About Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 14-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he did time as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example (readingbyexample.com), tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book about digital portfolios will be published by Powerful Learning Press in the coming year.

Being Connected is Not the Same as Connectedness #CEM15 #edtechchat

This past weekend, my family and I headed south to visit family in Illinois. This is where I’m originally from, and most of my family members still reside there. The highlight of our trip, besides the “really awesome” pool our two kids enjoyed at a hotel in Rockford, was the Halloween party hosted by my aunt and uncle in Seneca.

12182435_10156289603010595_3597715382384628058_oCell phone service was very limited. It was just as well. Everyone who was there I rarely got a chance to see in person. We spent time with each other next to the night fire, sharing our news and our personal highlights. More than once, a relative referenced a picture and/or comment one of us made on Facebook (usually about our kids). We shared a laugh about the event that we would not have known without social media. These connections served to bring us closer together.


Online interactions are a mere shadow compared to the connectedness we experience when we physically come together as people. It’s not always easy, especially for introverts such as myself. But it doesn’t mean I should avoid it. Contrast this with my first day back at school: I started the week by leafing through the latest issue of EdTech: Focus on K-12 magazine. In one of the front pages is a highlight of tweets reposted within a section titled “Connectedness”. Here is a sampling I found, collected from a recent “#SatchatOC” chat:

How should we be defining connectedness? Many of us view this concept through the lens of social media and online networks. Do we prioritize our digital connections over the those we are in close proximity to every day? Can we be simply connected and still experience a feeling of connectedness?

My preferred definition of “connectedness” within the education profession comes from Parker J. Palmer, in his classic resource The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Jossey-Bass, 1998, 2007). Palmer defines connectedness as the ability of teachers “to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (pg. 11). This web extends beyond our online connections.

While there is no question about the role of social media in education, we may view these digital networks as the main way for educators to pursue new knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, this mindset might lead to further distancing ourselves from the possible relationships right in front of us: Our colleagues in neighboring classrooms, departments, and schools. Have we successfully mined the possibilities that these potential face-to-face interactions will provide? My guess is no.

In her new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015), MIT scientist Sherry Turkle documents studies describing the negative effects of keeping a largely online network of human connections:

  • The mere presence of a phone changes what people talk about, for fear of being interrupted by a text message or notification. (21)
  • Online messaging leads to less emotional connections compared to in-person conversations. (23)
  • People who use social media the most have more difficulty reading human emotions, including their own, when compared to those not as connected. (25)
  • For young people, online life is associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection. (41)
  • People don’t like posting things online that their followers won’t agree with – everyone wants to be liked. (50)

This concerns me. What do we unknowingly give up when we add on and delve more deeply into online connections? Do we reduce our capacity for connectedness in our efforts to become “more connected”? I’ve attempted to counter these tendencies in my own role as a school principal. For the last two days, teachers have come together in face-to-face conversations regarding professional goals for the school year. When I listened to their ideas, I put aside my digital tools and gave them my full attention. Full disclosure: My phone was still present. :-/ Still, as I offered suggestions, I paid attention to how they responded physically, such as facial expressions and their eyes, as well as what they had to say. These verbal and nonverbal cues guided our conversation.

One of the best feelings is knowing that you are being listened to. It’s hard to articulate, but you know it when it happens. You feel appreciated, acknowledged, and supported. There are certainly situations where online connections are the best option. Usually it is in the absence of in-person conversations. But when the opportunity for a real conversation presents itself, is it a priority or merely a formality?

My mom and me

My mom and me by the campfire at the Halloween party

Maximize Learning, Not Technology

One constant that teachers have in schools today is time. We cannot control whether our students had a good night’s sleep, or if they have the right amount of support at home, or if they are able to have quality time with family on a regular basis. We get around 180 days a year and approximately 6.5 hours each day with them. This estimate doesn’t account for standardized testing, fire drills, and all of the other outside factors that as a principal I do my best to minimize but still have to address.

So when we have our students, what do you believe is the best way to spend this time? I believe it’s the student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-with-self experiences that are the priority. Digital tools have a place, but it should not be the focus. If technology is the form, then pedagogy is the function. We need to ask ourselves why we want to use technology with a learning initiative, instead of what the technology is or how it can be used. This post is not to put down the role of technology in education, but to offer a different perspective – my own, as a frequent observer of teaching and learning in my role as an elementary principal.

When Technology Is Necessary

We implemented mobile technology into our school when a dozen teachers agreed to incorporate one iPad into their classroom as a pilot. They attended a number of after school trainings and shared what was going well and what wasn’t. This worked for us. It was context-specific and on a timeline people were comfortable with, myself included. There was no pressure to “upgrade” our instruction. Just try it and apply it.

This technology proved itself to be necessary as the year progressed. For example, primary teachers were recording student performance assessments, such as book talks and oral reports, using the iPad and then posting it online for parents to see. Intermediate students were introduced to digital word processing and blogging. They dove into high-interest literacy activities, such as collaborative story writing and providing feedback using what the web had to offer. We explored new ways to make literacy and learning go live.

Reports of these early successes spread. Even before this pilot was completed, other teachers were asking when they were going to get an iPad too. Fastforward to today: Each classroom has 5-6 tablets at the K-3 level. There is an iPad cart and a Chromebook cart available for our 4th and 5th grade classrooms. Just today, a 4th grade teacher was telling me how her students were going to culminate their personal narrative writing unit by creating a visual version of their stories using Explain Everything, and then posting them in FreshGrade, our digital portfolio tool, so families could see and hear their published work.

You may have noticed that we are not a one device to one student school. I am not sure we ever will be. This stated fact is not to suggest that this set up is not effective in other contexts. Not to repeat myself, but it’s what works for us. Our students get enough screen time at home. We are a Title I school, with two of our every three students living in poverty. Plus, kids come to school to be with their friends. Plugging them in may only serve to create distance between their important relationships. This leads into my own experience as a classroom observer who tried to maximize technology in my own practice without giving much thought to the pedagogy.

When Technology is Nice

I have been conducting instructional walks for a number of years now. These short and informal observations serve to provide feedback and affirmation for teachers and their current instruction.  In the past, I would bring in my iPad and a stylus, open up a note taking app such as Notability or Noteshelf, write what I observed on the tablet, and then save my notes in Evernote. As I left the classroom I would also email the teacher a copy of my digital notes.

After many conversations with teachers and taking time to reflect on the process, I realized that the technology cart was leading the instructional horse. Form was not following function. For instance, my time maneuvering the iPad and applications caused me to be distracted during the instructional walks. It distracted the students, too. Also, I wasn’t providing a tangible artifact for the teacher after a visit. Yes, they could print out my observational notes from what I shared with them via email. But that was one more step they had to take in an already busy schedule.

So I have dialed down technology during my instructional walks this year. I replaced my tablet and stylus with a notebook and pen. Technology did not totally disappear: I still use my smartphone to scan in my observational notes into Evernote. I’ve also explored using a Livescribe pen and companion smartphone app. While I write, the pen “talks” to the application via Bluetooth and transcribes what I write into a digital file. Both seem to work well. At this time, I’ve completed 50 instructional walks in classrooms. Last year, when my instructional walks were completed with an iPad, I did a total of 75.

Again, I don’t want to blame technology for my experiences. In different circumstances, a stylus and note taking app might serve a user really well. What mattered for me is the purpose of my visits: To observe daily instruction and serve as a collaborator and colleague with our teachers in this process. Technology was getting in the way, so I got it out of the way.

Schools have arrived at a point where access to online/digital learning is no longer the main issue. Instead, how access is thoughtfully and smartly utilized by educators will make the difference in students’ learning lives going forward.

This is a sponsored blog post. Thank you to Omninox for supporting this site. Omninox aims to “reduce teachers’ grading time and assignment creation time by up to 85%”. Click on the image below to visit their website, or click here to contribute to their Kickstarter campaign.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 8.06.11 PM

Excellent iPad Apps for Demonstrating Learning for Students

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 9.22.53 PM

Reflector is software our school purchased a couple years ago for every teacher’s work station. Reflector allows the user to mirror the iPad screen to a computer, which can then be projected onto the smartboard. Anything happening on the iPad, including animation and sound, is played on the computer screen as well. Now untethered from the computer, the teacher is free to place himself or herself strategically in the classroom.

Here are three recommended apps that would work well for using the iPad for modeling and shared demonstration:

1. Math Board ($5): Teach students how to work problems for the four basic operations.

From the App Store description:

“More than just standard drills, MathBoard encourages students to actually solve problems, and not just guess at answers. This is done by providing multiple answer styles, as well as a scratchboard area where problems can be worked out by hand. Students can also turn to MathBoard’s Problem Solver for further help. This powerful teaching feature walks students through the steps required to solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division equations.”

There is also Math Board Fractions and Math Board Challenge, a head-to-head game where two students compete to see who can complete the problems faster.

2. Notability ($6): This handwriting and drawing tool is considered an “Essential” by Apple. Using a stylus, a teacher can model how to closely read text on a PDF or screenshot, demonstrate with students a genre of writing, and show students how to organize data for a science activity. Pictures and audio recording of your explanations can be embedded into the document. Hand off the iPad to another students when they are ready to share their own work.

3. Popplet ($5): This app allows you to create idea webs, especially helpful when brainstorming ideas for writing or for pre-assessing background knowledge on a topic.

From the App Store Description:

“Popplet is the simplest tool to capture and organize your ideas. With Popplet you can quick jot down your ideas and sort them visually. Popplet is great for school and for learning in the classroom and at home. Students use Popplet to think and learn visually. By capturing facts, thoughts, and images, students learn to create relationships between them and generate new ideas. ”

Which app(s) do you find useful for modeling and demonstrating with students on the iPad? Please share in the comments.

Can Conversation Really Happen in the 21st Century? First Reflections on “Reclaiming Conversation” by Sherry Turkle

So, my argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation. -Sherry Turkle

I was at a restaurant this evening, working on final revisions for my upcoming book while waiting for take out, as I noticed a group of five seniors nearby. They were just finishing up dinner, and now sat around their table, chatting. One of them, a woman, started sharing a story about a car accident she had that apparently wasn’t her fault. “The brakes didn’t work.” One of her friends asked her if she contacted the automobile manufacturer. “No, my insurance company didn’t want me to bother. They just wrote a check for the repairs.”

This story, more elaborate than what I share here, continued on with much laughter and more questions. All eyes and ears were on the speaker. There was not one smartphone sitting on the table. They concluded their evening with a round of hugs and making informal plans for their next chance to meet. “That story is so good, I bet someone would pay you to tell it!” remarked one of the friends. “We’ll have to just keep on talking over the phone until we can meet again,” lamented another.

This observation of a conversation could be described as normal. Except it is not. What seems to be normal now is a family or a group at a restaurant or the kitchen table, with a fork in one hand and a mobile device in the other. Conversations can never run deep if people’s attentions are divided between who they are with and who they are not.

9781594205552_ReclaimingConversation_JKF.inddThis is the topic of the new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (Penguin, 2015). Her previous contributions, such as Life on a Screen and Alone Together, identified both the benefits and the drawbacks of our connections online. In her newest entry, Turkle tackles the challenges of always being “on” and offers advice for making ourselves more present for those most important to us.


These days, we want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to wherever else we want to be, because what we value most is control over where we put our attention. Our manners have evolved to accommodate our new priorities. (pg. 19)

The last sentence should really give us pause (it did for me). Technology’s pull is influencing how we act as people and social beings. We thrive on connections, yet have a hard time prioritizing the most important ones. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ll check my social media notifications a dozen times a day, even while I am writing. It gets to the point where I actually turn off the wireless while writing, or leaving my smartphone at home when running errands.

This isn’t happening strictly in public/social settings. Schools are also experiencing a sense of dividedness regarding attention. Students’ smartphones being confiscated because they went off during class is almost becoming a rite of passage. I can attest: As a former assistant principal, I had one drawer in my desk designated for holding these devices until parents came to school to pick them up. Teachers often see smartphones as distractions, and not always because they are “trying to teach”.

In the classroom, conversations carry more than details of a subject; teachers are there to help students learn how to ask questions and be dissatisfied with easy answers. More than this, conversations with a good teacher communicate that learning isn’t all about the answers. It’s about what the answers mean. (8)

So why does this fairly new phenomena occur? One reason is when someone receives a notification or a message on their phone, it triggers the reward center in their brains. That’s why people leave their phones out in sight. However, as Turkle notes, studies show that the mere presence of a phone on the table changes what people talk about (21). Others worry that their conversations might get interrupted, so they keep discussions at the surface level. Also, dealing with people means giving up control of the conversation and what we might want to say. “Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding” (21).

As I read on in Reclaiming Conversation, I hope to gain new knowledge in how to navigate my own connected life a little better, as well as to guide my kids and those that I learn with regularly. By the way, no one has it figured out. Not even the five seniors at the restaurant. As they were leaving, one of them wanted to show her friends a funny commercial she watched on television. She pulled out her smartphone while standing at the front doors of the restaurant, opened YouTube, and played the commercial on her screen with two friends – while others were seated at tables. We all have something to learn.

When Technology Isn’t Necessary (and maybe not even nice) #edtechchat #educoach #cpchat

For the past three years, I have made a point of conducting instructional walks in classrooms on a regular basis. The purpose of my walks is to provide feedback for the teacher about their practice, as well as to get a sense of the overall instructional level of the school.

I’ve tried a number of iPad applications and styluses in which to conduct these walks. For a while I used Notability with a basic stylus. I liked both tools, but found the uploading of my observations to Dropbox to be cumbersome and inefficient. Plus, I had to print off my observational notes and hand them to the teacher afterward.

The next iteration was to purchase an Evernote Jot Script stylus and start using the handwriting application Penultimate. This solved the syncing issues, as Penultimate is an Evernote product. What I wrote in that app automatically uploaded into the teacher’s notebook within Evernote. I could now email my digital observation directly to the teacher.

Image source: blog.evernote.com

Image source: blog.evernote.com

But something was missing. After surveying my staff, I realized that it wasn’t that something was missing. It was that I had added too much to the process.

First, there was the tallies I kept. In between writing observational notes, I would also mark where instruction was at on the minute, in accordance with the gradual release of responsibility. Our school has adhered to the Optimal Learning Model, an update by Regie Routman of the gradual release of responsibility, as our instructional framework. I would note how often teaching and learning was occurring along the demonstration-shared demonstration-guided practice-independent practice continuum. Then I would take that data and upload into a spreadsheet, which provided an output of our levels of instruction.


Very techy! I could quickly see where we were at in our collective instruction. At least I thought I could. What the survey revealed was that I was only catching small snippets of instruction. Plus, I was not intentional enough about coming in at different times of the school days. Both true. This numerical feedback helped me, but not the teachers.

Second, I found out that teachers really appreciated having a paper copy of my informal observations. It’s not that they didn’t mind receiving a digital copy of my notes. In fact, some of my teachers actually wanted an electronic version so they could save them online as future artifacts and examples of strong instruction. But there is just something about having that immediate feedback, written out on paper, that made my visits more concrete and tangible. Because my instructional walks are strengths-based and not evaluative in nature, they could physically come back to these notes, reread what I noticed, and take pride in the quality education they provide for their students.

This is why I have come back to a paper-based and unformated process for my informal and unannounced instructional walks. I still observe instruction through the tenets of the Optimal Learning Model, but within a more holistic view of teaching and learning. In addition, I have a ruled notebook on which I write my observations, ten minutes at a time. I tear out the paper copy of my notes and leave it on the teacher’s desk. If the opportunity arises, I’ll have a brief chat with them about what I saw and appreciated. If not, I catch up with them later.

The power of technology can have a firm grasp on how we conduct business, even when it is not always helpful. Case in point: I have played with a Livescribe pen that transcribes my writing onto an associated app which I can save to the teacher’s Evernote notebook within my account. A nice tool, but even this has some minor challenges. After writing an observation, I have to go into the Livescribe app and upload the note into Evernote. The pen allows me to record audio connected with my writing, which is really helpful when talking to a student about what they are learning and why it is important to them. But I can do the same thing with Evernote, by just hitting the record button on my iPhone or iPad, and then scanning my paper notes into the same note that contains the audio before sharing it out.


This is why I ordered several Moleskine notebooks for my future walkthroughs. The kind that I can tear out without a lot of noise, that I can easily scan into Evernote and hand to the teacher in a manner that doesn’t disrupt instruction. Technology has taken a back seat to the process, enhancing it instead of leading it. I don’t know if I would have come to this conclusion if I had not asked my faculty for input about this process and how it benefits their instruction. Without their feedback, I may have tried to fix a communication problem caused by technology with more or different technology, instead of questioning whether I needed technology in the first place.


My ASCD Arias book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Makes for a great stocking stuffer for that teacher in your life! :-)

School Leaders as Readers: Education for Outcome

The following passage is my most recent post I shared in our Goodreads community, School Leaders as Readers. This fall we are reading Mindfulness by Ellen Langer. If you are a school leader, I encourage you to join the group.

“From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life.” (p 35)

Have truer words ever been written? This is the one of the biggest problems with standards, Common Core or otherwise. They become the product in themselves, instead of a general focus for teaching and learning. Forgive my football analogy, but standards should serve as the yard markers, not the end zone.

I was watching a video today on the Teaching Channel. The teacher had “buckets” on the wall, paint cans that had labels detailing a few words which culminated high school literacy standards. In each bucket were specific skills written on paint sticks related to each standard. The teacher would pull sticks, and this is what the students would focus on that day.

Buckets of standards

Buckets of standards

Source: Teaching Channel (click to watch video)

I almost sent this out to my teachers – mindlessly! – but caught myself. Thankfully I asked, “Is this what students come to school for? To master standards?” Of course not! They come to learn about great ideas, great thinkers, about our history up until now. Sometimes I think they come to get away from all of the connectivity too. Yes, students should also develop certain competencies, but not removed from the context of these big ideas and know-hows.

Langer emphasizes on page 36 that we need to retrain our focus, and that of our students, to asking “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?”. This can best happen in the context of authentic and relevant learning activities. What are your thoughts?

Cover Crop

When fall arrives, we remove what’s left of the vegetable plants from the raised beds and plant a cover crop.

Photo Credit: Susy Morris

Photo Credit: Susy Morris

In our case, winter rye works the best. Other gardeners use clover, but I prefer rye.

A cover crop is what gardeners and farmers sometimes plant in the soil when they are not growing vegetables to harvest. Cover crop prevents erosion, inhibits weeds, and, maybe most importantly, adds nutrients to the soil.

As the rye grows to maturity, we can till it back into the soil. The winter rye becomes green manure, adding to the health of the soil as it decomposes. By doing this, along with a dressing of compost in the spring, we don’t have to add fertilizers or anything unnatural to the soil before planting next year’s vegetables.

Some people prefer to do a fall season of vegetables, and squeeze more harvest out of the soil. But I find replenishing the soil more beneficial in the long run. The rewards are delayed, but greater.