Three #edtech Tools Worth Exploring Right Now.

An interesting email landed in my inbox the other day.  A middle school teacher from California asked me what #edtech tools I was planning on using this year.  “There’s so many tools to choose from,” he wrote.  “Where should I start?”

While there’s no one right answer to his question — choosing #edtech tools should start with a clear sense for the kind of learning space that you are trying to create — here are three tools that I’ve used in my classroom already this year:

Socrative (and Mastery Connect): One of my personal goals for this school year is to do a better job at assessing learning.  I want to gather information during the course of instruction and then act on that information.  Similarly, I want to track progress by student and standard — and then provide differentiated learning experiences based on the information that I am collecting.

Those are solid goals, right?

That’s why Socrative — which allows me to ask questions and gather information quickly — has been a regular part of learning in my room already this year.  Students don’t need a username or a password to login to Socrative and the service works well on any device –phones, tablets, computers — eliminating half of the headaches that come along with using digital tools in the classroom.

Today in class, I used Socrative to ask a series of questions about independent and dependent variables.  The entire activity took 10 minutes to create and 10 minutes to deliver.  When it was done, I knew instantly which students had mastered the concepts and which needed reteaching.  I’ll change my plans for tomorrow based on what I learned today.


Mastery Connect — a companion tool to Socrative — takes assessment one step further.  Teachers can develop and deliver more formal assessments with Mastery Connect.  Performance on those assessments are then tracked by student and by standard.  In the first four weeks of my school year, I’ve used Mastery Connect to give two pretests.  The information I’ve collected has helped me to see in advance which skills and concepts my students are likely to struggle with and which skills and concepts that I can skip right over because my students mastered them in previous grade levels.

Remind:  Another one of my professional goals this year is to get my students reading tons of high-interest nonfiction text.  The way I see it, learning to love nonfiction is essential for succeeding in tomorrow’s knowledge-driven workplaces — and learning to love nonfiction is easy in a world where cool things are happening every day.  The hitch:  Students rarely have experiences with high-interest nonfiction text.  Instead, they grind through textbooks or biographies of old people assigned as a part of classroom projects.


So I am using Remind — a service that allows teachers to send out short updates to parents and students — to share one interesting science current event every day.  My students are jazzed by the notion of Megabots, are following the story of the baby pandas born at the National Zoo, and dig Scott Kelly’s Instagram page.

For me, sharing current events is easy. Interested parents and students signed up using a unique class code and chose to receive my updates by text, email or notifications in the Remind app.  My job is simply to find interesting articles and then schedule them either through Remind on the web or the Remind app on my phone.  Given that I am already reading interesting science every day, the entire process takes less than 20 minutes a week to maintain.

The results have been promising.  My students come in almost every day ready to talk about the current events that I am sharing.  They open their devices and poke through past current events during silent reading.  And parents report spending time reviewing the daily current event with their child at home each night.

HSTRY.Co: One of the characteristics that defines scientists is an insatiable curiosity about the world around them.  True scientists are ALWAYS wondering — and then acting on their observations.  The beautiful thing about sixth graders is that they are naturally curious — driven to understand everything around them.  Their wonderings, though, are often lost in the shuffle of a typical day at school.

Take today, for example:  A student in my homeroom was really interested in the fact that she could float easily in salt water at the beach, but that she struggled to float in her neighborhood pool.  She wanted to know why.


To help students capture the questions that leave them curious, I’ve started to experiment with HSTRY.Co — a tool that allows users to create timelines that include text, pictures, audio clips and videos.  What I’m hoping is that because adding content is a one-click process, my kids will regularly record the ideas that leave them completely jazzed and wanting to know more.  Then, I’m hoping that they will return to those ideas during the spare moments that they have either in class or at home.  I see each student’s timeline as a sort of digital science journal.

Can you see the connecting thread between each of my #edtech decisions?

I had a clear sense of an instructional practice — assessing learning, turning students on to nonfiction text, recording the questions that leave us curious — before ever turning to technology.  I didn’t start using Socrative, Mastery Connect, Remind or HSTRY.Co simply because they were cool new tools.  Instead, I started using them because they were cool new tools that faciliated learning behaviors that I believe in.




Related Radical Reads:

Using Remind to Share Nonfiction with my Students

More on Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome

I’d Take a Teaching Geek over a Tech Geek Any Day.

Lessons Schools Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let me speak the truth for a minute:  June and July are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad months for NFL fans.  There’s LITERALLY nothing worth watching on television.


Life returns with NFL training camps in August.  Guys like me break out our jerseys and start talking trash again — tracking the progress of our team’s rookies and praying that no one blows out a knee or breaks an ankle in practice.  Jonesing for REAL sports, we even tune in to preseason games filled with players who will be cut long before the season starts — including last week’s Bills/Browns matchup, which I’ve now watched twice thanks to the glory of DVR.


Somewhere in the middle of the second half, I started to realize that schools are often run a lot like NFL teams.  Need proof?  Check out these observations:

The Cleveland Browns:  The Browns are currently best known for the fact that they have had nine different head coaches (see: Eric Mangini) and 22 starting quarterbacks (see: Kelly Holcomb) in the past 15 years.  They fail because there is no consistency in leadership at the top of their organization.  Constantly changing directions leaves Browns players and fans frustrated and lost.

The Buffalo Bills: Despite being the BEST NFL FRANCHISE of ALL TIME, the Bills have been darn near terrible for the past 15 years.  That’s largely because we haven’t invested in accomplished head coaches.  Instead, we’ve wasted time hiring well-intentioned yet completely uninspiring guys with no real track record of success (see: Doug Marrone).  Then, we feign surprise when those same leaders struggle with the complexity of the job and fail to move their teams in a positive direction.

The Washington Redskins:  The defining moment for the modern-day Washington Redskins was trading away their entire future for the right to pick Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft.  It was the ultimate “all-in” move, investing everything in a player simply because he fit the fad — athletic quarterbacks that could make plays with their feet — sweeping the NFL at the time.  Of course, their plans have failed miserably — Griffin hasn’t been the same player since a knee injury at the end of his first season — but Washington is so invested that they are unwilling to pull the plug on their failed experiment and find a genuine pocket passer to lead their team.

The New England Patriots:  They are full of supposedly squeaky-clean pretty boys who cheat to win.  Enough said.  (see: Deflategate)

The New York Jets:  The Jets grabbed the national spotlight this month when a second-year defensive end broke the jaw of starting quarterback Geno Smith in a locker room brawl over a $600 plane ticket, proving once again that internal dysfunction over petty disagreements can bring any organization — including a storied NFL franchise in one of America’s largest media markets — to a grinding halt.

Can you see your school and/or district in any of those teams?  Do you fail because you lack stability or refuse to invest in leadership or chase fads or cheat or fight with one another at every turn despite being on the same “team?”

Or is your school functioning — and it is going to PAIN me to say this — like the Pittsburgh Steelers?  The Steelers have been one of the NFL’s most successful franchises for almost 40 years because they avoid the professional traps that have tripped up the Browns and Bills and Redskins and Patriots and Jets.

They’ve had TWO head coaches in the past 15 years — and THREE in the past 46 years.  That kind of organizational stability has allowed the team to pursue succcess with tenacity.  What’s more, the Steelers are committed to the fundamentals of good football.  They run the ball.  They play great defense.  They pay attention to details, fail to make big mistakes, and innovate at the edges of professional football’s box instead of taking the kinds of ridiculous risks that doom other teams.

If schools were anything like the Steelers — if they set a clear direction, remained true to a small handful of fundamental principles, and put in the kind of hard work that it takes to be successful — the critics of our nation’s public schools would quickly become our biggest fans.


(*see what I did there?)


Related Radical Reads:

Leadership Lessons from the 5-9 Chicago Bears

I Wouldn’t Want to Work with Walter Payton

What Can #edpolicy Nation Learn from Andrew Luck?

Giving Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process [Activity]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading a ton about the characteristics of effective feedback.  The topic resonates with me because I’m frustrated by the fact that students in my classroom often seem to believe that the only people that can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses are the adults in their lives.  My goal is to figure out ways to create empowered learners who realize that they can reliably assess their OWN progress and abilities as long as they know what to look for.

The title that has really captured my attention is Dylan William’s Embedded Formative Assessment.

What I love about William’s text is that it is full of really practical suggestions and instructional techniques that can be easily adapted for use in any classroom.  While feedback isn’t the only topic tackled in Embedded Formative Assessment, there is an entire chapter that describes the characteristics of high-quality feedback.  My favorite quote:

If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this:  feedback should cause thinking.  All the practical techniques discussed here work because, in one way or another, they get students to think, rather than react emotionally the feedback they are given. (Kindle Location 2592)

After working through the chapter, I adapted several of William’s techniques and developed the following task for my sixth grade science students — who have been learning to write good conclusions after studying the absorbancy of paper towels in a recent lab:

Handout – Evaluating Paper Towel Lab Conclusions

We started the lesson by reviewing the characteristics of a good conclusion.  Then working alone, students rated the two sample conclusions included on the handout on a scale from one to five against the criteria of a good conclusion.

After everyone had initial ratings for each sample conclusion, they compared their ratings with the ratings made by other members of their lab group.  If members disagreed over the scores that each conclusion deserved, students had to come to consensus by providing evidence to support their ratings.  Finally, I shared my ratings for both conclusions, allowed students to ask questions about the reasoning behind my decisions, and then turned the kids loose to revise and edit their own conclusions.

This handout and lesson are good examples of how feedback should be given to students for three reasons:

I provided clear criteria for a quality conclusion:  William argues that students can’t accept feedback until they have an accurate sense for what it is that they are trying to accomplish.  By breaking down the characteristics of a quality conclusion into four easy-to-identify components — and then by listing those components at the top of the handout in approachable language — my students are better prepared to spot strengths and weaknesses in scientific conclusions without my support.

I provided an intellectual challenge:  At the beginning of the task, I told students that the first sample conclusion is better than the second sample conclusion.  Their job was to figure out why.  This simple strategy — which William also recommends — forced my kids to make comparisons between the two samples.  That’s a tangible example of William’s argument that “feedback should cause thinking.”

I required students to work through disagreements with one another:  My favorite part of the lesson was that members of the same lab group rarely had the exact same ratings for each of the four criteria of a good conclusion.  That led to GREAT conversations.  Every conflict provided moments for students to articulate their reasoning for their ratings and forced them to return to the text to find evidence to prove (or disprove) their positions.

The entire lesson took thirty minutes — and it was probably the best thirty minutes that I’ve spent in the classroom this year.

Not only did my students have the chance to wrestle with the characteristics of quality conclusions and to make sense of the task together, they had the chance to spot mistakes in the sample conclusions — a practice that is likely to help them to avoid making similar mistakes in their own work (William, 2011).

More importantly, I made my students WORK FOR their feedback and then gave them time to WORK ON their own conclusions after receiving feedback — two fundamental characteristics of effective practice.  Quality feedback should always lead to action on the part of the learner.  Providing feedback without providing time to act is essentially wasting time and intellectual energy (William, 2011).

So whaddya’ think?  Is this a task that you could adapt for your classroom?


Related Radical Reads:

When was the Last Time You Asked Your Students for Feedback?

@shareski is Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves

Another Student-Involved Assessment Experiment

Update: Using Remind to Share Nonfiction Reading with Students

Last week, I shared a plan here on the Radical to introduce students to high interest nonfiction reading using Remind — a service that allows teachers to send updates to students and parents by text, email or app.  If I could send out links to really cool science current events once a day, I reckoned, I might just succeed in my quixotic quest to make nonfiction cool to middle schoolers.

While I’ve only been sending links for a week now, I’m pretty sure that my plan is going to be successful.  Here are five reasons why:

43 families have signed up to receive messages:  I’ve got a team of 100 students this year.  That means almost half of our team showed an interest in receiving cool science content for no other reason than cool science content can be fun to read.  For me, that’s 43 opportunities every single day to turn students on to a genre of reading that they may otherwise have ignored.

Parents and students are signing up together:  It might just be a function of Remind’s requirement that kids under 13 submit a parent’s email address when signing up, but there are several parent/student pairs in my Remind audience.  That has HUGE potential to facilitate conversations about science content at home.  If “hey, did you see that article Mr. Ferriter sent out today?” becomes a more common phrase in the homes of my students, then everybody wins.

Parents are taking advantage of opportunities to enjoy science with their students:  One of the most popular current events that I sent out this week was about the Perseid Meteor Shower that happened on Wednesday and Thursday.  I encouraged my subscribers to take advantage of this chance to see one of nature’s coolest phenomena.  Two kids came in and told me that they’d set alarms for midnight, gotten up in the middle of the night with their moms and dads, laid picnic blankets down in the back yard, and watched the skies together for a while.  How awesome is THAT?

Conversations about the current events I’m sharing are becoming more and more common at school:  One of my favorite parts of my efforts is that putting the SAME high interest content in front of my kids is starting to stimulate interesting conversations at school.  Every single day, I’ve had kids approach me with questions and reactions to the article that I shared — and as soon as the conversation gets started, other students join in.  When was the last time that impromptu thought groups around science content broke out in your hallways?

I’m stealing minutes from my students:  I decided early on that I was going to send out my daily current event during times when I KNOW my students are sitting on busses, stuck in the carpool line, or waiting for class to start at the beginning of the day.  My hunch was that kids would be more likely to read the articles I was sending if they arrived when my kids had “nothing better” to do.

That hunch turned out to be a good one.

My proof?  A student named Lanie came up to me early in the week and said, “Your plan worked, Mr. Ferriter.  I was bored in the car this morning and then my phone buzzed.  It was your article.  I read it.”That’s important, y’all:  If we can turn some of the time that kids spend behind screens into time that they spend wrestling with interesting ideas, we tap into the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky described way back in 2010.

The best part of this entire project is that it hasn’t required ANY additional time and energy from me.  I already read interesting science current events on a daily basis AND scheduling messages through Remind is a two-tap process through my cell phone or web browser.  There’s a TON of extra value in those two taps, that’s for sure.

Once we get further into the school year, I’ll survey my students and families about our project to capture their reactions.  I’ll share those findings here.



Related Radical Reads:

Using Remind to Share Nonfiction Content with Students

Teaching Nonfiction Reading Skills in Science Classrooms

Are You Looking to Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas?



Pushing Against Incivility.

I spent the better part of last night wrestling with the role that feedback plays in the classroom.  I kept coming back to the notion that kids don’t really take much action on the feedback that they receive from teachers — and I started to wonder if that was a result of the fact that students don’t get much modeling on how learners respond to feedback.

Wouldn’t there be value in transparently asking students for feedback and then publicly changing our practices based on that feedback?  Kind of like a behavioral think-aloud so that the kids in our classrooms could see that feedback should force both reflection and action in the person who receives it?

I shared those ideas out through Twitter, figuring that it would drive someone else’s thinking, too.  Here’s what I wrote:

How often do you model an action orientation to feedback for your students?  Do you transparently receive and then change based on feedback?  

(And if not, how can you expect your students to take action based on the feedback that you give them?)

Harmless enough, right?  Nothing terribly provocative there.  Just two short messages designed to highlight the thinking that was rolling through my mind.

That thinking ended up being anything but harmless to three teachers from Ontario*, who completely tore me apart.

Their first Tweet:  “What the hell does that mean, anyway?”  Another wrote, “I see you’ve found more #edubollocks for us to laugh at.”  They went on to describe me as “vacuous and trite,” suggested that I was “perpetuating corrosive drivel on the next generation of teachers,” and that I was skilled in nothing more than “dishing out endless babble.”  They saw me as a part of “the machine” — and it was their duty to stand up and speak out against the pointlessness of ideas like mine.

While there was real disrespect in their statements, they were honestly convinced that I was the one being disrespectful — blinding school leaders with empty ideas and then walking everyone happily off intellectual cliffs like some kind of professional Pied Piper.

Through it all, I pushed against the disrespect that they were showing.  I asked how they would react if a student in their classrooms attacked the thinking of a peer with open sarcasm and derogatory language.  I pointed out that I was hardly a part of any machine, that they’d paid nothing for my ideas, and that they were free to follow people who were less corrosive at any time.  But they couldn’t get away from the thought that people like me are the problem with education because we peddle jargon that teachers are forced to consume.

“That went well,” one wrote to the other shortly after I left the conversation.

While it was a long night, I walked away with a few valuable lessons:

I learned that civil discourse should be an instructional priority in every schoolhouse.  We’ve become a world where the lines between disagreeing with and disrespecting others are badly blurred every single day.  Given that we celebrate political leaders who publicly call others weak, pathetic losers after making misogynistic comments, can we really be surprised when those same behaviors are mirrored in the other spaces where we live and talk and think?

That worries me — and it points out a responsibility for every classroom teacher.  We have to point out moments where unhealthy speech is defining conversation to our students.  We have to stand up for civility and we have to model collaborative dialogue in our classrooms every day.  Tolerance for intolerant dialogue does nothing for our communities. Our kids need to know that and see it and own it.

I also learned that Twitter isn’t what it used to be. It was once the most amazing “digital break room” — a place where really bright teachers would come together and connect.  Conversations were the norm instead of the exception to the rule.  People would laugh and joke with each other as they wrestled with interesting ideas and challenged one another’s practice.  Now — as my buddy William Chamberlain wrote last night — it’s become that shady corner of town where hooligans hang out waiting to cast insults at passersby.

I used to think that Twitter was a space worth fighting for.  After last night, I’m not so sure.  Wouldn’t it just be easier to find a private space where I know that I’ll be surrounded by peers who are willing to see one another as learning partners?  What value is there in battling trolls who seem hell bent on nothing other than playing their Trump cards when digital tools and spaces make it possible to create something better?

Finally, I learned that teachers can be their own worst enemies. By the end of last night’s conversation, I’d realized that the teachers uncorking on me weren’t really mad at me at all.  Instead, they were angry about being forced to sit in unproductive staff training sessions.  “You spend fifteen years sitting in professional development,” one wrote,” and see how you feel.”

And don’t get me wrong:  While I know nothing about professional development in Ontario, their frustration may well be legit.  Maybe their staff training sessions really are a step away from abject misery.  I know I’ve sat in my fair share of really bad PD over the last 23 years of my teaching career.  But I also know that creating something better starts when we act reasonably — asking thoughtful questions, providing possible alternatives, pushing against ideas instead of individuals.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that driving change and declaring war are two different things — and until teachers start dropping a little tempered into their radical, we are unlikely to be influential in any way.  

Any of this make sense?

*Blogger’s Note:  I’m going to keep the identities of these folks private.  My goal isn’t to call them out publicly as people.  Instead, it’s their actions that I want to call out.  Hope that makes sense.  


Related Radical Reads:


What Can YOUR Kids Learn from the Romney Perry Slugfest

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue*

*Twitter General’s Warning: This material may, in fact, be vacuous, trite, corrosive drivel being perpetuated on a new generation of teachers.  But it is free.  So there’s that.