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.

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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.

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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.

My Review of “Teaching in High Gear” by Marsha Ratzel

Last school year, I taught a class for district staff titled “Becoming a Connected Educator”. The course’s foundational text was The Connection Educator: Learning and Leading in the Digital Age (Solution Tree, 2011) by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall. We explored many digital tools that could augment the strong instructional practice in their classrooms. While I felt our time was well spent, I thought there could have been a stronger teacher perspective. As a principal, my position limited my ability to teach what a connected classroom looked and sounded like.

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That is why I wish Marsha Ratzel would have written her book Teaching in High Gear: My Shift Toward a Student-Driven, Inquiry-Based Science Classroom (Powerful Learning Press, 2013) a year earlier. I would have referred to it often! Like her colleague Kathy Cassidy’s book Connected from the Start: Global Learning in the Primary Grades (Powerful Learning Press, 2012), Marsha provides that point of view that you cannot get from many other educational resources. She shares both her successes and failures, even though they are both categorized as “learning opportunities” in her classroom. Marsha doesn’t gloss over the growing pains she experienced as she helped her students become more connected. She recognizes that this work is hard even though it is worth it. As she integrated digital tools into her instruction, she also did not lose focus on the powerful practices that guide her students toward deep understanding.

The following quote nicely summarizes the concept of her book:

Excellent teaching is not so much something we achieve as something we pursue. It’s like mountain biking, another passion of mine. Heading toward the mountaintop helps me focus, but the greatest joy comes in the pedaling and enjoying the ride (p 10).

Having a professional-personal life balance allows Marsha to see connections between the two she otherwise might not have.

This past school year I experimented with teaching science through the lens of current events. That worked out very well — it allowed me to cover every single one of my science objectives and also overlap with my grade-level colleagues on tons of interdisciplinary skills that I know are critical to our students’ long-term success (p 14).

Marsha appears to have that unique skill to see beyond her own students and classroom. She intentionally incorporates other disciplines and meaningful content in her instruction.

Not only do her grade-level colleagues benefit from her collaborative nature, but so do her students. Marsha sees the advantage of partnering with students as she plans for instruction, all while still being accountable for their learning.

Let me be clear. I’m still in charge of my room. I bring the expertise about curriculum, lesson design and assessment. But I had become convinced that in order to create passion around learning, students had to become my partners in what we were studying. In more than 20 years of teaching, I don’t think I’d ever been to any kind of professional development where they talked about this. I knew I’d never had a college or graduate class about this kind of learning philosophy (p 17).

Marsha also recognizes that the learning targets, whether that be in her algebra or science class, can connect with broader concepts. This practice allows her students to develop enduring understandings of what is important to their lives, and life in general. Check out her reflections during her attempt to use a “Big Themes” framework with her 8th graders in science class.

Finding mega-themes where you can add onto knowledge as you revisit will help students learn material faster. If you give them a framework where they can hook new learning onto what they already understand, it isn’t like starting from zero each time (p 49).

Teaching conceptually relates the big idea to specific instances, thus compacting the amount of time it takes to teach those specific instances. Think about a multi-tool — a power tool with interchangeable parts (p 50).

I realized during this experience that empowering my students required a partnership where WE had to the design the path based on their vision and then travel that path together (p 53).

Students “won” because they had choice and could direct their learning toward things that interested them. I “won” because student involvement was rising and we were co-designing the learning activities. The school “won” because we covered all the science curriculum and additional topics in related subject areas (p 53).

I particularly liked this line. It reveals her gift to think beyond the now, to put herself in others’ shoes. Her value reaches throughout her school because of this ability to take multiple perspectives. Everyone benefits.

I am a believer in ‘intentional serendipity’ so I try to set up environments that are transparent – where kids’ characteristics, passions, strengths, quirks and ‘weaknesses’ are explicit. I have kids use shared creation spaces that I require the other students to visit and comment – so that each will know about all (p 70).

Marsha allows connections beyond her classroom walls through social media such as Twitter, her classroom blog, and Google. Readers get a first hand view of this interaction, as many of her tweets and posts are embedded in the digital texts.

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These shared learning exchanges provides the model that helps lead Marsha’s class to allow their thinking to be visible. The interactions she fosters in digital spaces lead to learning opportunities that even she cannot anticipate. Giving students that space to explore allows Marsha to be a co-learner and coach in her classroom. Seeing this transformation as she becomes more than just your traditional teacher is inspiring.

In Teaching in High Gear, you get to witness first hand the evolution of an educator who decides to create a learning environment that works for all students. Her classroom moves beyond the four walls in her school. Her students become co-creators and deliverers of the content. Her parents and personal learning network get first hand access to their progress and performance thanks to the power of social media. Her school now has a model of a 21st century educator.

Just as important, Marsha discovers a powerful life lesson about this process of becoming an inquiry-based, student-driven educator.

My students’ strength meant they were willing to dig down deep when what they really wanted was to quit. Some people never learn that finding the answer or doing something successful is mostly overcoming fear that it can’t be done (p 95).

In the future, students who have Mrs. Ratzel as their teacher will reap the benefits of her courage to become better. This book provides a clear pathway for any educator to follow the trail she has blazed.

Five Steps For Schools to Become More Connected

Lani Ritter Hall, co-author of The Connected Educator (Solution Tree, 2011), responded to my previous post about blending technology into professional learning communities:

I’ll be interested in others’ comments here on their favorite blend and hope that you might be a bit more explicit in the blend you see working best for you and your faculty–

Here is my response, much too large for the comments’ section:

In my school, I have loosely observed five steps toward becoming more collectively connected. Within each step, I share the primary tool we have “blended” into our important work.

#1 – Create a Forum for Collaboration

Our tool of choice is Google. We use Sites to house all of our important work. Drive is our tool of choice for creating our online documents, such as collaborative units of study (docs) and digital data walls (spreadsheets). Google+ has been a cool tool to share resources with team members between times when we physically meet as learning communities.

#2 – Document our Learning

For this we have been using Evernote. Teachers and students are curating their work in digital portfolios. The audio function allows even the youngest writers to share their ideas using multiple formats. As a principal, I am also starting to use Evernote for instructional walkthroughs and for organizing information from a staff training to share with everyone later.

#3 – Connect Beyond the Schoolhouse

Twitter has been a tool more of my staff are using, in addition to Pinterest and Facebook. Several of the ideas and strategies I see in our classrooms come from other teachers and thinkers via these social media tools. This leads to…

#4 – Increase our Collective Intelligence

We have been able to bring in some very knowledgeable people into our school via Skype – yourself included! Students and/or staff have had the opportunity to speak with scientists, instructional experts, and other classrooms through Skype.

#5 – Become an Expert for Others

As we have gained deeper understandings of what it means to be connected, I have encouraged my staff to share their innovative practices with others. YouTube seems to be an excellent way to create tutorials and post our work on classrooms blogs and webpages.

Becoming more connected is a constant process of learning, sharing, dialoging, reflecting, and then relearning. That is why I like the blended approach. It reinforces the concept of getting connected one step at a time. As we add strategies to our instructional toolbox, we observe what practices become augmented, or possibly even be replaced. These efforts to change how we do business takes time, persistence, lots of encouragement, points for celebration, and time.

Did I mention time? 🙂

Can a Principal Also Be a Coach?

This is a question I continue to ponder, even after I have completed my Connected Coaching course through Powerful Learning Practice. The biggest issue I see is this: An administrator has to make evaluative decisions regarding staffing. This simple fact seems to lead me to believe that a principal can never truly be a coach. There is a line. In addition, in today’s political climate, how can a teacher truly take risks and embrace failure, when an attempt at innovation may lead educators to believe that it might lower students’ performance and incur instructional time lost?

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photo credit: StockMonkeys.com via photopin cc

However, the paths of success and failure should not be two way streets. Maybe if principals take a coaching stance with their staff, innovation can flourish. Both teachers and students can be co-learners in their classrooms.

Consider the following potential activities I discovered with Lani Ritter Hall (@lanihall) this summer:

  • Six Word Stories

I have my list of items to cover every fall with staff, along with a school kickoff that hopefully sets the tone for the rest of the school year. These are important building-wide activities. At the same time, we need to get to know each other as individuals in order to build trust and to show our creative sides. A six word story can allow everyone to express themselves and their passions in a nonthreatening way.

Here was my six word story:

This is the title of a great book on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The artwork is by my daughter. I used pixlr.com to create this image. For my teachers who all have iPads, I could see them using Skitch to share their six word stories with each other.

  • Appreciative Inquiry

I like to meet with each of my teachers in the beginning of the school year. We discuss their learning goals for the year, for themselves and their students. In the past I have prepared a list of questions to ask each teacher. Unfortunately, these conversations can become contrived, almost forced. With appreciative inquiry, it’s about focusing on the positive and helping the other person delve deeper into their own thinking.

Appreciative inquiry involves two skills: paraphrasing and questioning. When the other Connected Coaches and I started trying this out on each other, we thought it was a little hokie. But once we were on the receiving end of the coaching, we realized that appreciative inquiry is really just a framework for being an active listener when trying to find solutions to problems. This animated video shared in our group provides a nice explanation:

  • Design Thinking

We can discuss our successes, wonderings, and possibilities for as long as we want. But we also have to take action on these ideas. Design thinking is the process of brainstorming ideas, synthesizing those ideas into something tangible, and then setting up a process for testing these ideas to see if they make a positive impact on student learning. Design thinking takes what a teacher is doing well and applies it in a slightly different way within the teacher’s current context. I appreciated this interview from http://www.designthinkingforeducators.com to help me grasp this concept:

This sent a powerful message to me. Am I hearing everyone’s story? How is it integrated with what they as teachers do everyday in their classrooms? This comes back to being an active listener and respecting the process just as much as (or even more than) the product.

  • Bringing it All Together: The Wayfinding Model

The Wayfinding Model brings together 1) trust building, 2) questioning, and 3) facilitating design thinking (http://plpwiki.com/Wayfinding). I think every powerful practice needs a structure to support it, kind of like a coat hanger. What do we hang our many instructional hats on?

This animation nicely summarizes the essentials of Connected Coaching:

So I come back to my original question: Can a principal also be a coach?

Coming into this course, my answer was no. If students are experiencing a poor learning experience, no amount of coaching may remedy this situation. They deserve the best learning environment. I try to treat each situation as if my own son our daughter were in that classroom. Knowing what I know, would I stand for this? This simple question helps guide a lot of my decision-making.

However, I also see the challenges of taking a multi-year process to ferret out poor performers. It can negatively affect both student learning and school climate. Dylan Wiliam, in his terrific book Embedded Formative Assessment, takes the approach that our time as school leaders is best spent helping every teacher become better at what they do. The students we have now deserve the very best we can offer today.

Yes, this is one of those posts that doesn’t answer its original question. Frustrating, right? Unfortunately I don’t have all the answers, but at least I know the direction I am heading. My hope is any readers here would continue this conversation in the comments…

Connected from the Start: A Necessary Read

A good book encourages thought. A great book will change the way you think.

When Lani Ritter Hall, co-author of The Connected Educator, asked me to review Kathy Cassidy’s new e-Book Connected from the Start, I got a little nervous. Who am I to pass judgment on the work of a highly connected educator like Kathy? Even worse, what if I didn’t like it?

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Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. This book is a necessary read for all elementary educators. The only thing she got wrong was which grade levels this book was most appropriate. I can imagine any K-5 teacher could implement the ideas Kathy shares to help their students become more connected online.

Instead of giving you a persuasive essay about why you should buy this book (and you should), I will share two ways Kathy’s work has impacted what I do as an elementary principal and literacy leader.

1. Digital Portfolios

In the beginning of the school year, Dropbox was the tool selected for my teachers to curate student writing. The plan was to share these web-based folders with parents as the year progressed, so everyone could see student growth over time.

One problem was (and still is) that the teachers are doing the work. Although Dropbox is a great tool for online storage of many types of media, we have found it a bit time-consuming for documenting student writing. The teacher has to take a picture, upload it to the student’s file, and organize it chronologically.

After reading Kathy’s book, I realized that a great digital portfolio tool was right in front of me: a blog. She has her students, as young as six years, regularly post online. The students’ content is not only given a broader audience, it solicits comments from other teachers, peers and family members.

This practical application in a primary classroom is powerful. It comes from someone who has been there and done that, and not from an administrator (like myself) or from a technologist that lacks that meaningful and authentic experience.

2. Collaborative Writing

I had been thinking for a while how I might show 4th grade students how to share their writing with an audience beyond our school walls. After reading Kathy’s book, it sparked the idea of using Google apps to make this happen.

We plan to have the students write a narrative based on one of the fourteen scenes from Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Students can use Google Drive to create these stories, and post them on one Google Site. It would be maintained by educators from both schools, even though we are hundreds of miles apart. Teachers would show students how to comment effectively on another student’s writing. The benefits of these practices are a broader audience and a more authentic purpose to their work.

Lani Ritter Hall stated that “there is not another e-book out there like this”. I couldn’t agree more.

Reflections After Teaching About “Becoming a Connected Educator”

Tonight was my first session teaching a group of educators about becoming more connected. I created a Google Site as an online syllabus, Google docs were used to facilitate real time discussion, and I prepared a Keynote to define the connected educator. (A lot of this information is from The Connected Educator by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall, a terrific resource.)

As expected with my first go-round, it had its ups and downs. Here are my takeaways.

What Needs Improvement

Less is More

There are so many great tools out there to connect with others. I only introduced three options for our topic tonight, social bookmarking (Pinterest, Springpad, Diigo). As I taught, I realized that it was too much too soon. I could tell people were getting overwhelmed, so I took a step back and reminded everyone that they may only want to try out one for now. Tonight, people were getting started on Pinterest, but then felt obligated to try out Springpad once I transitioned to that tool. In the future, I am sticking to introducing only one tool per session. Next week is Evernote, and that is plenty.

Go Slow to Go Fast

When I showed the class the different pages on our Google Site, I was later informed that I went too quickly. At our next session, I will review each part of the site for everyone.

Maintain Expectations, Reduce the Workload

This course is not about developing a specific number of pieces of evidence, but to explore what is out there and find the tools that work best for each person. Right now, I am expecting participants to upload five Web 2.0 artifacts, write a one paragraph reflection for each ISTE standard, participate in a Google Doc discussion for each of the eight sessions, and listen to my tutorials for these tools. Too much. I am going to take away the artifacts and reflection page, but keep the Google discussion doc for each session. The artifacts can be posted on a tool of the educator’s choice, to be showcased both during and at the end of the course. I also need to remember that the teachers have a lot of other things going on in their lives. I don’t want them to view becoming a connected educator as more work.

What Went Well

Visual Presentation

I followed Steve Job’s advice about keeping presentations simple and visual. If I had to write down every word of what I wanted to share with the participants, I probably didn’t understand the concepts very well. Keynote is a nice app for this purpose. I reflected the slideshow on my iPad to the screen, so I could face my audience and be mobile. Every slide had an image. Many of them had no words at all. For example, I showed a cover of the Lincoln biography Team of Rivals to illustrate the point that we want to connect with multiple perspectives if we truly want to be a learner.

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Teach Concepts, Not Devices

A few of the participants asked beforehand if they needed their iPad. I replied that this course was “device-neutral”: Most of the tools we would explore could be used on multiple platforms. iPads have only been around for a couple of years. What device will be ubiquitous in the next couple of years? If we are tethered to a certain device, I explained, it is harder to be flexible when change happens (and it will). The concepts of becoming a connected educator, as Nussbaum-Beach and Hall explain, are what will help us stay connected and innovate in our classrooms. Devices come and go.

Being a Learner

As we wrapped up, I apologized to the group that Diigo did not work as well as I had intended. I also reiterated that this is my first time teaching this course, so we were going to have learn together in order for everyone to be successful. If anything could be taken from this experience, maybe it was observing someone who they perceived to be technologically-savvy (me) struggle with the technology. Hopefully I provided a good example that this process is continuous and it is okay to explore and make mistakes.