Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I'm Just a Teacher.

This morning, I returned a phone call from a mother of one of my students. The child’s father answered and was less than pleasant with me. After introducing myself, he tersely asked, “Are you someone important, or just another teacher?” I remained professional and politely deflected the aggressive statement, but below is what I would have liked to have said.

Yes, I am just a teacher. I just teach:

social skills
self esteem
civil duty
critical thinking
problem solving
peer relationships
community building
overcoming adversity
public speaking
professional discourse

Oh, and I also teach your child how to read and write.

You're welcome.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How I Justify Teaching to the Test

Today was the New York State English Language Arts assessment. I know that it's a mere snapshot of my students' abilities, and that it shouldn't be transformed into the driving force of instruction, but that's essentially what happens for the month or so leading to the day of the exam. This is because, regardless of how hard my students work in class, no matter how much progress they make during the year, and regardless of how passionate they are to learn, it all gets boiled down to a four-point rating scale on this single exam. It sucks, but that's just the way high stakes testing works.

Try this little experiment. Ask the next teacher you see if he/she thinks it's okay to teach to the test. They will probably look at you uncomfortably and murmur something about how it's not necessary if the teaching in the classroom is of high quality. This is the perfect college methods course answer, but the reality is that this answer is completely wrong. (In fact, I conducted this survey last year via Twitter that proves that teachers, when anonymous, admit to the need to teach to the test.)

I liken it to learning how to drive.

To do so, you must learn the essential skills - starting the vehicle, accelerating and braking, turning, etc. But once these skills are mastered, are you ready to cruise around in anything with a motor and wheels? No way. It takes a specific skill set to show mastery of these basic skills while driving a motorcycle, for example, compared to driving a dump truck or a school bus. The vehicle is different and this factors in to how successful you can be with your ability to drive.

It's the same thing with state testing.

I don't spend the entire year examining item analysis information, and I certainly don't model every assessment in class after the big exam. But I think it's important for students to know the format and the expectations of the exam. They need to know if it's a dump truck or a school bus that they will be asked to drive.

This is not the first time I've written about my personal struggle with high stakes testing. Read more here.

Standardized Testing, Simpsons Style

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My Teaching Bucket List

Tonight, during #Edchat on Twitter, @Jeffskohls posted an interesting idea; what if teachers were given time built into their hectic schedules to pursue something that interests them? This could bring a whole new methodology to education. Rather than high stakes testing being the fuel used to drive learning, it could instead be earnest, well-thought teacher innovation.

When I first read Jeff's tweet I wanted to reply and share with him (and the rest of #edchat) what I do to keep my teaching interesting, but I couldn't quite figure out how to fit it into 140 characters - hence this elaborate (and loosely organized) blog post. So here it goes:

Usually by about mid December I find myself feeling the full weight of the burdens of my curriculum, student behaviors, faculty meetings, etc. I have lots of good ideas, but I find myself with little time to pursue them. This was especially the case this year, so to make sure I didn't forget all these ideas, I made a list on an index card and stuck it to the wall next to my desk. I consider it my teaching "bucket list" - things I want to accomplish before the year comes to an end. Having it in black and white makes my ideas feel more concrete, and a nagging list staring me in the face redirects any downtime I may have during the week toward something productive.

It's May now, and I'm doubtful that I will be able to check everything off my teaching bucket list, but I'm also pleasantly surprised by how much I did manage to accomplish. These ideas rejuvenate me and I truly think they help my students.
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Monday, May 2, 2011

10 Free iPad2 Apps for Teachers

My wife is the best.

For our fifth wedding anniversary, she surprised me with a new iPad2. The first thing I did was search the app store for as many free apps as I could find. With the dual cameras and 3G capabilities, the educational possibilities have greatly expanded since the premiere of the original iPad.

Here is my list of top apps for the classroom.


AppStart is basically a static list of promoted apps for the iPad2. It was the first app I stumbled across while looking for new and exciting things to download, so I figured it warranted heading off this list. The layout is beautiful and it contains some good information. My suggestion – download it, glean as much as you can, and then remove it.

Dragon Dictation

This simple app features a single red record button in the middle and allows anyone to record their voice using the built-in microphone. This has a natural fit in the classroom as assistive technology but can also be used so students can practice their oral fluency expression and speaking skills. Dragon dictation is surprisingly accurate and this makes it a useful tool in the classroom.

Photo Mess

This collage app makes it easy to resize, re-orientate, and manipulate images taken from either of the iPad’s two cameras. This is a great way to make expressive collages on the fly – both as a student project or as an assessment tool.

Photoshop Express

This is the free equivalent to the online Photoshop Express and is especially useful in conjuction with other apps (such as Photo Mess). While it is lacking some of the more spectacular features of the full Photoshop software, it is still an excellent tool for cropping and other basic editing on the iPad.


This app uses geo-location to tag a specific location with either text, picture, or 3-D model. At first glance this may appear to be too intricate to be used in the classroom (especially one in a middle school such as mine). But this is not the case. I wouldn't expect students to use this app, but not because it is too difficult. Instead, teachers could use this app for outdoor activities and field trips. I teacher could go to the location ahead of time and place markers. Then, on the date of the trip, students could take the iPad2 to add use it to view the markers and get additional virtual information about the physical location that they are seeing. With Junaio, every outing becomes a potential virtual field trip.


Capturing video is not very useful without a way to edit and polish it. Despite the iPad2’s dual cameras it does not come loaded with any video editing software. Slice is just that. It doesn't have a lot of special features, but it does the basic editing that most people typically need. This is useful in the classroom to create quick student videos, video assessments, or even on the go vodcasts.


It's surprising how many companies have not yet created official iPad apps (Facebook, for example). Wikipedia is also one of these offenders. Luckily, Wikipanion is an excellent substitute. In fact, it has features that the native iPhone Wikipedia app should probably consider adding in future versions.

Tour Wrist

Here is another app that makes for an excellent digital field trip. This one, however, uses free recorded 3D Panoramic images and the iPad2’s built in accelerometer to turn the iPad into a pair of binoculars (for lack of a better analogy). There are tours for buildings, museums, airship hangers, etc. An additional app is in the works to allow 3rd parties to add to the available tours on Tour Wrist as well. This is something to check back on!

Confer Lite

This app allows a teacher to add a classroom list of students and then track and monitor individual progress by lesson/activity. It is not a gradebook; instead it allows the teacher to qualify (rather than quantify) students’ learning behaviors. It’s an amazing app, but I don’t think it would work in a regular classroom. This app is probably best geared toward small group instruction situations.


Photosynth is actually an iPhone app, but it still works great on the iPad2. This handy apps creates panoramic images almost instantly. Last fall, I wrote this tutorial on how to do something similar using a digital camera. Using this method, it takes about 30 minutes to create a panoramic image. Using Photosynth, it takes about 30 seconds.

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