One Time at EdCamp…

image borrowed from

Speaking of evolving, Yelena and I just got back from an EdCamp today. We woke up bright and early drive two hours south to Wellsville, NY to experience our first unconference. If you haven’t been to an EdCamp, you should definitely check it out. It’s essentially a day where teachers bring their PD interests and expertise and the schedule and sessions for the day are designed on the spot from teacher input. Sessions aren’t led so much as facilitated and they are intended to be collaborative discussions with teachers learning from each other. Even though my intent was just to sit back and listen, Yelena and ended up facilitating two of the sessions: one on digital Breakout Edu (we attended the morning session that introduced traditional breakouts) and a session on Google Classroom. We will probably try to organize our own EdCamp in the Rochester area, but that’s for the future…

So here I am at 10:20 sifting through my goody bag (mostly books I won through the EdCamp raffle-Yelena snagged a subscription to PearDeck which we’ve both been itching to play around with) exploring some of the sponsor paraphenalia. And of course I’m drawn to the stickers because I’ve always been a sticker person. One of the stickers floating around in my bag is for an app/website called Boomwriter. From what I can tell, Boomwrite has been around for a minute- the youtube tutorials are several years old (and none are up-to-date) and it touts itself as “The Best Group Writing Tool” (evidence-based claim for the ELA teachers?). Irrespective of whether it’s new or old, good or bad, it’s new to me and I’m digging into it to see if it has potential for myself or for my colleagues.

Frustrations aside from some of the limitations with playing with the app (in order to play around with the StoryWriter tool, you must have 5 students enrolled in the class which means I would need to make at least 3 more dummy gmail accounts for myself!), the gist of the app is that you provide writing prompts to students. You can provide detailed guidelines for their task and there is a feature to build in a word bank for them to incorporate into their writing. After students respond to the prompt, the teacher gives feedback, students revise, and then, student work is disseminated to the class for peer review. The process is chunked and it is anonymous but this is- in my mind- the powerful transformative component of BoomWrite that pushes it up the SAMR model from the SA level to the MR level.

On a side note, their videos/advertisements are on point- useless for learning the app but absolutely making me lol.

I think the original intent of the app was for students to collaboratively write chapter books (and it sounds like prompts and first chapters were already provided). Students all wrote submissions for the subsequent chapters and after the anonymous peer review, the winner became the official chapter for the book. So it’s definitely neat as a group publication app. It has since expanded to offer some vocabulary activities for students as well as the ability to have students write their own textbooks collaboratively in groups.

As I look at a new app, I’m always considering a few core questions (after I get past either the “cool factor” or the “frustration factor”). These questions include:

  1. Is there an app that I use that already offers this function? Does this app do it better?
  2. How could I use this app in my classroom?
  3. Is this the best way to get the outcome I’m looking for?

When I consider the review process that this app facilitates, it’s a process that really can be done on paper using protocols without any tech and it can be done through google docs and forms. Both of those approaches probably require a little more prep and material development on the part of the teacher, and the google doc method might require some workarounds that are fairly multi-step. So I can see how BoomWrite helps to Augment this task. I also think that it’s ability to collate and publish a full books definitely shifts the final product to a new level that may begin to hover around the Modification realm. There is something about the tightness and organization of the app (and almost the game element of trying to “win” a being the best chapter/section) that appeals to me and I think it would appeal to students. I would definitely recommend this to my ELA colleagues and anyone interested in forming a student writing group.

SAMR and “cool factor” aside, I’m a science teacher and I need to bring my mind back to the TPACK model to see if this piece of technology is the best way to teach and assess science concepts through solid pedagogy (I should note that the free version of the app gives you the ability to create assignments and engage in peer feedback. The version you pay for provides more data monitoring tools. While I’m not convinced that it’s the most robust platform for data monitoring, at $2.99/month, the price is not bad. For me, however, free is sufficient).

I’m really interested in this app as a tool to facilitate the creation of final products by my students. I would particularly love to have my self-contained students develop a class-wide review book that we have written, critiqued, revised, and compiled together. Not only does that give me an idea of each students’ personal understandings and take-aways from units, but it lets us engage in a rigorous process of determining what is the important info, how much is too much, what info is useless, and we’re doing all of this through writing and dialog targeting the critical social and communication skills that many of them are lacking. Since the product is for their (and perhaps other students’) use at the end of the school year, they have an investment in creating a quality product. This could become a really useful sponge activity to use all year long.

Then (and I admit this might be less “content-y” but it’s kinda fun), I wondered if there would be any benefit in creating sci-fi story starters with word banks of current science vocabulary (or just important concepts) and providing students with writing challenges as enrichment assignments or a final product that they can choose. I’d love to bring creative writing into the science classroom. Not as a central focus, but it could be a powerful hook for kids who are movie-lovers and sci-fi nerds who haven’t yet realized that the principles of high quality science fiction have high quality science as their foundation.

These are just the two immediate uses I thought of for high school science classroom. I’m hoping more come to me or that I hear other people’s ideas because I truly believe that I need to get my students to write more- but if all of that writing is boring same old, it’s not going to work.

Clearly, my tech choices don’t always align perfectly with the SAMR or TPACK models- sometimes it is just about the novelty factor or the fun factor. But using those lenses helps me understand why I make the choices I do. And then when I have to sit for a pre- or post conference with my admin, I can justify how I met the 5000 expected teacher competencies (I’m telling you, these videos are slaying me).

***Hurray for me! Two posts in one day. The previous post was much delayed in getting published.


Gotta Catch’ Em All

“Pikachu, I choose you!”- If you grew up watching and playing pokemon (as I most certainly did-and as I most certainly am now since Pokemon Go is a neat piece of augmented reality and an interesting case study for principles of gameification), then you probably had the same reaction as my brother and I when Ash, once again, sent Pikachu into yet another trainer battle. I mean, he was a pokemon trainer whose entire goal was to become the very best (“like no one ever was….” -Great theme song, FYI). Part of the craft in being a pokemon trainer is learning the strengths and weaknesses of various types and learning to use them effectively in the right situations. Send a water type in to fight a rock type, save pikachu for the flying and water types. One might almost call it pokemon pedagogy… So why does Ash always use pikachu?

The same question could also be asked of teachers. Why do we always choose the same stategies and methods for instruction when we have so many at our disposal? Particularly now, with such exciting developments in instructional technology, why do we keep doing the same old? Much like a pokemon master, our job as teachers is to catch the attention and needs of ALL of our students.

At the start of every school year, our school runs a boot camp for teachers to help orient them to the new school year. Part of our focus is always on technology: effective procedures for running a 1:1 environment, strategies and apps for engagement, organization, assessment and data driven instruction.

Despite all of this training, expetise, and resources, most of our staff still teaches the same way. Yes, they might run a paperless classroom, but the instruction is still the same. All they have done is substitute digital for paper. Sometimes that substitution is an improvement. It might simplify life for teachers or students or both, but nothing has really changed. Engagement, rigor, and results are all stagnant. Even if your classroom results are exemplary, what’s the point in using tech if you can get the same results with paper?

Yelena and I  both believe strongly that teaching with technology is fundamentally different from teaching without. Technology for the sake of technology is meaningless (and is largely unsubstantiated in the literature). Similarly, teaching with technology because this is the generation of “digital natives” is an argument based on a false premise. For a fantastic critique of these and other myths around teaching a learning, check out Urban Myths about Learning and Education by De Bruyckere, Kirschner, and Hulshof. While I don’t agree with all of their assessments of their literature reviews, they are thought provoking and given you a comprehensive list of research to peruse at your leisure.

Effective use of technology in the classroom requires an understanding of the pedagogy and theories behind instructional technology. We have to stop choosing pikachu for every battle.

Image the creation of Dr. Ruben Puentedura, Ph. D.

There are a few models out there that help to push our understanding of the integration of technology in the classroom. The SAMR model is one lens by which educators (really, not just educators- I assume businesses and scientists would benefit from this same lens) can assess and reflect on the need, impact, and efficacy of their technology use in the classroom.

Essentially, at the lower levels of SAMR (Substitution and Augmentation), technology is really just being used as a slightly better version of traditional methods of instruction. Subtext- you might as well still be doing it the old school way. The higher levels of SAMR (Modification and Redefinition) are where technology becomes transformative to learning activities (instead of being an expensive and flashy replacement for traditional methods). To my mind, SAMR is largely about how teachers design tasks for students and how we want them to use technology. A part of me does wonder, however, if SAMR gets too focused on product and technology instead of the content and skills that students need to master.  To delve more into SAMR, check out this video .

My preferred model/lens for viewing technology integration is TPACK. This model is based around several assumptions that implicitly shaped my beliefs about teaching before I ever heard them articulated. As a biology AND special education teacher, I have always had a problem with the notion that special education teachers do not have to be certified in a content area. For several decades, the belief existed that the use of best practices and pedagogy had no connection whatsoever to the content area in which you taught. Therefore, a special education teacher simply needed to be well-versed in these generic practices in order to be effective. Every fiber of the biology teacher in my railed against this. Thankfully (to my mind at least), there has been a shift in this kind of thinking and the idea that there are content specific pedagogies has come back into vogue.

Reproduced by permission of the publisher, copyright 2012 by

Enter TPACK. The gist of this fancy diagram is that there are at least (I’m going with “at least” due to the possibility of additions or expansions to the model) domains of knowledge that are critical to the design of instruction: content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and technological knowledge. Furthermore, where each of these domains overlaps or intersects, a more specialized body of knowledge emerges (I’d equate this to the notion of emergent properties in biology and the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). So there is a specialized body of pedagogical content knowledge that emerges out having expertise in both areas. When we consider the intersection of all three knowledge domains, we acknowledge that these three realms of knowledge create a very complex and sophisticated body of technological pedagogical content knowledge (hence TPACK). It is this model of technology integration that I find most compelling because this becomes the scaffold and structure around which we design out instruction with technology. We do NOT need to use technology for everything. We need to think about the best ways to teach a concept, provide models and exemplars, assess understanding, provide feedback, engage students, provide multiple entry points, build in practice, allow for collaboration, push creativity, etc and with that as our filter, we must choose from all of the tools available to us.

We can still choose pikachu when it’s appropriate. But if you’re fighting a grass pokemon, send in the charmeleon. How else will they grow and evolve?



To blend, or not to blend…

If you were to ask us why blended learning was introduced to our building two years ago, my colleagues and I would probably hazard a multitude of answers:

  • “Because we’re awesome”
  • “The district probably got a grant and needs to make use of the money ASAP.”
  • “It’s a government conspiracy. They’re trying to replace teachers with computers!”

Or the most cynical (and probably the most accurate by at last some degree)

  • “The district is looking for ways to save money in the future by minimizing the need for teachers in the classrooms.”

I don’t know that any of us were actually dissecting the issue that closely. We were excited at this opportunity to learn a new skill set and grow our teaching practice. The idea of blended learning almost sells itself. If it was going to be good for our students and would help them be successful, why wouldn’t we want to be a part of it?


Infograph borrowed from


But that is the sticking point. You see the research on blended learning is fairly limited. In fact, the bulk of current research has been conducted in post-secondary settings. NOT in a high school or a middle school. And certainly not in an urban school where the poverty rate is upwards of 90% and the population of students with disabilities is around 25%.

The studies that have been conducted at the secondary setting are limited and are largely inconclusive. Attitude toward blended learning alone is variable. Some students find blended learning to be satisfying and positive. Others begin to resent the idea of technology as teacher.

I know my colleagues and I have certainly experiences both ends of these attitudes in our classrooms. Some of our students will immediately shut down when asked to do anything on the computer. After two years of blended learning, a portion of our student body that has been exposed to the BL model for 2 years is beginning to get the hang of it. They love having multiple opportunities to take assessments. Knowing their grades daily is a huge motivator. And they are learning to seize technology as a means to communicate and advocate for themselves. Taking notes and extracting information independently is still a challenge that we are trying to address.

There is also the population of students, however, that loathes the computer. Whether it is their course content, a tutorial video, a formative assessment tool, they refuse to work. If it is not pencil and paper and teacher-led, they will have nothing to do with it.

Part of this is unique to the cultural background and needs of the student body that we work with. The sage-on-the-stage concept is very much embedded into our students’ concept of education and changing that mindset is difficult. Our students are also immensely high needs both academically and socially. Without the teacher as their anchor, they feel lost and uncertain.

Research that looks at academic impact of blended learning is equally limited and conflicting. One study out of a carefully constructed blended learning school in suburban Colorado (Florian & Zimmerman, 2015) used the PISA as their measure of blended learning success. With socioeconomic status taken into account, they did perform higher than other schools in the United States. But with no prior history of PISA scores (it is my understanding that this was an experimental school designed specifically for blended learning which has only been open for 5 years), I find it difficult to support the idea that blended learning is the sole reason for this performance. The school’s hiring practices alone (they sought out teachers who were “innovators” and “leaders”) may have yielded a more competent group of teachers who would, of course, yield higher scores. At another school (located in New Zealand), the impact of blended learning was studied with the attempt of a control group- one class received traditional instruction while the other was blended. The performance assessment at the end indicated no significant difference in learning between the two groups (Smith, 2013).

With the jury out on BL as an effective instructional model, why do we still continue to press it as the next wave of educational innovation? Part of this, in my opinion, stems from a teaching myth: technology engages students. I promise you I will rail against this damaging misconception many times in future posts. Right now, suffice it to say technology is not a cure for poor teaching. A teacher who fails to engage students without technology will also fail with technology. As an great primer to this argument, I encourage you to read the article from the American Educator which I will link in under my references.

The other impetus for pursuing blended learning comes largely from businesses and higher education. Both realms maintain the claim that global education is changing (this may be tainted by some of the myths of education you can read about in the American Educator). However, there is also the somewhat substantive claim that students need to be able to compete globally and are entering college (and the business setting) with woefully inadequate 21st century skills. The core of those skills was defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as the four Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, and connecting learning experiences.

I can testify from my own graduate experience (undergrad, not so much) that online learning and collaboration was a large  component. However, I will also contend that I had no specialized preparation for that setting in high school and yet I thrived (so traditional instructional models must be able to satisfy these skills). And my workplace, of course, is infinitely saturated with the expectation that our staff will exemplify the 4Cs.  It is true that many teachers who land at our school are unprepared for the level of collaboration and communication required to be successful. If my co-teachers and I couldn’t collaborate and create via email and shared documents, we’d probably lose our minds and/or start a teacher commune so we could plan 24/7.

I guess the question comes down to this:

Is blended learning the best way to teach 21st century skills (the 4Cs) to our students and does its benefits outweigh its challenges and limitations?

As a school, we are still exploring this issue. I imagine the answer will be different for every single student and teacher.


Florian, T. P., & Zimmerman, J. P. (2015). Understanding by design, Moodle, and blended learning: A secondary school case study. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 11, 120-128.

Smith, N.V. (2013). Face-to-face vs. blended learning: Effects on secondary students’ perceptions and performances. Procedia- Social and Behavioral Sciences. 89, 79-83.

Link to American Educator Article: Technology in Education

Into the Blender

copyright-2010-edtech-digest-blended-learningTwo summers ago, our school was approached with an intriguing proposition: Would we be interested in implementing a blended learning model in our classrooms? Our district had recently purchased curricula for several blended learning courses and  they were seeking brave souls to adventure into the unknown of online learning.

As per the lingo of experts, I (Liz) was born right on the cusp of the era that spawned our current generation of so called “digital natives”. Yes, we always had a PC in my house (though we didn’t actually get the internet until sometime during my 8th grade year) but never during my high school and college years would I have claimed to be terribly tech savvy. Tech passable? Yes. But it was never really my area of expertise. I fought the tide of cell phones until I was out of college and didn’t own a smart phone until I started teaching.

Technology was not something I easily embraced.

Until 3 years ago when I found myself starting the 1st day of my 6th year of teaching in the RCSD. As a special education teacher, I found myself working with 4 gifted colleagues whose students used Chromebooks nearly every day! Google what?

I knew nothing about the world of Google apps for education and I quickly realized that my ignorance was preventing me from doing what I loved: fully participating in the teaching and learning going on in our classrooms.

While my coteachers will claim that I was AMAZING that first year with them, the truth is that I was treading water and I didn’t like it!

When Yelena (one of my coteachers that year) shared with me the proposal for blended learning (because, let’s face it- Yelena has a habit of pulling me into things), I knew I had to get on board. If I (or any special education teacher) was going to share full responsibility in a blended classroom, I needed to have the same training as my general education coteachers. Furthermore, I had concerns for special education students in a blended setting. The research on the model was (and still is) in its developmental stages and I suspected that there would be particular challenges for our students with disabilities that no one was even considering.

Come September, not only was I coteaching in these official blended learning classes, but my other coteacher in living environment- my passion, my joy, the subject that inspires me and, in turn, inspires my students!- was hosting his class through Google classroom. If I wanted to have any instructional role in the classroom, I was going to have to figure out Google apps for education ASAP.

Here we are 2 years later. Yelena remains a techie powerhouse unearthing and sharing all kinds of apps for us to use and innovate with in the classroom. I have learned from the best (read the previous sentence) and now integrate many of those same apps into my classes (hosted through Google- of course). From struggling to figure out how to right-click on a chromebook, Yelena has pushed me into running tech PDs with her to share our innovations with our colleagues.

And now we want to share our experiences with whomever wants to read, question, dialogue, and grow.

We are two urban teachers with a passion for transformative math and science instruction, innovative integration of technology, educational equity, and the need to have some fun in the classroom.

Come join us for the ride!