Tool Review: Head Over Heels in Love with Screencastify

One of the struggles that I’ve always had as a teacher is differentiating instruction in my room.

The truth is that while I believe in targeting instruction towards student needs and allowing students to work at their own pace through my required curriculum, pulling those behaviors off on a consistent basis is a heck of a lot harder than it looks.  Working in a classroom where some students need direct instruction, some need quick review, and some need extensions and enrichment all at the same time can really stretch a teacher thin.

A trick that I picked up years ago from Carol Ann Tomlinson was to record sets of directions for stations that students could use to get themselves started.

Tomlinson’s thinking is that differentiation efforts stall when teachers are constantly interrupted by students who are looking for the answers to simple procedural questions.  Recordings — which can be replayed time and time again — build instructional momentum for everyone and leave teachers confident that they can facilitate classrooms where groups of students are working on different tasks at different times.

For a long while, I was using YouTube’s now defunct My Webcam feature — which allowed users to record video content directly from their computers and post it to the site — for this work.  I’ve also experimented with screencasting tools like Screenr (also defunct) and Screencast-o-Matic — which allow users to capture their desktops or the content in their web browsers, too — for quick tutorials on how to navigate apps or software programs that kids in my class often use when working in stations.

But after a recommendation from my pal Pete Caggia, I’ve fallen completely and totally head over heels in love with Screencastify.

In many ways, Screencastify does the same things that YouTube’s My Webcam, Screenr and Screencast-o-Matic do.  Users can create recordings — either directly from their webcam, of their desktop, or of tabs in their browsers.  When recording desktops or tabs, users can also embed their webcam in the bottom right corner of their video — allowing viewers to see both the desktop AND the presenter at the same time.

What makes Screencastify unique, however, is that it is an extension for Google’s Chrome browser — so after installing a browser button, you are one click away from creating a recording no matter what computer you happen to be using.  What’s more, Screencastify saves your recordings straight to your Google Drive and makes it easy for you to upload those videos directly to YouTube.

Combine that feature set with Screencastify’s seamless integration with Google’s core products — Chrome, Drive and YouTube — and it becomes the perfect tool for teachers who are working to make collections of tutorials to use in differentiated classrooms.  There’s literally NO struggle to create and post polished final products — whether you are simply recording yourself giving directions to students or whether you want to create a “flipped video” that provides more formal instruction to students on concepts in the required curriculum.

That seamless integration with Google’s core products also makes Screencastify the perfect product for schools rolling out Chromebooks as a primary tool in 1:1 environments.  Given that there is almost never any significant storage on a Chromebook, Screencastify’s decision to post final products directly to Drive is a fantastic workaround.

Screencastify has both a free and a paid version.

While the free version is probably sufficient for most classroom teachers — it enables the recording of videos that are less than 10 minutes long but adds a Screencastify logo to every video — I REALLY want you to consider investing in the paid version.  For $22, you can get a lifetime membership.  That $22 doesn’t get you a ton of new features that you’ll need, but I’m a big believer that we need to invest in good tools if we want those tools to stick around.  The reason our favorite #eduproducts disappear is that we never want to pony up the cash to make the #edumarket viable for developers.



Related Radical Reads:

Tool Review:  Zaption Makes Differentiation Doable

Tool Review:  Kahoot

Tool Review:  Using Remind to Share Nonfiction with Kids

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Poking through my feed reader this morning, I stumbled across a Mindshift KQED article that I think every educator ought to read.

Titled How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty, it makes a simple argument:  Instruction centered on facts that have already been settled fails today’s students.  “Without insight into the holes in our knowledge,” author Linda Flanagan writes, “students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.”

Slide - Scientific Discovery

I worry about that argument because I’m held accountable for teaching a massive curriculum that is slam-packed full of settled facts.

While I believe in the importance of developing students who are willing to grope and probe and poke their way through moments of uncertainty — who are as comfortable NOT knowing as they are with having the right answers — the simple truth is that facilitating experiences that allow students to wrestle with uncertainty takes time that I just don’t have.  If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

And THAT’s what drives me nuts about being a classroom teacher in today’s world.

There’s a constant tension between what we SAY we want our students to know and be able to do and what we LIST as priorities in our mandated pacing guides.  Almost twenty years into the 21st Century, we continue give lip service to the importance of things like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, but we create no real space for that kind of content in our school, district and/or state curricula guides.  Worse yet, we do nothing to assess those skills.  Instead, we are still holding students and schools accountable for nothing more than the mastery of settled facts.

That has to change.  Plain and simple.



Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Bulldozing the Forests

Are YOU Standing Up for Tolerance?

Fair warning, y’all:  I’m about to ask you a few uncomfortable questions. 

Here we go.

First question:  How did you feel when Donald Trump — media celebrity and the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States — suggested a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on?”

Next question:  How did you feel when you found out that one of the leading voices in the white supremacist movement is doubling down on Trump’s candidacy, recording a robocall in Iowa that ends with, ““We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.”

Final question:  How did you feel when participants in a recent Trump rally screamed “You’ve got a bomb!” at a Muslim woman who had done nothing other than stand in silent protest as Trump repeated his argument that Syrian refugees are ISIS terrorists in disguise?

Did any of that make you angry?  Were you shocked that such rhetoric could make its way into the national conversation on immigration in a nation full of immigrants?  Are you troubled by the fact that a man peddling the notion that outsiders are threats to our communities and to our culture is drawing tens of thousands of people to rallies where hate is openly tolerated — even celebrated?

Now imagine how the Muslim students in your school population are feeling.

Imagine being eight or eleven or eighteen and being surrounded by such public demonstrations of doubt and skepticism.  Imagine being eight or eleven or eighteen and hearing countless critics questioning your right to live alongside of everyone else.  Imagine seeing a kid who looks a lot like you suspended because the adults in his life assumed that his homemade clock was a bomb, or seeing an entire school system shut down because of backlash against a single assignment centered on your faith, or seeing armed ‘activists’ pretending to be ‘patriots’ protesting outside of your community centers.

Wouldn’t you feel anxious on a good day and downright frightened on a bad day?  Wouldn’t you worry — about the reactions of your peers or their parents, about the consequences of being open about your faith, about being misunderstood or judged or ostracized by people who just don’t understand?  Wouldn’t you struggle to trust the important voices around you given that some of the loudest voices in our country have transparently aligned themselves against you?

Wouldn’t you hope to find vocal support from your teachers?

Wouldn’t you feel safer if the person standing in front of your classroom — in front of your peers and in front of their parents — spoke openly about your culture and customs and traditions?  Wouldn’t you crave acknowledgement and acceptance from one of the most important public figures in your life?  Wouldn’t you be more likely to believe in fairness and justice and equality if you saw your teacher push against such obvious examples of unfairness and injustice and inequality?

Are YOU ready to lend that vocal support to the Muslim students in your classroom and your community?

Don’t get me wrong:  I totally get that — depending on where you live — lending vocal support to Muslims can be risky.  There’s bound to be a parent who will call your decision to point out the wrongs in the world around you ‘proselytizing’ or ‘too political’ to belong in a classroom.  They’ll call your intentions into question and accuse you of trying to brainwash their children with liberal ideology.  They might even email your boss or blow you in to the local talk radio station as an example of all that is wrong with the public school system.

But sometimes modeling tolerance — a trait that matters more than most in today’s fractured world — requires speaking out against the intolerance that surrounds us.

Ask Dr. King.



Related Radical Reads:

Are Our Schools Safe Places for Kids Who Are Different?


Lesson: Would You Stand Up to Injustice?


The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness

Yesterday, I had the chance to do some brainstorming about Design Thinking with John Spencer — a thinker and a friend that I greatly admire.  During the course of the conversation, I asked John why he thought that Design Thinking should play a role in modern classrooms.  His answer was a huge a-ha moment for me:

“Design thinking builds grit by giving a lot of slack.  We have this idea that perseverance comes form a buckle down and get it done mentality.  Design Thinking says you develop perseverance through tons of iterations and freedom to make mistakes and time to make revisions and improvements.”

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  John’s right:  We DO define grit as the ability to “buckle down and get it done,” don’t we?  

I’m not sure if that definition is a result of our compulsive obsession with bootstraps, our one-time belief that hard work is the Golden Ticket to Heaven, or the fact that we’ve been told time and again that instruction in our schools isn’t all that ‘rigorous’, but defining grit as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences is a poisonous myth that harms students because it suggests that learning has to be painful in order to be meaningful.

Worse yet, defining grittiness as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences provides built in excuses for educators who are unwilling to rethink their learning spaces and for policymakers who are unwilling to rethink the relevance of our required  curriculum.   Instead of working to improve our own practices, we peddle the notion that surviving bad lessons is a rite of intellectual passage.   “Sure, school is going to be boring,” we argue, “but it will be GOOD for you. It will teach you to work hard even when you AREN’T having fun — and I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t always about having fun!”


What if we believed that ALL learning should be fundamentally joyful?

Could students still learn to persist even if they were studying concepts that moved them in deep and meaningful ways?  Is it possible to demonstrate grittiness while constantly iterating on an idea that has the potential to change the world for the better? Aren’t people driven by passion MORE persistent than people who are driven by intimidation?

THAT’s Design Thinking in a nutshell, y’all.  It is built on the notion that people — regardless of who they are or what they know — can identify problems that are worth solving, propose and prototype solutions that are worth trying, and systematically improve on their thinking from one revision to the next.  Design Thinking sends the message that no final product is perfect and that dedicated learners are always ready to improve  everything that they create.

That sounds a heck of a lot like grittiness to me.


Related Radical Reads:

How Gritty Are Today’s Learners?

Will You Be Relentless?

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action



Peer Feedback Should Start with Observations, Not Evaluations.

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the steps that we can take to move from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback in schools.  A lot of that thinking starts from the sense of paralysis that I see in my students, who — after years of being judged by everyone and everything from teachers to end of grade test scores — don’t always realize that the best learners are constantly assessing themselves.

So how do we develop that sense of intellectual agency in our students?  How do we get to the point where the kids in our classrooms are ready and willing to accept personal responsibility for identifying just what it is that they know and can do?

My guess is that some part of the answer to that question starts by giving students tons of opportunities to give feedback to — and receive feedback from — their peers.

Outside of simply increasing the amount of information available to learners, giving and receiving peer feedback reinforces the notion that students can be the primary authorities on the progress being made during any learning experience.  Ownership over “evaluation” and “assessment” are passed from the teacher to the learner – encouraging students to actively monitor their own growth rather than passively waiting to be rated by the adults in their lives.

But here’s the hitch:  Because evaluation has always been the primary form of feedback given in our classrooms, students shy away from peer feedback because “evaluation” means “making judgments” — and making judgments can be socially intimidating.  The result is often students who give simple praise instead of targeted feedback in order to avoid hurting feelings OR partners who refuse to act on suggestions from partners because their feelings have been hurt.

The solution — which I’ve been polishing with my good friend Paul Cancellieri — is to encourage students to make OBSERVATIONS instead of EVALUATIONS when giving feedback to one another.

The difference — which you will have to introduce to students — is that observations are unbiased, concentrating on communicating tangible behaviors or characteristics that can be seen in the same way by others while evaluations include subjective interpretations that are often based on opinions.  Observations are also quick to deliver and quick to receive because they don’t require a lengthy justification for the rating given in an evaluation.   Finally, observations eliminate the asymmetrical power dynamic that some students encounter during peer feedback (Price et al., 2010).  Because the student providing feedback is not judging or advising future action but rather sharing information as objectively as possible in an observation, the student receiving feedback doesn’t feel inferior – increasing the likelihood that feedback will result in action.

Need an example of what making observations instead of evaluations looks like in action?

Then check out this great video from EL Education, which highlights a lesson where students give descriptive feedback without making judgments to a peer:

Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work from EL Education on Vimeo.


Good stuff, right?

What makes this lesson so powerful is that student learners knew that they weren’t expected to judge their partners.  Instead, their only goal was to spot differences between the exemplar and Austin’s work product — a tangible task based on making observations instead of evaluations.  Stripping away judgments made the entire experience nonthreatening, building confidence in both the givers and receivers of feedback.

That matters, y’all.  Our goal should be to create classrooms where peers know that they can safely learn alongside one another.

As John Hattie explains, “Students learn most easily in an environment in which they can get and use feedback about what they don’t know without fearing negative reactions from their peers or their teacher” (Hattie, 2012, p. 23).  Doing so begins by focusing students on observations instead of evaluations when offering a helping hand to their peers.


Works cited:

Hattie, J. (2012). Know thy impact. Educational Leadership70(1), 18-23.

Price, M., Handley, K., Millar, J. & O’Donovan, B. (2010). Feedback : All that effort, but what is the effect?, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35:3, 277-289


Related Radical Reads:

Feedback Should be More Work for the Recipient

Giving Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

@shareski’s Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves