Technology tools

Learn about technology solutions for your class, and find out what some of our techno-pioneers are doing with their classes. Got a great idea? Let me share it here.

27 August 2014: PDPs, MLP, Symbaloo and More

August 27, 2014

Welcome to a great first week of school. I am excited about my sixth year as an instructional coach. My job gives me the opportunity to work with some of most dedicated, hard-working teachers in North Carolina. Amongst the various roles I play as an IC, communicating with teachers about instructional strategies, technology, and the everyday stuff of teaching is one of the most important; however, I tend to get overzealous with the emails. Following Mrs. Jacobson’s lead, I am going to attempt to reduce the number of emails I send this semester by sharing strategies, links, and ideas in a weekly blog, right here at I hope you’ll take the time to read.

Powerschool Gradebook
I know most people have already set up their grade books, but in case you want some assistance, I am sharing this screencast video. Let me know if you need help.

Writing Your PDP
As you may already have forgotten–I know I almost did–Teacher Self Evaluations and PDPs (Professional Development Plans) are due on September 8. You access them through the NCEES link on Powerschool. I want to offer a few thoughts for writing your PDP goals. 1. Complete the self-evaluation first. As you do, look for two areas–two specific goals–you want to focus on when you write your PDP. You might pick two goals on which you score yourself lowest. Or, you might choose the goals that best match what you have been focusing on so far this year. Either way, you want to find two goals that speak to the growth you intend to make as a teacher this year. Copy them so you can enter them into your PDP. 2. Think ahead. Before you describe activities for your PDP goals, jump over to box three and describe the outcomes you want to see at the end of the year. At the end of the semester, and again at the end of the year, you are going assess your progress toward these outcomes. Think ahead to that final evaluation, when you’re asking yourself, “Did I meet this goal? How do I know if I was successful?” A little foresight will help you write better goals. At their best, they will be SMART goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant and
  • Time-bound

For example, 75% of students will score 80% or higher on benchmark assessments each six week grading period. 3. List actions you will take to achieve the desired outcome. In the second column, tell what it is you will do to accomplish your goal (1st column) and produce the outcomes (3rd column). The activities and actions might be teaching strategies, professional development opportunities, or steps you take to improve the instruction that occurs in your class. So the columns end up answering these questions: 1st: In what goals will I demonstrate growth this year? 2nd: What steps will I take in and out of the classroom to demonstrate that growth? What will I do? 3rd: What concrete evidence will show that the actions I took produced the growth I was trying to achieve? Perhaps this video will help make it more clear:As always, I am happy to help you write your PDP goals.

Find links to useful websites and important documents–especially our discipline forms and Rampant Reviews–at I suggest either bookmarking it (click the star on the omnibar if you’re in Google Chrome) or creating a shortcut to it by dragging the paper icon beside the url to your desktop. If you’re feeling fancy, I can also show you how to make it open automatically whenever you open Chrome. It works like this.

My Learning Plan
If you recently attended or plan on attending any professional development opportunities, including classes, conferences, and workshops, make sure you submit the appropriate forms through My Learning Plan. Login with your full email address and either “changeme” or whatever you changed to. Remember to submit evaluations for PD you completed and Application Level forms for any PD between six and nine hours long. This video shows what you need to know. As an aside, the state does still recognize decimals when calculating CEUs, so a 24 hour workshop would still equate to 2.4 CEUs. What they don’t accept are workshops less than 10 hours, unless you complete the Application Level form to bump six hours up to ten. Unclear? Just ask.

Educational Web Tools

June 3, 2014

During the course of a year, we encounter so many websites and programs we want to try with our students. Often, the trouble is remembering what they are and where to find them. Open the Pearl Tree embedded below and bookmark it. It might be a good resource for kids to access when they have to make their own decisions for projects. They can find it at

2 Tech Tools

May 13, 2014

Check out these two great tools that have nothing to do with each other.

Problem-attic is a testing bank full of standardized test questions from numerous states, including and NAEP. Users can create their own assessments by selecting questions from a considerable list of topics. The tests do appear to be limited to English, math, social studies, and science, but they do include multiple choice and short and long constructed response questions. The questions are solid, and the fact that you can quickly pick and choose what you want makes it easy to make a high quality test. Question-editing features, as well as access to some Common Core exams, can only be accessed with a subscription.

Lucidchart is a diagramming tool that makes constructing diagrams, flow maps, Thinking Maps, graphic organizers, and floor plans easy. Highly intuitive and simple to use, students master the program in a matter of minutes. It allows them to create collaboratively, just as they might cowrite a Google Doc, and to share, save, print, or even embed their chart on a website. Check out what a few of Liza Knight’s kids did with Lucidchart.


mind mapping software

Hope you find one of these tools useful. Let me know how I might help you with them.

NAEP Questions Tool

December 12, 2012

Looking for assessment questions. NAEP’s Questions Tool has a ton, and they look like they should line up beautifully with North Carolina’s Common Exams (a.k.a. MSLs).

Check out the NAEP website.

Or watch this video tutorial.

Computers or iPads?

December 3, 2012

Our school has gone from 0 to 60, and fast. Ok, it’s actually 0 to 11: from 0 mobile labs to 10 mobile computer labs (8 of them dedicated to a single classroom) + 1 iPad cart. The challenge now is to figure out what to do with them. As this is our school’s first foray into student iPads, I thought I would share some thoughts on when to choose iPads and when to choose computers.

Ye Goode Olde Computre
Let’s start with the familiar: computers. Computers are still our best bet for so many purposes. They are great for conducting research and for producing documents, which should account for the majority of the work we do on computers. They remain an excellent choice for accessing online learning tools like Study Island, Edmodo, Elements, and for using specialty programs, like the Photoshop. Computers also give students access to web-based programs like SAS, Xtranormal, and Voice Threads. The short of it, for now anyway, is that computers remain your best, and most versatile, bet for tech.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The iPad
So why are we even talking about iPads? They aren’t great for producing documents, though I admit that I am typing this blog on my iPad. And they don’t support Flash, which means you can’t run web apps like SAS Curriculum Pathways, on them.

So what makes the iPad awesome for the classroom? Apps: apps for learning (Khan Academy, Nova Elements, Economist World Figures), and apps for assessment (Educreations, ShowMe, Penultimate). Apps are specialized, generally self-contained programs that allow the user to focus, typically, on a single, specific task. An app like World Figures, which provides an abundance of international statistical data, puts students directly in touch with the information they need.

The iPad also allows student mobility, which means students can collaborate easily, teachers can organize jigsaw activities, or groups can use the device’s photo and video capabilities to record their work. Computers, not so much. The other benefit of the iPad, and it is easy to understate this feature, is that it forces cloud thinking. You can’t just drop files on a flash drive, and you can’t just open My Documents. Instead, students must get use to cloud-based (think Google Docs and Dropbox) storage and transmission, which will be the standard for file management before they finish college.

A Guide to Help You Decide

Use the iPad if… Use the computer if… Use either if…
you want students to move around and engage each other off screen students can be stationary and interaction is solely digital you don’t care how they interactact
you have a specific iPad app that you want students to use in class. you have a specific program not available on the iPads that you want students to use. the program/app you want students to use has both web and iPad versions (Voice Threads)
you want students to create videos or annotated recordings (Educreations) or images (Penultimate) you want students to create documents (Word, Google) or presentations (Prezi, PowerPoint) 
you want students to gather information/ideas from specific sources best accessed through an app (Oyez Today, Nova Elements) you want students to both conduct research and produce substantial written text about their findings you want students to research information widely available on the web
you want to engage students with interactive apps like Sketch Explorer or Tap Quiz Maps you want to use Flash-based programs like SAS Curriculum Pathways, which are not available for the iPad you want students to share in a common, digital space (Edmodo, Twitter)

 The fact is, these two options are growing closer and closer to each other in terms of their possibilities and usefulness. The question is not necessarily which device to use, but how to use the device at your disposal to accomplish your desired goal. Chances are your colleagues, your media coordinators or your IC can help you find a solution to whatever tech challenges you might have.


Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Post them to Comments (see link above) or e-mail 

Techno-Performance Task Assessments

November 30, 2012

This post is the second in a series of three about implementing performance task assessments, an important part of the Common Core/Essential Standard shift.

The Challenge
Creating and administering common assessments is seldom easy work, and sometimes it is incredibly challenging. Take, for example, the challenge of assessing reading, writing, speaking and listening in world languages. Spanish teachers must assess student development in these four areas in intervals throughout the semester. Of course, their daily work, through workbooks, projects, quizzes, tests, and general instruction, provides them a picture of students achievement in particular skills, but that big, 4-strand picture is tough to assess.

Most difficult of all are the speaking and listening strand, as they require either one-on-one assessments (imagine having to test 30 individual students fairly as they explain why it will take two trains, one traveling east, the other west, four hours, thirteen minutes to meet in St. Louis). The Spanish I teachers figured it out.

Assessing Listening
To assess a students’ abilities to comprehend spoken Spanish, the Ms. Haynes, Ms. Dunham, and Ms. Watson created a video of six native Spanish speakers (plus one Japanese student, just for kicks) telling about themselves and their preferences. For the assessment, students watched the video and charted details about any four of the speakers. This assessment told the teachers which students were able to listen to Spanish and extract information from the speaker as they might need to in an actual conversation.

Assessing Speaking
My wife likes to tell the story of how her friend Crystal got entire class out of a speaking test in Spanish II. When it was Kerri’s turn to take the test–there was only one cassette machine for playing and recording–she pushed play, and all she heard was Crystal’s deep drawl, saying, “Hellllloooooo. I don’t hear anythang. Heeellllllooooooo.”

The Spanish teachers came up with a great solution to the challenge, and they were able to eliminate what I will call the Crystal effect. They created Google Voice accounts. Google voice provides you a phone number, and can direct calls to all of your phones, so you never miss a call. The key with this Spanish assessment, however, was to miss the call. Google voice redirects to voice mail and record messages as MP3s.

The teachers had their students call their Google Voice numbers all at once and answer two questions provided by the teacher in their best Spanish. To assess students’ performances on the task, the teachers opened their Google Voice accounts, clicked on the files, and listened to them. SInce the files are MP3, the teachers can easily move them into students’ digital linguafolios, so they can track student development throughout the year, or even as they progress through multiple levels of Spanish.

So What?
So what? Are you kidding me? That’s awesome, and not just because it’s a cool use of technology that averted the Crystal effect. What’s really awesome is this. The assessments tell teachers whether their classes as a whole are on track with reading, writing, speaking and listening, and it helps them identify which students are not progressing in each of the four strands. By delivering a common assessment with a common rubric and collaborating on the evaluation, they cannot help but see their own strengths and weaknesses. It is inevitable, for example, that a teacher whose students’ listening skills fall noticeably below the average will seek to improve that area with the assistance of colleagues. The process ferrets out shortcomings and begs us to respond.

Taking Risks
The Spanish teachers will tell you this process was not without flaw. The sort of risk they took in creating, delivering, and evaluating the assessment was huge and uncomfortable. It is that kind of risk that inspires growth, and growing is a darn good thing.

Leave your comments if you wish, or contact me directly at to collaborate with your PLC or to discuss assessment, instruction, or technology.

The Math of Khan (Academy, and Other Subjects)

June 4, 2012

You might have heard of Khan Academy on 60 minutes. Or CNN. Or from your cool teacher friend. And you might have said, “Eh.” But if you said, “Eh,” then you probably haven’t actually looked at the website. Do it now. Yes, now: I know it’s exam time, but do it anyway, and consider some of the many ways you might incorporate Khan into your instruction next year. I offer several suggestions at the end of this blog.

Before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story,
Khan Academy started with one dude, Salman Khan (seen here on, creating a mini tutorial on his computer for his cousin, who was having difficulty in her math class. Not everyone has a cool uncle who can create computer tutorials, so Khan’s little videos became popular, and then good old Bill Gates wrote him a check and said, “Make  7 billion video tutorials so all the world can learn stuff for free.” He didn’t really say that, but the site hosts a lot of videos, and they are all free.

You can see the result on the website. Endless videos in math: pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, statistics, trigonometry, calculus. But Khan has branched out into the sciences: physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, computer science. And social studies: civics, economics, finance, banking. It has lessons for SAT, art history, and health care. It even explains the Geithner Plan!

The brilliance of these lessons is that they are short, simple, and amazingly clear. And they are FREE (have I mentioned that?) and accessible online or by iPhone app. I know you are irreplaceable; I promise to punch anyone in the nose who claims otherwise. I also know that Khan Academy is a useful tool that many of us can, and should, make available to our students. Here are some ideas:

Post links to your Website/Edmodo Page
Wouldn’t it be nice to know that kids could receive nightly tutoring on their homework assignments? Try posting to your website or Edmodo page a link to a Khan Academy tutorial that matches the day’s instruction. That way, if students get stuck, they can watch an explanation until they get it.

I Learn from an iPod
Khan Academy apps can be downloaded to iPads, iPods and iPhones. It is a good tool for the students to put on their phones, but we can also add the app to the class set of iPods available in the library. That way, students can watch lessons independently in your class. More on this idea below.

A Substitute for the Substitute
It is difficult to find a substitute who can teach about home equity loans or plate tectonics when you are stuck at home with a feverish child. Try having your substitute teacher play a Khan Academy video off the computer in your absence.

Heal the Sick (and Suspended)
Ok, so you won’t actually heal them, but you can try to keep them from falling behind. Khan can’t replace your explanation of absolute value equations or Punnett squares, but it’s the next best thing. Try referring students to a specific Khan Academy video to make up what they miss.

Differentiate Lessons for Depth
Every teacher struggles with pacing when some students are ready to move forward after 30 minutes of instruction and practice, while others need to hear the same lesson 17 more times. Khan Academy provides so many videos, especially in math, that it might just become a useful tool for differentiating instruction. While you provide a group of students extra attention on a basic concept, those who have already mastered it might explore the topic in greater depth by watching a Khan video on a computer. Or, while the you push the rest of the class deeper, those requiring remediation might watch Khan videos on iPods. That way your class can stay on the same topic while each student maximizes growth.

Respond to Benchmarks
Benchmark assessments frequently reveal that students have different weaknesses. Some might struggle with the branches of government while others fail to grasp supply and demand. Teachers don’t have time to re-teach evertudent every topic, but we can become more efficient by differentiating review lessons according to students’ weaknesses. As students begin to review for tests or exams, or after benchmarks reveal their needs, try assigning each student a sequence of Khan videos, along with a simple assessment to check for understanding.

Practice Makes…
Click on the Practice tab on and explore the web of practice choices. Each one presents questions, offers hints, and links to videos that might help. They become self-guided and self-paced opportunities to learn, and they might just be a useful way to help students advance at their own pace. Could it be classwork? Could it be homework? I think so.

Khan for You
I’m not too proud to borrow from a colleague. Khan’s explanations are lucid enough, that, were I to teach a lesson on sp3 Hybridized Orbital and Sigma Bonds, I might just watch the video as I prepare my own lesson. And some of the lessons are interesting just for the sake of watching. Try this one on the Fibonacci Sequence.

As we head dreamily toward summer break, I wish I could offer you a vacation to Hawaii or French Guiana instead of a website. Forgive me.


Annotating Texts to Teach Analysis

February 16, 2012
You won’t find a better collaboration partner than high-energy art teacher Randall Leach. He is full of ideas and always open to more. For one period a day, Leach has to shift gears from his studio art classes to his more lecture-based AP Art History class. It is a class heavy with content that requires students to analyze works of art. I had the opportunity to collaborate with him recently on a project we called The Greene Family Sculpture Commission Competition.

Students “sculpted” each other by positioning the limbs of one group member–the model–in a manner they believed would depict the values our culture considers good and beautiful. Their end goal was to win the hypothetical Greene family sculpture commission, which was really just a box of Transformer cupcakes from Harris Teeter. But the project was not all fluff and icing.

Not Just Fluff
Using Leach’s iPad, students photographed their “sculptures” from several angles; then, using an app called Educreations (also available for your computer free online) they annotated their sculptures with digital ink and explained how specific features reflected beauty or other values admired in our culture. We projected their work from the iPad for the whole class to see and for the panel of judges–Mr. Leach, Mr. Greene, and me–to evaluate using a rubric.

What was immediately evident was that these students had, for the past three weeks, been learning quite a bit from Mr. Leach about how artists represent values through the physical form. They were learning how to analyze works of art. Using the annotation strategy through Educreations allowed them to both demonstrate and develop that skill further. And it was fun.

Not Just Art
Ashley Hutchinson has used the same app for the same purpose, almost. Instead of analyzing works of art, her students analyze written texts. English teachers put tremendous effort into teaching students to reference specific words and phrases when they explain the meaning of a text, and this activity helps, and perhaps forces, Hutchinson’s students to do that. They literally layer their own voice and their own interpretation on top of an existing text, and the result can be impressive.

Not Just on the iPad
Of course an iPad is far from necessary for implementing annotation strategies. Hutchinson’s students could also have used a printed text and some markers under a document camera. Or they could have used the computer lab to access the Educreations app online, or used, as Mrs. Haynes’s Spanish students have,

But annotation hardly requires a high tech solution. Students could have glued a photocopy on top of a large sheet of paper, and used pens and highlighters to annotate and add their analysis by writing in the margins of the large paper. And, fad of the 1980s or not, sticky notes are as useful a tool as any for annotating texts. The effect is the same–layer student voices and student interpretations on top of an existing text.

Whether it happens in ink or digital ink, spoken text or written text, annotation is a phenomenal way for students to develop their analytical skills and demonstrate their ability to interpret a text. It is a useful tool for assessment, and it can be used in almost any subject: primary documents and tangible artifacts in history, graphs and geometric structures in mathematics, diagrams and sheep brains in science, and the casserole I burned last night in foods.

Give it a try.

Want help? Ask me.

A Tale of Two Islands

March 4, 2010

I will never pretend that technology can do what we do. Teaching is best left to teachers. But learning? That belongs to students. Study Island, although it cannot teach a student on its own, can help students learn the skills and knowledge we teach. In my conversations with teachers about online tools like Study Island, I have encountered two strategies that seem particularly effective.

The Kujawski Plan
Geometry teacher Zina Kujawski—in every way a mathematical thinker—has such an elaborate Study Island plan for her students that it deserves a name: The Kujawski Plan. Here’s what she does: Keep reading »

Learn 360

October 10, 2009

A big part of my training for this Instructional Coach job is technology-based. I can’t say any of the training sessions have made me an expert, but they have introduced me to some of the finer points of some pretty cool programs. A number of our teachers already use of range of software to aid their instruction. The trouble we often have as classroom teachers is finding time between attending IEP meetings, filling out PEPs, and grading stacks of papers to explore and implement these programs. I hope that’s where I can help. Keep reading »