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! 🙂

Writing Apps for Principals and Coaches

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

Evernote (free)

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

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

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

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

Penultimate ($0.99)

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

Notability ($0.99)

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

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

Conclusions

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