MSP2 Elluminate Session: Interactive Notebooks

Just wanted to make sure my readers had a heads-up on a session I will be presenting for the Middle School Portal 2: Math and Science Pathways project.  The session will be Wednesday, July 29th at 2pm EST.  It will take place in Elluminate, through The link below will allow you to preregister for the session.  It should last about 45 minutes and will be an introduction to Interactive Notebooks.

Few things about middle school students drive teachers to the brink of insanity faster than organization (or lack thereof) and homework. Join us for a discussion of one way to help combat both problems while also addressing multiple intelligences, differentiation, and student choice.

Interactive Notebooks are a way to help facilitate all of these things by allowing your students to be creative and have a choice in the way they process information. This informal chat will address the beginning stages of starting to work with Interactive Notebooks, guide you through the process, and point you in the direction of more resources.

Facilitator: Todd Williamson

To register, go to:


Debate Over Listservs: Web 1.0 or 2.0?

My friends over at Middle School Matters casually remarked in podcast #80 that they felt listservs, specifically MiddleTalk were a very Web 1.0 tool.  I subsequently sent them an epistle via email detailing my thoughts that listservs actually were more of a 2.0 tool than folks would think.  This led to a response in podcast #83 where they detailed their reasoning for describing listservs as a 1.0 tool.  Here are the basics of their argument:

  • Listservs are text based. Web 2.0 tools like Facebook and Ning allow for a richer content exchange.
  • Listservs have been around since AOL and before. Since Web 2.0 is a new phenomenon something as old as a listserv couldn’t possibly fit in.
  • The MiddleTalk listserv is constrained to a small group of educators. Web 2.0 is about access and inclusion, whereas the MiddleTalk listserv is for individual members of the National Middle School Association.

Troy and Shawn gave me the opportunity to respond again, so I have recorded a short segment to go in an upcoming Middle School Matters podcast.  I wanted to take a few minutes in this space and put out some of my thoughts on this issue for discussion from all of you.

So in no real order, here we go:

  1. I fall very much in line with Ben Grey’s thinking in his post Web 2.0 – A Synthetically Organic Nomenclature. I feel that the distinction between Web 1.0 and 2.0 is tenuous at best, and confusing at worst.  However, I think there are some hallmarks to consider when evaluating whether a tool fits more closely with the 1.0 or 2.0 mold.
  2. The key, differentiating factor for me between Web 1.0 and 2.0 is the conversation.  Web 2.0 tools such as YouTube, Facebook, Podcasts, Blogs, etc allow for deep, (sometimes) meaningful conversation between parties.  The Static Web did not allow those conversations.  Web 1.0 was about using the Internet as a means for broadcasting information.  Companies and individuals created websites for one-to-many communication.  Web 2.0 is geared toward many-to-many communication.
  3. The content of Web 2.0 is irrelevant.  There are Web 2.0 sites that allow all varieties of content. There is Flickr for images, YouTube for video, podcasts, and yes, even text that is Web 2.0.  Twitter is a text based service, only being extended by third parties to incorporate images, videos, and audio.  EtherPad allows real-time collaborative writing.
  4. Web 2.0 is about access to information and conversation about that information.  The new model of web content allows all varieties of conversation to occur and spreads a wealth of information to almost all with an Internet connection.  However, there is no guideline that says a tool has to be open to everyone to be considered Web 2.0.  Ning allows site admins to keep their site closed to all but approved members.  I don’t think a closed Ning site is any “less Web 2.0” than a fully open Ning site.

Now, how do all these things tie back together in my view of listservs?  Listservs were one of the earliest ways in which there was many-to-many communication via email.  Listservs allow user created content in the form of text emails.  The fact that the content is text does not preclude us from considering listservs a Web 2.0 tool, since I count Twitter and EtherPad in that same category.  Listservs allow for conversation and community building.  A listserv is not a static entity, but evolves through conversations among readers.

Out of full disclosure, I will say that I do believe that the need for listservs is going away.  The modern means of communication via Facebook, Ning, and Twitter do far outstrip what is available through listservs.  However, I feel that when compared to the basic premise of Web 2.0 tools, the listserv was ahead of its time in developing communities of online collaborators.

Now to wait for those who will come and throw my ideas to the wolves… 🙂

Social Media Involvement at Non-Tech Conferences

So here we are in the aftermath of NECC and I’m gearing up for the new school year. If you remember back a few months ago I was tweeting and blogging from the North Carolina Middle School Association Conference. At the time, here was my reflection on the use of technology at the conference:

There was a serious lack of technology at this conference. Let me be clear, I’m not talking a lack of technology sessions, I’m talking a lack of technology use. Throughout the two days I could count on my fingers and toes the number of folks I saw walking around with laptops. I was sending out updates from the conference on Twitter, and the only other tweets related to NCMSA were from two other presenters. As Will Richardson pointed out here: “…[I]t’s a shame that the collective experience of the people in this room is about to walk off in two hundred different directions without any way to share and reflect on the thinking they’ve been doing all day.” The things that are going on at technology conferences today really are drawing in folks to the collaborative nature of the Internet as it now stands.

So this year, I have been asked what my suggestions are for getting other people involved in using social media at the conference.  So after some thinking, and a good discussion on Twitter with @Frideswidel and @budtheteacher here are some of the best ideas thus far.

  • Plan a conference hashtag now.  I am suggesting #NCMSA10 for the obvious factor.  This helps give the conference an online identity for tweets, blog posts, Flickr uploads, videos, etc.
  • Encourage participants to bring laptops/mobile devices and tweet/blog during and after sessions.  I think some short profiles of ways to get involved in bringing the conference online should be included in communication to attendees early and often.  It seems to me many who are not directly involved in tech conferences are unaware of ways to use technology to share their learning.
  • Include Twitter usernames on nametags.  This would require a place for Twitter IDs on the registration form, but would show a commitment to encouraging the use of Twitter at the conference.
  • Monitor or LCD projector displaying Tweets with the hashtag in common area of the conference.  I like the idea of VisibleTweets running with the feed of hashtagged tweets near the registration area or in the Exhibit hall.
  • Encourage presenters to post information/handouts/videos to a conference wiki.  A centralized location for discussions and session information would keep people from having to head off in 100 different directions for information.
  • Try and get the hotel/convention center to offer Wifi to all conference attendees, not just those staying in the hotel.  I’m wondering if some of the lack of laptops comes from the number of attendees who don’t stay in the hotel and therefore don’t have free wireless access.

These are some cursory thoughts.  I’m actively seeking other input.  The things happening at tech conferences like NECC are amazing.  The sharing, the conversations, the backchannels…how do we harness that in the huge number of conferences that are much less “tech intense”?

This tweet ultimately sums up my feelings:
Aviary twitter-com Picture 1

Leadership Day 2009

Over at Dangerously Irrelevant, Scott McLeod posted a request for Leadership Day 2009 blog posts.  Here’s the 2.5 cents I have to offer school leaders and administrators on technology use.

  1. There is no magic bullet – Stop looking.  You will not find one thing that is going to light a fire under each and every student and teacher in your building.  Not every teacher is going to need the same things to bring their students into the 21st Century.  Which brings me to…
  2. The 21st Century is here – Stop waiting for it.  The idea of teaching 21st Century skills should seem ludicrous to all of us by now.  We’re in 2009, which means we’ve got about 90 more years of the 21st Century.  Although there are many schools which will still be attempting to use the same methods 90 years from now, no one should think what we’re doing today is going to be the most effective for reaching students at the end of this century.  Cut out the jargon and let’s get to the root of what is really good for students these days.
  3. Hyper-connectivity – More than any other time in history, we are hyper-connected and facing information overload.  However, the wealth of information coming in through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, television media, etc is not all that new.  People have felt overwhelmed with information for a long time, the amount we deal with continues to grow.  The sad thing is: many people are unaware of it still.  Information is readily available to a large percentage of our students through cell phones and wireless enabled computers and devices.  We need to design curricula that require students to mine those resources and come up with creative interpretations of that information.  Being able to parrot back information about the American Revolution, rock types, or one particular teacher’s favorite author is becoming useless.  The majority of that basic information is a few clicks away at Wikipedia already.
  4. Stop being scared – Those of us who have made the transition into digital lives have had to deal with the learning curve at some point.  Those who have not made the transition are often overcome by a singular fear.  That is:  The fear of breaking something.  “What if something goes wrong?”  You figure out how to fix it.  If you can’t figure out how to fix it, ask a student.  If they can’t figure out how to fix it, jump at the chance for the learning opportunity.  This goes for the fear of attempting new things like blogging or using wikis.  Yes the students will use them inappropriately at some point, just like they’ve used pencils inappropriately for years and years.  With a culture and climate in schools that accepts failure as part of the growth process and doesn’t demonize it, these things can be overcome.
  5. Take some risks – These risks can be very calculated ones but as the saying goes: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.  In fact, I’m not sure this is entirely true in this day and age, because doing what we’ve always done is actually turning some students off to learning.  In that case, we’re actually getting less than what we’ve always gotten.
  6. Save yourself some time – Learn how to use an RSS reader and  Rather than checking 10 or 12 sites a day to see if there is new information check your RSS feed once a day.  On the other end of the spectrum, rather than not checking those 10 or 12 sites because you don’t have time, set up an RSS feed reader and begin looking into multiple sites at one time to see what is out there.  There are hundreds of blogs out there with valuable information about using technology to enhance learning.  Many of them currently have posts tagged #leadershipday09 today, check them out. Look at their past postings and add a few to your Google Reader or other RSS feed reader.  As far as goes, find some other folks who you know are looking for similar sites as you.  When you find something online, tag it, and see who else has tagged it. Then mine and pilfer their links.  You’re busy, let someone else do some of your work and bring the great sites to you 🙂
  7. Don’t force technology as an add-on – Technology needs to be embedded in the curriculum.  If a teacher is asked to add a technology tool to their repertoire, allow them to use it to replace something they were previously doing.  If you have trouble adding tech tools into your daily routine, remember that teachers are also having to model it’s use for students.  This takes time and effort.  Give teachers the opportunity to get comfortable using the new technology before adding something else.  It also helps to spread around the “experts” in the building.  Have one teacher start off using a new tool and then work to train other interested teachers.  Keep the conversation open and frequent rather than limited to a single half-hour meeting when new tools arrive.
  8. Remember…”You get what you pay for” is no longer true – The skills we need to be developing in our students revolve around collaboration, creation, and connection.  Interactive whiteboards can be wonderful for collaboration when they are used for such purposes.  Spending $1500 per classroom on “tech toys” is not a necessity.  Neither is spending a tremendous amount on software.  There are hundreds of web-based and free alternatives to pricey software.  Make it your mission to test out free versions prior to paying for anything so that you know you are putting your money to the best possible use.  The less you’re paying for equipment and software, the more you’ll have to pay for staff development on incorporating these tools into the classroom effectively.

An important first step is that hopefully you’ve found these posts.  Use them as your launching point into the new school year.  Question the authors and then learn as much as you can before beginning the year.  Your teachers, students, and community will thank you!

Backchannels in the Classroom

While I was away on vacation, there was a significant discussion on Twitter concerning backchannels in the classroom.  I thought I would take a moment to share my experience with using a backchannel in my science classroom near the end of the school year.  My goal is to incorporate backchannels much more frequently next year.

Some of the better known options:

At the time, I was only familiar with Chatzy, so that’s what I used for my students.  I was personally pleased enough that it will continue to be my goto backchannel chat option.  When setting up my room, there were a few options that I felt the need to select in order to have some control over the room.  For example:

  1. When creating a Virtual Room, set a room password. This allows you to have some control over who is able to log in to the room.  Having a default password allows you to let absent students log in, but also opens you up to having outside users become aware of the password.  This is a choice you can make on a room by room basis.
  2. Set the Room Type to Chat only. This removes the option for “behind the scenes” backchannel chat.  You’re already allowing students to have a conversation during a lesson/movie, why allow them to hide discussions behind that as well?  Knowing everything shows up in the chat also helps encourage on-task behaviors.
  3. Disallow students sending out chat invitations. For the majority of folks, this activity is scary enough just having the kids conversing during a lesson/movie.  Having them invite their unknown friends into the chat becomes a downright nightmare.  An avoidable nightmare to say the least.

The Circumstances

First of all, this is not an option for me all the time.  I do not have a class set of laptops, nor am I in a computer lab.  We have one cart of laptops that can be checked out and I had them for 4 days for an end of year project.  The end of our school year was thrown into turmoil because of remediating and retesting students who did not past their End of Grade tests.  This meant that on a daily basis we had different groupings of students, as well as different numbers of students in each group.  Our Language Arts teacher was tied up remediating, so she selected a Discovery Streaming video on Research for the students to watch.  I had enough time to watch the first 3 minutes, and realized there was no way they were going to be engaged in the material, especially this late in the school year (about 6 days remaining in the year).  I decided to give the backchannel chat a whirl.

I prefaced the activity as a challenge for my students and a preview of something I wanted to try next year.  They are very aware that I add new things every year, and were excited to have a chance to test out one of my plans.  I had created a TinyURL for the chatroom which was posted on the board.  I asked students to log in with their first names only so I could be sure to know who was posting what in the chat.  I told them that the chat was designed to allow them to discuss the video while it was going on, ask questions, and post links to additional information about the topics of the video.

When students began logging in, there was an immediate buzz in the room.  Students started messaging each other and generally testing out the chat room capabilities.  Most students were familiar with the style of the interface and dove right in.  As the video played, I was trying to stay one step ahead of the kids with some questions that were related to the information being presented.  There were a few major successes with this trial:

  • Students asked questions that were answered by me or other students immediately, rather than having to hold them until the end of the video.
  • Students asked questions that were related to the video, but were not addressed during the short segments of the video.
  • Students learned that dropping a link into the chat allowed them to have an active link to the webpage.  I used this as an activity when I noticed folks heading off topic: Quickly find the best link to information on…and post it in the chat.
  • Without intending it, I began using the Twitter @ system to reply to students in the chat. Some questioned it, but it gave us the opportunity to discuss how to respond to others.
  • My class stayed awake throughout the 45 minute video.

That last one may seem a bit odd.  The reason I bring it up, is that in the other two classes watching the video simultaneously, fully 75% of the students fell asleep or were focused on something else.  As this was largely a “filler” activity, the teachers did not complain as long as they were not disruptive.

Trade Offs

The major trade off in using a backchannel is the danger that students will focus so much on the chat that they miss out on information from the lesson/video/etc.  I asked my students how many struggled with keeping up with both and of the 28 students, about 6 or 7 admitted to having difficulties focusing on both.  Some chose to focus on the video, others on the chat.  It is my contention that the amount of discussion and learning that took place in the chat was a significant improvement over watching the video alone.  Additionally, even those who focused solely on the chat learned more than the 75% of students who fell asleep in the other classrooms.  I gave students the option to focus on the video more than the chat, and only a few took that opportunity.


There needs to be a clear goal for the backchannel.  Initially, there is some time of testing the waters.  We have to recognize that kids need that time.  After about 10 minutes, the group became more focused since they were used to the chat.  Having some prepared questions will definitely help move the conversation along.  Some students tested the waters of changing their chat usernames.  The program sends a message out that “John changed his name to MonkeyPants” so I was quickly able to remedy this situation.  There were a couple of students who continuously tried to get the conversation off topic, so that can be a concern.

Overall, the greatest challenge is balancing the risk/reward of using the backchannel in the classroom.  The risks associated with opening up a backchannel can be overcome (as usual) with proper planning.  The rewards are great in the content area knowledge that can be gained, as well as the deeper discussion that can be generated.  Using a premium account at Chatzy allows you to print out the entire chat log, giving you starting points for discussion days after the backchannel activity.

Pruning the PLN

When I first began using Twitter, not all that long ago but definitely pre-Oprah, I couldn’t have imagined it’s looming usefulness.  Back in early November of last year, I attended a day-long training with Will Richardson where he explained enough about the collaborative web to nearly melt my brain.  One of the things he mentioned was Twitter.  At the time I wondered why anything I would have to say would be interesting to others, especially in only broken fragments and chunks of 140 characters.

Flash forward to today, when I sit down to look at the new Follower page on the Twitter site and notice I have a whopping 406 followers.  Still a modest number by comparison to those ed tech gurus who’s followers number in the thousands.  But those 400 folks seemed a sizeable number for little old me!  As I began to look through my list, I noticed a number of corporations that had snuck in, a few obvious TwitterBots asking me if I wanted a way to get 16,000 followers in a week (no thank you, I do not want that many folks), and some folks who hadn’t posted anything since the beginning of April.

This led me down the path of pruning my Followers list.  I had often pruned my list of folks who I was following, keeping it just short of 100, now exactly at 100.  This has been a number that seems reasonable for me to keep up with, and the people I follow genuinely add value to my Twitter experience.  I’m not opposed to following more than 100, but I’m working my way there gradually.  Today, however, I turned my attention to those folks who were sitting idlely by, following me, but not adding anything to my network.

As Twitter reaches a state of mainstream acceptance, and eventual ridicule, I am attempting to keep some sense of clarity.  I pruned just over 30 followers today, dropping me back down below 400.  I’m still a bit overwhelmed that there are 400 people out there, that if 20% of them log in daily to Twitter means 80 folks listen or read my ramblings about school, technology, and middle school students.

I’d like to extend thanks to those folks who have made my PLN worthwhile in the time I’ve been on Twitter, adding a tremendous amount of value to my time spent tweeting: @cbrannon, @kellyhines, @willrich45, @gardenglen, @rmbyrne, @sanmccarron, @McTeach, @whynot88, @e_shep, @MSMatters, @bengrey, @shareski, @courosa, @SciTeach3, @romanv, @wfryer, @vtdeacon, @kjarrett, @cwebbtech, @Frideswidel, @iteachcomputers, @teach42, @dwarlick

Here’s hoping Twitter has more time before falling deeply into such a state of parody that we must move elsewhere…