are some of the most basic questions to have solid answers to before allowing any company access to data sources. Check to see if the vendor has signed the Student Data Privacy Pledge. Most importantly, have a solid understanding of how the data is stored and used before signing on the dotted line.

What Compatibility and Interoperability Are Available? A common mistake we see made frequently comes from local school administrators making a purchase without making sure it works in the current system. Odds are if you are making a major technology purchase you already have a network and systems in place. Therefore it is important to ask about what devices the software works on or how does the hardware work in your current server environment? You don’t want to have to make additional purchases after the fact or find out that what was purchased won’t work at all because there is a compatibility problem.

Where Did The Research Come From? Many Edtech products, especially those used to increase student-achievement, will boast that they are backed by research. But you have to look at this with a critical eye. Where did the research come from? Was it funded by the vendor? Was it the vendor themselves? If products are truly “backed by research” the vendor should be able to provide or you should be able to provide independent research to back their claims.
What Is The True Cost For The Hardware or Software? Don’t get burned by additional costs related to licenses and fees. When you are making a major technology purchase what does the license include? Is a yearly cost? With software especially, as lots of questions about the total cost. Often you will have to pay for updates or upgrades. You don’t want to spend a large chunk of your budget on some software for every student only to find out that if you want the next version you’ll have to pay more for it. Do your homework and crunch the numbers to find out the true cost of ownership.

How Will You Be Supported? Support is often one of those things you don’t think about until you need it. It should, however, be towards the top your list to understand before making any technology purchase. Do you have to pay for support? If you do, how much do you get? Are you limited to the number of support cases you can open? Who can call for help? When is support available? Is just a certain number of hours a day or is is it 24/7/365? Is the support local or is it outsourced? Understand the support structure before you are stuck needing it.

What Training and Professional Development Opportunities Are Available? If you are spending a large portion of your budget on a new piece of hardware or software, especially if it is being used in the classroom by students or teachers, there should be a conversation before you sign about training and professional development. How will everyone be trained? Will it come at a cost or is it included? What about training new users 6 months down the road? Will the vendor provide it or will the district be responsible? Is coaching provided? How about opportunities for deeper professional development that could be provided. Ultimately, you are looking for more than just a hardware/software provider, you are looking for a partner that can be with you for the long haul.


Download This Infographic Here

Checklist For Technology Purchasing 
  1. Purpose: Does the purchase align with the mission and goals of the district? Does it support attainment of the discipline standards, ISTE Standards, and learning targets? Powerful EdTech purchases are ones that can span grade-levels and content areas for maximum student and teacher use.
  2. Student-Centered: Besides options to leverage the differentiated classroom, inclusive classroom, and accessibility options; student-centered focuses on choice, ease of use, fun, and supports learning. 
  3. Cost: Often times the price tag is a heavily weighted component in purchasing, but don’t forget to factor in: Licensing one-time, or yearly, per student or per school/district, updates included or added costs, replacement fees, cross-platforms/devices, renewal processes, and contracts.  
  4. Data Privacy and Security: Always understand how student data is used and stored when making any purchase. How will you get data in the product? What is the minimum amount of student data needed for the product to be used effectively? Is it encrypted when it's stored? Educators and administrators have a duty and obligation to keep student data private and secure. Learn more about FERPA, COPA, CIPA, PPRA here
  5. Logistics/Management: Minimal Effort To Get Things Going and Keep Them Going. Will this technology purchase work in our current learning environment? Whether devices, infrastructure, or sign-in, logistics and management are essential to get right. Nothing squashes Edtech in the classroom more quickly than when something doesn’t work, access is complicated, or multiple steps must occur before it is roll-out or available to staff and students. 
  6. Support: You Should Be Supported. Along with management and logistics as a necessary component of technology purchasing success, an understanding of the support offered is essential to classroom use. Knowing how to access support, who provides the support, and what that support looks like is information that needs to be gathered in the beginning stages.
  7. Professional Learning: Continuous Learning. Professional Learning can come in many forms, from onsite training to monthly webinars, knowing how teachers will learn about the possibilities available with a new purchase and how this will be done helps to encourage use and exploration. Are there additional resources available to use? Is there a community of users to connect with? 
  8. References: Check Your References. Ask for and check references from those educators and districts already using the product or service. While this may not be a top priority for every purchase, connecting with and hearing from districts currently using the product or service may provide an understanding or experienced success and frustrations.

Need more help making the best technology purchasing decisions? We’ve created a deeper checklist you can use, copy and modify to meet your needs. Download it here

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Taking Collaboration And Teacher PD To Another Level With Verso Learning

When I was teaching Middle School Science I always tried to encourage academic discussion among my students. As a group we would debate results from various experiments, attempt to understand current events in science and talk about how science was all around us. Like many other teachers on my team (or other teachers anywhere really) promoting true collaboration and sharing in the classroom is a wonderful goal to have but ultimately difficult to achieve.

As is true with adults as well as students, loud voices can sometimes drown out the shy or withdrawn. Or if I want to contribute but I’m not sure how my peers will react I may hold back in sharing and let others take the lead. As a teacher, how do I know I am asking the best questions that will get me the responses that will help me understand where students are in their learning and how my teaching needs to respond. These issues with collaboration and questions have been happening since people started talking to solve problems.

Promoting true collaboration in problem solving and having open classroom discussions doesn’t just teach students how to listen to their peers, formulate responses and see all sides of an argument. It can also help them learn better and learn more. According to Hattie, Classroom Discussion has an Effect Size of 0.82 or nearly twice what the expected growth for a student should be in a given school year. To put it simply, when classroom discussion is a regular part of the learning process, students tend to learn more.

In the classroom there are several good tools to promote discussion. Apps that allow for message boards or chats. However, if I want to use that discussion to help me drive instruction as the teacher, I might have to gather data from lots of places, figure out a way to analyze it and then how to best use it. And what if I find that I need some help? Where do I go from there?

Enter Verso Learning.

Verso Learning is a freemium platform that, at its core, provides teachers with the evidence of classroom learning they need to teach better. It starts by giving me really simple strategies and structures that i can build into my lesson to increase student engagement and activate their thinking. Verso creates a space for students to interact, ask questions, upvote helpful information and share, all anonymously. Students must first contribute their own ideas before they can see other student’s responses. Students don’t know who asked a question or who responded to one. They also get tips on how to better contribute and collaborate, helping them see how what they say matters and how to make it matter more. It’s like PD for Kids. Behind the scenes teachers can see everything. They know who is in the discussion, what was said and when and can even analyze their vocabulary usage by grade level and subject area. They also have tools available to moderate any undesirable content.



The Teacher Toolkit section gives me access to a classroom structures and teaching strategies like creating good sentence stems and engagement prompts, helping students become better at metacognition and more. These are like mini online courses you can work through to get new ideas and ways to better engage your students. They are all based on evidence and research and are high leverage things to do in class. You also get access to a number of activities from their curated, deep learning content library to use and adapt for your class. The content library contains over 500 teacher created and classroom tested, high-impact classroom activities searchable by grade level and curriculum area with more being added all the time, so you should be able to find some that are relevant to you.

You get all that for free!

A yearly subscription gets you unrestricted access to the entire toolkit of teacher support cards with over 70 different classroom structures and easy-to-implement strategies to help get students engaged in their learning. The cards are grouped into eight high-effect size teaching strategies that drive student learning such as teacher clarity, feedback, meta-cognition and more. Beyond the embedded PD you get access to unique classroom analytics which, when combined with teacher self-reflection data, enables Verso to suggest areas from the PD cards to focus on. In addition, the upgrade offers you unrestricted access to the high-impact content library and several other features including their individual student vocabulary analysis tool.

At $60.00US for an individual teacher for a year it’s a bargain! My suggestion would be to start using one of their high-impact structures in class, experience the impact it has on your students learning and get a sense of all that’s there and what’s possible. The upgrade happens through the app, it’s really simple. Start with one class and run a few of the free content activities so you can get a handle on how it will work in your class and see how positively the students respond and then start building your own high-impact lesson content from there.

Check out Verso Learning today!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Going Digital Is About More Than Just Devices...

Going digital has truly made our world smaller. From the desks in our classrooms we can travel to far off places and talk to friends via Skype or share thoughts through blogs or experience historic sites like never before with virtual reality. We can code new apps or design new objects on 3D printers. The digital tools we have available to us for both teaching and learning is (and will continue to have) dramatic effects on both.

And there is a shift (albeit small) in professional learning as well. You are no longer bound by the learning prescribed to you by your district. You can develop your own learning goals and by using digital tools you can seek out experts, connect, learn, share and grow, anytime, any place.

But I believe being digital or using digital tools is more than just giving devices to kids or even providing professional development for teachers. Going digital, rolling out devices, or digital makerspaces shouldn't just be about the new and the flash. Technology and digital devices should allow us to do things that are truly transformational. It should be really less about technology and more about relationships and attitudes.

Technology should never isolate us. Learning is social. Spending time together is how we learn. I will be the first person to tell you I use social media to make connections and learn with so many different people from around the world. But I will also tell you that nothing beats the face-to-face time I get to spend with people at conferences, meetings, or just over coffee. That face time is so valuable to my learning. I learn so much in those interactions. And that type interaction is so important for students to develop interpersonal, emotional and collaborative skills as well. So we have to get out from behind the screen often and learn together and from each other. Not everything has to be done through technology. Sometimes it's a hindrance rather than a benefit.  It enables us to interact easier or across great distances, but there is still room for students (and us to) to work face-to-face.

Unlocking Passions. School shouldn't be preparation for real life. It should BE real life. We've got to do better as educational leaders (teachers and administrators) to help kids (and adults) unleash their passion. Providing time in the day to tinker, explore, reflect, learn and grow helps us all discover who we are inside. Technology is truly transformational and should allow us all to do things not possible before. Technology isn't just for rote memorization of facts, having students take hours or meaningless assessments or judge whether or not they read a book with some low-level recall questions. Kids will do incredible things, if we enable them and get out of their way. Schools should be safe and caring places for them to discover and peruse their passions.

Enable Collaboration. Ideas are made better when they are shared. This is another that doesn't happen enough in our schools, even though technology-enabled collaboration has made it so much easier. Share the good stuff. Let kids build, discover, and problem solve, together. (We should do that more as adults, too.) And share what happens. Let others take what you've done and build upon it and make it better so that can be shared with even more people. Just like before, we can learn better together. Your story is important and deserves to be shared but more importantly, others deserve to learn from your success and failures too.

Talk Less and Listen More. This goes back to the face-to-face time right? And really, it's more listening than it is talking. As educational leaders (teachers and administrators alike) we have to be willing to listen to ideas, suggestions, or complaints and use them to grow ourselves, each other and our organizations. Really, listening should happen much more often than talking, especially when it comes to education leadership. As educational leaders we have to be willing to listen and hear ideas, even if they make us uncomfortable or that we might disagree with. The same is true for students. We have to take the time to listen to what they want to do. What do they want to create? How can a digital classroom or technology-enabled learning environment help them meet their goals?

"Care For" means more than "Care About." This educational leadership quality is an important one. A simple change in our language can have a huge impact and outcome. Saying "I teach math." and "I teach kids math." have 2 differences in meaning. And it so true! We have to care not about our jobs or what we do. We have to care about who we are doing it for. Kids! Just because we may have some amount of digital technology at our disposal doesn't mean its always in everyones best interests to use it. No matter what we do we always have to keep our kids in mind and make sure we are doing what is best for their interests. But most of all, we have to care about kids.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Back To Basics: Device Tips For #BackToSchool

When I was a Director of Instructional Technology it was always a fun day when we could deliver brand new devices to a school. The students and teachers were always excited and ready for the new possibilities ahead.

Then after a few weeks frustration would set it. Students would loose work, teachers had to spend hours trying to figure out which document belonged to whom and we’d see lots of devices in the shop for repair.

The focus on our instructional technology team was on the “stuff” kids could create when we should have started our conversations on the obvious.

Creating cool stuff is great but there has to be basic foundational skills first.

Norms are important when it comes to using technology. (Of course technology allows us to do things truly transformational and we will deviate from the documented ways tools are to be used.) We might believe that students are “digital natives” when in reality they are trying to figure this stuff out just like the adults in the room are. The difference is our approach and mindset. That said, having a basic set of norms in place across classrooms will be important to any successful technology device use.

Digital Citizenship-If there isn’t a long standing conversation and fully-integrated approach to digital citizenship then the validity of any technology implementation has to be called into question. Full stop. Simply teaching one lesson at the beginning of the school year or having students sign some meaningless “acceptable use policy” isn’t enough. There has to be a constant and ongoing conversation about all aspects of digital citizenship.

Digital citizenship is more than just making sure kids don’t cyberbully or know how to spot fake news. There are actually 9 parts to digital citizenship and we don’t take enough time to talk about any of them. Items like health and wellness, actually taking a break from technology. Or raising questions around access and equity so all understand. These are just as important as protecting our personal information and etiquette.

CommonSense Education has an amazing K12 Digital Citizenship curriculum that is free and easy to implement. Lessons cover every aspect of digital citizenship and are designed for every classroom throughout the year.

Naming Conventions-This one bit me and my students more than once. With the advent of Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom and other digital platforms it is much easier for students to turn in work electronically. Mine and my students problem was probably one faced by many educators. Because most adults have been using technology for a while now we have developed our own methods of naming files. The problem is many students haven’t developed that skill. (Heck, even getting them to put a name on their paper is still a problem!)

Having a consistent naming convention will not only save you time and energy but will also teach students the same. This works best when you talk about it as a school or a team. Talk about the various assignments and projects you will have students turn in throughout the year. Come up with a constant naming convention that is consistent for all teachers and students. Starting with the date an assignment is due is a visual reminder to the student and the teacher what the assignment is. Include the first initial/last name of the student, assignment short name and the class name and period number. If I am submitting my plant identification notes to my 3rd period biology class that is due on September 1, 2018 I would name it “090118_SAnderson_PlantID_Bio3.” Yours doesn’t have to be exactly like this but work as an instructional team to find what works for you. This saves you from having 30 files all called “Doc1” and also helps with revisions as well.

Folders and General Organization-Following along with consistent naming conventions, teaching students good digital organization skills will be something students (and the adults too) will look back upon and be grateful for. Many digital drives like Google Drive and OneDrive have powerful built in search features that allow you to find what you are looking for if it gets lost. However, if we organize things from the very beginning we don’t have to rely on the search at all. Have students create folders for each class and for each assignment. Use your naming convention strategy to keep things consistent.

Organization goes beyond folders and files. Students need strong curation skills as well to make sure that the other digital information they find can be retrieved. Helping them understand how and having a program like OneNote, Pocket or Diigo to tag and organize sites, articles, and visualizations can save all of us from a lot of frustration.

Saving And Backing Up-Good or bad, saving documents or files has become almost a non event. If we are using Word Online or Google Docs the files are save automatically and everything syncs everywhere automatically. But reminding students that saving regularly should be a part of their workflow is important.

Setting up for offline access can also be a great way to allow students to keep working without having to rely on internet access. If you allow students to take devices home find out how to set-up files and folders for offline access. I was recently in a district talking to some high school students who were taught from early on to sync all their files in their digital notebooks locally to their laptop at the end of every period so that they could keep working no matter where they were. When they got back to school the next day everything synced automatically and went back into the cloud.

Whatever method you use students (and the adults too) should be saving and regularly backing up their work. It’s just a good digital practice to have.

Permissions-With a lot of the creative work that we will have students do using their devices having the appropriate permissions will be key. Students may need access to the camera, mic, USB or other ports. Be on the lookout for those pop up messages. On iPads and Chromebooks they are pretty easy to spot but it can be tricky. Find out the process with your devices to ensure those permissions are set-up for what you need before you need them. Keep in mind if your devices are centrally managed you may have to talk to your technology team.

Care and Maintenance-Lastly, devices are a generally a large investment by any school or district. Therefore making them last, problem-free, should be a constant reminder. And these are good habits to form now rather than dealing with an issue in the future.

Sometimes we expect kids to respect the technology we give them but they need to reminded. Keeping liquids away, not throwing them or just tossing them in a bookbag, keeping the keys on the keyboard, keeping them charged, anything you’ve seen or experienced yourself make for great talking points. Have students brainstorm a list of care and maintenance tips and help them take ownership of their devices.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Supporting Writing In Every Classroom With ThinkCERCA

This post is sponsored by ThinkCERCA, an online platform designed to empower teachers to personalize literacy instruction across disciplines.

Just as literacy is a part of every classroom at every grade level, writing is a powerful component of the curriculum. Writing is generative in nature and helps students uncover thoughts bubbling in their heads that haven’t reached the surface yet. Writing also allows students time and space to think critically, wrestle with explanations of their understanding, and helps to vocalize their learning in coherent ways. Writing, like reading, is not only important in a student’s school years, but is essential in their personal, professional, and civic lives.

Adoption of the Common Core Literacy Standards emphasizes the equal importance between reading and writing (10 Anchor Standards each) and also the need for all educators, no matter the discipline, to take an active role in teaching reading and writing. This call to action has school leaders exploring options to support their staff members in this endeavor and while there are curriculums, professional books, and learning opportunities in reading; there are much fewer choices for staff development in the teaching of writing.

Fortunately for educators everywhere, ThinkCERCA has developed a set of Writing Across the Curriculum Guides that are free to download and include support for administration and content area teachers. Focusing on argumentative writing using the CERCA framework, educators can develop a common language to help students succeed in Writing Across the Curriculum. Again, this is free to download and a great place to start. (For those districts looking for additional resources and supports, ThinkCERCA offers a paid platform which can reinforce the district’s writing focus and includes standards aligned- rubrics for feedback from teachers or peers.)

The ThinkCERCA Writing Across the Curriculum Guides comes in a set of 5 to support the following areas:

  • Administrators
  • Math Teachers
  • Science Teachers
  • Social Studies Teachers 
  • ELA Teachers 

The Guide for Administrators clarifies the Why and helps provide beginning steps for the How. Citing research on the current reality of student writing across the nation, as well as the need for support to ensure students are college and career ready, these guides go a step further posing suggestions on how to best support their staff members during widespread adoption.

In the Math, Science, and Social Studies Guides; educators will find a short section on the What when writing across the curriculum specific to their discipline. The guides are interactive, providing videos and links to further resources for clarification and demonstration examples. Along with a brief introduction, each guide contains ideas and prompts specific to each discipline all while developing a shared understanding and using the CERCA Framework. The prompts and ideas, while anchored in Argumentative writing, provide multiple sub-genres which would fall under this type, to provide choice.

In the ELA Teachers Guide, ThinkCERCA provides advice and support for those educators who find themselves as the resident expert when implementing a writing across the curriculum initiative. Along with focus areas and how best to support colleagues in student growth, there is a list of resources for narrative and informative writing. Finally, there is a long list of prompts divided by discipline area in which the ELA teachers can use to launch a cross-discipline writing project with colleagues.

Writing happens (and should happen) in every classroom. So take some time and explore the Writing Across The Curriculum Guides that ThinkCERCA has to offer!

Download the Argumentative Writing Poster HERE

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Research Isn't Sexy...But You Need It Anyway

For some time now Shaelynn Farnsworth and I have been reflecting on our own learning and professional development practices, looking for gaps in instruction and aiming to improve our craft. One of our longest conversations has been around research. In the work we do, we are constantly reading and attempting to understand the research behind the popular instructional movements of today. What we find is that much of the educational research available today isn’t used, isn’t cited, and really isn’t sexy.

Take literacy instruction.

While trying to capture the success in student achievement scores in literacy from the research and studies done in the 1980s to the early 2000s the RTI (Response To Intervention) process and framework were created (Vellutino et al.). RTI was developed to help schools replicate the gains witnessed in this research. Today, RTI has morphed into MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) but very few districts have seen the increased in student-achievement that was initially experienced.

What happened?

While the RTI framework was adopted and utilized throughout the nation, the actual reading strategies and interventions used to achieve this growth were left behind. Implementing only half of the research (RTI Framework) while substituting different interventions and reading strategies have produced only limited results, leaving many administrators, teachers, and students frustrated. We know what works in literacy, and there is research behind it (most reading research is in the Psychology field) but still fail to dig into it, much less use it. (Kilpatrick)

Education research is vast. It spans across disciplines, instruction, leadership, and many other components that contribute to a school. The problem has become that research has been co-opted by publishers, organizations and individuals to sell one-size-fits-all quick fixes, programs and books. Many will ignore the fundamental findings of the research and insert their own ideas and practices that help these packages fly off the shelf.

With the abundance of research available, why do very few practitioners use it? What barriers exist that slow the transfer into the classroom? And what can be done to support administrators and practitioners in their quest of research-based methods?

We believe that there are 5 main barriers that exist which impacts how or if educators use research. While there could certainly be more added to this list, we feel these were the top 5 problem areas.

  • Access and Abundance: Digging deep into research is typically done during college. Free access to databases, extensive libraries, experts for days. But upon graduation access is limited and met with the dreaded paywalls when locating many peer-reviewed articles, journals, and research. On top of limited access, the abundance of research out there is overwhelming. A simple search on Google Scholar with the keywords “Struggling Readers” lists 500,000 results. It is no wonder educators do not know where to begin when sifting through the research.
  • Lack of Research in PD: There is no doubt the access to professional development is more abundant now than ever before. But that comes at a risk for individual educators and district leadership. We want to provide and participate in high-quality learning, however, much isn’t grounded in any realistic or research-based practices but instead they are the ideas that someone read about or heard about or tweeted about. Anyone today can learn about innovation, makerspaces, augmented reality, really any instructional practice, create a slide deck and share it with the world. Instructional practices that impact student learning are based in more than tweets and blog posts. As learners and leaders we have to model and understand where these ideas are coming from and that are they based in sound research. 
  • Time, Or The Lack Of: Time is a commonly mentioned barrier for educators. From new initiatives, faculty meetings, lesson planning, and connecting with students; time to do everything well is a deterrent for many educators when it comes to research. 
  • Research is Written For Researchers: Most research is written for other researchers, not necessarily the practitioners in the field. With this in mind, it is no wonder that many educators find it inaccessible because of the jargon used by a specific group of professionals. This jargon is filled with technical terminology that is understood at both a literal and figurative level by the group but leave the rest of us guessing. (Education Jargon Generator
  • Distrust and Disconnect Between Theory and Practice: First, disconnect. There often times is a gap between theory and reality when reading research done by professionals in the same discipline but with little to no educational background. Ideas, studies, and strategies are examined with a skeptical lens and doubt is raised when research seems isolated or without consideration of the whole child or educator demands. What many educators do not realize is the disconnect within education research itself. With no agreed upon definition of research-based, no common training methods for preservice educators, and both qualitative and quantitative inquiries producing complementary but still fragmented results, the disconnect, cognitive bias, and skepticism of authority is not only confusing, but creates a sense of distrust among the education community. Educators are more apt to believe other teachers implementing a program or using a specific framework over the years of research with statistics and data.  (D.W. Miller

Items To Consider

  • Comparing Sources: One source isn’t gospel. Do your homework. Be open to opposing ideas. Don’t be married to an idea because you agree. If the research isn’t there, it’s not there. Be a critical discerner of information and ask lots of questions when you participate in professional development or are in a presentation. Ask where the research is and investigate yourself. Can you draw the same conclusions? Compile a list, according to your discipline, of leading theorists in the field to cross-check what you hear and read.
  • Research-Based Is A Convoluted Term: When designing activities that include techniques or strategies that have been research-proven, you can then call it “researched-based”. Since there are varying degrees of improvement (statistically significant yes, but how much) and are there approaches that work better and have a higher effect size, it is important have a basic understanding of the research. If there isn’t any then that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. It just means you have to be more skeptical of the results, long term. 
  • Be A Researcher: No, this doesn’t mean you need to know about standard deviations or methodologies. What it means is be a student of your students. Gather data and examine what’s happening with student learning. What does the data show? Are the practices you are using improving student understanding? Are the results what you expected? What went wrong (or right!)? Be a reflective educator. 
  • Always Remember To Keep Students First: Even research can get it wrong. You know your students. Always do what is best for them, even when that means going against what others say. 

Resource/Reading List:
The Black Hole of Education Research-D.W. Miller
Why Don’t Teachers Use Education Research In Teaching?
Research Proves...Very Little
Using Research and Reason In Education
Free Education Research Databases-CSULB
Unpaywall 
Digital Promise Research Map

Friday, June 8, 2018

Effective School Communications In The Summer

As the end of the school year approaches my daughter’s backpack is filled with fliers from her elementary school. Everything from summer reading lists to stacks of classwork that are finally being sent home. Nearly every night my inbox is full of emails from the school reminding us of this and that. It seems like they are trying to pack everything we need to know for the summer into the space of a few days.

And in a few days all will be silent. The phone won’t ring. The inbox will be conspicuously empty. When the last bell rings on the last day of school it seems like the door to the school shuts and so does how the school (or district for that matter) goes on vacation. Rightfully so. It's been a long school year and everyone needs a break.

Relationships go a long way in the educational environment especially to help students to continue to be successful. And building those relationships as any Public Relations person will tell you takes constant work. The summer time is a great time for teachers and leaders to keep the relationship building going, without being invasive or overdoing it.

Here are some tips to keep the lines of communications open over the summer while formulating a new plan for next school year.

Review Last Year’s Communications-When things settle down it's a good idea to go back and look at all your various communications from the previous school year. Pull reports on phone calls and emails. How many were listened to? How many emails were opened? This can give you a good idea on if there is engagement with messaging or message fatigue. This is also a good time of year to do a short email survey to parents to check for things like message frequency (too much or too little), preferred method of delivery, and other ways they’d like to be communicated with like social media.

Just like we’d do as teachers, evaluating our year, looking at how you communicate with parents (and the community) and how you can improve is a great first step.

Avoid Phone Calls In The Summer-It may seem tempting to record a message and blast it out to everyone. However, some families schedules are different in the summer and it can be hard to get them to listen to messages on the answering machine. Others won’t even want to be bothered by their phone ringing in the first place. (It is one of the least desirable ways parents want to be communicated with after all. Only 42% find it effective in a survey from SchoolMessenger.) Use your other forms of direct communication like email and/or text messages instead.

Review Websites and Apps-There is no doubt keeping a website up-to-date is a challenge. Many schools and districts don’t have a dedicated webmaster and so the job falls to someone else with other duties. Summer is a great opportunity review what your digital footprint looks like. Updating images, removing stale content and getting things like calendars and Back-To-School information ready to go. Look at analytics. Where are visitors going? Can you make it easier for them to find what they are looking for.

Research shows us that the “summer slide” is somewhat accurate. Hattie ranks the Summer Vacation Effect at an effect size of -0.02. (Remember 0.40 is expected student growth in a school year.) So just by being out for 8-12 weeks in the summer can cause students to loose some of their gains.

Keeping learning and engagement with learning going over the summer is not only critical to relationship building, it’s important to keep kids moving forward. How can you use all your methods of communication to give gentle reminders that learning never stops, even in the summer? And what if we could use our methods of communication to encourage learning while making those methods sticky so they are useful during the school year?

Here are some ideas.

Leveraging Reading and Literacy-Nearly every school sends home a reading list. Either selected books they’d like students to read or ideas on topics, all with the goal of keeping kids excited about reading. We can use our various communication channels to keep that encouragement up, rather than relying on a piece of paper.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of this is my elementary principal friend Amber Teamann. During the school year she would fire up Facebook Live and read bedtime stories every so often to her students. It was short, only about 15-20 mins but imagine as a kid having your principal read to you. Facebook Live is just the easiest and fastest way to get it out. It’s recorded so parents can play it any time and it models good reading for students as well.

You could take the same concept and invite students to record short book trailers or book reviews to be posted to the school social media pages and/or website. Or, going on step further, do a live weekly review with a few students of the books they are reading. Think of it like Reading Rainbow but local! Remember, you can do all this from a mobile device. No special equipment needed.

If you don’t have time to do videos a bi-weekly email with events at the local library, quotes from students on the books they are reading or librarian recommendations can go a long way to continue to encourage students to read over the summer.

Getting Ready For Next School Year- As we’ve seen with the research (and no doubt experienced ourselves) many students experience setbacks in their learning over the summer. Not because they want to or are trying too. It’s just how kids are. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As we’ve seen there can be some simple things you can do to keep the learning going but also use those critical forms of communication.

Building on the idea of a bi-weekly email that focuses on literacy and reading you could expand it out to provide items like grade specific activities. For example one week you could focus in on math skills (perhaps the skills the majority of students are weakest in) and the next some fun local history students can learn about with their parents. These activities should be fun and easy to do at home.

For your Science, STEM and STEAM students there are loads of activities and experiments that are easy to do with stuff found around the house (like this list of 20 STEM Bucket List activities). Or the summer time could be a great time for kids to experiment with coding. Scratch is a great place to start. Grasshopper and Swift Playgrounds are all mobile that are really engaging too. (Common Sense Media has an extensive list.)

For those kids who just want to get out an explore and keep moving, work with your Physical Education teachers to provide for suggestions on exercise routines, yoga and other ways kids can stay active. You can also work with your Health Education teachers to round up healthy eating advice or meals that are perfect for summer.

The point of any of these activities is two-fold. The first is to help build those relationships with parents. Just because it’s summer and students are out of school doesn’t mean that learning has to end. (Sometimes it can be more fun in the summer.) And the second is to think about the ways we use communications in our schools and districts. How can we make it sticky? How can we be innovative in our communications practices while still being able to pass along critical information? Ultimately, how can be all be better communicators during the school year?

Happy Summer!