The Power of a PLN

If anyone you know out there questions the usefulness of Twitter, or may not appreciate how powerful it is to have a Professional Learning Network (PLN), please share this post with them.

Since I joined Twitter last October, I have found my learning to grow exponentially. I credit Curt Rees (@WiscPrincipal), Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) and Todd Whitaker (@ToddWhitaker) for getting me started when they spoke at my state’s administrator conference. With each new person I follow, I have another source of fresh ideas to use in my school and with my staff. And with each new follower, my network of support has increased at least ten fold. Literally. If they retweet a post I have written or a question I have to their followers, my group of potential colleagues has increased beyond what I can measure. Exponential, right?

Case in point: This morning I wrote a rough schedule for a course I would like to teach this school year for district staff, titled “The Connected Educator”. Wanting some feedback on my progress, I sent out this tweet and attached screenshot:



Here is a sampling of the response I received, my replies back not included:


Is there any other tool or group out there that can provide this kind of quick and reliable learning support? If so, I haven’t found it yet.

Now that I have consulted members of my PLN, I have drastically changed how I am going to facilitate this course. For example, instead of teaching a list of technology tools, I am going to share with participants how and why I use these tools to create a better learning environment for students. In addition, Kathy Cassidy (@kathycassidy) astutely pointed out that the title of my proposed course is also the title of a book written by Sheryl NussbaumBeach (@snbeach). I now have a possible text to reference in my instruction and learning.

For the person that still wonders what all the fuss is about regarding Twitter and PLNs, this example should serve as a notice, that every day they neglect to use these powerful tools for learning is a day they may have failed to grow as much as they could.

Should Twitter Replace Professional Development?

I have been on Twitter for nine months and I love it. The network of colleagues I have developed has been instrumental in my success as a first year elementary principal. I hope I have done the same for others through my feed and blog posts. It is one of my go-to resources for learning.

That said, I have a few concerns about some of the comments made in this article from The Huffington Post.

-“Many times professional development is like herding cattle: We’re taking everybody in the same direction. We’re going to learn the same thing.”

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I am not referring to what professionals do differently as teams to address specific student learning. Teachers should have autonomy and freedom to make instructional decisions and use the best tools both they and evidence deem most effective. They are closest to the kids and have the vantage point. What I am looking at is the overarching teaching framework a school or district is using to guide their own development. At my school, we use the Optimal Learning Model developed by Regie Routman. All of our instruction, curriculum and assessment go back to this powerful process for teaching all students. We are moving forward as a team, but we still have room to be creative.

– “Little research exists on what types of professional development for teachers work best.”

Actually, a lot of research exists on what works best for teachers and professional development. For example, Linda Darling-Hammond summarized what the three best professional development activities are based on research, in her resource The Right to Learn: PD must center on the critical areas of teaching and learning, investigations of personal and local practice must predominate, and substantial and sustained conversations about these investigations must take place. Twitter definitely has a place in this discussion, but it is only one way to communicate and not the preferred way for some educators. I would also reference Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker’s Professional Learning Communities At Work, which bases a lot of their evidence-based practices on research by Peter Senge, Michael Fullan and Peter Drucker.

– “Twitter And Facebook Might Soon Replace Traditional Teacher Professional Development”

Going back to the prior statement, Twitter actually lacks the definitive research to make assertions like this, even though others and I find it very helpful. Education and educators (including me) are notorious for jumping on the next big thing without thinking it through first. Does anyone’s school have their house so in order that professionals having in-person conversations about their own students would be trumped by a 140 character discussion with someone with a different community, population of kids and building dynamic? Eric did end the article by stating that he values his face-to-face conversations more than his virtual ones. I appreciate his perspective as he is a leader in 21st Century learning. My kids would be fortunate to attend his school.

Education always seems to be looking for the magic bullet, when in fact it comes back to the same concepts: best instructional practices, collaboration, formative assessment and accountability, among others. I would hate to see Twitter made to be more than what it is – an excellent tool for learning.

Writing Apps for Principals and Coaches

There are so many apps out there for different purposes when using the iPad. It is exciting and daunting at the same time. Specifically for writing about instruction observed in the classroom, a few apps at first glance seem to be great tools for providing feedback for staff and documenting evidence of learning.

Evernote (free)

What I like best about this tool is a) you can document what you observe audibly, visually and by typing, and b) this information can be accessed anywhere. What would this look like? Maybe you are doing instructional walkthroughs. A checklist of four main areas focusing on teacher and student language could be the template. After checking off what you see, language used by students and the teacher can be typed up to record more qualitative feedback. In addition, a photo of what you are seeing related to classroom dialogue could be taken with your iPad and added to the note. Once completed, the entire note can be emailed to the teacher or shared during a subsequent discussion. Simple instructions on how to create a checklist can be found here.

When you want to find a note, they are organized by notebooks or by tags for easy searching.



There are a few limitations I see with using Evernote for this purpose. First, I cannot find a way to easily export the checklist data to an Excel form. If you are looking for trends over time, it would be hard to use this data in Evernote’s format. Using Google Forms might be a better tool for this purpose. If there is a way to do this, my guess is either Bec Spink or Rob van Nood would have the answer.

Second, I wish there was a way to actually write using a stylus within Evernote, which leads into…

Penultimate ($0.99)

This app allows the user to write in notebooks using a finger or a stylus (I recommend a stylus such as Bamboo to avoid the smudges on the screen). You can write, sketch and erase plus add a picture in notebooks. Multiple notebooks can be created for individual classrooms. To share and read these notebooks, you can either email them out as a PDF or open them in another app such as GoodReader, iBooks or Kindle reader. More importantly, books or single pages can be sent to Evernote as their own note. What this means is you could combine your writing, text, audio and visuals all in one note on Evernote, albeit with a few preliminary steps. Check out this link on how to export Penultimate notebooks to Evernote using an iPad.

Notability ($0.99)


If you want to keep things simple and be able to house audio, visuals, text and writing all in one file when documenting classroom activities, Notability is the way to go. What it has that Evernote doesn’t is the ability to sketch and write within the note as well as typing text, adding visuals and recording sound. Also, the layout and controls are more user-friendly than Evernote and Penultimate. Notebooks are color coded and the notes themselves seem to be easier to read.



What could be improved with Notability is the ability to share notes with others. Right now, you can upload notes to Dropbox, but the audio and the rest of the note end up as two separate files. In addition, to share a note with audio right from Notability via email is difficult because the memory size of the audio may be too large. Evernote is better in this area because you can share notes as a web link. It stays as one file.


If you are just starting out, like me, in documenting learning experiences in the classroom, Notability may be the best choice. I know one school district in Wisconsin uses this app to document the amount of time ELL students are given to talk with peers about their understanding. However, if sharing notes is essential to the walkthrough and coaching process, Evernote + Penultimate would be the best tool. The ability to have access to these notes from anywhere is also key. In addition, Evernote just acquired Penultimate. If these two apps eventually meld into one, it might be the perfect tool for principals and coaches to write on the iPad.

Using the Document Camera for Reading Aloud

(Thanks to Tia Henriksen, @henriksent, for better post title suggestion)

I left the classroom in 2007 after seven years as an elementary teacher to become a dean of students and athletic director at a junior high school. At that time, the overhead projector was the tool I used to display anything visual. SmartBoards were just starting to be installed. The only hands-on part about overheads was when a student had to run to the main office to get a replacement after the bulb burned out mid-lesson. In fact, that was one of my students’ classroom jobs. How technology has changed in such a short period of time is amazing.


With all of these choices, it can be daunting to decide which device best supports the instructional needs in a teacher’s classroom. Focusing on reading aloud, I find the best technology to be the document camera. Used in concert with a voice amplification system, the document camera has taken this essential part of a balanced literacy program to a whole new level. It is a key tool for teachers to model the learning process, an essential step in Regie Routman’s Optimal Learning Model and similar frameworks for instruction.


While I am still trying to figure out where this technology tool belongs on the SAMR ladder, I have found that the document camera can augment read aloud time in the classroom.


Reading Aloud Becomes Interactive and Shared at the Same Time
Rather than having different literature and separate times for reading aloud, for shared reading and for interactive reading alouds, a teacher could combine all of these practices into one activity. I often place the picture book or novel under the document camera so students can see the text as I read. Students can ask questions about text features as I read, even coming up to the book or SmartBoard to point out the specific item they wanted more information about. For example, a 2nd grader asked what the little symbols between paragraphs meant while reading aloud Tumtum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn (to switch scenes during a chapter). These teachable moments can be documented by snapping a picture of the page to review later.

Previously “Unread-aloud-able” Books Can Now Be Read Aloud
I am referring to the books that you would love to share with students, but cannot because they do not work when just reading the text. A perfect example is Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, a book I read aloud to 4th graders this school year. Prior to document cameras, I would have had to hold up this bulky book and display the pictures when the narrative transitioned from Ben’s story (told through text) to Rose’s story (told through illustrations). My arms hurt just thinking about having to do this. Instead, I was able to lay the book down and take my time as we perused the pictures. What’s even cooler is I can zoom in on certain parts of the illustration or text when we notice something important, which previously only a student reading alone could do.

My Thinking Becomes More Visible


I have always tried to use a lot of reflective language while reading aloud and identify the spot in the story that caused me to think. Now with a document camera, the potential is there to make the thinking in my head while reading more concrete. For instance, I use Post-it notes while reading aloud books at the primary level to document my thinking. Before reading, I state my purpose for reading a book, whether just for pleasure or to gather information. Sometimes it is the same book read twice, once for each purpose (see: Mentor Texts). Owl Moon by Jane Yolen worked great at 1st grade. After reading it aloud to enjoy the story, I came back a second day to highlight some of the great descriptive language to help me with my own writing. After modeling this with Post-it notes, students raised their hands to share their picks for great examples of descriptive language in Jane Yolen’s book. I acknowledged their input by writing down their suggestions on a Post-it next to mine, for later reflection at the end.

Reading Aloud Becomes Instantly Differentiated
As a colleague of mine was apt to state, you could through a rock out in the hallway and hit someone with attention deficit disorder. While recognizing this as hyperbole, I would agree that many students lack the stamina and practice of listening to the written word spoken aloud. What the document camera does is give that visual in addition to the auditory.

I don’t always use the document camera when reading aloud. In fact, most chapter books I read aloud at grades five and up are from a comfortable chair with zero technology. But when a book begs to be supplemented with a technology tool that enhances the read aloud experience and allows the student to better attend to its message, why not use it?

Not to sound redundant…the document camera is a great technology tool for all areas of instruction. I recommend the following resources for using the document camera in the classroom (you may notice a theme):

58 Ways Teachers Can Use the Document Camera

50 Ways to Use a Document Camera

25 Ways for Students to Use Document Cameras

My Teachers’ Favorite iPad Apps

Teachers in my building could sign up to receive an iPad 2 plus training during second semester. Using Kathy Schrock’s iPad app Evaluation Rubric, teachers culminated the first round of training by recommending a favorite reading or math app they used with students in their classroom.

ABC Magic
Recommended by: Lisa B
Grade Level(s): K-1
Content Area: Language Arts
Cost: Free


A phonics-based series of apps to reinforce sound and spelling patterns.

Futaba – Classroom Games for Kids
Recommended by: Krista
Grade Level(s): K-2
Content Area: Math or Reading
Cost: $3.99


This app has been popular with my kids because it is a game that more than one student can play at a time. They work together cooperatively and have fun while practicing math facts or sight words. I have used this during literacy time (it was a task that needed to be completed for the literacy menu). I like that you can customize this app to fit the needs of each student or group of students. I would like to see more game content added. There are a few glitches that might need to be worked out.

Counting Money
Recommended by: Monica
Grade Level(s): K-5+
Content Area: Math – Money
Cost: Free


I would recommend this title and it’s similar app titled Counting Money + ($1.99). I have used it whole class and it could easily be used with pairs or individuals. It doesn’t have the fancy graphics that some apps have but the sound and real pictures it offers of dollars and coins is great. The settings this app offers allow you to set it for beginners or advanced learners. Within this app are three different types of games: counting only coins, counting only dollars, and counting coins and dollars.

Motion Math: Wings
Recommended by: Janice
Grade Level(s): Ages 4+
Content Area: Math – Multiplication
Cost: Free (with option to purchase more levels)


This app is a great way to practice math fact skills. There are many levels available for young to older students. Motion Math also has Hungry Fish.

Wake the Rooster by Telling Time: Tiny Chicken
Recommended by: Bri
Grade Level(s): Primary
Content Area: Math – Time
Cost: Free


It’s a basic app, but offers repeated practice setting times. I like it because it includes all increments and varies in difficulty. I don’t like that it doesn’t show the correct time if you get one wrong.

Spelling Test
Recommended by: Kim
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Language Arts – Spelling
Cost: Free


This app allows teachers to input spelling words for the week, along with a voice recording of each word, so students can practice independently. The student simply taps on which list they would like to practice, the words are displayed, and when he or she is ready, the student taps on “take test”. A word from the list is read orally to the student (in the teacher’s voice), and the student types the word on the keypad. If the student needs to hear the word again, there is a button to hear it repeated. Immediate feedback is given to the student following each word. At the end of the test, all words are displayed alongside the correct spelling. There is also the option to have test scores reported by email (I have not used this option, yet). This is a great app to use with students who finish early or students who don’t practice at home.

Recommended by: April
Grade Level(s): 3-5
Content Area: Math – Multiplication
Cost: Free


I recommend this app for intermediate students who finish early. It’s fun for students to play with a partner; it challenges their multiplication skills. The automatic outs allow both teams to have a chance to play often. It would be better if it had an option to specify facts.

Rocket Math
Recommended by: Jean
Grade Level(s): 3
Content Area: Math
Cost: Free


Great for all levels – independent use. Kids construct own rocket with $300 to buy boosters, color and rocket. Then they choose a skill area to practice – money, time, multiplication, etc. They earn points based on skill and how high their rocket launches.

Math Garden
Recommended by: Jen
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Math
Cost: Free


I would recommend this app for students who need to practice their basic math facts. In Math Garden, you get to grow your own corn fields but you need to water them by answering math questions. You can choose the level of difficulty and the type of problems to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

24. Math Game
Recommended by: Dawn
Grade Level(s): 3+
Content Area: Math
Cost: $1.99


I would recommend this application for developing basic math facts, order of operations, and flexibility in thinking. We use 24 as a warm up for every math class. Kids LOVE it! It is an excellent math thinking game. Each time a student gets 24 by four multiplication/division/subtraction, new cards are dealt. To provide choice, we write down the first set of cards so that if kids want to stick with those numbers to get 24 a different way, they can. I limit the game to five minutes and keep track of who gets 24.

Recommended by: Lori W
Grade Level(s): All
Content Area: Motivation
Cost: $1.99


This is a useful app. It allows you to determine a separate reward for each student and monitor their progress. The 3D puzzle is an effective way to see their progress toward their goal. It eliminates charts. Can be used for multiple students.

Recommended by: Sue
Grade Level(s): 2-5
Content Area: Language Arts
Cost: Free


Bluster! is a language arts app for grades 2-5. It may be used individually, as a team, or two students against one another. It works on adjectives, prefixes, suffixes, rhyming words, homophones, root words and synonyms. Students are working on skills presented in class. They are motivated by the iPad format to practice.

Recommended by: Molly
Grade Level(s): All
Content Area: Productivity
Cost: Free


Helps you remember everything across all devices. The app can voice record, capture photos, and make notes. It has a lot of potential for recording student work.

Recommended by: Molly
Grade Level(s): N/A
Content Area: News
Cost: Free


The app works like a cool magazine. It lets you search the Internet for articles in a specific area, then presents them in a magazine format.

Story Builder
Recommended by: Genesis
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Reading – Story Elements, Inferencing, Answering “WH-” Questions
Cost: $5.99


This app won Best Reading App of 2011 through the Huffington Post. It allows children to create stories by forming individual sentences using pictures and question prompts. Students record themselves sentence by sentence and play back an entire story they created. The instructor needs to provide the feedback for this app. There are scaffolding options so students can build stories with less prompting. In addition to story elements, this app can be used for inferences, “WH-” questions, fluency, grammar/sentence structure, sequencing and sound production. The pictures and audio feedback are engaging and promote expressive language.

Recommended by: Matt
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Reading – Story Elements, Fluency, Creativity
Cost: Free


Student can create a visual story, summarize a book and learn about the elements of a narrative. Teachers should first ask students to write a story board before using Toontastic. The app also asks students to provide narration for the story and practice fluency by recording their voice. When completed, students can celebrate their efforts by sharing their final product on the document camera or mirroring via Apple TV.

Math Drills
Recommended by: Colette
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Math
Cost: $1.99


Students have own personal settings for practicing math facts. Kids like the review part because it gives a good visual for skip counting. Boys like the race car reinforcement such as the car noises and the M.P.H. report on how fast you completed your facts. Also, the pit stop lets you go back and redo a problem you missed.

The Social Express
Recommended by: Jill
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: School Counseling – Personal/Social and Health
Cost: $89.99


I recommend this app for any student who struggles socially to work with others, to make good decisions, and to express feelings appropriately. It would be especially beneficial for students with emotional/behavioral disorders, autism, and Aspergers.

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Using School iPads

Teachers in my building were recently given iPads. The devices were paid for through Title I funds; they have to be used for reading and math intervention. Not all teachers received an iPad. They had to sign up and agree to three months of training.

As they were distributed, a couple of teachers asked, “Can we use them for personal use?” This is a slippery question that doesn’t have a clean answer. My initial response was, “Yes; how else will you learn how to use them?”

As I reflect, I now believe there should be more clear guidelines for my staff when they receive school-owned mobile technology. If you are in a district that has a clear-cut policy AND it is sensible and realistic, the work has been done for you. For me, I have to start from scratch.

Here is what I believe are the do’s and don’t’s for staff using school purchased iPads:

Do use the iPads for personal use.
Don’t treat them as if you own them.

Teachers don’t have time to explore the devices at school. Therefore they should take them home and play with them in order to build proficiency. If part of their purpose is to get on Facebook or talk with friends via Skype, aren’t they still learning how to use the iPad at high levels of engagement and effectiveness? My job is to try and guide the teachers into connecting how they use them to what is possible in the classroom.

At the same time, it is clear that teachers cannot be running a side business using the devices or selling personal items on eBay. If they aren’t sure it is appropriate, it probably isn’t. My staff also understands that the iPads belong to the school and, ultimately, the district. If they leave our building, the devices stay at Howe and are repurposed in another classroom.

Do allow your families, especially your kids, to use the iPads.
Don’t use them as a babysitter.

My staff and I are sharing our learning on Edmodo. One teacher posted how her students used the Math Garden app together on the document camera to prepare for the basic math facts test. Another teacher chimed in with a reply, stating her husband can’t put the game down.

This is great to see, having teachers explore new ways for learning with their family. It is quick action research to find out new and different ways to use the iPads. As an example, two boys I am working with split the keyboard in Pages by accident. My first reaction was, “What did you do?” Once I realized they didn’t break it, we explored the different uses for each keyboard when typing.

At the same time, it is very easy to plop an iPad in front of your daughter and say, “Have fun!”, while my wife is at mass and you need to give your son a bath. (I did this today!) It is my personal device, however, and not something I do often. With school equipment, a teacher does not want to be responsible for a broken device or someone else downloading illicit content. This applies to the classroom too. If the iPad is being used with students, intent, structure and assessment should be a part of the activity.

Do put your own content on the iPad
Don’t spend a small fortune on Apple content

A few of my teachers have Apple devices already, like iPhones and iPod Touches. I showed the staff how to log out of the school’s iTunes account, log back in using their personal account, and download their already-purchased music, apps and other media. This allows the staff to utilize their own content when it would be beneficial in the classroom. For example, one teacher bought a handwriting app for her son. She realized this app would also be a good fit for her second graders.

As part of this project, teachers have $100 to spend on apps for their classroom. I didn’t want them having to spend their own money on iPad media for school purposes, knowing how much teachers already spend on their own classroom. If they make personal purchases but do not have their own device and they moved out of the building, the content they purchased would be essentially gone.

This is all I can determine at this time. The devices are so new to all of us. It is hard to predict future issues. As long as we continue to reflect about our current practices with iPads in the classroom and learn together through collaboration both in person and online, we should be on the right path.

Do you have a good district policy in place that addresses this new technology? Please share.

I’ve Got an iPad…Now What?

*This is the email I sent out tonight to the 19 Howe Elementary School teachers taking part in the iPad implementation class offered for professional development. Each teacher received an iPad 2. Their purpose is to discover ways to use this technology tool for reading and math intervention. You are welcome to join us as well. If you want the iPad PD guide as an iBook, DM me your email. -Matt

I am emailing you because I have you enrolled in the iPad class for Howe. You should have received an invitation to join; if you didn’t let me know. It is a wiki that everyone can contribute to, to add projects, ideas and ask questions of each other. You will need to create an account. Be sure to add your school email during the registration process. I have never used one, so I am hoping some of you will try it out and let me know how it works ;).

A requirement for this PD is join our Edmodo group. Edmodo is like Facebook only for teachers and students. This social network is how we will deliver assignments and award badges for completion of iPad proficiency levels.

1. Go to and sign up as a student.
2. Create your account using the code 35od0D.
3. Be sure to enter your school email so you can receive updates from the site.
4. Enter the group and explore this social network.

Once everyone is enrolled, I will send out a pre-assessment survey and your first assignment. Speaking of assignments…

Would anyone be upset if we did not do the Todd Whitaker book study? Besides the technical issues getting the book, I have some concerns about learning to use the iPad AND reading the eBook at the same time. What are your thoughts? I am good either way. In fact, once we have all on board on Edmodo, our first assignment could be to participate in a poll about this question. We will still read, share and respond to relevant articles about education and technology in place of the book, if that is the way we want to go.

I am learning as we go, just like you. If you have suggestions during this learning process, I would like to hear your ideas.

Have fun!