Building the New

The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

— Socrates

Over the past few years, my focus has been on learning and using educational technology as a teaching tool.  During that time, I have had the privilege of attending several #edtech conferences where I have learned techniques that have transformed my teaching.  I just returned from an awesome 3 days at MACUL ’14, where I attended sessions on all kinds of edtech strategies of interest to me.

But I’ve also discovered a secret:

Edtech conferences are not actually about edtech.  

Don’t be confused — there is plenty of edtech at an edtech conference.  I’ve engaged in sessions on everything from Chrome to scripting with Google Drive, from useful digital tools to creating iTunesU courses, from screen-casting to blended learning to online learning.  It’s exhausting to think about how much I’ve learned over the last three years alone.  With “love of learning” as one of my core strengths, I soak it all up and bask in the brainstorming, sharing of knowledge, demonstrations, and teaching.

Yet the biggest learning experience for me has been discovering the philosophy of the edtech people, the people I call “my people” (I also call Star Wars people my people, and luckily there are also several of those at edtech conferences as well).

Edtech people see possibilities.  They see potential — the potential of education, the potential of students, and the potential of teachers to shape and change lives.

Instead of focusing on what teachers aren’t doing, edtech people focus on the good things teachers are doing.  They celebrate the risks that teachers take using technology with their students.  They support and encourage teachers who are willing to try.  

Edtech people say, “Just try it and see how it goes.  We’re here if you have questions.  And good for you for wanting to do this for your students!”  If you knew how often I’ve heard about what I MUST be doing on a daily basis with lesson planning, you’d understand how great it feels to be appreciated for learning something of value.

Edtech people like to share.  Instead of competing with each other and keeping resources to themselves (which our current teacher-evaluation system promotes), they encourage share-and-share-alike.  If you’re doing something that works, they promote what you’re doing.  They go out of their way to share your story.  

Instead of saying “you need to be doing more,” edtech people say “we know how hard you’re working” and “you are making a difference.”  They recognize and trust teachers as highly-educated professionals.

Edtech people don’t make excuses.  They don’t talk incessantly about theory.  They put their energy into building instead of tearing down.  They produce change.

Edtech conferences are all about creating change, from a single lesson or strategy, to an individual teacher, to the entire business of teaching and learning.  They do so by bringing in educators who support, encourage, collaborate, and respect.  They bring in people who want to build the new.

It’s a philosophy that is heartening and too often missing in the daily lives of teachers; it’s why I consider myself an edtech person and keep going back for more.



Finding Happiness through Your Strengths

As an AP Psychology teacher, I know my students are always fascinated with mental illness — admittedly, so am I.  If you can turn off Hoarders or My Strange Addiction, you clearly have some sort of superpower I don’t possess. Psychology has done an incredible job of cataloguing the many interesting ways human behavior can go wrong.  But we can also learn from human behavior that is going right.  Positive Psychology is a growing field that shifts the focus away from defining and treating mental illness to studying mental health so that we can learn to be more proactively psychologically healthy and happy.

A few years ago, I read the book Authentic Happiness by  Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Network and former president of the American Psychological Association.  Dr. Seligman writes about how to experience happiness in your life by using your signature strengths to achieve flow and positive emotion. Seligman argues that even happiness can be learned, and I think it’s so cool that my students could learn how to be happier in life.  Learning how to be happier goes beyond any classroom curriculum.  It’s my goal to be able to share with my students some of the keys to achieving happiness in their lives, and we always spend time towards the end of the year studying the science and research behind happiness.  

So what’s the point of discovering your strengths?  In Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues that cultivating your strengths can benefit your health, relationships, and your career.  Much of his book concerns discovering these strengths and how to use them to increase happiness.  You can take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to determine your top strengths.  The survey takes around 25 minutes to complete, but it’s time well spent if learning your strengths can increase your level of happiness, right?

Before taking the survey, I had never considered my cautious behavior a strength.  In fact, I’ve always assumed people who were less cautious were probably having more fun.  I’ve tried to rebel against my top strength — but my most reckless behavior is probably my tendency to overdose on Nutella (come on, you have a Nutella problem too, admit it and maybe we can start a support group together).  As I look back, my top strength has served me well in my life.  I am careful about what I say and do, and as a result, I don’t have many regrets . . . until I’m looking at the bottom of the Nutella jar.  Instead of rebelling against that strength, I can recognize ways that it helps me to be a happier person. Humor and playfulness and love of learning are a part of my everyday.  If I’m not learning something new, I feel stagnant — and you can count on my nerdy jokes along the way.  I can work my favorite Snoop Dogg joke into any lesson plan.  No matter how they do on standardized tests, my students will know why Snoop Dogg carries an umbrella.*


My Top Strengths

My students are working on Genius Hour blogs weekly, and I asked them to take the VIA Survey to determine their top strengths and to post their results.  I loved seeing how their results fit their personalities.  I hope that identifying their strengths will lead my students to use strengths to increase the happiness in their lives.  Here are just a couple of their thoughts on their VIA results:

“Having a future mindset will definitely help me accomplish my goals in life and humor and zest will help the journey be more fun.” – M.F.

“I never really thought of being interested in the world as a strength. Like, I’ve always been curious, and have always loved to learn. I guess I’m just now realizing that being curious will make me a smarter and more well-rounded individual, and therefore more valuable to work and other people.” – M.R.

If you have the time, take the VIA Strengths Survey.  How will you use your top strengths to increase your happiness? How might it help your students to know their strengths?

*Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?  For drizzle.  HA!

Backchanneling with Twitter

In AP Psychology, we have started one of my favorite units — Social Psychology.  I like teaching this unit because students learn about many powerhouse psychologists and the interesting experiments they designed to study how social situations influence behavior.  Learning about the psychological principles behind conformity, aggression, altruism, and attraction typically engages many students as they see these principles at work in their daily lives as teenagers.  We begin this unit by looking at ways social dynamics can change our behavior, and within the first week, we view a documentary on Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

Conducted in the 1970s, the prison experiment is infamous for a few reasons.  Zimbardo turned the basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a fake prison.  Zimbardo’s subjects were psychologically tested and were all mentally healthy before starting the study.  He assigned them randomly to play the role of either prisoner or prison guard.   Then he sat back and watched what happened.  The study was meant to last two weeks.  Zimbardo had to end it after five days.  Within 24 hours, guards became sadistic and prisoners lost their identity and dignity.  The roles quickly took over and became their identities.  You can learn more about his study at the Stanford Prison Experiment website.

While students are generally interested in Zimbardo’s experiment, the video we watch is an ACTUAL video.  On VHS.  From the 1990s.  Some students, upon seeing the early 90s hair and clothing, check out right away believing that the information is unlikely to relate to them, even after being prepped for what social principles to look for while viewing.  This year, to mix it up and encourage engagement, I decided to try creating a Twitter backchannel as we watched.  I already use Twitter regularly to communicate with students, link to content-related articles, and of course to create an excellent PLN (there are so many valid reasons to use Twitter, teachers!).   Twitter backchanneling allows a group to communicate in real time by using a specific hashtag on Twitter.  We used a hashtag to indicate my classroom — #jhs204.  I reminded students about digital citizenship rules and expectations, pushed play on the video, and projected my Twitter feed on the screen in the front of my room.  I was a little worried that the backchanneling would distract students from paying close attention to what was happening in Zimbardo’s experiment, but just the opposite happened as Twitter was overtaken by #jhs204.

As students watched the video, the Twitter backchannel gave them a quick way to post responses, thoughts, and questions.  They became more engaged in what was happening in the experiment as they looked for ways to use their voice on Twitter.  Some began relating the prison environment to a high school environment or WWII Nazi camps.  Some expressed surprise at how quickly tensions escalated in the experiment.  Students considered how the experiment would be different today and wondered why Zimbardo only used middle-class white college-aged men in the study.  Not every tweet expressed a lot of thoughtfulness, and not every student tweeted, though a couple of students who don’t use Twitter added a stream of comments to the whiteboard near the screen.  But altogether, backchanneling added a level of discussion I don’t think we would have had otherwise.

But for me, the best part of backchanneling during class had to be when students from other classes noticed what we were doing and started asking questions about it.  As their friends in my class started filling up Twitter with #jhs204 tweets, several outside students began wondering what we were up to and jumping into our conversation here and there.  Students who have AP Psych later in the day jumped into the early conversation to ask if we would be doing the same thing during other hours.  They were excited about coming to class.  And a student who was absent at the dentist during our first hour was able to see and ask about what his classmates were discussing.  Even previous students who already graduated and had viewed the video in psychology left comments.  Not all comments from outside students were positive — some expressed annoyance that their Twitter feeds were taken over by #jhs204.  I can certainly live with that, but for students who don’t want to risk annoying their friends, I’d recommend creating a separate professional/educational Twitter account to use for classroom purposes.  Below are some of the tweets students posted during our class:

Backchanneling during class is something I’m eager to try again.  With a few modifications, I think it could be an even more successful classroom event.  Have you used Twitter in the classroom?  How would you use backchanneling with your students?  I would love to hear your ideas!  And students, you can follow Dr. Zimbardo on Twitter – @philzimbardo.

Augmenting Classroom Reality

It’s a whole new world out there, people, and it’s a world where reality is augmented.   If you haven’t had a chance to play with augmented reality (or “AR” for the edtech nerds out there),  you need to try it!   Why?  Because it’s FUN.  And it also steers learning towards the all important creation end of dear ol’ Bloom’s taxonomy.

AR apps work almost like QR code readers, allowing you to scan in any image and make magic happen.  I like using Aurasma, which allows you and your students to create “auras” that you attach to images.  When you scan the image with your phone, the Aura appears as an overlay.  The best way to explain it is to see it in action.

In the first week of school, my students completed a Google form attached to my class website asking them to indicate what kinds of technology they can bring to the classroom.  I was thrilled to see almost all of them carry a smartphone with them.   Out of 67 AP Psych students, only two do not have access to technology in their pockets.  To make this lesson work, I put students into groups and made sure each group had at least one person with the ability to download Aurasma on their phone.

Last week, I introduced my students to Aurasma (follow @Aurasma on Twitter).   First we watched the above video to give them an idea of what they can do with Aurasma.  Immediately, most of the students reacted positively.  Some of them downloaded the app that minute and started playing, attaching Auras to our textbook cover and their IDs.  Within a few minutes, one student had already started to create an Aura for her boyfriend professing her undying love.  This is what it’s like working with teenagers.

Then I introduced the assignment.  In previous years, my AP Psychology students have created trading cards on famous psychologists, including information on birth and death dates, popular works, occupation, and contribution to the field.  This year, I gave the same assignment, but they had to work in groups to create Auras for their psychologists.

We spent one full class period in the library to give them room to move and shoot video if necessary.  They also needed to print images to link up with the Auras they created.  A few of the groups who went above and beyond my expectations needed another 20 minutes or so to wrap things up in class the next day.   We discovered it was important for each finished product to include the Aurasma account name of the creator so that the rest of us could follow their account and gain access to their work.  Reminders of the importance of digital citizenship ensued (“Yes, students, I will have to follow you on this app.  Be sure you ONLY create Auras I can brag to your parents about.  Because I MUST FOLLOW YOU to see your work.  And I have a weak stomach.  I’m speaking to you, Girl with the Boyfriend.”)

I’m including some of their products below, and I’m proud of their creativity and the time some of them devoted to making me laugh. They know I always grade more generously when I’m smiling.  To view their Auras, download the app (it’s free!) and search for their account name, then follow them and scan their images.

We did run into a few technical issues here and there, so there may be videos you can see but not hear.  And some of the images used are too small to be scanned online, so you may have difficulty seeing all of the Auras created below.  We also discovered that different groups that used the same image to scan may have the wrong video pop up!  While we have  yet to perfect the process, I think our next attempt will be much more successful.

I would love to hear your comments on their work!

Follow "megatronxtreem" on Aurasma

Follow “megatronxtreem” on Aurasma

Search for sparklearkles and find her AP Psychology channel to follow. Hover over picture of Rogers, sun, moon, and thought bubble.

Search for The furious 5 and follow their channel to learn about Edward Thorndike.

Search for The furious 5 and follow their channel to learn about Edward Thorndike.

Follow calientesparkles to learn about John Watson.

Follow calientesparkles to learn about John Watson.

Follow kFields13 to check out G. Stanley Hall.

Follow kFields13 to check out G. Stanley Hall.


Follow michaela97 to learn more about Thorndike.


Follow casshole (yes, that’s right) to learn about William James.


Follow adtrosin to discover why Carl Jung is so important. Don’t miss the bloopers on the next image!!


Follow ColleenRoss to learn about BF Skinner.

Follow ColleenRoss to learn about BF Skinner.

Follow AnthonyPlate to learn about Wilhelm Wundt.

Follow AnthonyPlate to learn about Wilhelm Wundt.

Follow CaitlinStout to discover William James' importance in Psychology.

Follow CaitlinStout to discover William James’ importance in Psychology.

Follow Youjustkeepbeingyou to learn about BF Skinner and his work in Psychology.

Follow Youjustkeepbeingyou to learn about BF Skinner and his work in Psychology.

This is the reverse side of the above aura, which can also be scanned.

Follow bigsteve96 to catch up on G. Stanley Hall.

Follow bigsteve96 to catch up on G. Stanley Hall.

You know who to follow!  TKKyro can tell you about this famous psychologist.

You know who to follow! TKKyro can tell you about this famous psychologist.

Other ideas for augmenting work:

  • School newspaper or yearbook — augment sporting or performance events so when you scan the image of the event (football game, music concert, spring musical, pep rally), you can see video footage of an exciting moment from that actual event.
  • Resumes or business cards — what if your intended employer could scan your resume and hear you explaining some of your skills or qualifications?
  • School pride — students could place Auras around the building explaining the history of the building or important features of the school.
  • Textbooks — I plan on having students augment images from the textbook to link to videos of some of the important psychology experiments we discuss in our curriculum.

These teachers have more to say about Aurasma:

What do you think?  How might you use AR in the classroom?

Getting Connected

I recently participated in my first educator’s unconference, Connected Educator Un/Conference, where teachers from across the state connected and collaborated on a range of classroom practices that focus on technology tools.  Willingly.  On a Saturday.  To be fair, there were donuts.

Over the last 12 years of teaching, much of my professional development has consisted of an auditorium or library of teachers who sit and listen to hours of lectures by “experts” who hope to inspire, motivate, or change our instruction.  There’s a lot of painful deep sighing, contemplation of life choices, daydreaming about other professions, or calling in sick on these days.  I’ve even put together entire meal plans for the week, complete with grocery lists organized by aisle.  On the best of these PD days, I’ve been able to take away a glimmer of an idea I can use in my classroom.  On the worst of these PD days, I’ve written and edited my resignation letter. - I want you to know I'd be very open to some freelance work as a pirate.

An unconference is different in brilliant ways.  After the initial panic and discomfort of being forced to move around the room (I have to what? I have to get up?), I figured it out.  Teachers sign up on the spot for a slot of time to discuss something they do well and can share, or they sign up to openly discuss a topic they’d like to know more about.  It gives teachers a chance to see what’s happening in rooms of other educators . . . since teachers are the experts on curriculum and lesson delivery.

The Connected Ed day had a similar format as an unconference, but specific “learn by doing” sessions were also scheduled and led by expert teachers who are using technology tools in their instruction.  I was able to choose which sessions I would find most useful for my needs in my classroom.  Allowing me to choose what I would like to learn at a conference was huge for me, because if I have to hear about bucket-fillers and boxes of textbook resources ever again, I’ll apply for the first position I can find as a Wal-Mart greeter.  My resignation letter has already been written.

On the Connected Ed day, I went to a session on Google Drive, Bring Your Own Device, Standards Based Grading, and hacking your own textbook with iBooks Author.  My head is buzzing with ways I can put GoSoapBox and Evernote to use in my room.  I’m checking out ActiveGrade to see if it suits where I’ve been heading in my classroom.  I’m also thinking about the unconference format . . . how it could be used similarly in the classroom with my students, maybe for review.

So thanks to the Ed Tech gurus at our ISD — Dan Spencer (@runfardvs) and Brad Wilson (@dreambition) — and to the presenters whose sessions I attended — Gary Abud (@MR_ABUD) and Anthony DiLaura (@anthonydilaura).  It looks like they’ve saved me from becoming a Wal-Mart greeter.