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.

Technology for the Sake of Technology: Consider the Why and the How

For many reasons, technology is very tempting to embed into classrooms without a lot of thought behind our intentions. Its newness piques students’ interests, it connects learners with the wider world, and it can provide a seemingly limitless number of resources for communication, information and entertainment.

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But does it lead to learning? It depends not on what a teacher is using, but how it is used and why it might be needed. In my recently published book, I highlighted the conditions John Hattie found in his research about effective use of technology in schools, from his seminal resource Visible Learning: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Routledge, 2009, p. 221-227):

  • When there is a diversity of teaching strategies
  • When there is teacher training in the use of computers as a teaching and learning tool
  • When there are multiple opportunities for learning (e.g. deliberative practice, increasing time on task)
  • When the student, not the teacher, is in “control” of learning
  • When peer learning is optimized
  • When feedback is optimized

Beyond these situations, I also suggest that teachers make the purpose for implementing new technology into classrooms to revolve around some type of real world project or to address a community problem. For example, one of our teachers wants to replace her desktop computers with Chromebooks. 

Here were two ideas we discussed for this integration:

  1. Create an official Howe Elementary School welcoming website via Google Sites for new students and their families, where maps of the school, informational videos, and important information would be posted and kept current.
  2. Train the students to teach residents at an assisted living center how to use Google Apps for a variety of reasons, such as communicating via Gmail and Hangouts with family members who don’t visit them often enough. 

As I think about these possibilities, I feel a sense of enthusiasm for what could happen in this classroom with access to mobile technology. But just bringing in Chromebooks: Not the same. It is so easy to state “I need technology in the classroom” without thinking about the why and how. The shiny new pencil tends to lose its luster when its potential is not realized. We can do better.

O.W.N. – A Mnemonic Device When Having Coaching Conversations, Online or Otherwise

In a previous post, I shared some of the main points from an excellent resource for school coaches and leaders, Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda G. Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly (Corwin, 2010).

In this post, I want to expand on part of that text – the conversation itself – and show how I have applied this knowledge to online spaces.

Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash
Source: Galymzhan Abdugalimov via Unsplash

Here is the passage itself that I am referring to:

In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking. (p 57)

Instead of trying to commit this quote to memory and then recalling it when I am engaging in discussion with a colleague online, I created this mnemonic device to help me remember this process.

O.W.N. = Observe, Wonder, Next Steps

Each attribute connects with a part of the previous quote. When I make an observation of what someone else says, I am paraphrasing that which was shared. Wondering is synonymous with “asking powerful, open-ended questions”. If I have done the first two steps really well, then it should naturally lead to deeper thinking and next steps in the learning process.

Here is an example, from a book study I am currently facilitated within a Google+ Community, on the topic of digital portfolios for students.

1. I posted a question for everyone to respond to at their leisure (our conversations are asynchronous).

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2. One of the participants responded to this line of questions.

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3. After others in the community “+1’d” her response, and deservedly so, I responded in the comments of her post using the O.W.N. framework.

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Looking back, do you see where I paraphrase what she said (observe) and asked open-ended questions (wonder) to promote deeper thinking (next steps)? Below is an annotated image that breaks down this process.

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My observations took up the majority of my response. I think it is important to recognize all the positives we see in objective ways before guiding the learner toward other possibilities. First, any advice I might give may be wrong! Second, this open-ended language gives others in the community the opportunity to chime in and be the expert on the topic, Third and most importantly, the person on the other end of this coaching conversation (Shireen, in this case) is much more likely to be responsive to new ideas. I am not telling her what to do. I am provoking thinking (“When you frame your questions, how do you ensure…”) and offering a new perspective (“…and avoid deterring creative thinking?”).

I feel like this conversation went pretty well, based on her response.

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I responded with a brief affirmation, which concluded our conversation.

This is a decent example of a coaching conversation, which could have occurred online or in person. To be honest, I could provide many more examples of what not to do! Sometimes I give advice without asking first (the job of a mentor, not a coach). Other times, my question is too leading to where I think that person should go. This is an additional benefit of the mnemonic device O.W.N. – the acronym itself is a visual reminder that the person on the other end of the conversation should be the one constructing the knowledge and “owning” their learning.

One final advantage of structuring our coaching responses in this way in online spaces is that others in the community start to emulate your language in their own responses. It doesn’t even have to be explicitly stated. People see how you connect with others as the facilitator/coach, how the recipients respond, and then they often follow suite. I encourage you to try this method out in your interactions. Let us know how it goes.

Coaching Conversations in Online Spaces

I’ve recently started a book club around my text on digital portfolios for students. We are currently discussing Chapter 1 in a Google+ Community, using a thought-provoking question or statement for the participants to respond to asynchronously per day.

As we discuss in this online space, I have come back to a text I’ve used in the past regarding coaching:

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This text was referenced in a connected coaching course I took with Lani Ritter Hall a few years back. It is a very practical resource for school leaders and coaches. At less than 100 pages, I can quickly go back and find the most salient points to reference in my work with connected educators in online spaces. Here are a few of my favorite parts of the text.

Coaching conversations differ from typical, spur-of-the-moment conversations. First, they are highly intentional rather than just friendly or informal interactions. In addition, coaching conversations are focused on the other person – her strengths and her challenges, and the attributes she brings to the conversations. A third characteristic of coaching conversations is that their purpose is to stimulate growth and change. In other words, coaching conversations lead to action. (p 3)

This is a lengthy quote. Let me break it down into the three main attributes of coaching conversations:

  • Highly intentional
  • Focused on the other person
  • Purpose is to stimulate growth and change

With each response to someone’s post in our Google+ Community, I try to apply these characteristics. My comments are considerate of where the person is at in using digital tools for student assessment, and where they want to go. This awareness helps me remain focused on the person and their situation, for example by noting specific details they shared in their initial post. My overall purpose, to stimulate growth and change, can be realized by keeping my comments objective and my questions open-ended (“You stated that you want to focus on building a better audience for your students. What activities and tools might allow for you to make this happen in your classroom?”)

When you are a committed listener you focus your full attention – mind and body – on what the other person is saying. You listen not only to the words expressed but also to underlying emotions and body language. In other words you listen to the essence of the conversation. (p 30)

This is where having coaching conversations in online spaces becomes a challenge, for the obvious reasons. We cannot read body language or assume underlying emotions. It is more difficult to express ourselves in this way within this medium. What I try to do is use positive presuppositions (52). This means assuming that the other person has the best of intentions, and to respond in a manner that allows for the person to expand on their ideas. This “pulling out of their thinking” again involves making observations and asking wondering questions.

One of the benefits of learning in online spaces is the spaces of silence that naturally occur, especially in asynchronous situations where time is not a factor in posts and responses.

Committed listeners…recognize the value of silence in conversations and avoid unproductive listening patterns that interfere with the deep listening of coaching conversations. (p 30)

One of our teachers pointed out the benefits of silence during a prior online learning community. “When you are not expected to answer a question right away, it gives you time to thinking and reflect on possible responses.” This period of reflection can allow learners to develop smarter responses, an advantage of learning online vs. in person.

I became very intentional about trying to separate my coaching from my mentoring. I tried to be transparent when I was mentoring, ask permission before I did it, and most importantly, to be intentional about not doing it. (p 92)

There is a fine line between coaching and mentoring. “In coaching conversations, instead of giving advice, the school leader supports her staff by paraphrasing what is said and asking powerful, open-ended questions that lead to deeper thinking” (57). Mentoring is different. A mentor gives direct advice, in fact telling the person on the other end of the conversation what he or she might want to try in their practice.

I am sure there a few members in our Google+ Community that would like to be told what to do. However, it is more important that they arrive at a deeper understanding for student-centered assessment on their own terms when possible. Of course I will offer advice when asked. But I believe the best learning happens when we can build a deeper understanding together, with the learner doing the lion’s share of the work.

This short animation, also shared during the Connected Coaching course with Lani Ritter Hall, nicely sums up this concept for me of coaching and learning in online spaces.

Three Steps for Becoming More Engaged in Google+ Communities

These three screencasts were created for members of our Google+ Community around digital portfolios. I am hosting a book club on the topic in the next couple of days. After making the three tutorials, I realized they might also be applicable to anyone looking to become more active in their respective online groups on Google+.

Enjoy!

The reason I am replacing my iPhone with an Android smartphone

Google, of course.

15707819731_fc5c9b4118_b photo credit: iPhone 6 vs iPhone 6 Plus vs iPhone 5S via photopin (license)

Don’t get me wrong. I really like the iPhone. Last year I upgraded from the 4S to the 5S, and I was seriously considering purchasing an iPhone 6. The plethora of apps that allow you to create and share original content is impressive. Being able to take a picture and have it synced with iCloud, available both on my iPad and my MacBook Air is very nice. And it is not like I will be giving up my iPhone. I’ll still use my 5S like an iPod Touch when wireless is available, which is helpful when controlling our Apple TV at home, or as a remote for a Keynote presentation at a conference.

But Google has become such a part of my professional life. Our district adopted Google Apps for Education about five years ago. The Apple versions of their apps work fairly well on iOS, but the experience is much better within the Android operating system. I will be getting the Motorola Droid MAXX. Playing with it at a local cell phone location, the navigation and transitions between Drive, Google+, Gmail, and Chrome are very efficient.

A lot of communication and collaboration that occurs for me as an administrator is now housed within Google Apps. For example, our elementary level administrative team houses all of our minutes, spreadsheets, and schedules in Google Drive. Sometimes I need to bring certain documents up quickly. The native environment provided by an Android phone is certainly a plus in these situations.

I’ve also gotten better about saving images in Google Photo. These pictures become much more accessible when I want to write and share a post on our school blog, housed on Blogger. These images are also accessible within Google+, a social media platform I am finding more helpful to me as a professional every time I use it. Beyond the Community I formed for my book last year, I am a part of a number of other Google+ Communities focused on digital tools, as well as local and global educational organizations. These more focused spaces for learning have become communities of practice for me.

Another benefit is Google Calendar. The iPhone worked fine for the functionality, as it connected well between both platforms. But again, it comes down to practicalities. By choosing to use an iPhone because I love the content and creativity it provides for me, am I giving up time and organization as I try to get things done efficiently using Google products on a platform that is not optimized for that product?

I am sure other professionals have (and may be currently dealing with) this dilemma, which probably seems minor if I were to gain more perspective. Nevertheless, here it is. What are your thoughts on this topic? Please share in the comments.

What one thing should a student know, understand, or be able to do by the time they leave elementary school?

I don't want to know how many other faces have been pushed into this toy.
I don’t want to know how many other faces have been pushed into this toy.

My daughter and I were in a waiting room today, trying to occupy ourselves while my son was with the dentist.

I browsed through the magazines available and saw the most recent edition of Popular Mechanics. The title for the cover article was “42 Things You Should Know How to Do at Every Age”. This question spurred a bigger question with me, which is the title for this post. Our staff is starting to discuss how to make our portfolio assessment process more coherent across the grade levels and more authentic for our students.

I shared the question out on Instagram, Twitter, a Facebook group, and a Google+ Community. I got zero responses from Twitter and Instagram. No surprise; I have found the bigger the pond, the less likely I am to get a bite. However, three members in the Google+ Community I moderate offered insights worth sharing here.

Think critically and be able to support original ideas with evidence. I think it’s important at that age to demonstrate independent thinking and believe in something that they can passionately argue for with conviction and valid evidence. How they do this should be open to individual choice.

Know how to safely search the Internet for information based on keywords, and evaluate the authenticity and bias of the resources found in order to make an informed decision about what they have learned.

How to problem solve….if something doesn’t go their way and they still need to complete an activity, what could they do to solve their own problem.  (ex.  I don’t have a pencil, I forgot what the HW assignment was, I left my book at school, I don’t have a lunch)

Continue reading “What one thing should a student know, understand, or be able to do by the time they leave elementary school?”