Tech Newsletter: 5 Ways School Pandemic Plans Can Reinvigorate our Tech in the Everyday Classroom.

No matter where your school falls geographically, philosophically, or academically you might be able to relate to the discussion that is now happening in hallways, classrooms, and meeting rooms about the COVID-19 outbreak. What would we do if we had to close school due to a pandemic, natural disaster, or other situation for an extended period of time?

A silver lining to the anxious energy that is increasing in the States around Coronavirus is the preparation time we have as we sit, watch, and wait while other parts of the world battle against the virus’ spread. As school decision makers frantically assess, some of us are preparing ourselves to deliver on a promise as tech professionals in education.

Our promise has been that if schools and tax payers and investors were willing to deep dive into the 1:1 learning atmosphere, we’d in turn provide meaningful education no matter the time or place. This promise in the wake of viruses and words like Pandemic is at its core the implementation of E-Learning and Snow Day Kits and now Continuing Education Plans in light of extended school closures.

In a webinar with the CDC and the Maine Department of Education this morning, when discussing potential closure plans it was said that, “we (the state) do not expect anyone to conduct school online. That is not an expectation – but if it is a task you (as a school) are open to attempt in a situation of need, we support it”.

I’ve been making a game plan for this for weeks. And even in just thinking about what we would need and how we would move forward I’ve learned a lot about how my school specifically can learn from this situation. So this is what I’ve come to, and what I’ve realized through this process.

1. We should Check on Students’ Home Technology Resources Throughout the Year, not just in Light of Closures.

After talking to my boss we established a first step for continuing education in light of a closing – and in my meeting this morning the DOE agreed with our first step as well. Double check the number of students with WiFi at home as it stands today. In our school we provide a school iPad for every student that they take home, a small number (15/1500) leave their devices at school for various reasons so that requires preparation too. Maybe as a school you’d be providing devices only to those who don’t have them at home, the variables are different but the step is the same.
As we had this discussion I thought, as a teacher, this is important to know in general. With no home WiFi, students may be forced to download digital textbooks, pdf’s, or set up working offline in Google Drive in order to succeed with daily homework. Additional barriers can be put between them and their learning. But how much energy do we currently promote towards continuing our equitable access to technology as the year goes on? Homework in the form of research projects may be a problem without WiFi – so as a teacher do you regularly supplement that practice with resources that can be downloaded before leaving school? The need for this question stretches beyond school emergencies and into our daily teaching strategies. Have you asked kids lately where they stand? If their situation has changed? Do you adequately supplement material?

2. Our Learning Platforms are Not Being Utilized to their Full Intention, but it’s Not Too Late

Does my Learning Platform Compliment all Modes of Learning? What ways do I not use it that I could for home learning and for the future?

Next we felt the need to establish a readiness guide around who does what where when it comes to online learning and content delivery. Our school believes in an autonomous tech choice so teachers get to pick their own learning management systems and tech tools. In most recent years I see Google Classroom as the predominant tool since we don’t invest in school wide access to platforms like Canvas or Schoology.

For us I’m thinking we are going to push everyone in the direction of GC so we can include integrations for home learning like Google Calendar, Drive, and our GMail accounts, but also the recent Enterprise Features of Google Meetings made free for schools in light of the Pandemic threat.

For your buildings the answer may look different, but this concept should be thought of and discussed with staff in preparation of a closure. Specifically – does your platform support not only reviewing at home, turning work in from home, but also receiving instruction from home? Which tools allow you to conference, share presentations, speak live, chat, and more? And how can we use them during our regularly scheduled classes?

If your current platform doesn’t, do you have the skills and tools to App Smash in order to fill the gaps. Let’s say you use Nearpod, you’ll be pumped to know that you can still do so from afar, and make sure all of your students are on the same page (literally). You might post the Nearpod Link to your website or a Shared Google Calendar for kids to join at a specific time from home, and then assign it as homework for those that don’t or can’t view it on time. That’s App Smashing for success as a teacher. Why don’t we do more of it every other day?

3.) Streamlining and Chunking Content and Skill Goals Makes for Best Practice

When having to get straight to the point to plan digital lessons you may find yourself reviewing standards or goals you hadn’t looked at in some time. The question of “What do my kids need to know?” allows us to set goals that are filled with less busy work and more practical application of our course in general.

Even your existing order and timeline may be evaluated when you have to consider, what was I going to get out of my students, or help them to learn in the next two weeks? How can I do this with them from afar? You may scrap the Lecture and for a Class Discussion and use Google Classroom’s Question feature to do so. Maybe you have them create a presentation

Not only may this help you get a better of understanding of exactly what students need to display to demonstrate learning, but it may help you think of new “ways in” to teach in terms of best practice.

4.) Instead of reinventing the wheel, how can I supplement materials that inform instruction and are flexible for students?

So the thought of filming yourself or live streaming to your students makes you have secondhand embarrassment, no big deal. The sound of my own voice definitely gives me the chills. So, what can you do to supplement instruction from home without making hours of your own video content? Slideshows? Khan Academy? Youtube videos? Edpuzzle that ties it all together and assesses while they watch a video? The options are endless but time is limited to prepare, so what can you learn, or what do you know that will prepare you to make these instructional decisions.

Why aren’t we doing this daily? I always say that we provide much more of these materials for Math review or to learn Photosynthesis, but when writing an essay us English teachers almost never think – could I provide them a video to help them remember what makes a great essay, or conveys the writing process? Maybe your “homework” is on the lighter end because you disagree with the concept, there are school rules around it, or other – so now you have to provide at home content to hesitant learners like never before. Other people can provide better edited, more intriguing content than I can and it already exists out there! Supplementing a text for a video isn’t a bad thing, especially when we are re-examining how we are teaching for a new situation.

#5) There are still Brick and Mortar Barriers to be Broken that can Help our Students Learn Better Every Single Day

I can remember the first time I hyped up a lesson in my English class enough that a student who had planned a vacation with their family asked if they could Facetime in while she missed it. The kids thought it was so cool when I answered her call and she participated in discussions from a far. I shouldn’t have been surprised that every other kid didn’t follow suit on other learning days when they stayed home sick or had long weekend trips.

We allow the time limits and constraints of our classroom to excuse us from potentially scary new expectations for kids. We extend due dates after snow days or don’t hold kids accountable for learning that was only provided online because it’s easier and it comes with less potential issues. If we can plan to shut down entire schools due to this pandemic, why can’t we remind kids that with the resources at their fingertips learning should be constant?

Teacher Tech Newsletter #1 – 2/11/2020

Hi Everyone,

I am super excited to bring you teacher tech tips & news directly to your email. This week I have some iPad specific tips, apps to try, and websites! Along with some time management skill builders with the clock on an iPhone or iPad and lastly a suggested Youtube 360 video for you.

If you have questions or suggestions please reach out and I hope these are some helpful tools for you all to try!

Is Your Digital Assignment Accessible to All Learners?

How often do you think about whether or not your assignments posted online are accessible to all learners? I know, sometimes we have other agenda’s as teachers… like getting through the school day, meeting goals of our grade level, building, and district. No big deal.

But I’ve been working with a student on some tech needs as she embarks on receiving an education as a learner with dyslexia. One of the parts of this job that I love is seeing all ends of the classroom experience – so as a former teacher I am now viewing what assignments look like to students of this experience.

This student is a strong tech user with a school provided laptop. She has accessibility turned on to read to her – she has shortcuts to make it happen, and she is utilizing her school issued device to the best of her ability. But sometimes the material that is posted poses a barrier.

So here are my tips and tricks for figuring out if you’re utilizing the tools at your disposal to benefit the audience you have in-front of you specifically around students that need audio, speech-to-text, text-to-speech accommodations.

The Barrier: Scanned Papers/Materials that won’t work with Speech/Translation Accommodations

In part of our daily routines, going more digital, and providing materials to kids on platforms like Google Classroom, it’s tempting to post material by scanning our favorite article, short story, or even chapter of a textbook through our School’s copier.

But beware – for a student who needs accommodations like text-to-speech, translation, or other accessibility features, most computers cannot read these documents because they see the PDF as a Picture, not Words. Some PDF’s found online have us run into the same issue when we’ve downloaded or taken from someone else’s scanned copy.

In some cases on a laptop/chromebook you can add an OCR scanner Like Copyfish, to trace over the words of a PDF that was initially made on a computer (a worksheet you typed and exported) or other. This at times can allow for a student to use their device to be read aloud. But many times that conversion can be confusing for a kid to perform, and otherwise end up with a document that still cannot be read to them due to the fact it was a scanned copy not easy to read by the third party.

On an iPad or other tablets there are awesome apps like Scanner Pro that allow students to upload, take a picture, or scan paper/pdf’s to do this same process and have much better luck with non-digital materials than those on laptops. But, still, the process can be tricky and time consuming for a student just trying to complete their work.

So when we are posting our content – we can all work to keep in mind that just because it is on the device – doesn’t mean it works with the device itself to help all students learn.

The Accommodations

Using friendly files that work with your device’s accessibility features.

Websites can all be read on laptops and iPads with accessibility by having students highlight and select speak or read when they are using the tool’s appropriate accessibility features. So, if you use a resource thats print that offers a web based version (think Junior Scholastic, news articles, etc.) try and provide the link to the unscanned version elsewhere.
*If it doesn’t have a digital version, consider this when picking materials, or work to find materials that are similar that you can provide as a substitution or addition to reading.

Combine Materials for All Learners

Some textbooks provide digital versions that you can access to upon purchase, but truth is if you’re scanning it, they probably don’t, right?

I am a huge fan of creating an Educational Youtube Playlist as you lesson-plan with videos and materials that cover the same concepts. A video can provide the necessary content in a more accessible format for many of our students and can be managed by great apps like Ed Puzzle to make sure students are gaining the information they need from the video and not just skipping through. Provide these to all students or the specifics in substitute or as a complement in order to assist in helping those with learning disabilities to understand.
*If Youtube is blocked no fear check out other sources for videos like Khan Academy, PBS, Pexels, National Geographic, and others.

Audiobooks
Fun Fact: In our state (Maine) If you have a Public Library Card audiobooks are free to be checked out from any library at this site and this is the case for many state library programs. It’s never been so cool to have a library card.
Other apps and paid services like Bookshare & Read2Go allow us to assign and accommodate reading for students as well on an individual paid for basis.

Encourage audio tools when acceptable.
If the information you need from a student is that they understand a concept or idea, but you don’t need to know that they can read or write proficiently for the specific task, encourage the use of apps and online tools that record a voice. Vocaroo is an EASY online tool that provides a link to an audio recording in a matter of seconds on any device. And iPads come with screen recording tools built in, the Voice Memos app, and more. iPhones & iPads themselves have a microphone built into the keyboard for easy speech-to-text options as well. Natural Readers is my suggested iPad app and website that does it all for students who need something read aloud.

For print materials, or in this case materials that act like print such as scanned PDFs, we can also accommodate in person – with an ed-tech or other professional that agrees to read to students – but when our work goes beyond our school walls and into homework we should always encourage these types of considerations when prepping materials.

Assigning Accommodating Materials Individually is now Easier Than Ever

If your course depends on learners executing reading or writing skills and you can’t or shouldn’t provide these accommodations to all students – platforms like Google Classroom allow you to assign work to just one or small groups of students!

Teachers: The 3 Questions to Guide Your Planning for Next School Year.

Whether you are beginning, at the middle, or near the end of your Summer vacation, chances are you’ve let yourself think a little about next school year. If you haven’t it’s no crime, but you are now given that you clicked on this.

Since planning your curriculum canned, curated, or a combination is such a simple feat (ha) I’m going to try to make it simple for you to organize your thoughts around what your classroom and students need for next year.

Something teachers come into my office with a LOT, especially given the culture around reducing paper, is the question of how much work to post online. They want to know if they’re using devices too little or too much and if they are accommodating all of their students by doing either. What they’re really asking is, what does good teaching look like in 2019? And are they doing it “right”?

The great news we all have our educational context; style, resources, background, content – you know the deal, so I can’t give you an exact answer. But we are all here for students – and to help them learn, grow, and succeed. I can’t claim to be an expert on anything but when I sit down to plan, and think about what will engage, challenge, and excite the students of my room – here is what I ask myself.

Am I Providing Learning Opportunity Beyond our Classroom?

More so, am I providing opportunities that extend through the classroom walls for flexible learning options beyond brick and mortar? Why You Ask? Well I’ve decided to consult myself as a student to answer your question.

Can we read about the Salem Witch Trials, answer comprehension questions, and discuss Abigail Williams’ moral compass through Google Classroom? Sure. You want to take a walk around Salem Virtually while doing so? Duh – I get to move. (Check it Out)

Can I recite to you the Constitution? Potentially, while consulting Google… Would I like to play a game where I work in a law office and have to assign different characters crimes to lawyers based on their knowledge of the constitution to earn points against a clock? Yes, because I’m a 12 year old at heart. (Do I have a Right Game)

Also – could I pay attention to you speaking while Joey Stickney picks at something in his teeth and then stares at it repetitively? I could try. But I could also go over the notes again from my quiet bedroom at home via your Explain Everything Video just to be safe.
Catch my drift?

Am I expecting my students to Create or Curate?

It’s proven that creation is the future – and it requires skills that our society needs and our hearts crave. Expecting students to regurgitate is not only a disgusting concept – it is lower level. Is it hard for you to imagine how to create in your content area? No fear.

Create a Product Shark Tank Style: This assignment can involve Math, Public Speaking, Writing, and Science. In a more guided way I’ve had students create their own subscription box service like HelloFresh, FabFitFun Boxes, or Dollar Shave Club. Check out the Assignment Here.

Create an Exhibit: Curation isn’t just for history – it’s artistic – it’s research based – and it’s higher ordered. Give students a Vocabulary word and Curate all of the meanings, symbols, literary & historical references, and more. I have a Guide to Exhibit Creating for Any Content Here

Am I asking students to Reflect?

What lesson have you learned that didn’t come through reflection? I probably shouldn’t have eaten that fried dough before the tilt-a-wirl. I probably shouldn’t have gotten a tattoo of a Chinese Word without making sure it translated properly. I could go on. But really – if your kids don’t have built in opportunities to reflect, chances are what they learn won’t be there for long.

Provide reflection opportunities in written and verbal form. This may be in front of the class, a pair and share, or an exit ticket. But make them, and make them ahead of time. It will be worth it.

Have students keep work in a portfolio to reflect on later. Not only is seeing their growth important, but being able to put into words how they’ve progressed is also imperative to learning.

Reflection on behavior and decision making is a life skill that can impact grades, success rates, and more importantly self regulation. By allowing students to see how their emotions connected to their decisions and therefore their results you can teach mindfulness that can be carried into their adult lives.
Engaging Reflection Activities for Students

Five Classroom Activities to Finish the Year: reflections for students that are fun + engaging.

It’s the final stretch of the school year, but I didn’t have to tell you that. You already know this based on the number of times you have been asked by students to go outside today, HINT* it’s four times the number of whiteboard markers PLUS all the pencils you have left to your name.

If you’re like me you’re scouring the internet to find something for your students that isn’t boring, but isn’t too much work – am I right or am I right? Of course we, as caring and wonderful teachers, also care about practicing mindfulness and coming full circle with our instruction too – oops should have put that first. So, here are my go-to reflective activities that you won’t have to threaten students over (because they’ll guess they’re okay) and provide some voice and choice.

Plus* The link to the Free Access to a Google Slideshow of these handouts plus an Infographic Template is at my TpT store Here:

So here they are – my reflection activities for students – that give them a little voice & choice – and let you let the students do the work.

1. The 60 Second Recap

2. An Instagram Feed Portfolio

Reflective Infographic

My Year in Tweets

Unboxing your Year

Advice to Student Teachers: Find some #TeacherFriends.

Yes, pictured above is me in my student teaching classroom – wearing an outfit that says “I have no clue how to adult”. But today when I came across this photo, not long after being asked to speak to some Student Teachers that are spending their spring preparing to land jobs next fall, I wondered what advice I could offer.

I love when I read blogs and Instagram posts that ask teachers to serve up some wisdom to those starting out and I see things like “avoid taking home too much grading”, and “here’s when to use assigned seats”. I love hearing tips and tricks that are concrete and refine the trade of teaching.

As I thought about the things I hadn’t been told – I couldn’t help but remember the things that I had been told by mentors that I didn’t love. “Learn when to say no, or they’ll never stop pushing” – “The budget probably isn’t there so don’t bother asking” – “You’re new, you should be the first one in the building and the last one out” – “Don’t smile until November”- I could continue.

These pieces of advice bothered me at an ideological level. But it was because these were things I wanted to change, not accept, and the people shoveling some of this “there’s nothing you can do” brainfood into my mouth had been worn, tired, and over-it-all, for so long they couldn’t remember what it felt like to be new and excited like me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had great mentors in my hallway – with the best ideas, lessons to steal, and shoulders to lean on, and well I’ve had some not so great ones too. And that’s when it occurred to me – the advice that no one ever told me – and that most people don’t mention about entering the adult workforce.

The first time I went away to sleep away camp I met a friend that I loved literally on the ride there. We agreed to bunk together, eat lunch together, and I couldn’t get over how well we got along – for the first twenty-four hours. When I called my mom to complain on the twenty-fifth, she said: “Lauren, sometimes your first-friend is your worst-friend”. Now that may be dramatic in some respects – but as I’ve aged I’ve remembered that what Mom really meant was be careful and cautious – even slow – with picking your friends.

Later in life I transformed mom’s words as I’d council kids before and after school or talk to my class as a whole I would reference the adage “You are the sum of your five closest friends” and I believe that whole-heartedly. Don’t like the direction you’re going? Want more for your life, your interests, your hobbies? I dare you to examine the five people you choose to spend the most time with – and tell me what they say about you. I’m not telling you to be a fairweather friend – but I am saying – think about it. Good and Hard.

Here’s what that adage means to your success within the classroom as a teacher. The people you surround yourself with as a support system of teacher friends – they indicate what you’re going to do, where you’re going to go, and ultimately how you’re going to feel about your job. As someone who changed schools recently, I’ve been trying to make better choices in surrounding myself with peers in the workplace with similar goals and hopes for their careers but also in disposition. Want to get a snapshot of you five years from now in the faculty meeting? Look around at who you sit with.

People who are unhappy, unmotivated, and unintrigued by children are not your friends in the workplace.

Not only is it exhausting to prep, plan, manage, present, and grade content as a teacher but it is extra exhausting to do so with Sandra in the back preaching about the reasons why “X Y and Z” of my Whatever-Unit are “Pointless with this Place”. The issue is – in many schools – our pot to pick from for Cheerleading-Championing Teacher Besties feels small – or maybe we are so late in the game to this decision that we’ve burned some bridges or limited our professional networking options. Thank God for Social Media (I’m probably the first person to say that in a while).

#teachertribe
But really, I cannot urge the future teachers of tomorrow to do anything more than find a teacher idol on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram and just jump along for the ride. Or find a #PLC to converse with, grow with, and learn with. I have visited @writeonwithmissg ‘s profile nine-million times since I became a teacher, and I’m pretty sure I’ve even fan-girl messaged her before too. Her lessons have given me ideas, her struggles have made me feel un-alone, and her successes have made me comment “YASSS” 🤦🏻‍♀️.

Even when I had people down the hall from me that I could indeed lean on, having a virtual learning community has allowed me to grow and see the perspective I so badly need sometimes.

So my advice – to teachers young, old, experienced, inexperienced, is to find a group, a community of those learning with you. Find those people that aren’t afraid to try new things, share resources, and cry over coffee when your day has just been the worst (even if it’s a coffee emoji). Because you don’t need a Sandra in the back, you need someone by your side.

Talking to Teens about Social Media: advice from the classroom.

woman sitting on sofa with MacBook Air

OK, real talk for parents of today’s children specifically tweens & teens. Today, I spent a full day with middle schoolers talking about who they are online and what decisions they make with social media. My goal this year for when I do these presentations is to not use canned curriculum but really take the opportunity to present myself on the level of someone on their side.

I show the kids in the classroom what my Instagram feed looks like and I talk about being authentic and who I say I am. I love seeing them realize I know things about their world. One of those things that never fails to shock kids of my almost-cool existence is my awareness of their fake Instagram (finsta, spam, etc.). When I, an adult, reference this term to them they hang heads, giggle, and grow red depending on the grade – sometimes they point at others, but either way they relate. It’s like they almost think that I’ve acknowledged a secret that no one else is supposed to know. Fake Instagram for Teens

What’s With the Multiple Accounts?

Most of the time, kids create these accounts to have smaller numbers of people follow them so they can be honest and truer than the false and forced happy them they often feel the need to portray on their regular account.

Does every kid do this? No, but is it extremely common? Yes. Today specifically in the seventh-grade group that I had which was 65 individuals, more than half raised their hand when I asked a question about whether or not they had one of these. I bet more would have as well if they weren’t skeptical I’d wag my finger in response – another unrelatable adult.

But honestly, I get it, the concept of a Finsta. This world has high expectations and kids with spam accounts use it to post more often about their REAL life the way social media was intended without putting on airs of “everything is perfect” posting. And really it sounds fine – until it goes wrong.

How does it go wrong you ask? Well, they get comfortable enough to single out others on this account, bully, or post inappropriate and poor decisions. Maybe they confide too deeply in an audience they trust that betrays them or fails to tell an adult. As I told them today, even if you only have 50 finsta followers, there’s more than one that’s capable of selling out your secrets. More than one who will someday become a frenemy that screenshots and shares your post with the world.

Advice for Parents

So how do you talk about whether or not this is good or bad with your kids without scaring them to run for the social media hills? Well, maybe there’s nothing to hide, right? But clearly, there is if kids feel the need to create this alter ego that Grandma and Neighbor Jodie can’t follow? It doesn’t automatically mean they’re up to no good – but it gives them a false sense of privacy that doesn’t exist online. I repeat – does not exist.
So as someone who’s not a parent but that has these types of conversations with kids every day I urge you to consider the following as a discussion over dinner or in the next car ride between activities.

Ask, Who Are You when you’re on Social Media?

Ask them “Are you, you, when you’re on social media?” Example: list three qualities and three interests of theirs with them, and see if you can find evidence of their true self in their feeds.
Are they the same band loving, soccer playing, kind and honest kid on Snapchat or Instagram OR are they uncharacteristically gossipy, mean, or vapid? Maybe they only post about things they think are cool to others. Whatever it is ask them and see what they say when you give them examples of what you’d expect to see. And if they’re two people, consider which one should you encourage them to leave behind.

Remind them that Private isn’t Private when Online.

That’s an oxymoron. First of all, there are ways around that, I promise – but also – your followers today could be tomorrows enemies. Discuss their privacy settings, and the fact that our friends don’t always stay that way. Want to see me at prom on my Myspace in 2009 with a caption that says “Stay Classy Not Trashy?” me either, but it’s there. Keep in mind, this privacy issue does not just apply to cliques and old friendships but also to false identities and fake accounts. See the next item.

Teach them How to Verify Who they Talk With

There are predators, scammers, catfishers, and trolls – and this honestly sounds like a videogame world. Kids need to know how to decide if they should continue talking to someone who reaches out to them or block them. This is a world where every kid today in class told me their parent has had recently talked to them about Momo – every – but only a third said that their parents had discussed strangers online with them, ever. I’m not claiming that one is more dangerous than the other. Kids can get exposed to so many people and things without careful attention and thoughtful discussions. Remind them to check to see for mutual friends, locations and clues that show they are who they say they are, other linked legitimate accounts, and more ways to verify a follower’s identity.

Ask them to Empathize

Thinking before they post is so important not only because of the impact on their own future but their impact on that of others. “How would you feel if that happened to you?” Is a question for every parent’s social media bullying handbook. When I explain why kids shouldn’t engage in commenting on fake accounts, rude memes, or more – that’s the first question I ask.

Last, Tell them to Make their Online Footprint a Resume

I tell kids to make an online footprint more like resume by acknowledging the good that they do in the world on social media instead of just worrying about hiding the bad. Tomorrow’s citizens will most certainly be utilizing our actions online in this exact manner. And yes, that will happen, Linda, whether you send your kid to a school that uses technology super well, one that has home grown grass fed paper inside of a tech-free world, or even if you lock every device, Wi-Fi, and their screen time. As I put today, how can I Google them and want to hire them and not fire them? Because inevitably this is their future.

3 Ways to Advance Virtual Guest Speakers in the Classroom

My First Time Chatting:

The first time I attempted to video chat with someone, it was, of course, the end of the semester in a Senior English class titled “Research Your Life”. I had asked students to research careers of their interest and promised to get guests to Skype in that aligned.

So, I was ecstatic to find a children’s book writing Zoologist, no joke, that was located across the country in California to be our first experience. It felt groundbreaking and exciting. The times aligned and the day worked out. We were good to go. My students laughed at how awkward I would be upon the initial answering of the call, as I projected my screen to the board and waited anxiously.

They had prepared questions and were also “ready”. When no call came in, we waited, and then messaged, and then waited some more. It was an impossible feeling to disappoint already judgmental Seniors, and I was angry at the lack of communication on the other end.

Well, what a lesson did we learn when a few days later I received an email, that our poor guest speaker was involved in California wildfires and had to be relocated (imagine how my kids felt for complaining). We rescheduled and completed that Skype-call later on in the year, maybe around two or three into our excursion.

Don’t Let the Tech Speak for Itself

After you have completed a few video chats as a teacher, they feel natural – but I’ll be honest, they also almost feel quite boring depending on what you’ve prepared.

If you’re like me, maybe you have thought that having someone from across the country, or even world, is engaging in concept. Let me warn you teacher friend, for students, it can turn out to be a snooze-fest. I mean that in the most respectful way possible to those on the other end of the call. Especially if you Skype a neuroscientist talking brain pathways with no models or visuals (no offense neuroscientists).

As someone who sets these calls up for teachers weekly, I have learned how to create an engaging experience for all.

Three Ways to Succeed with Video Chats

1. Prep your students beyond asking them to come up with questions. 

Though, I’ve been in foreign language classes where students are being asked to specifically ask questions in the language that they are learning.                                                        

But if you can help it, decide specifically what students are supposed to get out of the experience other than just a great discussion that they may potentially sleep through. Consider having them answer a question you’ve been asking of them based on the content, or ask them to write a letter to a parent or someone else about what they learned after. In some of my favorite examples, students are actually presenting work to these guests as an authentic audience – amazing, am I right?

2. Before Booking ask yourself: why this person, why this content?

If there isn’t direct student interest or application at the end of a video conference call, chances are no amount of busy work you provide your kids will help engage them. Make sure you have thought good and hard about what this adds to your lesson/unit. Because at the end of the day the technology we use and choose should engage and access our kids.

Can this guest speaker provide authentic examples of how your specific content is used in the real world?
Can this experience frontload information, such as a Virtual Tour/Field trip?
Can this guest speaker deliver a pre-planned lesson on something that you aren’t as much of an expert in?

3. Use the Platform that Suits your Need

Every day there are more apps, sites, and platforms that are making it easy for classrooms to reach beyond their brick and mortar to access professionals.

Microsoft Skype Education has created a great database of individuals, lesson plans, and field trips to take that are live and operated by people who are safe for classroom use.
-Their Skype a Scientist program allows for classrooms to connect with scientists in their fields that apply content and show students examples of careers that they may not get to see otherwise.

Nepris is a paid subscription service, but for schools heavy on the career-focused educational track, it is a great investment. I would highly suggest showing the School Counseling Department or Career Center of any school.
The best part about Nepris is once you have a license you have access to request live discussions with many more individuals than Skype, but you also have access to pre-recorded chats from classrooms and professionals as well.

If you have professionals in mind that you can connect with, any discussion platform works from Zoom, WhatsApp, Facetime, to Google Hangouts and Skype.

One Last Thing: it Can Change the Culture of your Class

If you create a space where video chatting has rules, standard operating procedures, and understanding, you may even see this other funny thing occur.

Kids will ask to Call into the class when they can’t be there. I’m not kidding. It happened to me more than once. I’d prop my device in the corner and we would continue on with our day.

If you know me, you know the learning doesn’t stop, so trust me when I say this is a big deal if you do it, right friends.

Interested in other tech tools for the classroom? Check out my page Edu-Tech Tools for Teachers.

Censorshi​p of Books in Maine Schools: An opinion from behind the podium.

Recently, a parent and State Representative of my home state, has sought to ban obscene material in the form of books from classrooms across Maine.

Initially, Amy Arata planned on appealing to ban certain books featuring obscene material after her son brought home “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami. She felt that its sexually explicit nature was inappropriate for public school classrooms. Arata’s call to action claims that first, parents need more say in what their children are reading.


She also claims that something must be done to alleviate this kind of material from the classes of students who have faced trauma before they are traumatized more by the reading of similar events.

More recently, and probably based on a more clear understanding of Maine’s obscenity statute, Arata is now advocating for heavier parent involvement in the approval of these texts, by advocating the need for a statute that educators get permission from students and parents prior to assigning a book.

In an interview recently she gave the reasoning that “The way it is right now, you have to react to the book after the fact after the child has already seen it.”

My Teaching Process of Obscene Material


As an English teacher, I have mixed emotions about Arata’s proposal, that if passed and violated, will charge teachers criminally for the offense.

My curriculum has incorporated books that Arata may find obscene based on certain scenes and themes featured throughout. Books like “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and “Whale Talk” by Chris Crutcher and “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson address what it’s like to be a young person today. By using language, events, and imagery that include some swears and sexuality the writers work purposefully to connect with audiences. They do this in trying to empower and educate kids on what it means to face racism, cyclical poverty, bullying, and yes even sexual assault.

Like most teachers in my classroom prior to reading, I would discuss with my students before we read the comfort levels of the content, making them aware of what was in the book and asking that they speak to me if they were at all concerned about what they would be reading. I was and am always cognizant when choosing these books of anything traumatic in student files that could be brought up and hurt them. Often times I worried about those students that had never come out and told anyone about their specific experiences as well if I’m being honest.

And while I continue to explain minuscule examples of the work, stress, and thought that I put into these large undertakings of pairing reading with life lessons for kids, I am caught questioning, will what Arata proposes solve any problems involving trauma? Or will it just comfort the parents that are concerned which is a small group according to my experiences?

In my research, I saw in an article that Arata claimed that the defense that this material (sexual, offensive, lude) is everywhere, is a poor excuse because school’s shouldn’t be condoning it whether it exists or not. Her goal is solely to keep kids from being exposed to issues their parents don’t want them to be exposed to at school because it’s school, and that is supposed to be a place of education. She’s right.

School’s should be educating and preparing students to face a world where they understand that some obscene scenes, themes, language, and imagery, are used for purposeful artistic, scientific, literary, or other intention that establish relationship, knowledge, and connection between readers the books and our world. 

They should be able to decipher when something is appropriate, or isn’t, and that comes with experience and exposure under the careful guidance of responsible adults that can be consulted and used to inform parents and other necessary personnel of anything that consistutes concern.

The Point about Trauma and Obsenity in Classrooms


When I would consider these issues about content and it’s nature of “obscenity”, it was well known to me, as it hopefully is to Amy Arata, that based on the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey 1 in 4 Maine High School students have experienced 3 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).

I know this, prior to this recent debate, because my school district went above and beyond to inform me who was sitting in the desks in front of me as humans. An ACE is something like experiencing the death of a parent, the incarceration of a parent, abuse physical or mental by family members, sexual abuse, living with an adult with mental illness and other traumatic experiences.

Students that suffered from 3 or more of these ACE’s are more likely to experience on their own, depression, drug use, alcohol abuse, and other problems according to this same survey of Maine students.

Instead of saying, a quarter of my class has experienced some sort of trauma and limiting our reading options to let’s say Dr. Suess or The Magic Tree House Series, I instead, educate myself and my students while supporting them in a comfortable classroom climate to make sure they feel like what they’ve been through isn’t an offense that no one else has experienced, but to assist in their healing process if possible.

Because for every student, who under Arata’s proposed legislation would have a parent that sign a release form to read a book that was potentially obscene, there would most certainly be dozens of students whose parent’s don’t care enough to read a paper that goes home, who aren’t around, or are actually the violators of the abuse Arata is attempting to protect students from.

As a mandated reporter providing books and writing opportunities that allow students to feel like they can trust me, and relate to our content, I often was the first to know about many of these issues, long before a parent.

In my short five years in classrooms, I’ve had plenty of examples of adults letting me know they were thankful that our content addressed these issues so that their kid felt comfortable emailing me in the middle of the night before they were called into crisis for attempted suicide. I’ve had parents like Arata thank me for supporting them through intense bullying, or other issues related to the content from the pages of our books.

Parents Deserve a Right to Say No


Do I agree that parents should be more involved in what teachers send home for reading? Yes, because in my experience only about a third knew my name, what I taught their high school-aged children, or if there was an assignment due, not for lack of trying on my end. Communication is key for students to succeed in school, and I am open to discussing how we can strengthen this across the board, beyond book choice.

And, at the end of the day, I and our state guidelines already say that parents have the right to choose what their child reads if it is objectionable based on their point of view for personal reasons. I’ve had people opt out for religious reasons multiple times in which I, and my department and school, have had plans put in place to accommodate these situations.

The reasons that those types of statutes currently exist is so that few personal views cannot affect the whole when it comes to moral projections of what is deemed “offensive” from one family to another. See, the Supreme Court standings on obscene material if you’re curious about this.

Maine’s statute also stands by the fact that if something has scientific, literary, or artistic value and purpose, it should be taught to our future adult citizens because it will be their job to live, love, and work in a world where this kind of material is currently becoming less significant compared to the tasteless and grotesque media that is currently engulfing our young people’s lives.

The Power of Purpose


As James Baldwin said, “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.” 

English teachers everywhere are begging students to put down the phone and read the quiet pages of the books because in them are whispers of lives that can unite our world in a safe space. With purpose, obscenity is necessary, because our students are living in a society coated with it and they need to be taught and talked to about its meaning and purpose.


Before signing a bill or passing a law:
Let’s communicate to kids that trauma does indeed impact their lives, and we see that; we are there for them. Not there to dance around it, but to be in it with them, as peers, as parents, as teachers. To most certainly accommodate for those experiences by changing books, lessons, or what may be needed to help them be comforted or cope on an individual basis. But not by passing a statute that criminalizes educators for working to break down the walls of stigma that were built by generalizing all experience or material in fear.

Let’s trust the teachers in our buildings, and if one of them crosses the line, follow the chain of command and address the issue. But not micromanage the content experts that are working so diligently to create a culture of readers, empathizers, and future leaders for all, not just a few.

Let’s stand up for our students, those impacted by trauma or not, and say we want you to have access to materials that matter. We don’t want to limit your educational opportunity by adding red tape, we want to expand upon it in a relevant fashion that relates to your lives. Let’s remind them that we are here to teach what a world of tomorrow looks like by connecting it to materials of today and yesterday.

Let’s be purposeful in our actions passing statutes just as many authors are when incorporating content that is necessary to teach a lesson and mold a mind.

Lastly, let us be reminded that the individuals behind podiums are there to help, not to hurt and that with communication together we can accomplish great things for our students.







Teacher Feature: How to Use Google Forms in the Classroom for Higher Ordered Learning and Assessment

Recently, I was asked to create a google form that would automatically schedule students to meet with teachers throughout a flexible day to prepare for our middle school Academic Gallery presentations. Regardless of how that went, I was reminded of how impressive and underutilized Google Forms is for our students and our assessment and instruction. With just a little creative thought and some setup time, I noticed that we could have differentiated and self-directed learning processes all in google forms.

Did you Remember these basic tools for teaching built into Google Forms?
Some of the basic uses we often forget exist or were never shown are things like the Quiz Feature that allows for feedback after each answer. As creators, we can choose the settings wheel and toggle on the Quiz switch to assign point values and even feedback for correct and incorrect answers.

Organizationally speaking, adding sections can allow us to break up our content, and by choosing the more options dots, we can select to determine which section students are navigated to based on the answer they pick.

Consider having students go to differentiated areas of a quiz based on the level of questioning techniques. For example: if you asked students the below question and they got it wrong, instead of sending them to another question of the same idea, send them to a section that frontloads and explains about the Point of View of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Let’s also not forget that students can upload documents as answers. This has a ton of possibilities, such as the example provided, where students could complete work in another app such as a drawing, or photograph, and upload it to Google in the prompted question.

So let’s say these forgotten additions made you think, wow I can be doing more with Google Forms, what about taking this one step farther and considering the instructional ways we can utilize this if instead of dropping our paper styled quizzes into a digital template, we recreated what quizzes looked like in general.

Let’s Create Leveled/Tiered Quizzes that reinforce Learning

What am I talking about? Well, let’s go back to the redirect feature. Let’s say I’m a 9th grade English teacher, giving this Mockingbird quiz, and after section one based on the quiz settings that have been telling students whether they were correct on incorrect, kids tallied their questions right or wrong. So we asked students to answer by the initial information from the provided quiz, like below – and it redirects them based on question level and taxonomy task.
So if students only get 0 or 1 out of 5 questions correct – they get redirected to some assisted questions to remediate the reading that they didn’t do, or didn’t fully understand. What does that look like in the form?
-Well, it may be a guided reading passage like below where students get refocused on chunked passages with questions attached.
-It may be linked to a video or audio snippet that reviews the content.

Regardless, students get to self reflect, or learn the content they missed before ever hitting submit. Before you even have to see that sad reading quiz score, they can continue to learn.

What about the kids that read and knew the answers? How is this different than any other quiz?

They get to analyze and get asked questions that provide in-depth learning opportunities. If students clearly understood that Scout was the narrator they could then be prompted with a more difficult analysis question that then asks them, “What is unique about Scout’s narrative voice and how the story is told from her point of view?” that we wouldn’t always provide on a general quiz for everyone. Asking students to consider the fact that the book is told in retrospect but is also still told from a child’s point of view, not as an adult looking back. This skill requires in-depth, higher-ordered thinking

What other things can I do that are higher ordered with Google Forms?

Analysis and Reflection of the Results of Forms
Let’s talk a little bit about the data that Forms generates for you in helpful charts and graphs. When students answer a certain way, and you open the preview of responses to the pie charts and provided data collections, you can use those tools for reflection and assessment in itself.

For example, in a form I used once for student reflection I asked them the question “How prepared do you feel for what lies ahead of you after high school” (shown below as well). I could use that for their class for reflective purposes and ask some follow up questions such as:

-What does the data say about the individuals in this classroom?
-Why do you think 58% only feel somewhat prepared?
-What do you notice as a whole about how our class feels about our future?

By using the classes answers for data you get authentic and relevant responses that can teach students to interpret and reflect.

Consider how to create Long Term use out of Short Term Forms

Here’s a thought. You go through the work of creating one form, that students can repeatedly fill out that provides you with ways of seeing their growth and successes. Or that you can use the results to have them reflect on later for larger assessments.

Example for ELA: Have students continuously fill out a form that analyzes quotes, and provide them with that shared google sheet at the end to use as evidence for their writing or other work.
Additionally, have them reflect on the quotes and analyze their connections and relationships to things like themes, message, audience, and more.

Example for Math/Science: Have students complete a problem and write out the process they went through to solve it as a pre-assessment.
Then a week later have them do the same with a new problem of the same sort, then two weeks later another.
-Sort the problems in the spreadsheet by the student, to see growth and ask for reflection.


Example for Gym: Have students continuously submit the times it takes them to complete activities as a recorded Exit Ticket of demonstrated growth throughout a semester that you can share with them to go back and reflect upon.

Have an “I need Help” – or “Questions for Later” Google Form

How many of us utilize Google Forms for reinforcement for our Standard Operating Procedures? I know I always set up “What to do when the teacher isn’t available” SOP’s. Forms can help us to do this. A simple QR code in the corner of the board can take students to a help form. It can even ask the questions you were going to anyway, such as “Did you read the instructions?” “Did you check my website for resources/help?” and more!

The list can go on and on. If you are interested in having templates for these types of google forms, email lauren.levesque@thorntonacademy.org to be shared a Folder of them as examples, and thank you for reading.