The Sometimes Unnecessariness of Technology

I enjoy watching baseball. In particular, I try to catch the Milwaukee Brewers when televised and I am free. There is so much strategy involved: When to hit away, when to steal a base, when to pitch inside. Every action has a potential impact on the final outcome.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Baseball is an imperfect game in which, like other sports, the participants are always striving for perfection. That includes the umpires. They are tasked with calling balls and strikes on pitches teetering toward 100 miles per hour. A split second is all they get to decide if a runner is safe or out. They don’t always get it right, but most of the time they do.

A recent wrinkle added to the game is instant replay. Managers can ask for one on a close play in the field. Calls can be reversed upon video review. I don’t mind this addition, as a baseball game is a series of stops and starts as it is. One more pause in the action isn’t going to hurt.

Where will technology’s influence creep next into baseball? From what I am reading: Automated strike zones. Computers already augment televised games with pitch-by-pitch graphics that show the exact location of each delivery from the pitcher. Commentators refer to this frequently when discussing the batter’s judgment or the pitcher’s ability to locate pitches. More accurate calls and less player-umpire arguments would be some of the benefits of this technology upgrade.

I am not convinced that this would be better for baseball. There is a type of balance achieved with an umpire behind the catcher as the pitcher and batter duel it out. Maybe it’s the simple presence of a triad surrounding home plate. Nature loves odd numbers. Also worth noting is the relationship between the catcher and the home plate umpire. They look out for each other, like when an errant foul ball strikes one of them in a vulnerable area of their body. Watch a game to see what I mean.

Education is feeling a similar push to digitize many aspects of the profession and process. Assessments such as reading screeners can be administered more quickly using computers. Students can submit work to their teacher with a click of a button. Some of the improvements, such as blogging and parent communication, are welcomed upgrades. They provide a broader audience and heighten home-school communications.

But adding technology for the sake of improving results and accuracy does not mean that the final outcomes are necessarily better. If going digital decreases the relationships between participants, what happens to engagement? If technology reduces the need for certain roles that add value beyond their basic job descriptions, how does the lost part affect that larger whole? I don’t have the answers. What I do know is when a technological innovation replaces human participation, the subsequent results cannot simply be measured in balls and strikes or multiple choice. We work in the people business.

Every Outcome a Process

A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process.

-Dr. Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

Right now I am waist deep in writing my new book on digital student portfolios. It will be out at some point in 2017 with ASCD. In this forthcoming text, the audience is teachers and how they can facilitate this authentic assessment process in their classrooms with success.

I’ll be honest – I have reached a bit of a wall. My experience as an administrator for the past nine years has left me with many experiences in setting up performance-based portfolios, developing curriculum that leads to essential understandings, and guiding a school to embed this type of technology initiative over time. What my experience has not provided is a strong understanding of using digital tools to assess student learning progress over time.

That means going back to the books. I don’t have the knowledge yet to write with confidence about the day-to-day growth students make and how a teacher might document this learning. Currently I am reading Digital Reading by Franki Sibberson and William L. Bass II. On my to-read list is Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Conversations by Regie Routman, and Inside the Writing Portfolio by Carol Brennan Jenkins. Two of these texts are steeped in technology. All are grounded in pedagogy. As I explore these resources, I plan on writing the prior and following chapters that bookends this topic. I’ll complete this part of the text when ready.

I’ve realized as an author that we don’t have to be the expert on everything we write about as educators. Yes, we should “know our stuff”. But when putting together a resource that might benefit a wide audience, I have found it unavoidable to encounter an area where my knowledge and skill are lacking. Am I not an expert now? Not yet…

With my last book, I received feedback that the fourth section (“Myth #4: Technology Improves Student Learning”) was the heart of the text. It was effective in describing how pedagogy drove the need for technology, which led to the technology enhancing and even redefining the pedagogy. What’s interesting is that this was the section I struggled with the most. The topic of blended learning was still somewhat foreign to me. I had to spend extra time in our school’s classroom that employed this instructional approach in order to write about it.

One wonders with any book we read how much the author was challenged to put into prose what they observed, knew, and wanted to convey for others. Writing forces us to stop when we aren’t familiar with something and reconsider what we yet need to know. Writing is a canary in the coal mine, alerting us to gaps in our knowledge and skills as we travail toward an acceptable outcome. Writing is a process independent of a worthy audience, and publishing seems secondary to the act itself. Our lives are better for the experience either way.

Initial Findings After Implementing Digital Student Portfolios in Elementary Classrooms

On Saturday, I shared why I was not at ISTE 2016. That post included our school’s limited progress in embedding technology into instruction that made an impact on student learning. In this post, I share how digital student portfolios did make a possible difference.

I attempted a schoolwide action research project this past year around literacy and engagement. We used three strategies to assess growth from fall to spring: Instructional walk trends, student engagement surveys, and digital student portfolios. Each data point related to one major componenent of literacy:

  • Instructional walks: Speaking and listening within daily instruction, including questioning and student discussion
  • Engagement surveys: Reading, specifically self-concept as a reader, the importance of reading, and sharing our reading lives
  • Digital portfolios: Writing, with a focus on guiding students to reflect on their work, offer feedback, and set goals for the future

The instructional walks, brief classroom visits in which I would write my observations down and share them as feedback with the teacher, did show an increase in the frequency of student discussion during instruction but not in higher level questioning. My conclusion was there needs to be specific and sustained professional development around questioning in the classroom in order to see positive growth.

The reading engagement survey results were messy. While primary students showed significant growth from fall to spring about how they feel about reading. intermediate student results were stagnant. Some older students regressed. It is worth noting that at the younger ages, there was also significant growth in their reading achievement as measured by interim assessments (running records). I didn’t have really any conclusions. The survey itself might not have been intermediate student-friendly. At the younger ages, our assessment system is built so that students are seeing steady progress with benchmark books.

Okay, now for the reason for this post. Before I share any data about student writing and digital portfolios, I want to be clear about a few things:

  • A few teachers forgot to record their spring writing data. I did not include their students in the data set.
  • The results from my first year at the school (2011-2012) used a rubric based on the 6 traits of writing. Last year we used a more condensed rubric, although both rubrics for assessing student writing were a) used by all staff to help ensure interrater reliability and b) highly correlated with the 6 traits of writing.
  • The results from my first year at the school, in which no portfolio process was used beyond a spring showcase, came from a district-initiatied assessment team that score every paper in teams of two. This year’s data was scored by the teachers within our own school exclusively.

With all of this in mind, here are the results of student growth in writing over time from my first year as a principal (no portfolio process in place) and last year (a comprehensive portfolio process in place):

2011-2012: 10% growth from fall to spring

2015-2016: 19% growth from fall to spring

I have the documentation to verify these results. The previously shared points are some of the reasons why I hold these results a bit in question. At the same time, here are some interesting details about this year’s process.

  • All teachers were expected to document student writing at least six times a year in a digital portfolio tool. In addition, each student was expected to reflect on their work by highlighting what they did well, identifying areas of growth, and making goals for the next time they were asked to upload a piece of writing into their digital portfolio.
  • The digital portfolio tool we used, FreshGrade, was well received by families. Survey results with these families revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of this tool for sharing student learning regularly over the course of the school year. In fact, we didn’t share enough, as multiple parents asked for more postings.
  • The comments left by family members on the students’ work via digital portfolios seemed to motivate the teachers to share more of the students’ work. Staff requested additional trainings for conducting portfolio assessment. They could select the dates to meet and offer the agenda items that we would focus on.

If you have read any of the research on feedback and formative assessment, you will know that many studies have shown that educators will double their effectiveness as teachers when they focus on formative assessment and providing feedback for students as they learn. It should be noted that our 19% growth is almost double what we achieved in 2011-2012.

One might say, “Your teachers are better writing instructors now than five years ago.” Maybe, in fact probably. But what we measured was growth from fall to spring and compared the results, not longitudinal growth over many years. The teachers can own the impact that their instruction made on our students this school year.

There was not formalized training for improve teachers’ abilities to increase speaking and listening in the classroom. Reading engagement strategies were measured but not addressed during professional development. Only the writing portfolio process along with the incorporation of digital portfolios to document and share this process was a focus in our faculty trainings.

Although these results are promising, I am not going to make any big conclusions at this time. First, only I did the data crunching of these results. Also, we didn’t follow a more formal research process to ensure validity of our findings. However, I am interested in pursuing partnerships with higher education to ensure that any results and conclusions found in the future meet specific thresholds for reliability.

One final thing to note before I close: Technology was important in this process, but my hypothesis is the digital piece was secondary to the portfolio process itself. Asking the students to become more self-aware of their own learning and more involved in goal-setting through teacher questioning and feedback most likely made the difference. The technology brought in an essential audience, yes, but the work had to be worth sharing.


For more on this topic, explore my digital book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. You can join our Google+ Community to discuss the topic of digital portfolios for students with other educators.

If you liked my first book, check out my newest book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD Arias). 


Why I am #NotatISTE16

  • Because my session proposal was declined

That’s the big reason. I submitted a proposal regarding digital portfolios for students with someone else, and it didn’t get accepted. The rest of this post contains secondary rationale for why I am not attending the International Society for Technology in Education convention in Denver this weekend. Let’s not forget this as I rant a bit later on.

  • Because I am in-between positions

I recently accepted a new job as elementary principal in Mineral Point, WI. This involves not only a change in position but also a change in location. In hindsight, I am grateful that the session proposal did not get accepted. I could not imagine being away right now.

  • Because I can learn from a distance

By following the #NotatISTE16 hashtag on Twitter and related social media, you can learn vicariously through attendees who are posting their takeaways from the convention. In addition, there are online spaces, such as Live Binders, set up by attendees to share their learning. It cannot be the same as being there, but it is better than the alternative.

  • Because I would miss my family

Even though it is summer and most schools have been out for at least a week, it is hard to be away from home. This evening, we cooked out and had s’mores together. Nothing at the ISTE convention can match these rich, personal experiences. Our breaks as administrators in between school years are always too short. I am thankful for today.

  • Because…

I have been meandering to this point, because I am not sure how to phrase it. I was looking at the line up of sessions and workshops on the ISTE website: Digital forms, badge systems, tablets for primary students, writing technology grants. I had to remind myself that I was willing to make my way halfway across the country for this. I would be blogging from Denver if the convention committee thought my proposal was worthy.

Why the concerns? I think my reservations have much to do with the worthiness of educational conferences that focus on technology, instead of with technology. It seems like these types of events tend to put the cart before the horse. The best conference I ever attended had a sole focus on two things: Literacy and Leadership. Technology had a minor role, but it was certainly not in the lead. The influence this institute had on our team and subsequently the school as a learning organization is still visible today. Can a team that attends an ISTE convention or related experience make the same claim?

Even when schools attempt to integrate technology within instruction, it too rarely moves the needle when it comes to the instructional impact on student learning. I know, because we assessed ourselves as a school last year on digital citizenship and the 4Cs. We were emerging in these areas, across the board. This is after multiple years of embedding digital tools into our teaching and learning with thoughtfulness and intention.

For sake of transparency, I have never attended an ISTE convention. My point of view is from afar. I would be curious about other people’s opinions about this topic. Please share your thoughts in the comments.


The Possibilities of No Wireless Access

I just got back from a three day writing retreat with Brenda Power and several contributors for Choice Literacy. I don’t often the use the word “awesome”, but they were an awesome group. I was awed by their professionalism, awed by their prolific and effective writing skills, and awed by their acceptance into their community.

Now…down to the reason I wrote this post.

Last night I planned on going into a few drafts that needed some revision. I quickly realized that wireless access was fleeting. Most likely it was my two year old+ MacBook Air that needs a good cleaning and cache-clearing (our host site, the Arbor Hill Inn, was excellent). No matter how much finagling I did, I could not get online to access my drafts in Google Docs.

No Internet Connection
Source: Flickr

Instead of chewing my nails, I dug back into some earlier drafts I had produced on my writing software, Scrivener. One piece I uncovered, Unspoken Leadership, described my experience in serving as a community representative for the local high school’s recognition ceremony for deserving students. This writing connected some of the less visible attributes of leadership, such as active listening and long term planning, with my own capacities as a principal.

I pulled it up, made some necessary updates, and the following morning printed it out for our final peer review group before checking out. The feedback was overly positive, with very few suggestions other than tying the ideas together with transitions.

Had I been able to connect with wireless, yes, I could have had more time to revise my other pieces already written. But I most likely would not have dug down into my previous writing and uncovered a possible gem that just needed some dusting off.

I have become very dependent on the Internet as a primary source, possible the main source, of information in my life as an educator and as a person. Twitter, blog feeds, and other social media demand my time and attention. This constant access keeps us up-to-date on what’s happening now. But what about what happened before? Our capacities for reflection and metacognition might be hindered in our need for connection.

This small example reminds me to be cognizant of the paradox of writing for onself while being mindful of our potential audience. There is no clear line between the two. Each context brings its own set of benefits and constraints. Finding the balance is a necessary skill so that we don’t lose sight of what came before.


I was at school, the one I was soon to leave, cleaning things up and preparing for the changeover to the next leader. My wife texted me. “Can I bring another teacher over so she can look at your school’s makerspace?” I replied back with this image:

The makerspace was being moved upstairs, to a classroom with more room and storage. “Sorry, kind of a mess here.”

This time of year, it seems like there is nothing but transitions. Students move from one grade to the next. Teachers close out this year while also preparing for September (plus some well-deserved summer in between). Parents become the primary mode of transportation for all of their kids’ activities. Constant motion.

In my personal transition of moving to a new position, I am realizing that we don’t own anything. Everything is on lease to us, including what we purchase and even our close family members and friends. Life is made up of moving parts. If we are lucky, we become one of these parts within a group or community that heads toward something bigger than ourselves and depends on each other in the process. Maybe we don’t own anything, but we do put our fingerprints on the experiences in which we are most involved.

As I have come to understand that our world is a series of transitions, big and small, I hope I have also become more accepting of change as a natural part of things. “Life in transition”: My current mantra.

The Principal’s Bookshelf: What I’ve Read, What I’m Reading, and What I Plan on Reading

Summer has arrived, or is soon coming. The upcoming break offers school leaders time to read and learn something new, or simply to enjoy the written word.

Here are some books that I have read, am reading, or will read that I would recommend.

What I’ve Read

The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have to Be
by Anya Kamanetz

A good overview of the testing dilemma in the U.S. The book is at its strongest when Kamenetz explores the possibilities of what testing could look like in the future. Specifically, how technologies could pull data about student progress while they are engaged in learning is intriguing. However, there was a lot of research left by the wayside, with the author too often utilizing anecdotes and quotes to support her position. Still, The Test is a very helpful guide for someone looking to better understand this topic.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig
by Chris Kurtz

I enjoyed reading aloud this chapter book to my daughter. It follows a similar narrative to Charlotte and Babe, yet the setting and major events make this book a unique read. Flora, a pig looking for adventure, gets hooked up with a team of explorers heading for the South Pole. She thinks she is destined to be a “sled pig”, but the ship’s cook has other ideas…

The Third Teacher
by OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, Bruce Mau Design

Are you involved in the building or redesign of a new school? Thinking about installing a makerspace? This book is an essential resource for reconsidering how the learning spaces in schools serve students and teachers. There are many ideas and examples that educators can pull into their own buildings. The book itself is a product of design with unique fonts and compelling images.

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time
by Michael Perry

I started reading this book shortly after hearing Michael Perry speak at our local public library. It’s a treat to hear a good author speak. They talk as they write – with the ability to spin a good story out of the ordinary. Population: 485 serves as a memoir for small town life in Northern Wisconsin. It also reminds the reader about being more present in our everyday experiences. For me, both hearing the author speak and reading his writing has helped me take life more slowly and deliberately.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

The things that bring you joy tell you a lot about who you are. (p. 126)

Life is a preservation project. Our instinct for preservation plays out in everything from the depth of our breaths to an affection for bricks. Even as we flail and cling, trying to bottle time, to save it, we love only through its expenditure. Memory is a means of possession, but eventually, the greatest grace is found in letting go. (p. 178)

It is occurring to me that to truly live in a place, you must give your life to that place. It is a dynamic commitment, but it is also a manifestation of stillness. (p. 210)

Three Times Lucky (Tupelo Landing #1)
by Sheila Turnage

Wow, what a book! This necessary read aloud for middle level classrooms highlights one of the most original characters to come to modern children’s literature, Moses “Mo” LeBeau. She was washed downstream and discovered by The Colonel and Miss Lana, now her adoptive parents. Mo frequently writes to her “upstream mother”, while investigating a recent murder in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina with her best friend Dale. Mo’s witty quips and heartfelt efforts to find balance in her life makes Three Times Lucky a favorite of mine for children’s literature.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

by Peter Gray

If you are a public educator, read this book with an open mind. While the author does not hide his disdain for public education as a squasher of children’s creativity and love for learning, the research and experiences he uses to support his position are difficult to refute. I took the points that he made throughout this engaging informative text and considered how I might apply them in my current context as an elementary school principal. For example, can a school offer daily opportunities for kids to explore learning of their own choosing? I have a hard time seeing why not.

What I’m Reading

Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others
by Tom Romano

This resource will sit alongside my other writing references, such as On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott. Romano is a long time writing teacher at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio. Each short chapter serves as a quick lesson on one aspect of the writing process. Much joy, honesty and reflection inhabit this very personal book, which also serves as a memoir of sorts for Romano. Read Write What Matter slowly, and apply each bit of instruction to your own writing life.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure #1)
by Stephan Pastis

This first installment in a children’s book series, which I am reading aloud to my son, is within the same vein as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy is a clueless kid detective who lives up to his last name by not noticing the obvious when taking on cases. We are only a third of the way through it, and so far we are appreciating the author’s unique sense of humor and the realistic family dynamics of Timmy’s life that add some heart to this series.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
by Atul Gawande

This book has been highly recommended to me. The author, a practicing surgeon, shares anecdotes and research about how the best organizations and individuals continuously focus on becoming better in their practice. Gawande’s writing is general enough that any professional can apply his principles to their own work. (For a good example of the connection between the author’s ideas and teacher practice, check out this article by Susan L. Lytle from the University of Pennsylvania.)

What I Plan on Reading

The Together Leader: Get Organized for Your Success – And Sanity!
by Maia Heyck-Merlin

I am reading this productivity resource to review for MiddleWeb. Getting more organized and efficient in my daily life as a principal is always an area of interest. In my initial preview of this text, the author offers several self-assessments to help the reader identify their strengths and areas for growth as a leader. Heyck-Merlin also offers a digital newsletter for readers to subscribe to with new strategies for becoming a better manager and leader.

The Art of Coaching Teams: Facilitation for School Transformation
by Elena Aguilar

In The Principal, Michael Fullan shares his belief that school leaders should focus on building the capacities of teacher teams instead of individuals. Aguilar offers specifics on how to make this happen. The author provides several protocols and templates for facilitating professional learning, as well as advice on how to work with different personalities within a school. The Together Leader and The Art of Coaching Teams are the resources I am exploring as I prepare for a new position in Mineral Point, WI.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby #2)
by William Ritter

The second installment in this YA series continues to follow the story of junior detective Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer R.F. Jackaby. They specialize in the supernatural and unexplainable. The book starts with Rook and Jackaby discovering creatures that physically change into the prey they are hunting. Ritter’s stories are full of creative ideas. It is hard to anticipate where the writer will go next, which makes these Victorian-age mysteries all the more fun to read.

So what have you read recently or are currently reading that you would recommend to other school leaders? Please share in the comments.