#ISTE13: Inspiration, Synergy, Trailblazers, Expertise

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on June 5, 2013.)

Even though ISTE ’13 in San Antonio is just a few weeks away, I am already excited about the absolutes of such an amazing conference for educators. Having experienced the magnificence of ISTE twice already, I can honestly say those four letters stand for such much more. My tireless mind and teacher’s heart are already preparing for an influx of educational knowledge. In fact, I decided to curtail any informational overload that I experienced during my first two trips by establishing (and ultimately renaming) a preferred acronym that helps me organize and encompass the magic that is the International Society for Technology in Education. Yep. On June 23rd, I will again walk through the doors of ISTE and come face-to-face with Inspiration, Synergy, Trailblazers, and Expertise.
ISTE13 pic


Jokingly, I must admit that if Twitter awarded degrees based on accumulated learning from a social media site I would be referred to as Dr. Hardison by now and, of course, still waiting on a pay increase. I say this not to boast or brag (Lord knows I may be mistaken for Captain Average on my best days) but to provide evidence of such shared wisdom from the ISTE conference. It was in Philadelphia in 2011 that I heeded the advice of my colleague and friend, Greg O’Dell, and ventured out to investigate how social media could elevate, engage, and inspire my Language Arts classes. Yeah, I was skeptical at first, but the “#teach with #tweet” session presented me with all the proof I needed. I was sold. To say that the “City of Brotherly Love” introduced me to “Philadelphia Freedom” by way of social media wings is, I must admit, a bit cheesy. Oh, but how true it is.


If synergy can be defined as 2 + 2 = 5, then this apparently inaccurate equation is given a shot of cortisone and steroids at ISTE and easily balloons to an astonishing 2 + 2 = ∞. Seriously. One simple break between sessions in San Diego last year found me seated in a hallway with about fifty others. I had about thirty minutes to kill and wanted to soak up the knowledge from the previous session. One introductory comment later and I was exchanging contact information with a multitude of educators from New York, Michigan, California, and other states. These educators were on fire for education, and they were eager to establish connections to modernize and bolster their class assignments. Besides offering priceless resources and experiences, they were essentially sharing a way to tear down the classroom walls. It was mind-blowing. In the past, I was elated to collaborate with my in-school colleagues. Just stepping outside my room during class changes was a welcomed invitation to quickly share ideas. It still is, however, sometimes all I need to do is create a quick e-mail, tweet, or Google Hangout. My needed resource may now be three doors down or three time zones away. No difference to me. Synergy is a proven fact. Thanks to ISTE.


Don’t get me wrong. You won’t see any red carpets or paparrazi awaiting the arrival of pompous teachers, but you will most definitely rub elbows with humble trailblazers of education. No pen needed. No autographs given. But a connection established through shared knowledge and a common goal of improved teaching is a certainty. Whether it’s Steven Anderson, Angela Maiers, Jerry Blumengarten (Cybraryman1), Tom Whitby, or Adam Bellow, many titans of education will be present at ISTE, and I’m quite sure they will be more than willing to share.


Perhaps the coolest aspect of immersing myself in such a positively contagious learning environment is the ability to believe that I have something of value to offer, too. I don’t see how anyone can witness expertise through engaging in hands-on workshops, observing jaw-dropping creative products from students, listening to lectures from educational pioneers, or perusing the gallery of present and future educational technology, without asking, “Well, what can I share of value since I have received so much already?” My answer just happens to be a 3-hour workshop on creating classroom magic. I know, I know. Perhaps it appears to be a shameless plug, and maybe it is. But maybe, just maybe, I am merely modeling the purpose of a remarkably successful conference by challenging myself to achieve a higher standard. It sounds like a new acronym in the making. ISTE ’13 may just be an Indescribably Super Teaching Experience and leave me speechless. Now that’s what I call a good problem…one that will certainly inspire US to expertly blaze a trail with descriptive words that encapsulate all that is the International Society for Technology in Education.

Educator Resuscitation 101: A Prerequisite for Summer Learning

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on May 23, 2013.)

I need to admit something. I am dead. Dead-tired. Exhausted. Fatigued. Drained. Emotionally and physically spent. And no, I don't need a trusted colleague to play an armchair psychologist. My cheese is not off its cracker. Things aren't that bad. You see, I am simply a teacher. In fact, I am no different than the other three million plus teachers in our country who are giving their hearts and souls to this demanding, but extremely rewarding, career. This culminating tiredness is normal in my profession, and it is certainly a personal, recurring end-of-the-school-year fact during my fifteen years of teaching. But leaning on Ovid's age-old adage, "Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop," I am reminded of the necessity to heed the inner calling of a seemingly illusive trait called balance. As I embark on a two-month hiatus from classrooms teeming with thirty-to-fifty energetic teenagers, I am completely awake to the preparation needed to be the solid educator of my dreams. Yep. It appears I need to take a crash course. It’s called Educator Resuscitation 101, and it just happens to be a prerequisite for summer learning. Let’s take a look at the syllabus.

Assignment #1: Celebrate a Graduation

One of the most rewarding perks of being a high school educator is the privilege of attending graduation. Witnessing seniors bedecked in their caps and gowns as they eagerly step under a shining five-second spotlight is truly a magical moment for me. Not only does the ceremony put an exclamation point on a job well done for all involved, but it serves as a reminder of my goal in education…to help students reach theirs. Assignment #1 is an easy task. It will certainly be heartwarming, celebratory, and well-deserved. But will it be a challenging, initial assignment? Nah. My particular assignment falls on Friday, May 24th, at 1:00, and it will be effortless. All the hard work was done in class. Note: If you choose to participate in Educator Resuscitation 101 and a high school graduation does not meet your need, please feel free to substitute one of the activities listed below:
  • Attend an elementary, middle school, or high school awards ceremony.
  • Participate in an elementary or middle school field day.
  • Take time to sign students’ yearbooks with thoughtful and inspirational messages.
  • Make that one student who can’t be checked out early on the last day of school feel special by striking up a conversation that is predicated solely on his unique talents, his summer plans, and his personal dreams.  (Likewise, asking this same student to help move classroom furniture, tear down bulletin boards, or perform any task that subliminally communicates punishment for being the only kid without a ride home will most definitely warrant the grade of F- for the first assignment.)

Assignment #2: Take a Break

I jokingly tell my colleagues, “To avoid a potential cardiac arrest from all the teaching stress we must remember to take a rest.” But putting all facetiousness aside, teaching stress is real, and assignment #2 is designed to combat the strain ten months of teaching has created. However, since assignment #2 is lacking in specificity, each course participant has the freedom to choose a personalized, relaxing activity. Take, for example, me. Unless it’s on a bike, I simply don’t sit well. My idea of relaxing is hopping on a road bicycle and hammering out fifty miles on lonesome back roads in the foothills of Northeast Georgia. There is just something about the continual spinning of the bicycle crank and the humming of rubber on asphalt. I guess the merging of the two produce a therapeutic cadence that releases all tension. For me, three hours in a Lazy Boy recliner with a remote control in one hand just don’t compare. For some educators, taking a break is synonymous with other activities. Please participate in one of the following or create your own activity to receive credit for assignment #2:
  • Take a family vacation. (Note: If “family vacation” involves in-laws, please “double-up” and select another activity from this list as stress levels may surpass those measured at onset of vacation.)
  • Treat yourself to a deep-tissue massage.  Yeah, you may feel like your muscles are tangled-up steel cables when you arrive, but you will feel like a wet spaghetti noodle when you leave.
  • Lose yourself in a mindless chore. Surely you are like me and have an endless to-do list that has been buried under the ordinary stack of weekend papers. Well, now is the time to attack those responsibilities that weren’t high on the priority list. You might be amazed at how pulling weeds in the garden, painting a fence, or cutting the grass will allow your tired mind to rest while you get something done. (Note: If you still are not convinced, come to my house and I’ll let you practice with my to-do list before beginning assignment #2.)
  • Begin a hobby. Do you have something you have always wanted to do but made excuses to never begin? Me, too. Perhaps I’ll take up playing the guitar soon. Let me know if you begin playing an instrument. Maybe we could start a band. Hmmm. Our first song could be a spin off Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love.” Just imagine the audience chanting our band’s name, Baldy (see my profile pic) and the Truth, as they call us out for an encore of our hit single, “The Power of Teaching.”
  • Reconnect with nature by hiking, fishing, and camping. Let’s face it. Teaching often equals cinder blocks with no windows and no greenery. So, why not take a hike and explore the great outdoors? Who knows. The fresh air and sounds of nature may drown out the trials and tribulations of the past school year. I’m not saying you’ll sit at the base of some giant Oak tree and pen a masterful poem reminiscent of the Romanticist Walt Whitman, but assignment #2 may help you reconnect with someone you recently lost due to overworking. Yourself.

Assignment #3: Reflect on the Past

All professional development courses require constant reflection on best teaching practices. In order to eliminate any pedagogical inefficiencies, Educator Resuscitation 101 calls for an honest self-reflection that involves an in-depth look at the positives and negatives from the past school year. Here are a few suggestions for accomplishing this task:
  • Ask yourself, “If I were to re-do the past school year, what would I do differently and why?” Don’t forget to impulsively jot down any ideas that flood your mind. Sometimes the knee-jerk reaction is the accurate reaction.
  • If available, review any student feedback that offers any insight into how you can improve. Take a look at this survey I used to begin second semester. What did I learn about myself? The students said, “Slow down. You go too fast sometimes.”
  • Invite a positive-minded colleague to engage in a discussion about professional improvement.
  • Assemble a team of passionate colleagues to meet a few times during the summer to share any ideas. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying start a 12-step group called “Teachers Anonymous.” Although, announcing to a large group of compassionate teachers, “Hi, I’m John, and I’m an overworked, very caring educator who is somewhat addicted to providing inspirational and challenging learning environments so students may create the lives they have only dreamed of,” would surely be a welcomed statement. Likewise, their collective greeting in unison, “Hi, John,” would be just as comforting.

Assignment #4: Share Everything

After completing the first three tasks, you will be ready to share and receive the best your profession has to offer:
  • Start a professional blog. By making yourself transparent, you will be astounded at the wave of positive feedback you receive.
  • Develop a professional learning network via social media. Perhaps the best advice I ever received in teaching was from a trusted colleague who recommended I use Twitter to learn from some of the most passionate teachers in the world (not just in my school building as I was previously used to).
  • Create a Google Hangout. Whether you use Skype, Lync, or a Google Hangout, virtually connecting with brilliant educators from around the globe is too simple.
  • Attend an educational conference. Believe me, there are no shortages of encouraging educational conferences. ISTE just happens to be my favorite. Hey, maybe I’ll see you in San Antonio this summer.

Assignment #5: Reimagine a Technology Toolbox

This step asks you to reconsider which educational technology resources are “tools” and which are “toys.” Here’s a peek inside my technology toolbox. All the toys have been thrown out.
Dragon Voice Dictation
Google Drive & Google Hangout
Hall Connect
iTunes University
Polleverywhere and/or Celly
Teacher Page
Three Ring

Assignment #6: The Final Exam

The Final Exam consists of four simple questions. Hopefully, you’ll answer yes to all of them.
  1. Have you regained a sense of balance, clarity, and inspiration?
  2. Do those most dear to you realize that “class” never truly ends?
  3. Does your flexibility and adaptability mirror that of a rapidly changing profession?
  4. When the new school year comes around, will you be capable of performing at such a level that warrants approval from these two tough judges? (Judge #1: student; Judge #2: teacher)
So, will I see you soon at the registrar's office ready to sign up for this amazing course? I sure hope so. All you stand to lose is a ton of stress, but you will reconnect with so much more. And that, my friend, is called Educator Resuscitation 101. Class begins now.    

Blended Learning That is Truly Blended

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on May 10, 2013.)

One aspect of education that will never change is the incessant introduction and demise of buzz words. These days educators are discussing flipped classrooms, flattened classrooms, MOOC’s, infographics, gamification, and, of course, blended learning. Even though blended learning is erroneously becoming synonymous with online, digital learning, it is arguably the most intriguing and perhaps the least mastered of all current buzz words. According to Rob Bock, The Lexington Institute contends “that many schools have embraced the term ‘blended learning’ without grasping its true significance.” Blended Learning HardisonAs my progressive school district in Hall County, Georgia moves forward with the creation of our first Blended Learning Academy, the four concepts of self-knowledge, shared knowledge, student learning options, and an inspirational facility remain at the forefronts of our minds. To me, this hot-topic, instructional method is quite straightforward, and, ironically enough, the main ingredient of its effectiveness lies in its name. In fact, a successful blended learning model is simply…blended.


Although the four concepts mentioned above are equally interdependent, the notion of self-knowledge is seemingly foundational. Even the famous martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee would have agreed. According to him, “A great deal of pure self-knowledge and inner understanding allows us to lay an all-important foundation for the structure of our life from which we can perceive and take the right avenues.” Think about it. How many times were you asked the right questions as a student? Questions such as: What are your talents? How do you learn best? What distracts you from learning? What are your most challenging weaknesses? What ignites your curiosity? Who was your favorite teacher of all time and why? How will (insert course name) advance you towards your ultimate goals? Without playing an armchair psychologist, all teachers can do one magical thing before ever assigning any learning tasks: allow students’ voices to be heard by challenging them to examine their learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, and passions. What will they gain? Self-knowledge. What will you gain? Students who know exactly what they want and how they plan on getting there.     Want to see our first assignment for students entering the Blended Learning Academy at East Hall High School? Take a look here.

Shared Knowledge

Another pivotal principle of a successful blended learning academy is shared knowledge. Without a doubt, all productive environments, whether an educational institution or a Fortune 500 company, practice sharing knowledge. By encouraging students to be transparent learners, they exemplify the wise saying from Ben Franklin, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Here are just a few ways our blended learning team will foster such an environment. First, students will fashion their own personal profiles in such a place as to be visible by all. Each profile will begin with a student picture just above a detailed list of his/her weaknesses, strengths, talents, interests, and aspirations. Of course, this information stems from the student survey mentioned above. Also, each student will be asked to post the current status of in-progress projects or assignments, as well as any areas of needed help. By encouraging, not forcing, students to be transparent and honest with their education, a wealth of shared knowledge is created and maintained by individuals who realistically see themselves as “works-in-progress” and as possessors of unique talents and abilities. This student profile will not be limited to only students. No, sir. No, ma’am. My teacher profile will be posted also with an eager request for anyone, student or teacher, to help me learn Spanish. All notes will be shared by using Google Drive and by merging Evernote with IdeaPaint. Frowned upon gadgets like smartphones will be welcomed, and social media giants Twitter and Facebook will be leveraged to constantly share knowledge. Likewise, YouTube and SchoolTube will be our digital vehicles to transport our knowledge all around the globe.   To further enrich this culture of shared knowledge, two distinct walls will anchor our facility. A Past & Present wall will showcase digital and physical artifacts of exemplary student work. Imagine a perfected essay held by a small picture easel just below a ray of soft lighting. Whether the work of art is a rap parody with originally written lyrics or a mashed-up video showcasing an authentic rendering of algebraic equations, imagine a student’s digital project looping continuously on a wall-mounted flat-screen. In fact, just imagine amazing products that demonstrate mastery of standards from all courses. No matter if the products are digital or physical. As long as they represent knowledge, they should be shared. The second wall is equally as powerful. The Future wall will showcase a physical and digital shared Google calendar to keep all students abreast of the ever-evolving activities. A la the movie Good Will Hunting, students will also be encouraged to challenge their peers by posting unsolved problems, unfinished thoughts, unanswered queries, and unfulfilled requests for help on educational assignments.


With a learning model bolstered by self-knowledge and shared knowledge, limitless options to show students’ mastery of standards is a discernible reality. Like I mentioned earlier, blended learning is NOT just digital learning. It is not, and cannot, simply be the image of a student tapping away on a computer while he consumes online content and has all surroundings muffled by oversized and overpriced headphones. I have witnessed some online courses that are basically digital versions of the same boring worksheets that have been so tirelessly thrown at kids for decades. Can online courses work? Absolutely. Are online courses synonymous with blended learning? Absolutely not. Blended learning is all about options that originate from inviting students to be co-leaders of their own education. Having devoted sufficient time for introspection, students are able to discuss with their content facilitators (formerly known as teachers) how they would like to reach certain standards or accomplish educational goals. Here are just a few examples of the options offered to our students:
  1. Master the standards by completing coursework through our online platform, HallConnect.
  2. Flip a classroom and be a part of creating a full-length movie (soundtrack, manuscript, and all recordings).
  3. Write and record an original song.
  4. Participate in interactive, whole classroom structures.
  5. Produce artistic creations that demonstrate knowledge.
  6. Use any digital tools to show mastery.
  7. Add to an online portfolio.
  8. Blog to the world.
  9. Participate with other students from around the world through video-conferencing tools.
  10. Gamify lessons.
  11. Construct models made of clay, wood, Leggos, etc.
  12. Engage in face-to-face, individual learning with a content facilitator or classmate.
Did I leave something out? No worries. If so, it will be covered by allowing students to self-prescribe a standards-based assignment in a detailed project/problem/passion-based contract. If all invested parties (students, parents, teachers) agree, the contract is signed and the learning begins.

The Facility

Every educator knows the facility that houses a learning environment is crucial to the success of the inhabitants. Without a doubt, the options mentioned above demand a flexible, “breathable” learning environment. And this is exactly what we plan on giving the students. Equipped with a portable 16’x 12’ stage, a musical recording studio, multiple flat-screens, a rocking audio system, a video-conferencing room, a student lounge with soft seating, student tables glazed with IdeaPaint, and an army of laptops and tablets, the Blended Learning Academy at East Hall High School will be absolutely nothing short of amazing. I wish I could walk you through the facility right now. However, our dream is taking shape at this very moment. It has involved a lot of hard work. We have shared knowledge. We have assessed the options. And our students will soon stand at the threshold of greatness. Hmmm. That sounds like learning to me. Learning that is truly blended.     

Infinity: The Size of Today's Classrooms

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on April 25, 2013.)

There was once a time when contemplating tearing down my classroom walls fancied me wearing a yellow safety helmet and operating a wrecking-ball wielding crane machine. Surely after knocking down windowless walls of cinder blocks with a sledgehammer I would have reluctantly exchanged my yellow hardhat for a striped jumpsuit with numerical identification. No need to get caught up in such fruitless delusions anymore. Not with all the technology gadgets available to educators. In fact, a little ingenuity and a toolbox equipped with digital tools are all teachers need to flatten traditional learning environments and discover the real size of today’s modern classrooms…infinity.

A Model Lesson Plan

After experiencing the power of Google Forms as a sounding board for my Advanced Placement Language students to peer-assess their analytical essays, I was extremely confident the same structure would work with any class, even one on the other side of the school district. Due to the successful first run with Google Forms as a means of peer-assessment in Studio 113, I knew the only impediment to connecting with a class from a different school would be matching up schedules. After speaking with a respected colleague, Denise Ramsey of Flowery Branch High School, the blueprint for a limitless class and lesson plan began to take shape. The walls came crumbling down. Mrs. Ramsey and I embarked on a plan to merge my East Hall students with her Flowery Branch students in a two-week attempt to once-and-for-all conquer any weaknesses and misunderstandings with the analytical prompt of the AP Language exam. Our plan consisted of two phases.

Phase 1

Just before Spring Break, students in both schools on the same day composed analytical essays stemming from a common prompt. All students had just fifty minutes to read the prompt and passage, to brainstorm for writing ideas, and to craft a well-written analytical essay worthy of a solid score from the AP Language free-response rubric. The students’ essays were exchanged via our district mail courier in only a couple of days. Under the anonymity of assigned numbers, the students were then asked to critique two-to-three separate essays using this Google Form. For the next week, both Mrs. Ramsey and I continued to follow our individual curricula while setting a flexible due date for all peer-assessments. All essays were eventually reviewed, and a live link was shared with students from both schools while I worked on polishing up the final spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. To say the students were eager to read the constructive criticism found on the live link is a gross understatement. They experienced a range of emotions. They were ecstatic, disappointed, surprised, pleased, angry, and frustrated. Overall, however, they were challenged to improve. Once Phase 1 was completed, the second part of the plan was ready to begin.

Phase 2

For several days, my colleague and I discussed essays with our respective students and tried to ascertain solid feedback. What did the students think about the process? Were their assessments and scoring accurate? Were the students tougher on each other than the teachers may have been? Overall, did all students receive information that will ultimately lead towards improvement? To discuss the success of Phase 1 and to practice dissecting another analytical prompt, we decided to virtually connect both classes using Microsoft Lync, a video conferencing and instant messaging program made available to our district this school year. The success of two Twitter tweet-ups with colleagues and students from Virginia and New Jersey proved to me that classrooms are limited only by one’s imagination. Conducting a virtual class across the county would be no problem. Armed with iPads and laptops, students were easily directed to the four main websites when our classes “Lync”-ed up. These four sites were: my AP Language teacher page, a TodaysMeet backchannel, the shared spreadsheet of all peer-assessed essays, and the link to the next prompt to be discussed. Take a look at the video below to view the setup for our virtual class that took place on April 18th. Although we ran out of time on this particular day, the overall lesson was already a success. Care to watch the class in action? If so, scroll down and click play. If you are looking to connect with a class of eager students but can't see past the mortar and blocks, don't reach for an archaic demolition tool. Instead, hit me up on Google Hangouts, Skype, Lync, or even FaceTime. We can plan out a rocking lesson plan and watch the walls crumble around us. Trust me. The view will be amazing. And the possibilities...infinite.

60 Seconds & a Camera: Essentials for a Culminating Activity

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on April 10, 2013.)

Watch     Please excuse any unintentional misleading as suggested by the above title. In all exactness, the blueprint for rendering a solid “60-Second Recap” is a bit more involved and time-consuming, but the clockwork immersed in the process is replete with analytical and interactive reading, classroom ownership, creativity, and autonomy. Before detailing the foundation and framework that constituted the “60-Second Recaps,” take a look at these examples from our American Literature classes that culminated in one minute and one camera.

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Bret Harte (60-Second Recaps)

How did we get there? Here is our meticulous path to success.

Working & Reading the Assigned Literature with an Interactive Structure

For the assigned study of Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” our class in Studio 113 created another interactive learning structure to guide us through the character analyses, the author’s style and diction, and any examples of American literary genres. The “Audience and Actors” interactive structure invited a fixed team of volunteer actors and actresses to bring the literature to life. Seated around the stage in the center of our classroom, these gregarious students performed certain scenes when prompted by the teacher or when requested by the students. Positioned on the stage, a team of volunteer readers kept us moving through chunks of literature at an appropriate pace. Using the TodaysMeet backchannel and armed with iPads, smartphones, and laptops, the audience of four stations had plenty to do. Station 1 searched for proof of Realism, Regionalism, and Naturalism. Station 2 created character profiles of Mother Shipton, the Duchess, Piney Woods, John Oakhurst, Uncle Billy, and Tom Simson. Our team of actors and actresses did their best to resemble the suggestions from Station 2. The students in Station 3 challenged their peers by modeling Socratic thinking. Next to the hilarious acting, these thoughtful questions prompted many unique and upper level responses from Station 4, which was asked to comment verbally or non-verbally through our established backchannel. To maintain an open atmosphere where no thoughts or ideas were squelched, all students were asked to comment via the backchannel while maintaining a primary focus as assigned per station. To be quite honest, the rotation of the audience members for all four stations was not meticulously timed. Instead, it was very fluid and flexible. I simply relied on the data produced from my teacher’s heart to determine when to transition into the next stations. It took nearly three class periods of fifty minutes to finish our reading of Bret Harte’s famous short story.

Introducing the 60-Second Recap

After a quick, traditional class discussion that cleared up any misconceptions about the assigned literature, I used this 60-second recap of Forrest Gump and this awesome website to introduce the collective challenge. I was also quite certain a video of famous movie mistakes would set the tone for focusing on all details. Click here to see the video that got the students’ attention.

Fostering Spontaneity and Creativity

I am a firm believer that our current educational system is not fostering spontaneity and creativity at a satisfactory level, so any quick activities to energize a class and set the atmosphere for ingenuity will not be lost instructional time. In fact, think of the activities as investments for the upcoming, creative project. Want to see how students from Studio 113 got energized to brainstorm and create their 60-second recaps? Take a look at this activity.

Brainstorming the 60-Second Recap

No magic for this model of brainstorming. Using the traditional, one-hand-at-a-time model of class discussion, the students and I started with simple sheets of paper that were marked to replicate the site of our final performance: the old football field and track located behind our school. Starting from the “endzone” and modeling all notes on the smartboard, I guided the students through a blueprint of our 60-second recap. Every five-to-ten lines on the students’ college-ruled sheets of paper mimicked the five-to-ten yards on our old football field. Through a totally spontaneous but organized format, the plans for our recap took shape as students volunteered to play characters, agreed to build props, offered to film the recap, claimed leadership roles, suggested literary details, checked the local weather for an appropriate filming date, and ultimately found some way to add to the project. The students were asked to “get off the bench” and participate in some manner, and all of them found their niches.

Rehearsing and Filming the 60-Second Recap

Thankfully enough, the very next day was perfect for filming the recaps. The weather was cooperative, and the students brought all necessary props and supplies (thanks to using their smartphones as calendars and reminders). After about five rehearsals to work out the kinks, the students exhibited complete autonomy as they performed their version of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” What did I do during this time? I said nothing and stood high above in our band director’s raised platform. Take a look here at my bird’s eye view.

Mashing Up the Video

The final videos, which were actually over two minutes long per class, were edited in MovieMaker Live. After silencing the original audio and tripling the videos’ speeds, Mixcraft 6 was our technology tool of choice to drop in the final narration. Normally, students collaborate and use our in-class microphones and recording booth to perform the narrative audio file. However, our actual recording day just happened to fall on the Friday before Spring Break, so the voice you hear on the 60-second recaps is mine. Obviously, the narration would have exemplified much more talent if the students had been able to record their voices as the characters. In closing, I can hear the naysayers arguing that the 60-second recap is only good for Language Arts or Drama classes. I beg to differ. I imagine 60-second recaps that artistically represent geometric shapes, that personify the elements of the periodic table in a well-crafted story, that classify the various organisms studied in Biology class, that symbolize the appropriate steps in solving a complex algebraic equation, and that… Oh, well. I guess I should stop here because there honestly is no limit to what we as creative and connected educators can do with this innovative activity. Besides, my sixty seconds are up.

22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class Discussion

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on March 27, 2013.)

  [caption id="attachment_27836" align="alignleft" width="290"]John Hardison & Mark Anthony as Power and Double Whammy Cards John Hardison & Mark Anthony as Power and Double Whammy Cards[/caption]

  The excitement generated from the interactive learning structure I am about to reveal will definitely not be confused with the impact felt from the French and American Revolutions or the Civil Rights movement, but the student engagement and creative energy resulting from one of Studio 113’s non-traditional formats for class discussions was born out of a sort of rebellion. It was a rebellion of the boring. A polite but honest rebellion of a trite and played-out structure for class discussions. Four years ago, our AP Language students had conjectured, argued, supported, and qualified an innumerable amount of analytical and persuasive prompts until their eyes were glazed over from a robotic and hypnotic form of class discussion…the one-hand-at-a-time method. Don’t get me wrong. The students did not throw pens, put their heads down, or refuse to participate. Their increasingly lethargic expressions and uninspired answers said enough. The traditional model was not working. They needed a change. So, my colleague and I turned to some trusty characters and powerful forms of expression. How do characters like Santa, Yoda, Superman, and Socrates sound? What about powers labeled nose-to-nose, apps, sing, and resurrection? Sound boring? Enter the twenty-two power cards to revolutionize a class discussion.

Revolutionary Battle: Gamifying Literary Analysis with 22 Power Cards

Titled “Revolutionary Battle” because of its resemblance to the way soldiers lined up just before firing against their enemies during the American Revolutionary War, this gamified approach to analyzing literature is tried-and-true. Although different in design from our original “Wax Museum” and “Voting Chips” learning models, the “Revolutionary Battle” produces a comparable and enthusiastic learning environment. Perhaps the only issue is one any teacher would surely welcome: how to manage so much student creativity and excitement. Simply let the assigned literature and standards, the twenty-two "Power Cards," the seven "Double Whammy" cards, a trusty technology tool that serves as a backchannel, a couple of timers, and a scoring rubric manage all of the students’ energetic responses.

Revolutionary Battle: A Step-by-Step Process

Providing the Foundation-As always, the first step was to assign the standards and literature. For the examples shown in the embedded video below, our AP Language students were asked to analyze Lopate’s “Modern Friendships” and Tannen’s “Rapport-Talk and Report Talk.” Each team was asked to demonstrate a mastery level of understanding of one of the two essays by successfully defending any academic challenges or attacks from the opposing teams. Likewise, both teams defended one essay and attacked the other. Reading both essays was a must. Drafting Teammates-While the remaining students began reading, two volunteer captains met in private with me to select their peers from a digital roster. As both captains took turns crafting their teams, I highlighted the students’ names to indicate the availability of the remaining students. Furthermore, I cautioned both captains to construct well-rounded teams. The anonymity of the draft was non-negotiable, and the order of the draft was not disclosed to the rest of the class. Drafting the Power Cards-Immediately after selecting the teams, the two captains announced the teams, and both teams went to opposing locations to begin quietly reading the literature and plotting their game plans. Students were also asked to study the list of twenty-two “Power Cards” and seven “Double Whammy” cards. “Power Cards” allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in very creative ways, whereas the “Double Whammy” cards present disruptions to the opposing team or save teammates from struggling presentations. Both teams began the following day’s class by systematically picking their “Power Cards,” one per teammate. Although the seven “Double Whammy” cards may be selected at any time, they are considered to be held by each team and not just one individual. A total of three “Double Whammy” cards may be chosen, and the order they are selected in the draft could be detrimental to each team’s success. Picking too early will allow the opposing team to snatch up a strong “Power Card,” but picking too late may rule out a saving “Double Whammy” card. As with any draft, timing is everything. Want to see the result of using Photofunia to create all twenty-nine cards? Click here. For the complete list of cards and descriptions, please take a look at the PDF file embedded below or click here. Preparing for Battle-The first task for both teams was to prepare for the opposing team’s attack by thoroughly reading and discussing the literature. This was usually completed in two class periods. The second task (usually homework) was to read the second piece of literature while formulating creative questions to test the other team’s knowledge. These questions, analytical and rhetorical in nature, were definitely of the AP Language level. Beginning the Game-A coin flip quickly revealed the order of attack. The attacking team had thirty seconds to step onto our six-sided stage and begin delivering the question to the other team. Each question was repeated, and a specific “Power Card” from the opposing team was chosen. The defending team had two minutes to formulate a response. When the online timer buzzed, the defending team mounted the stage and answered the prompt. Afterwards, the two teams switched roles. Want to see it in action? Take a look at this embedded video. Scoring the Rounds-Once both teams have attacked and defended, a score is recorded for each team per round. This score ranges from 1 to 5 (1=awful, 2=poor, 3=average, 4=good, 5=awesome) and takes into consideration the difficulty of the prompts. The game is completely over once all “Power Cards” have been exhausted. The “Double Whammy” cards, which may be submitted at any time, should be used before a team spends its last “Power Card.” Keeping Students Engaged/Active After Performing-Once a student presented his response and his “Power Card” was defunct, he was asked to join our on-going back channel via Todaysmeet. On this backchannel, students continually discussed the answers delivered by their peers. The only way students will not be involved in the backchannel is if they are somehow brought back into the game by specific “Power Cards” or “Double Whammy” cards. So, if you ever find your students staring back at you with numb eyes during a class discussion, remember the “Revolutionary Battle” learning structure from Studio 113. I promise it will energize a sedentary class of students by providing them with challenging and creative outlets to express their understanding of the assigned content. The result will be a powerful class involving active learners and a reinvigorated, facilitating teacher. In our classroom, that’s called a double whammy. Want to experience these interactive learning structures and more? Join me for a three-hour workshop at ISTE 13.

A Teacher's Heart and Foundational Data

(Originally published on GettingSmart.com on March 14, 2013.)

Please allow me to write honestly and drop it like it’s hot for a moment. To put it bluntly, I am afraid. You see, I have a recurring nightmare that often leaves me drenched in sweat with sky-rocketing blood pressure and my nerves shot. This dream, made unpleasant by a persistent sound of the mouse click, usually catapults me to an upright position in bed, only to stare into the darkness and whisper to myself, “Thank, goodness. It was just a dream.” Or was it? Let’s face it. Obtaining educational data today is a simple click away. If I seek professional improvement in the area of my weakest teaching areas as they apply to the American Literature End-of-Course Tests, I study the online data of my students’ test scores. If I am curious about the weakest standards on a recent Socrative quiz in AP Language, I download the results via an e-mailed Excel spreadsheet and look for any columns of red. If I want my students to take full advantage of their peers’ assessments of their timed essays, I develop an elaborate and highly successful lesson plan that integrates Google forms and an ensuing self-prescribed project to patch up any standards-based holes. What is the prevalent sound of these professional practices? A click of the mouse in search of data. I would be absolutely lying if I said I didn’t want my students to succeed on their standards based assessments. In fact, I want them to excel. I want them to completely demonstrate mastery of all standards in every domain measureable. There is not one lesson plan or learning activity that takes place in our collaborative classroom, Studio 113, that isn’t standards-based. Therefore, I use data. So what is my fear? What is my recurring nightmare? I fear the incessant mouse clicks to ascertain my latest teaching evaluation, to upload professional documentation, to peruse my students’ latest scores, and to retrieve the multitude of data needed for today’s educators might ultimately “data-ize” the students and mute the most important source of educational feedback I have come to know in all my fourteen years in a Language Arts classroom…my teacher’s heart.

Growing and Strengthening a Teacher’s Heart

Just like any other muscle, my teacher’s heart needs a consistent workout to stay strong. In order to keep it the foundational source of my educational data, I will continue to implement the teaching practices mentioned below: For fourteen years, my classes have always begun the first week of school by participating in what I call “Training Camp.” Based in part on Harry Wong’s The First Days of School and born out of an ill-prepared student teaching experience, this four-to-five day lesson plan takes students through all required information. By merging literature, syllabus notes, and classroom procedures with immediate practice of the management system, students learn every aspect of our class. These procedures include transitioning into teams, contributing responsibly to the classroom learning environment, adhering to the BYOD policy, speaking respectfully during whole-class discussions, and, of course, maintaining an efficient noise level by asking students to become quiet in five seconds with a raised right hand. Assuredly, nothing is perfect, but the system runs well enough to establish a foundation that echoes our own hearts. To gain a general understanding of the students and to bolster the process of developing positive teacher-pupil relationships, I will continue to implement an informational survey during the first week of school. This information ranges from students’ personal interests, talents, weaknesses, technology prowess, and wishes for our Studio 113 learning family. Click here to see the survey we used at the beginning of this year. No students wish for a completely sedentary classroom. Ever since my first year in the late nineties, students and I have been developing interactive learning structures that engage students by asking them to bring literature to life. Thanks to a newly designed classroom, we now are able to make thinking and reading visible by improvisationally acting and presenting on a six-sided stage in the middle of our class. Some of our structures may be as off-the-wall as our original Wax Museum, whereas others like the Voting Chips structure are gamifying approaches intended to make traditional multiple choice questions a bit more exciting and involved. Over the years, we have created about forty authentic learning models. These structures mix random accountability, whole class cooperation and collaboration, and a lot of learning excitement with the assigned standards. Click here to experience the structures yourself at ISTE ’13. One of my favorite ways to stay close to my teaching heart’s data is to implement Project/Passion/Problem-Based Learning contracts. Although this is something the students and I have been developing for many years, the overall plan came together beautifully this year with our first PBL contract. It is as simple as this: I print out a contract that stipulates the required standards and level of mastery expected, and the students propose their modes of demonstrating mastery. After an agreement is reached by all parties, the contract is signed and the learning begins. Click here to see the finer details of our PBL contracts and here to view some of the students’ presentations. By joining learning communities in other schools from our own district and other states through tech tools like Twitter and Skype, the classroom walls are beginning to flatten and students are able to reach out and extend education past their comfort zones. Take a peek at one of our successful lesson plans that leveraged the power of tech tools to bring four schools from three different states together at the same time outside of class. Although I respect many conflicting views on the subject of smartphones in the class, I continue to practice forward thinking skills and seek ways to implement the powerful handheld laptops, which I now refer to as “palmtops.” Want to see how we use BYOD to advance our lesson plans and engage our students with creativity and connectivity? Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. Perhaps the best way to clearly hear my teacher’s heart and the data it is communicating is to listen to my students. How do they learn? What would make them jump out of bed to come to school? What am I doing poorly as a teacher? The power of a Google Form gives me all the feedback I need. Here’s an example survey we used on the first day after Christmas break. One of my good friends, Greg O’Dell, finally persuaded me at ISTE ’11 in Philadelphia to give Twitter a try. I kept telling him I was way too busy with grading essays on Sundays to tweet about something no one wanted to hear anyway. Boy, was I way off. Out of respect for my friend and due to the overwhelming evidence presented to me, I gave it a try. Two years later, I feel like I have learned as much as a doctoral candidate. By joining a professional learning network of undeniably passionate educators from around the world, a little professional assistance is just a message away. Virtually, I teach on an infinite hall of amazing teachers and each one is right next door. In a nutshell, writing is a blessing to me. Writing is living. I am increasingly thankful to GettingSmart.com for allowing me to share my classroom practices and ideas. By sharing my struggles and successes in this amazing profession, I have turned myself transparent. This is the only way I can improve, seek better practices, and connect with authentic forward thinkers who are blazing the trail of education today. In closing and in keeping with my honesty, I must admit there is another dream that occurs much more than the aforementioned nightmare. In this dream, I find myself in my preferred environment. And… I’m listening to students during a thought-provoking discussion. I’m mesmerized by a team’s originally written and recorded song. I’m witnessing a “lightbulb” moment from the quiet kid in the corner. I’m hearing a collective “Awwwww” from a disappointed class as the bell rings. I’m reading an e-mail from a former student of years past and how Studio 113’s approach to education changed his direction. And I'm loving my job as I listen to my students. Our classroom echoes the sound of my teacher’s heart and the pulse of all those students attached to it. It’s my foundational data and it will never go offline.

Padlet: Today's Digital Sheet of Paper

(Originally published on February 27, 2013, for GettingSmart.com.)

Even if you had only attended one class in your entire life, more than likely you have been asked, “Can I borrow a sheet of paper?” Some laid-back, often-tardy-to-school classmate probably gave you some excuse just as the rest of the students began diligently scribbling down resemblances of the teacher’s key lecture points. If you are anything like me, you half-reluctantly handed over a sheet of paper and chalked the very minor loss up as no big deal. I often wonder if that question would have been uttered so many times in classrooms all across the world if paper in the past had been interactive. As I think back to my high school and college years, I am absolutely positive an imaginative and collaborative sheet of paper would have interested me much more than the typical college-ruled. Imagine these ideas about fifteen to twenty years ago: What if a double-tap of my pencil anywhere on my sheet of paper would have brought up a multitude of options? What if a picture directly related to my teacher’s lesson suddenly appeared on my sheet of notes? What if a small sampling of a newspaper or magazine article would have been seamlessly interwoven into the paper’s fibers and made clearly visible? What if another double-tap of my writing utensil would have transformed my handwriting of key points into a version from one of my reliable classmates? Heck, maybe if I had placed a call from home to my paper, I would have verbally and simultaneously jotted down some notes. And, of course, what if this very creative sheet of notes could have been left in my locker but viewed at home the very same night? Now that would have been a powerful sheet of paper twenty years ago. In fact, there is little doubt that I would have never asked, “Hey, man, can I bum a sheet?” One very simple-to-use modern example of this type of creativity and interactivity is Padlet, today’s digital sheet of paper.

An Example from Studio 113

Our American Literature classes in Studio 113 recently began reading The Red Badge of Courage as a part of our study of Realism. The students and I decided to try a different form of note taking. We have already used Google Forms and Spreadsheets, Polleverywhere, Todaysmeet, Twitter, and many others. Although our goal for next year is to share all notes and documents via Evernote and Google Drive, Padlet offered us immediate simplicity. We had no time to get bogged down in figuring out how to manage and share our notes. We needed to effortlessly merge our natural tendency to accumulate thoughts and ideas while continuing to read the assigned novel. Padlet, formerly known as Wallwisher, was the perfect match. Take a look at the embedded digital sheet below to get an idea of where our classes are headed. While remembering that our students have only just begun, please find that each reading team of three-to-four students has created a shared wall that is linked on our class sheet of notes.

Easy Set-Up and Sharing

Besides its reliability, one of Padlet’s most appealing characteristics is its lack of difficulty when creating and sharing a wall. Although I usually post links only, I sometimes embed the entire wall of notes directly into my teacherpage. Do you only have three minutes to set-up a wall before the bell rings and thirty-five students are staring at you for directions? No problem. The task can be done that quickly. See for yourself.

Effortless Posting in a Variety of Ways

Padlet is perfect with BYOD. Just last week our students were reading in Chapter One of The Red Badge of Courage about Henry Fleming’s personal fears before taking aim in his first Civil War battle. In hopes of hooking the students into the famous literature, I asked students to quickly peruse various reputable news sources on the internet to find current events that related thematically to the protagonist. In a flash, students were thumbing through articles on smartphones, zooming in on iPads, clicking feverishly on laptops, while using these vary same devices to post notes on the collaborative wall. The result? A shared wall of links with textual and parenthetical citations that pointed to interesting, up-to-date stories. In fact, Padlet is very flexible in allowing various forms of notes. Take a look below at Padlet’s versatility.

Other Creative Uses

Here’s a challenge. If you made it to the bottom of this blog post, why not give it a try yourself? How can you use Padlet to enhance a lesson plan? Click here or take a look at the embedded Padlet below and feel free to drop a related link, share an informative article, or even add a picture with your comment. But whatever you do, don’t ask the age-old question, “Can I borrow a sheet of paper?” If you do, I’ll simply point to the wall…Padlet’s digital paper for today’s BYOD classroom.