Why I Dropped Out of My First MOOC

I am in the midst of final edits for my first eBook, to be released on July 31. After sending these to my editor, I realized that lately I have not completed any work for this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I enrolled in this summer. The topic of learning was teaching and assessment in the 21st century.

So why didn’t I complete it?

It was a lot of sit and get.

There were a series of videos for each of the five weeks (I got through the first three weeks). Each video ranged from seven to twenty minutes long, with five or more videos each week. While the content being shared was fine, I had a problem with the way it was delivered. It was just the two main professors, speaking to the text that was shown on the screen. I was wondering how this is any different that sitting in a lecture hall. This is not how I would choose to spend my summer.

The content lacked context.

This is unfortunate, because I felt the people who developed this course have some interesting thoughts on the topic of 21st century instruction. However, not at one time did we see a piece of student work nor students actually working. The best that was shared was listening to two high school students trying to collaboratively solve a computer-based story problem, which leads me to my next concern…

I felt there was an agenda.

I cannot verify this. But there were too many examples that led me to believe that a large standardized assessment organization was involved in this MOOC. The company’s name was referenced more than once. In addition, the collaborative problem solving example just mentioned distinctly resembled how new computer-based tests might look like next year. There was a whole lot of talk about assessment, but very little about teaching. The title of the course was misleading.

It lacked relevance.

I went back and forth about whether I should continue to stay active with this MOOC. What would I miss that others might gain? Would I be seen as another “MOOC dropout”? In the end, it came down to how ready I was (or wasn’t) to absorb this information, in addition to applying it to my current school context. I can see how collaborative problem solving in online spaces might be a part of the future of assessment. But we are not there yet. Are you?

This topic is not being discussed within my personal learning network.

I consider the educators I follow and connect with to be the most up-to-date learners. To my knowledge, they are not discussing on Twitter or Google+ how to best assess students as they collaborate with peers to solve contrived story problems with computer access only. My PLN is like a bellweather for me when it comes to issues I need to develop more awareness of.

So what has been your experience with MOOCs? Is it similar or different than mine? Should I give MOOCs another shot in the future? Feel free to share your thinking in the comments.

Data is…

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 12.00.20 PM

When considering evidence and artifacts for our own growth and for evaluation, it is wise to broaden our understanding of “data”. Numbers do not tell the whole story. This word cloud, made with Tagxedo, notes many different types of data. They are retrieved from The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).

(Click here to view the interactive version.)

Rethinking Reading Logs

In another lively #educoach Twitter chat, we discussed the first chapter of Donalyn Miller’s book Reading in the Wild. This excellent resource provides educators with many ideas on how to raise readers for a lifetime, and not just for that next test or quiz.

A topic that came up near the end of the discussion was reading logs.

There were multiple responses. Most of them were not favorable toward this practice. I realize why educators use reading logs: We want students to become habitual readers. But why do we develop habits? A habit is a behavior that we repeat over and over because we experience something positive from it.

Reading logs do not develop lifelong readers. It is the act of reading itself – the entertainment to be had, the information gained, and the subsequent socialization we experience – that keeps us coming back for more.

So how can we rethink this assessment tool, so that the accountability we place on students to become more regular readers augments instead of detracts from the experience?

Reading Graffiti Boards

Our 4th and 5th grade teachers all attended a one day workshop with Donalyn Miller last fall. Reading graffiti boards is an idea suggested by her. The teacher puts up black butcher paper. He or she then models how to write favorite lines from their book they are reading on the board. Metallic markers make the writing pop out.


During my regular walkthroughs, I enjoyed watching this graffiti board expand with student contributions. This tool for sharing led to students having more authentic peer conversations with each other about what they were reading. It also served well as a natural way to recommend titles.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Blog Instead of Log

My son hated filling out his reading log as a first grader this past school year. It was like pulling teeth, as they say. Because he liked technology (just like his dad:), we tried blogging about his reading instead.

We used KidBlog as our writing tool. Initially, it was still the same process of forcing him to respond to his reading. But once he started getting comments from family members, such as his grandmother, he became more motivated to share his reading life.

We hit pay dirt when one of his favorite authors, Johnathan Rand, posted a comment on his blog post about his book series Freddy Fernortner: Fearless First Grader. (I had emailed the author my son’s post about his books, in hopes of him responding.) After a discussion in the comments, including many questions from my son, I suggested hosting a Skype chat between the author and his classmates.

Before the Skype chat, the classroom teacher had the students suggest several questions for Mr. Rand. When they finally did connect with him, students had the opportunity to come up and speak with the author, each with a question in hand.


After this experience, I was told that many of my son’s 1st grade classmates were much more motivated to read, especially the Freddy Fernortner chapter book series. This included one student who last semester was in Reading Recovery.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Create Book Trailers

In another one of our 4th grade classrooms, a teacher had discovered Educreations. This is a simple web-based screencasting tool that can be used on iPads and other mobile devices. Students in this classroom still had reading expectations, but they were to create a book trailer for a title they had recently read.


Book trailers are visual and audio summaries of titles, with the purpose of convincing someone else to read that book. The students in this classroom regularly shared their creations with their peers by mirroring the content onto the whiteboard. I was told that one of the more challenging students in this classroom, who refused to do much of any other work, was highly motivated to create these book trailers.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

I realize my repeated question is rhetorical. The reactions, products, and feelings toward reading that I listed would not have occurred with the outdated practice of paper-based reading logs. There needs to be an authentic audience for the responses students are asked to produce about their reading. This audience creates a more profound purpose for these types of assessments and accountability tasks.

What is your opinion on reading logs? In what ways have you augmented how students respond to their independent reading? How do you know it is working, in that your students are becoming lifelong readers? Please share in the comments.

Connected Leadership and Learning: We Cannot Do It Alone!


This picture is from one of our Spotlight School visits. Howe was select last year (and this upcoming year) to host other schools and share best practices.

The person on the left is Scott Kellogg. He is our grant coordinator. Scott is also the former principal at Howe. When he retired, I took over.

The person on the right is Val Tonn. She is one of my art teachers, and she also helped coordinate our grant efforts. Val is a prospective administrator. She just received her principal license.

This image is a visual example of what it means to me to be a connected leader and learner. Everyone has something to offer for each other. Scott is a wellspring of knowledge and experience regarding the principalship. If I ever have a question, he usually has a ready response. I have made far fewer mistakes due to our candid conversations. Val has a lot of spirit and new ideas with regard to what leadership can be in the schoolhouse. If I am ever feeling a little worn down, she can lift my spirits, as her enthusiasm is contagious.

Who do you choose to surround yourself with? Do they enhance your intelligence, and infuse more passion into your position as a learner and leader? What do you have that you can offer to others?

Get connected!

Why Should Educators Blog?

After finishing a rewrite for my upcoming book Digital Student Portfolios, I took a moment to briefly reflect. Where am I at? Where did I start? This post is my 232nd on my blog, now two and half years old (young?). I am pretty sure I am a better writer now than when I started.

Just yesterday, I was fortunate enough to come across a kindergarten teacher’s first blog post.

As I read her initial writing, I was almost envious of her position. Her writing was fresh, full of enthusiasm, and excited about the future. Not that my posts necessarily lack any of these qualities, but getting started in becoming more reflective about one’s own practice is very exciting. I left a comment, recognizing her accomplishment and expressing my anticipation of future posts from her.

This lengthy intro leads into my primary question: Why should educators blog? 

To quote John Belushi from Animal House, “Why not?” But I know that this is not always a possibility for many current practitioners. We have families. We consider our time away from school sacred. We are working a second job and don’t have the time. I get it. I have been there at one point or another.

At the same time, to want to write about our own practice via a blog first requires a burning desire to do so. This need circumvents all the reasons not to write. That feeling of a need to share, to express our current thinking, or to reflect on our experiences, can each be the catalyst for us to start blogging.

So what might be the impetus for our initial post?

Because I have so much going on in my head

Whether it stems from our need to share and reflect, or our fear of losing what we have learned, blogging can provide that needed online space for this purpose. For me, the act of writing out what I have learned is a very challenging process. That probably means that it is also important at a cognitive and metacognitive level. I have to think back about what happened and consider the artifacts, such as images of my learning, before inserting them into the post.

Because I would like to go back to what was in my head

In their book The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research (Corwin, 2009), Nancy Fitchman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey describe blogging as a teacher’s “personal pensieve” (91). This is in reference to the Harry Potter series, in which Dumbledore, the head wizard, keeps personal memories magically stowed away for later retrieval.

The idea is that the teacher is not only dumping their thinking into an online space, but also intends to come back to it for future reflection and learning. Using categories and tags can help in this later process of searching for previous posts.

Because I have something important to share

Maybe our experiences, readings and online interactions have led us to some new thinking. Educators are notorious for not wanting to share their ideas with reasons such as, “Why would I share that? What I do is nothing special.” We also know, especially if you already are a connected educator, that this reasoning is not accurate at all. What a particular idea looks like in a certain classroom or school is very context-specific. Just because it has been applied in a different setting doesn’t mean it is unoriginal.

Because everything I have to share is important

We all need to be sharing what is going well in our schools. The current political climate that does not favor the individual teacher, along with non-educators cherry picking standardized assessment scores to push forward their personal agendas, has created a situation where not sharing our best work is a default knock against our profession. If there are no opposing viewpoints, who are the public to believe? Make your students’ learning visible as often as you can on your blog.

Because “Why not?”

Okay, it is hard to argue with John Belushi. I previously gave some reasons why some educators may not have time. But don’t you already write a classroom or school newsletter? How hard would it be to just copy and paste the text and images onto a blog, and let everyone in the world see it? Or at least your students’ families?

What we have to share on a blog is significantly more important than what any person or organization could possibly provide. What you could post is the real deal. No conjectures or agenda. Just your and your students’ experiences on a daily basis. If you are still struggling to come up with a reason to start blogging, try starting here.




Where I Am Right Now with Being a Connected Learner

In this post for Powerful Learning Practice, I explore whether or not teachers should disconnect from their personal learning networks over the summer. I can see both sides of the argument, simply stated here:

I think this is a dilemma that many professional educators face. Do we get away from all things school-related for the summer? Or should we stay connected to and continue to develop our personal learning networks and nurture our professional growth?

In the comments section, Joy Kirr shares her perspective:

Matt, What I know right now… is that I’m PASSIONATE about teaching. I take breaks, it’s true, but my summer is all about growing myself and striving to make next year even BETTER. I think, if we strive for mastery, it is because we WANT to, and we know we’ll never get there – such is the allure. :) So, yes, I agree that we need to fit in valuable time with family and friends while unplugged from other teachers. I also believe that if it is truly our passion, no one can keep us from it.

I happen to share a similar passion for lifelong learning and education as Joy. Like her, I seek to better myself as an elementary principal for my students, as well as my own desire to be the best I can be. For example, I am taking my first MOOC, about teaching and assessment in the 21st century, through the University of Melbourne. There are assignments and certain expectations, and I am certainly not obligated to complete it. Yet I am one of 13,000 people enrolled in this course. That is a lot of educators who have the same dispositions as Joy and me, who want to grow themselves.

After the post was shared, I have had time to reflect on it some more. This is the nature of learning: It is never done, and the more we learn, the more we want to learn more. One thought I had was, are there any instances where I am disconnected, but I am still able to utilize digital-based resources? Immediately, I though of the garden blog/journal I recently created with Postach.io. To share images, audio, and/or text and publish it on the blog, all I have to do is put the media into a note within the appropriate Evernote notebook. Tag it “published”, and it pops up.

So why not get a regular garden journal to document any discoveries from this hobby of mine? I did have one, actually, but I had a propensity for leaving it outside as I became enamored with one of my beds. It did not last long after a few rains.


So there it is. A way to use connected tools while still staying disconnected. Maybe these two worlds are not as mutually exclusive as I may have initial thought. At the same time, a key in keeping our life in balance is realizing when it is out of balance. That usually means being too connected. When I realize this, I put away my digital toys and do something that doesn’t require electricity, unless it involves running the sprinklers.

Should We Be Quantifying Our Students’ Reading Abilities? by Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick:

I always enjoy posting on the Nerdy Book Club blog. I don’t know of any other group blog that has such loyal and knowledgable followers. In this post, I attempt to describe how my thinking changed (for the better) about the use of quantitative assessments when measuring students’ reading abilities.

Originally posted on Nerdy Book Club:

When I was still in the classroom, I would take my 5th and 6th grade students to a local creek. Our purpose was to assess the water quality. The students were taught how to use a variety of tests, involving various indicators and kits. One of the tests measured the nitrates in the water. Nitrates derive from animal waste. A high level would indicate the creek was a poor environment for living organisms, save bullheads and carp.

Not 200 yards upstream from out testing site was a cow pasture. We could see the cattle grazing from our location. Now, one would think that the levels of nitrates would be consistently high, considering the source. Yet for every time we got a high reading, we would get a normal one too. This is why we took three samples each in the fall and in the spring. When a student once got…

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