My #1st5days

I posted this today on a new blog I started to specifically chronicle my return to the social studies classroom…

Wednesday marked the 5th day of my role as a 7th Grade Social Studies teacher. After some quality inspiration from my colleagues at #BLC13 in July (see these fantastic videos from Alas Media), some EdCamp inspiration, a little swashbuckling swagger from my favorite pirate, Dave Burgess, and sheer excitement about returning to the classroom as a social studies teacher, I was determined to kick off my year on the right note. I am excited about how it went…I hope my students feel the same way.

A few things I did to start the year:

Welcome my students.

Although it seems like a millennium ago, some of my favorite memories in education are from my first three years of teaching 8th grade American History at the Carroll School in Lincoln, MA. Overwhelming, exhausting and challenging are all words that can describe those years, but despite that I loved every second in the classroom with those kids. I still keep in touch with many of them, and can’t help but bubble with pride when I hear of their successes in life. Above all else, teaching is about kids. Over the past few years I have found myself wondering why some teachers stay in the field when it is clear that they don’t enjoy their students. Well, this is not the case for me. I was extremely excited to meet my students on 8/28 and I was not disappointed. Of course there are the quirky few that I know will challenge my patience, and the handful of shy students who were reticent to share much, but they are mine and I am excited to explore and learn with them this year.

Set expectations for success.

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.41.33 AMI recognize that it is important to be clear with students how to be successful at the start of course, but I have often questioned if this should be  synonymous with a discussion about the percentage breakdown of each grading opportunity that they will see throughout the course of the year. If you set the expectation that success in the class is mastering the grading system, what message does that send to the students? Instead I focused my discussions of success in my class on the behaviors I want to see in my classroom, and the attitude I expect each of them to possess. Sadly by 7th grade the kids are programmed to focus on the grade. I set the expectation that each student in my class was capable of this elusive “A” if they worked hard enough to get it. And most importantly, I shared with them all that the expectation is that they would ALL earn A’s, and that I will do my best to help them achieve it, regardless of whether Continue reading

Five Key Considerations for Meaningful Differentiation with Technology

As is often the case when I work with other educators in a workshop or at a photo (1)conference, I leave the experience more jazzed and passionate about what I do. Last week I had the pleasure of leading an EdTechTeacher workshop called Leveraging Technology to Differentiate Instruction. The group was fantastic. On Monday I had the opportunity to connect and learn along with an equally amazing group at Edcamp BLC.  During both the workshop and several sessions at the edcamp I was involved in conversations about topics such as passion and transformation, but the last session I attended at EdCamp BLC was about putting students first.  How do we put student needs first? It all circled back to the discussion I began the workshop with last week about UDL and meaningful integration. To put students first we need to differentiate instruction, and to do this successfully through technology integration we must be mindful. Below are the key considerations that I believe are essential in order for classroom teachers to leverage technology to create meaningful differentiation in the classroom.

1. Start with the learning goal.

Backwards design is critical for technology integration to be successful. Before contemplating what technology device, tool or app to use, the question of what the learning goal for the lesson must first be identified. All too often educators hear about a new tool or device and are understandably excited to use it in their classroom. However, instead of waiting until the perfect opportunity in which the learning need is matched with the functionality of the tool or device, define the learning goal and then determine the tools or resources that will allow the students to accomplish the goal successfully. Boxing learning into the functionality of a tool will rarely have a positive and productive outcome.

2. Consider assessment before assignment expectations.

For every lesson or unit we create for our students, there are skills and concepts we need to ensure that our students have grasped. It is our role as educators to determine not only what these skills are, but also how we will check for understanding.  For many students, particularly those that have learning differences, simply including the words test or quiz on the agenda elicits such a degree of fear and anxiety that the likelihood of truly assessing understanding is nominal. In an effort to differentiate assessment, many educators have used more creative means to assess student understanding. While I applaud and encourage providing opportunities other than tests and quizzes for students to demonstrate their understanding, it is critical that we consider what we need to “see” in order to accurately assess student understanding. For example, if the learning goal is summarizing main idea, do you need to see the summary in print? If so, what tools can students use to accomplish this task? Can students use their voice to summarize? If so, what tools can the student use to accomplish this task? Is there a reason that students should not be provided the choice?

3. Ensure that differentiation is invisible.

A few months ago I was discussing tracking and balanced classrooms with a friend of mine that is not an educator. He asked if it was actually possible to meet the needs of all learners in a class that had a wide spectrum of learning needs and differences. His son has a learning disability and he fears that his child will always be sectioned off, losing confidence and facing ridicule when he needs additional modifications. With successful technology integration, this should never happen. Using collaborative tools such as Google Drive, scaffolding can be applied without anyone recognizing the differences. Have a student that is a slow processor? Instead of handing her a worksheet and asking her to do the even numbers, create customized learning opportunities that are shared digitally. Have students with executive functioning disorders? Support the research, inquiry and planning process.

This year my 8th grade students created short documentaries about a leader of their choice. The goal of the assignment was to use multimedia to convey to the audience why their chosen person is/was a leader. To prepare for the project we first spent time exploring documentary as a film genre, including watching segments from Ken Burns’ Baseball series. This is the notes template students used while watching the documentary and here is the “guide” I distribute to support my students during their research. Neither or these documents is “special” in their base form; however, by using a collaborative document through Google Drive rather than distributing paper or a pdf, I am able to modify and scaffold both for students with ease. I can also provide ongoing, synchronous and/or asynchronous support to those students that need it, or can challenge students that are ready for the next level. Differentiation occurs while simultaneously eradicating the classroom dynamic of segregation that my friend is concerned about for his son.

4. Don’t recreate the wheel.

social media bandwagon

Photo courtesy of

We are only human. In any given class we typically have an average of 20+ children. Each child has his or her own distinct learning style and associated needs. In the era of “initiatives” equating to ever-growing demands on educators it is often a challenge to find the time to innovate. Technology tools and apps can reduce the amount of time needed to create differentiated lessons, and most likely, someone else has already thought of these ideas. Use social media (Twitter is my personal favorite), connect with other amazing educators and create a strong professional learning network, aka PLN. Forward-thinking educators like to share. When I need help with an idea, resources for a lesson or feedback on something I have created, I rely on my PLN and am always blown away by the ideas and material that is shared with me. In less time that it used to take me to create the not so perfect one-size fits all lesson I am now able to create differentiated lessons that meets the needs of all learners in my class.

5. Maximize flexibility to increase access and engagement.

The American Disabilities Act of 1990 has served to provide equity and access for Americans with a myriad of disabilities. One regulation stemming from ADA is building codes that ensure access ramps to bypass stairs as well as curb cutouts so that wheelchairs can safely cross streets. On behalf of mothers everywhere, thank you Bush 41 (and to David Rose for providing our class with the perfect example of the benefits of flexible design and UDL). Although these regulations were originally intended photo (2)to provide access to individuals in wheelchairs, stroller-pushing individuals have reaped the benefit of the ramps, automatic doors and curb cutouts. The epitome of UDL, by creating flexibility for one group of people, this flexibility also enhanced access for another group of people. We need to find the same possibility in our classrooms – through physical design, instructional design, instructional support and assessment. When we consider any of these we need to consider how providing flexibility can open access and/or engage individuals in our classrooms. Consider how providing information in both audio and print format can allow the non-readers in your class the opportunity to access information, while also allowing the student with a long bus ride to listen to the information on his way home from school (reading in moving vehicles makes him want to puke). Or consider how allowing students to create videos to demonstrate their understanding of essential questions will encourage a struggling writer the chance to shine while also providing that student that thrives on an audience the motivation to create something incredible and publish his work.  The examples are endless.

The Top 12 Google Chrome Extensions to Enhance Student Learning

This post was coauthored with Beth Holland and first published on Edudemic on 7/3.

Being 1:1 is fantastic, and if you are fortunate enough to have constant access to your own device in the classroom, then the benefits, especially in terms of efficiency, are tremendous: stored passwords, saved bookmarks, familiar file structure, and more. However, even if you don’t have the advantage of always being in possession of your own device, thanks to the versatility of Chrome and extensions available through the Chrome Store, the web experience has become customizable and productive and ways it was not before.

Chrome Extensions are tools that live inside of your Chrome Browser and provide additional functionality by connecting to other web utilities. As illustrated in the image below, these extensions can be accessed by clicking on icons near your address bar – similar to clicking on a bookmark. When we think about tools to maximize efficiency and enhance student learning, these Chrome extensions immediately come to mind.

Below is our list of favorite extensions to enhance learning and to maximize efficiency for both teachers and students:

Ginger  – Take spelling and grammar checking to the next level when using Drive and Gmail. Ginger was originally designed as a software to support students with dyslexia, but it has proven helpful for all. A contextual spelling and grammar checker, Ginger provides support that is actually helpful! And the pleasant light blue highlighting is far more preferable than the red squiggly line.

Clearly – Use Clearly to improve your on-screen reading experience. With the click of the icon, Clearly strips out extraneous images and distractions, leaving you with a “clear” set of text. In connecting Clearly to an Evernote account, it is also possible to highlight, add annotations, and save the page as well as any notes directly to a designated Evernote notebook.

One Tab – Social bookmarking tools are excellent, but how many times have you followed a chat on twitter or spent time on Pinterest only to find yourself with 30 tabs opened when you finally decide it is time to go to sleep? What used to be a mess upon opening your computer in the morning is now an organized tab thanks to OneTab. By the click of the button, all open tabs are reduced into a list in OneTab. Options within OneTab allow you to choose which sites you would like removed from the list, lock the list, name the lists for organization and share the list as a webpage. Love social bookmarking? Bookmark the list! Have a list you think another person would appreciate? Share it with ease.

Checker Plus for Google Calendar – Not only will your calendar be at ready via a button on the bookmark bar, but you can add items quickly with a simple highlight and right click. No more flipping over to another tab for calendar needs, it can all live within one tab. This is great for both teachers’ and students’ organization in terms of setting reminders, assignment due dates and appointments/meetings. The options within the extension allow you to customize to fit your needs.

PicMonkey – The process to find and edit photos is made a snap with the PicMonkey extension. On a website that has pictures you want to grab, click the PicMonkey button and all the pictures that are on the site will appear as buttons. Selecting the picture that you wish to alter and save will pull that picture into a new PicMonkey tab in which you can choose to make modifications to the picture (crop, color, exposure, redeye, add frames and text, themes and more!), and save to your computer. The service is free. An upgrade gives you some additional features, but the free version is robust enough to meet the needs of most users.

Add to Drive – Once this extension has been installed into Chrome, you can quickly and easily save links, images, and pages directly to your Drive account. This makes curation even faster when gathering elements for projects.

Google Dictionary – Click on any word displayed within the Chrome browser and instantly access a dictionary as well as hear a pronunciation. Foreign words can be translated, and full definitions can be accessed. This is extremely useful for students struggling to decode words or comprehend complex passages.

LastPass – A key component to maintaining a healthy and strong digital footprint is to ensure that your accounts stay secure. This cannot be the case if the passwords that are used for your accounts are hacked with ease, or worse, are the same across all of your accounts. This a a scenario that plagues many teachers and students. LastPass is a free and secure cross-platform password management system. It is available via the web and as an app across devices (premium account required to enable the functionality on mobile devices). After creating one robust password for your account, the program will store password information, as well as generate strong passwords when signing up for new accounts, or if resetting passwords. When used through the chrome extension, this occurs through a simple button on the extensions bar.

Print Friendly – Based off of the web service available at, using this extension within Chrome not only creates printer-friendly versions of online resources, but also generates images and PDF files to share with students. Especially when working in mobile classrooms where students need to annotate digital texts, Print Friendly saves time and streamlines the process of providing digital content to students.

Announcify – There are several text-to-speech options available today, but Announcify distinguishes itself with a few features. With the click of the happy little eyes button, it converts web articles into speech and opens them in a new tab, and reads without having to select any text. The key feature is that it blurs out the text that is not being read making it easy to track while listening. Options for the extension include the speech volume, pitch and rate.

Diigo – This extension accompanies the Diigo social bookmarking service. Clicking this button instantly allows you to bookmark, highlight, and annotate web pages. All notes automatically then save to your Diigo account to be accessed from any browser or device. Another handy feature is the ability to quickly annotate a screen capture and then save it to your Drive account. This is great for creating tutorials to support students or custom images for projects.

WatchDoc – One challenge of working in Google Docs is the need to constantly check to see if collaborators have made changes. With the WatchDoc extension, you can automatically receive pop up notifications of changes made to shared documents, streamlining workflow and expediting collaboration.