GaETC16 Was Exhausting and I Loved It

For the last three days of work, I was at GaETC, an educational technology conference held near the Atlanta airport. I go each year. Some years, I’m into it; other years, not so much. This year I happened to be really looking forward to it, and I have to say, I came away with tons of new ideas.

Those who do not attend conferences frequently (or ever) are often under the impression that they’re some kind of joyous festival–Woodstock, but with apps. Don’t get me wrong, the conference is a lot of fun, but it was also an exhausting three days. I was getting up at 5:15AM to get in my car by 6:00. Tuesday night I stayed for the reception and didn’t get home until almost 9:00PM. Friday night, I slept for 10 hours. So, yes, it was fun, but it was also super busy.

I kept all my notes in the same file, which is now seven pages long. It will take me much of the week to look at them at school, decompress them, and sort the good ideas from the it-sounded-good-then ideas. That said, I’ve got some preliminary things I want to start working on right away.

  1. A compelling report–which I will read in its entirety this week–indicates that the vast majority of a teacher’s professional growth occurs in their first five years of employment. After that, it starts to level off dramatically. I need to refocus my efforts, not just on new teachers, but on those who have been here for more than a year (but less than 5), who I’m guessing often get forgotten about.
  2. I’ve been struggling to get a gamification of our technology professional learning off the ground, due mostly to the fast that the back-end requirements to keep up with everything seem overwhelming. I saw a presentation from a school that was using badges instead of full-blown gamification and was able to use them in a way that recreated the best parts of gamification, but kept it very simple to keep up with. I look forward to playing with that some more, and perhaps reaching out to some experts on Twitter who can help me.
  3. My leadership strategy needs to change. I’ve been to a thousand sessions about “try this cool app” or “50 apps in 50 minutes,” so this year I focused more on the sessions that said they were about digital leadership. I learned some great things–particularly with respect to administration–which I will be expanding on this week. My eyes are a little more open now.

Those three items aren’t the only things I took notes on, but they’ve been stuck in my head since I left, so I’m considering them the most important for now.

I am really looking forward to sitting down with my coffee tomorrow and reflecting on my notes in greater detail.

Thinking About Thinking About Next Year

Only 10 weeks remain in the current academic year. Although I’m not saying goodbye to this academic year just yet, it’s time for me to start thinking about the next academic year. The rest of the technology team agrees with me that changed need to and will be made next year. I already know that I’m ready to consider alternative methods of meeting my teachers’ professional learning needs, but I’m contemplating a few options as to the best way forward:

  • Rings. This concept is inspired by the way Microsoft runs its Windows Insider program. Opting into Insider allows you to receive Windows updates and new features at a faster pace than general customers. In exchange for early access to the latest and greatest, you agree to provide Microsoft with feedback on these features and must be more willing to tolerate bugs and problems. You can select the pace of updates and how far on the cutting edge you are willing to go–these are the rings. On the laptop I’m writing this on, I’m in the Fast Ring (most risk, most reward). My gaming laptop is not in the Insider program at all, so it gets updates and new features later, but is more stable.My thought towards applying this concept to my instructional technology program at school also dovetails nicely with the district’s expectation that each school cultivate a group of “lead innovators,” who are the vanguard of new technologies and teaching ideas at each school. I’m considering putting the top 25% of teachers in this group and calling it the gold ring. The middle 50% of the school would be the silver ring, and the bottom 25% would be the bronze ring. Gold ring teachers would receive professional learning earlier, faster, and with more features than would the bronze ring, and gold teachers would be responsible for a small degree of teaching those in the other rings.

    While I’m favoring this plan at this time, it’s not without some concerns. As with any potential plan, administrative support will be crucial. Without backup, I might as well not even try. There is also the issue of making sure teachers evaluate themselves honestly (and that they understand and believe that their status won’t be held against them) as well as avoiding the stigma associated with being in the lowest group.

  • Gamified Learning. I’ve spent the last year chatting with people who do this in their classrooms or in professional learning. And, as someone who loves games himself, the appeal is obvious to me. That said, I’m not sure if all of my teachers would be interested in this, plus the backend management and setup requirements would be much great on me. Also, if I’m concerned my administrators wouldn’t support even a moderately different plan like the rings above, I’m doubly worried about gathering support for this.As of right now, my plan for gamified learning for next year is really more of a second-tier, extra-credit type of setup, in which the gamified learning supplements the more traditional stuff and allows me to extend my reach with the teachers. Developing resources along this line might be more of a summer activity.

I’ll be spending a good portion of March looking more into these methods (and any other good ones that come my way) so that I can start developing them in April and May.

Technology IEPs?

One of the conference sessions I attended today mentioned a novel strategy for getting teachers intrinsically motivated for technology professional learning: Technology IEPs. The documents are created by the teachers themselves, and contain an area they want to explore, a plan for exploring it, and brainstorming about how to overcome any potential problems.

I really like this idea. The form to generate an IEP was easy to fill out and was based on a Google Form. The resulting IEP is very simple (this is not a 25-page document like student IEPs). I especially love the implementation strategies and the requirement of some pre-thought out strategies for overcoming any pitfalls.

I would like to see if I can manipulate this idea to see if it could work in my school. Perhaps I could do something with this in conjunction with other training initiatives?  I could ask a new technology committee to help develop the form and pilot the process out themselves.

I would want to tweak it a little bit before implementing it in my school, and there are still issues of school- and professional culture that need to be addressed before this really takes off. Still, I think this could be just the start we need, and I can’t wait to flesh out some of these ideas more this weekend.

Thinking About PLCs

I want to create a technology PLC at my school. This is 95% inspired by the awesome session I attended today on creating PLCs by a principal who does them all the time at her school. I loved her session because it was very practical stuff that I can bring back to school next week. It is very doable and can be done in a way that is a great use of everybody’s time and ultimately impacts students.

One challenge I wouldn’t mind solving before I do this is how to get teachers at my school to honestly rate themselves with respect to where they are with technology in classrooms. I woulda love to have a diverse PLC of teachers at all different levels, not just the experts. I’ve had some relevant discussions in my building around this topic recently and I have a few ideas as to how to proceed.

This is something that could a be beneficial to our teachers and our students. I’m excited. I love when a conference session exceeds my expectations.  

Conference Eve

I’ve packed the gadgets and I’m ready to head to Atlanta for the rest of this week. Here is what I decided to bring:

  • iPad Air 2: I’m not an Apple person but I do like this tablet. Good for extended browsing, light content creation. Poor at creating lengthy content and anything involving lots of writing.
  • Windows Phone: Syncs to my Office and OneDrive accounts, as well as my OneNote notebook. Will be perfect for quick notes and to collaborate or find my colleagues and friends. For anything requiring more writing, it won’t do the trick. Good for social media. Camera is not so hot.
  • Chromebook: I have no experience with Chromebooks whatsoever and I am looking to change that. So I’m taking one to the conference. I’m leaving the charger at home, so I hope the battery lives up to a the hype. Great for lengthy notes and checking e-mail, but must be stowed in my laptop bag as I move from place to face.
  • Battery pack: I ordered a 20,000 mAh battery pack online when Amazon was having a great sale on a highly-rated model. It is beautiful and will also charge my phone 8 times, or my iPad 4 times, which is great. I’ve learned these devices are a must have at conferences.

That’s it! I’m trying to keep it lighter than usual this year. My alarm is set for 5:15, my out-of-office Mail reply is on until Monday, and my badge is in the car! In just a few short hours I will be arriving at the conference center!

Conference Culture

While I am definitely looking forward to my conference this week, one thing I do not like to do is prepare to be out of the school for a long time. Contrary to popular belief, going to a conference is not some type of vacation, not am I planning to really relax and sit back at this conference. The conference days will almost certainly be longer than my regular days of work.

I did choose to do something different this year: I told my teachers that any issues they needed me to address this week need to be sent to me by noon Tuesday, because I am turning on my out-of-office reply when I leave work for the conference. I do not want teachers to be getting the mistaken impression that I am going to come home from a 10-hour conference day and work another 8 hours.

It is also worth mentioning in reference to my earlier posts about school culture that it is very frustrating when teachers are jealous (not in a good way) that you are going to be gone for three days.

Thinking About Conference Sharing

I’m lucky enough to be attending an educational technology conference later this week. I usually leave from these conferences with a giant list of ideas, apps, websites, and random thoughts. What I generally do not leave with is a plan to share that information with my teachers in a planned and purposeful way.

I think I’d like to spend some time over the next few days asking around and finding our how others relate information back to their school from conferences. I’m not really interested in writing a giant e-mail with 100 links in it, or creating a YouTube video about what a great time I had. I’d like this to be a little more lasting.

Next year, I’d really like it if some of the teachers from my school would be made available to join me. I understand the money and logistics are often barriers to entry at these conferences, but the conference is inexpensive relative to money I’ve seen wasted on things we don’t necessarily need at school. We could send a teacher to this conference, and cover their classroom with a substitute for three days, for well under $400. I think that’s a worthy investment. I’ve also heard that teachers who attend are more likely to share directly with their peers, and are also more likely to exert influence over them, than “the technology coordinator went, and that’s great, but I won’t use this in my classroom.”

I did block out a little time on Tuesday afternoon just to get myself ready; I’m hoping answers (or just ideas) relating to these questions will make themselves clear by then as well.

The (Professional) Culture Wars

I spent Wednesday on a “site visit” at another school. This school, also a middle school, was being shown off as a model of how to use our district’s learning management system for blended instruction. There were about 75 teachers, technology coordinators, and administrators there, including some from the neighboring school district.

Two hours of the visit were set aside for observations of about 20 of the teachers, who had designed lessons with various levels and uses of technology in them and were willing to participate by letting us observe their classes. The observations were great, and I certainly saw some new and different ideas being tried out in different classrooms.

That’s not what really impressed me.

The one observation that I can’t get out of my head is just how incredibly different the professional culture is there. The list of teachers who were willing to open their doors and let complete strangers watch them teach was a page and a half. And it wasn’t all the gifted classes either; I spent more time in special education classrooms than anywhere else. All of the students knew what was going on and, amazingly, they pretty much just ignored us.

When we were looking through the list of teachers and lessons to come up with our individual schedules for the day, we noticed that the teachers had rankings next to their names: Novice, Practitioner, and Expert. The principal explained that teachers took a survey of their technology skills (with an emphasis on the learning management system), and that the survey provided them with a score. The score was used to group teachers by ability level. There was absolutely no stigma attached to being labeled a novice teacher, and these teachers freely discussed their current level of implementation and the difficulties and challenges they were facing.

After lunch, the school let us pick between three different panels, one per ability level. Since I represent a school with a large number of new teachers, I chose to attend the novice discussion. I was so inspired to see these teachers openly and honestly discuss their challenges–and successes!–and tell us how they were improving their skills. At one point, the principal walked in and joined the discussion, and absolutely nothing changed in the teachers’ tone or the things that they said. I asked them how I could better deliver training to novice teachers and their answers were refreshingly honest and based in their personal experiences.

I came expecting technology tips, and I certainly got that, but I left wanting to figure out how we can improve the culture at my school. I’ve struggled with this for years, and I’ve often felt like I’m the only one who notices (or cares), but this issue is just too important to leave to others.

Now, where to begin?

Wanna Hangout Sometime?

Earlier this evening, I participated in a Google Hangout related to an area of professional interest to me. The Hangout was a lot of fun, fast-paced, and personalized by way of a live Q&A column next to the video feed. I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to the next episode in a few weeks.

It got me thinking: Would this be something my teachers would be interested in? I’ve been struggling this year to find time to schedule professional learning. The only mornings I could schedule before-school sessions on are Mondays and Fridays. Who wants to get here early on one of those days? Planning times are notoriously hard to schedule for, as teachers have meetings, conferences, and all sorts of other things during those times.

Doing a Hangout in the early evening would allow all of us–including me, to participate in professional learning from the comfort of our own homes. It might promote a more relaxed atmosphere and inspire creativity and deep thinking. Or it’s possible that nobody wants this, and that teachers want to be largely left alone in their personal times. I could see that being the case, too.

I’m considering putting it to my teacher friends and seeking suggestions and feedback, either through a formal process at school or just an update to my Facebook page. I feel a little energized by this prospect!

In which I express some frustration.

Every time I think we can handle a major initiative or a shift in practices–the activation of the BYOD network, or applying to be a Google Apps school–every time I get excited and feel adventurous, I get a tech support request from a teacher who can’t figure out how to change his toner. Or a request from a teacher who is over her e-mail quota and doesn’t know why. Or a notification that someone’s “private” network folder is taking up too much space (always due to a glut of photos of the kids or a gigantic personal iTunes library, never due to excessive instructional materials).

I spent a fair amount of time this summer working on an awesome plan to encourage my teachers to participate in technology staff development by creating lessons that could be completed on their own time, and without guidance from me. The idea is that they would earn badges for different tasks they completed, culminating in a “specialist” badge if they did all the “missions” in a certain category, like using assessment data wisely. Then I heard last week about four teachers who refused to work together on creating a common test, and I put that on ice. What’s the point? The teachers who need it the most are the least likely to participate.

I offered an optional staff development course on an easy topic which was frequently requested. I scheduled drop-in training sessions during each planning period. Attendance ranged from zero in the smallest session to three in the largest. We have something like 75 teachers at my school. Maybe more. I spent hours working on my lesson plan, making sure I had prepared a thorough lesson.

Some of the new teachers are very tech-savvy and need less of my help; some need plenty of help and ask for it; some I worry are struggling but are afraid to say anything. If I’m honest, it’s exactly the same for the veterans.

All this has left me frustrated, and what’s worse is that I’ve never felt more like I understand my job than this year, when my tech partner (who is non-instructional) and I executed our best beginning of the school year yet. I know what I’m doing, at least.

I’ve thought about different ways to break out the teachers who need more advanced training from those who need basic training. I looked at how Microsoft does it: They have a “fast ring” of volunteers who get updates and upgrades first, a “slow ring” who get it next, and finally it’s released to everyone. I like that idea a lot, but fear the pushback and hurt feelings that will inevitably be generated when I tell a teacher they’re in the “slow ring,” even though I’m talking about their training pace and not their intellectual ability.

[Side note: In contemplating the hurt feelings issue, it made me think about how students must feel when we group them by ability, and how embarrassed they might be when they discover that they’re not in a top-tier group–even if we don’t tell them, they always seem to figure it out. Thoughts for a future post…]

So I’m not entirely sure the best way forward, or if I’m going forward at all. I’ve spent a lot of time in deep reflection on this issue and I’m afraid I’m not much closer to a resolution. I spent a couple of hours today working on what I think will be good training ideas, but in the back of my mind, I’m wondering what I’m doing it all for.

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