Productivity Tools: What Do You Use?

My goal as a school leader this year is to become more organized. One of my colleagues was surprised when I shared this goal, mentioning that I was an “organizational freak”. While I appreciated her compliment, I think I have been organized enough to make sure most tasks don’t go by the wayside. However, I wasn’t making enough time during the school day for professional reading, classroom visits and community connections. These activities would get pushed back into my personal life, which takes time away from family and friends.

I have been reading The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin for an upcoming Middleweb book review. So far the resource has been very helpful. I am at the point in which I need to develop a “later list”. This is where a school leader would keep track of long term projects and tasks that do not need to be taken care of right away and/or have many steps to address in order to complete them.

This year, I have decided to keep all things school within Google. Prior to this year I used a blend of different digital tools to be as productive as possible. The problem with that was these tools didn’t “talk” to each other. I would keep some things in Evernote, some in Google, and everything else on my desktop or in our district server. Having one overacrching software to reference has been really helpful in decluttering my professional life and keeping it separate to a degree from my personal endeavors.

The challenge is that Google, to my knowledge, does not have a robust productivity tool in its bank of apps and extensions. There is Google Keep, but it seems to be a lesser version of Evernote, which I love for my writing and research life (and for me, Microsoft OneNote is in the same camp as Google Keep). To note: I am an avid user of Apple products – I have a MacBook Air, iPhone and iPad. I have explored what the App Store has to offer. Things and Omnifocus have jumped out as possibilities. But do they sync with Google Calendar, which I rely on for my day-to-day tasks? Wunderlist has also been considered. I am not a fan of subscription-based apps but I would make an exception if Wunderlist is excellent.

So that leads to the purpose of my post: what application(s) have you found to:

  • be excellent in keeping track of projects and later lists,
  • “talk” with Google Calendar, and
  • offer an application for Mac, iPhone and iPad?

If you are not aware of a tool in which I describe and desire, I highly recommend you create one. I will be the first person to write a glowing review in the App Store. If you do know of such a tool, please share in the comments.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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! 🙂

Three Ways to Provide Feedback for Digital Student Writing

No discipline has experienced a greater impact from technology than writing.

Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

Blogs, tweets, multimedia timelines, posts, texts…all of these short forms of writing have come about through new digital mediums. Classrooms that adopt these tools during literacy and content instruction are providing learners with more ways to express their thinking and convey information more creatively. I could not imagine schools without them.

Once they are embedded in practice, the next logical step as a teacher is to ask: How can I provide feedback for students through these mediums so their writing improves, as well as to celebrate their work? Here are three ideas.

Google

Recently I have received invitations from our 4th and 5th graders to comment on their writing via Google Docs and Slides. I really like the Comments and Suggestions features. Located at the top right of the file, you can highlight a section of the text and provide feedback for the owner. What the students have shared with me so far are finished products. Therefore, I have made general observations and asked thought-provoking questions to let them know that I read their work carefully and valued their effort.

WordPress

For younger students without a lot of experience in digital writing, transcribing what they write down on paper and posting it on a blog is a great way to model the writing process. For example, my son and a friend gave me a handwritten review of the Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon. I typed up their thoughts, saved the post as a draft, and then emailed their teacher with specific questions about the books they read. This feedback request was done through WordPress, my favorite blogging platform (see arrow).Screen_Shot_2015-04-08_at_8_25_32_PM

I actually sent the request to their teacher, who will hopefully help them write a bit more about why the Tom Gates series is such a good one to read.

Evernote

I was on a mission to a classroom when a 4th grade student asked me to read her writing in the hallway. How could I say no? I compromised by taking out my smartphone and scanning an image of her writing with Evernote. This student’s writing was then saved as a note in her teacher’s professional portfolio, which I keep for all of my staff.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 8.40.17 PMWhen I had time to sit down later, I opened up her note. Having downloaded Skitch, a native Evernote application, I was able to annotate right on her scanned work. This was also a finished piece of writing, so I celebrated what she did well and offered my thinking on possible ideas to consider for the future. This updated note was emailed to her teacher.

What digital tools do you find effective for offering feedback for the author(s)? How do you use them? Please share in the comments.

Digital Walkthroughs: Use Skitch to Capture, Advance, and Celebrate Learning

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School leaders: Every time we enter a classroom, we don’t have to sit down and commence with a ten minute formal walkthrough. Instead, consider using a photo app such as Skitch to take a picture of best practice. I like Skitch because I can annotate the image with feedback, email it to the teacher, and save it to their digital portfolio in Evernote. This opportunity to celebrate what they do so well can take place in less than five minutes.

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I share the teachers’ notebooks with them, giving he or she access to these artifacts stored within Evernote. Later, they can put artifacts of their own in this notebook, as well as pull pieces out to upload to their teacher evaluation platform. To organize the notes, use the tagging system to categorize artifacts based on elements from teaching frameworks, such as Charlotte Danielson’s.

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If your stretched for time (and is there any school leader who is not?), when appropriate consider using a mobile device, Skitch, and Evernote to capture, advance, and celebrate learning.

Google or Evernote: Which Tool Do You Prefer for Capturing Student Learning?

This question, in so many words, was asked by Cathy Mere. She is wondering about the same thing that I am, and maybe you are too. Here is my response:

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photo credit: melenita2012 via photopin cc

I have three reading interventionists in my building. One of them started using Evernote with her iPad this year. Her goal was to capture her students’ learning both with audio and images. She had a couple of challenging learners, and was looking to help them identify their own progress through self-assessment. She had her students listen to themselves read after recording them. This teacher also shared her students’ notebooks with our district’s lead interventionist via Evernote as an accountability piece.

She used Evernote because, I believe, that is what our building is using. Several training sessions were provided for all staff on this tool. When she shared a note with another teacher, everyone was using the same tool. I share this because when thinking about a digital tool to capture student learning, I believe it is important that the collaborators are at least familiar with the medium. However, we also have to use the tool that works for us, especially when trying to document learning in the middle of instruction.

I like Google; don’t get me wrong. It is such powerful technology for professional collaboration and documentation. Our whole staff uses Google Drive for meeting minutes and for our digital data wall. Many of the 4th and 5th graders also using Google for writing and presentations.

But I think the efficiencies only go so far with Google. Great for storage, creation and collaboration, but does it provide a way for teachers to methodically go back through student artifacts and find themes and patterns? Evernote does, because of it’s ability to tag notes and to put several related artifacts within one note.

At the same time…

I felt like our digital portfolios were really helpful with students assessing their own work, and parents seeing their work throughout the year, but what about staff being able to use these artifacts for their own learning?

To sum up, whatever tool we use to collect, organize, analyze, and reflect on student learning has to be meaningful and essential for all those involved in the process. This includes teachers. Our goal as reflective practitioners is to become better at our profession. It happens when we become students of our own instruction.

Three Ways to Use Evernote in Action Research

We are very familiar with Evernote in our school. Our staff collects, organizes and shares out student work in the form of digital portfolios with this application via iPads. Parents can see their son’s or daughter’s progress as it is happening. Our portfolio night in April has now become a Showcase Night. Evernote’s ability to easily capture images, audio, and text makes it a necessary tool for ongoing assessment, student reflection, and responsive instruction.

But what about our own learning as professionals? Can the data and artifacts we collect help us become even more reflective about our practice? These are some of the questions we are trying to answer, in lieu of Wisconsin’s new Educator Effectiveness Plan. While teachers’ Student Learning Objectives will be measured by local and state quantitative assessments, the Professional Practice Goal is based more on qualitative data.

I was introduced to the book The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research: Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn Through Practitioner Inquiry, 2nd Edition (Corwin, 2009) by Nancy Fitchman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey from the Connected Coaching course I took last summer with Lani Ritter Hall. The authors provide a clear template of how teachers can become students of their own practice. They include several reasons for action research, such as being a powerful tool for professional development and expanding the knowledge of teaching in important ways.

In addition, Dana and Yendol-Hoppey see action research as an important vehicle for raising teachers’ voices in education reform. “While both the process-product and qualitative research paradigms have generated valuable insights into the teaching and learning process, they have not included the voices of the people closest to the children – classroom teachers” (3).

To measure one’s own practice and make improvements, several pieces of artifacts are needed to reflect on the day-to-day instruction. The authors offer several strategies for capturing our own instruction and student learning. The first strategy, Field Notes, involves scripting dialogue and conversations, recording questions the students and/or teacher asks, or noting what students are doing at particular time intervals.

Where Evernote Comes In

For scripting dialogue and conversations, I would use a Moleskine Evernote notebook. The advantage is, once you have scripted what you hear, you can scan in your notes into a specific Evernote notebook. Your handwriting is then readable if searching for specific terms. These notebooks can be assigned to a student, or to a subquestion from a teacher’s main wondering in their action research.

Evernote Snapshot 20140528 075017

The second idea from the authors when taking field notes is to have some sticky notes on your lanyard with a pen. If you want to capture student learning while teaching and don’t have a notebook around, write down what happened on the note. Evernote and Post-It have teamed up to create scannable stickies. When using an iPad or iPhone, there is an option to take a picture of a Post-It Note within Evernote. Just like the Moleskine notebooks, what you write becomes readable and searchable.

A final strategy for field notes is recording audio of students having a conversation and/or of yourself teaching.

Evernote Snapshot 20140528 075025

The authors recommend that whoever is being recorded is comfortable with the process. When this was written, iPads were not in the picture. That is why this tool, along with Evernote, can be so powerful. Students are very comfortable with these devices. Plus, the microphones are hidden.

For a more comprehensive field note, a peer observer could record audio of student conversations, while he/she also scripted specific parts of the dialogue, such as coding the level of questions asked by each learner.

How do you see technology such as Evernote augmenting action research in the classroom? Please share in the comments.

Note: All notes derive from the aforementioned resource and were written in a Moleskine Evernote notebook. All doodles are from yours truly.

Using Evernote for Literacy Instruction

This screencast was created to present four ideas for how teachers and students can use Evernote during the K-5 literacy block. The content shared here started our staff’s fourth and final tech night of the year.

While this quick tutorial was nice for considering what’s possible, we really appreciated our Skype guest Cathy Mere (@cathymere), author of More Than Guided Reading (Stenhouse, 2005). She took a lot of time answering our questions about technology in the elementary classrooms, such as “How do get your 1st graders to become so independent with the iPads?” (The answer: Shared demonstration)

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While I can talk about technology use in the classroom, Cathy and my teachers are doing it, every day. That the work they do is grounded in strong literacy instruction makes all the difference. Their approach in considering how digital tools can best support and augment student learning is the right approach.