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.

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Photo courtesy of timeoutdad.com

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.

My Dedicated 20% Time

ImageAs the buses pulled away from the building on June 25th it is hard to determine who was more excited, me or the students that filled those busses. June was a long month! A year filled with transition to Common Core standards and a new teacher evaluation system was further complicated by crazy weather and a constantly disrupted calendar. When I left the building on June 28th after leading a three day workshop for teachers, I was exhausted. Fast-forward 10 days and I feel like a new person. I have had a wonderful week of vacation with my family, celebrated the 4th, read three books that have had zero value to my profession, or intellect for that matter, gotten some great sleep and have a pretty nice tan. Now I am ready to do what I love to do – dream about the possibilities of the new school year and figure out a way to make them a reality. To me, summer is my dedicated 20% time. It is my time to focus on what I want to dream about, not the initiatives of others.

My goal for the summer is to figure out how to make this mindset a reality in my classroom. How do I create an environment in which students are inspired to explore and learn because they are passionate about the topic? How do I guide students while still maintaining student choice? How do I inspire my students to dream and find a way to make their dreams a reality? How do I do all this while still meeting the expectations of district mandates? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but charting a game plan for the new school year is my goal for the summer.

For some, the idea of spending their vacation time thinking about this would equate to boredom, but not for me. I am excited about the opportunity to engage in these discussions with fellow educators. Next week I have the privilege of leading a workshop on differentiated instruction for EdTechTeacher. The following week is filled with the Desire to Learn’s Fusion Conference, Edcamp BLC and BLC13. I also hope to get to a few EdCamp Tuesdays in Burlington. August brings the MTA Conference, Edcamp CT, and Edcamp Leadership. I will finally read the hundreds of articles and posts I have pocketed, bookmarked and pinned. I will engage in chats and actually have time to explore the endless list of valuable resources that are shared. My summer is packed with opportunities to collaborate with other educators and hopefully generate some exciting ideas for the fall. This is my 20% time. I guess this is how I know that being an educator is what I am meant to be doing. I love being an educator and although I am happy to have a bit more beach time in my very near future, I am already looking forward to the buses rolling back up to the building.

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 printfriendly.com, 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.

Losing to Win

Teachers can change the world. As the week of MCAS hell rolls to a close tomorrow, it would be easy to forget our role as teachers and potential heroes. We can’t forget this because we are, or at least, we can be. If there is any doubt of the power a caring educator can have on the lives of young people, watch this ESPN short about the Lady Jags, the girls basketball team of Carroll Academy. Carroll is a non-residential juvenile detention facility. The team has lost more than 200 consecutive games, and not by small margins (scores such were sometimes 91-4); yet this short is not a “Cinderella Story” but a story of the potential of all children and the value of an education and adults who believe in them.

Listening to the coach talk with his team, I don’t hear condescending tone or misleading messages. The coach accepts the girls for who they are and is determined to help them succeed. At the end of the film we watch the season come to a close with another loss, but this is not the fact upon which the coach focuses. He assesses the team and their success not on a score, but on the progress each of these girls has made. Achievement is evident in the girls’ body language and their dedication on the court. Despite the lack of “Cinderella victory” we watch these girls win and succeed.

As teachers we foster this type of achievement every day. Every day teachers accept the challenge of helping kids learn and grow. We hope that our students are not faced with the same challenges that many of the Lady Jags face, but regardless, as teachers we accept the challenge to help them learn and grow into the citizens and human beings we know they can be. We see who they are when they enter our class and we support them as best we can to win at life.  A standardized test cannot be the measurement, just as a scoreboard at the end of the basketball game could not measure the success of the Lady Jags.

Back to proctoring MCAS…

My #edcampbos highlight reel…

On Sunday night I jumped in on #edchatma. I was still on the extreme passion high from Edcamp Boston and wanted to further the conversations started on Saturday. During the chat, someone asked what made #edcampbos such a special event. I tried to capture it in 140 characters, but it just is not possible. On Monday morning I saw a tweet urging Edcampers to share not just that we learned, but what we learned.

Here are my top five “what I learned at EdCamp Boston”:

1. Student voice is extremely powerful. Edcamp Boston participants had three opportunities to engage in sessions led by students. It was the highlight of the day for me.   A group of 5th grade students from Pine Glen Elementary School in Burlington blew me away.

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Of course their knowledge and creativity was engaging, but to me it was the thoughtful and eloquent way in which they responded to questions and added their own ideas that I found the most incredible. Ten year olds that handled themselves better than many adults I know! Cramming math facts or force feeding content is not the answer. Letting kids create and explore, then share their knowledge and learning, this is the transformation that needs to occur. Bethany Rogers joined Katrina Kennett again this year after wowing the crowd last year at Edcamp Boston. Erin McGurk’s tweet below shows perfectly the impact Bethany had on the educators in her session.

erin mcgurk edcampbos tweet

2. In the midst of the morning schedule build, I was chatting with fellow organizer Liz Davis about the sessions she was putting  up. She told me that she had a new name for 21st century learning, “I call it today.” I laughed, but it was not out of humor. I am growing more and more tired of the term as it is continually being used as a term to denote some goal we are striving to reach. We are 13 years into this century. Jobs, skill sets and lifestyle have transitioned, why is it okay for schools and educators to act as if it is understandable that schools and educators have not kept pace? It is unlikely that I will be able to fix this problem in the short term, but at least I can help reposition the lingo. No more 21st Century spoken like it is sometime beyond, it is TODAY. Thank you Liz Davis.

3. There are some amazing teachers out there. We all know that this must be the case, we hear about them and work with many of them, but it is never more clear to me than at an Edcamp, and Edcamp Boston epitomized this belief. An absolutely gorgeous Saturday, and yet more than 200 teachers were building a schedule at 8:30 in the morning with such excitement and passion, it was astounding. And then the wall went up. I often know which sessions I want to go to, but with this wall, I was perplexed. Voting with my feet was not going to solve the problem that I only have two feet and they have to choose. The good news for me was that there were no bad choices. I am still trying to process all the discussions and ideas. The sharing on twitter was incredible, and I was torn whether I should try and jump around. I was happy with my choices, but still wondered what I had missed. Just before the smackdown, I went into one of the session rooms and found this:

WP_20130504_008 – Rumor has it that Steve Guditus was responsible for this board!

4.  In the afternoon I had the privilege of hearing a 9th grade student, Sam Mahler, eloquently testify that students should not have to fight to have access to tools that allow them to learn. Sam is both dyslexic and disgraphic, but with the help of the amazing Karen Janowski and incredibly supportive parents, he has learned to use the iPad as a tool to allow him to overcome the challenges that his learning disabilities present, making it possible for him to engage in his education. The quote that most impacted me was when Sam Mahler discussed the impact of taking the iPad away from him for assessments in school.  “I am an A, sometimes a B, student on projects and assignments. I am a C or D student on tests and quizzes…they are keeping me from Harvard.” Wow. How can educational institutions continue to allow this to happen?

5. Learning and sharing is exciting and there is no better form for a teacher than an Edcamp. I  work with some incredible teachers in my school; however, all too often when we gather for “professional development” time, our time is distracted by discussions/complaints of a new policy or new initiative. The atmosphere often turns toward pessimism. Not at an Edcamp. I saw this post from Christine DiMicelli and could not agree more.

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Edcamps are engaging and enlightening. Edcamps are inspiring and they are thought-provoking. On a clear and beautiful May weekend, dedicated teachers filled the rooms at Microsoft and the atmosphere was electric.  Below is what I wrote before heading off to sleep on Sunday.

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Hope to see you all at Edcamp BLC in July!