If You Need a Plan B, Maybe Just Go With That Instead

I dig technology when it’s used well and thoughtfully and purposefully.  Heck, sometimes I just dig shiny things.  But I have to say that what I like and what’s worth spending time on and with in a classroom are two very different circles in the Venn diagram of my life.

I often hear that teachers using technology in their classrooms should have a Plan B or a backup lesson for if (and many would say when) a technology component of a lesson fails. The latest place I saw this was in Andrew’s piece over at Edutopia1:

Beyond ensuring that your students are actively learning or creating to meet certain goals or objectives, the key with technology is making sure that your technology use is organized, and that you’re ready to use it. And, as we all know too well, technology will sometimes present a minor glitch. That’s why it’s always important to have Plan B ready to go, possibly an analog version of your scheduled activity, in order to keep the pace of the class and keep the lesson on task. So that’s one of the first steps in successfully integrating technology into your classroom: have a backup plan ready. Without a plan to seamlessly transition from a digitally-infused lesson to an analog lesson, your class will surely descend into chaos.

I certainly think that teachers should always balance careful planning with the ability to move when the circumstances change.  If students already understand the material you’ve prepared and paced and planned around, you’d certainly change up the instruction.  A fire drill happens, changes get made.  Every once in a while, the rock solid wireless in your school may well stutter2  Occasionally, the website you’re sending folks to will get overloaded, or some other thing will happen.  I get that.

But the idea that I should always have a second plan ready to go if the technology fails says, to me at least, that the technology isn’t ready for my classroom, and probably shouldn’t be in my Plan A.

If Plan B’s plenty good, then why bother with the technology in the first place?  And if the technology isn’t so reliable, then let’s not rely on it.

Focus on the purpose of your activity in Plan A before you worry about anything else, technology included.  If you know the purposeful way you want to spend students’ time, you can make a Plan B, C or any other iteration on the fly without too much trouble.

Said another way – experimenting is fine for plenty of things, but if something just HAS to work, and is likely not to, don’t invest time and effort into giving it a whirl with a class full of students.  Their time, as well as yours, is better spent on other stuff.


  1. And I don’t mean to pick on him here.  This is just the latest place I saw the “Plan B” argument.  He’s been writing some really useful stuff lately.  Earlier in the piece quoted below, he gave a great answer for what to do when someone asks you if they should move from a thing that’s working really well to a new thing that everybody’s talking about. []
  2. Like, say, in March, when everyone that has a screen seems to be streaming a college basketball game.  Or today, when a large software company launches a major software update. []

Let’s Skip the Salad Dressing

When I was a kid, I didn’t do too well with eating my vegetables. My mom, wanting to see some eaten, offered me plenty of salad dressing to eat with the vegetables I wouldn’t, and I got awfully fond of salad dressing.

But not so much the vegetables. I was in my twenties before I discovered that broccoli actually tastes pretty good. All by itself. No sauce necessary.

I wonder some days if the “innovations” folks fawn so much over in the educational technology space are actually helping us to eat our academic vegetables, or if they’re really just helping us to develop a taste for the thing that these innovations use as a distraction from the essential work of learning.

We need our schools to develop strong readers and writers and thinkers, folks who aren’t led along the road of citizenship by badges or points or a snazzy UI. It might be that many of the “innovations” steering students into devices and apps and gamified almost-learning experiences are nothing more than Thousand Island or Ranch in shiny packages.

When someone comes to you and says “Here’s a better way to teach reading,” look carefully. If the “better way” doesn’t actually involve any time spent reading, then that’s not innovation. It’s salad dressing.

Reading and writing are learned through doing them. Just as I learned, over a long time, to like and to choose the broccoli that wasn’t slathered in sauce, children can learn, and often do, that books and reading and the written word are choices that are worth choosing. But only if they actually experience them.

So let’s minimize the salad dressing, okay?


"Stay True to What We Know"

Cindy’s been doing some work with the Common Core State Standards and Hamlet.  And in her latest post on the work, she gets at something that I think is essential when it comes to working with standards – any standards.  But it’s often forgotten:

Part of me is pretty darn convinced that it involves our subversive intent going in to the unit to push back against some of the ways we already know the CCSS will be used to justify and perpetuate traditional practice. Susan Ohanian, for one, is very, very afraid. I think the fear is to some extent justified. But I also think that if all we do is rail against the standards, we’re missing opportunities to exercise our own agency as educators to meet them in ways that stay true to what we know. The alternative is to heighten our cynicism quotient so high that we might leave the profession altogether, and that would be shame.

Be subversive for good, y’all.  Remember that you are not a cog in a machine that is moving beyond you, no matter how much it might feel that way.  You are an agent for learning.  And you have the ability to act and react to what is happening wherever you find yourself.

So do that.



Guitar Lessons. But What's A Lesson?

I love the guitar.  And James Taylor is masterful with one.  But his new “guitar lessons” are a good reminder of a few things:

  1.  They might not be “teaching.”  He’s showing what he does.  Modeling of a sort.  But you can’t find the value in something like that until you have some knowledge of what and why he’s doing what he’s doing.

 So beginners, don’t apply to the James Taylor School of Guitar – not because it’s not fascinating, but because you’ll have to be an advanced player to see what it is he’s up to.

  1.  If you’re teaching somebody something, you’re not really teaching it to them unless they can follow you.  So be thoughtful about where your students are coming from before they got to you – and what you need to send them off with so they can make sense of the next class.

  2.  Sometimes, a master doing his thing can be wonderfully and usefully illustrative.  The camera angles on his videos – designed to give us a really, really good view of what he’s up to with his fingers – are handy.  Just look at that picture up at the top of this post – plenty of angles there.  But I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years.  His modeling is, for me, a useful teaching tool, because I know most of the stuff I need to know in order to make sense of what he’s doing.  Your mileage may vary.

  3.  He’s teaching.  But is anyone learning?1  Does that matter?

  1. But how do you know?  Are you assessing the learning in any way?  Are there tests?  Performance assessments?  Is it enough to watch and say “huh” or “wow” or “hot dawg?” I think, plenty of times, those noises of adulation or delight or wonder are perfectly fine summative assessments.  In this case, acknowledge, and move on. []

Quite Right

“For me the classroom is a place of paradox, grace, and vulnerability. My experiences in the classroom lead me to more fully live into the person I imagine I am becoming. Teaching and learning along with students who are discovering who they are have given me the opportunity to consider how my vulnerabilities affect who I am as a teacher and a person.”

Meredith Stewart, “Double Vulnerable: The Paradox of Disability and Teaching,” English Journal 100.2 (2010): 27-30


The Post in Which I Discover a Note in Which I Said Something Smart

This afternoon, as I was reviewing notes from a meeting that I really hope turns into something interesting, I ran across this line:

I just want it to be sexy for Colorado educators to be reflective about their practice.

It turns out that I said that.  And, well, yeah.  I mean it.  As I see the standards changing, and the assessments coming and the stakes going up1 while the quality of the rhetoric is going down, that’s really what I want to see.  I want it to be said and praised that the folks who emerge as the victors in the educational reform conversations aren’t the ones with the best toys, or the ones who have the biggest PR budgets, or the ones who have the loudest megaphones or maybe even the ones with the best test scores.2

I want the ones who get the glory to be the men and women toiling in cramped office spaces, working through complex arguments, ideas  and situations.  I want the big shots to be the ones who are actually wrestling with ideas and opportunities and setbacks and successes.  The heroes are the folks who are struggling to help children to realize amazing3 things.  And are wrestling with the ideas that emerge from such work.  I want the reflective teachers to come through in the lead and with the praise and admiration.

Are you with me?  Let’s make thoughtful sexy.  Again.

  1. Another view on value-added. []
  2. A good score on a crummy test is still a crummy score. []
  3. And I don’t use that word lightly.  I actually expect to be amazed.  Enthralled. []

It’s Alive. And I Like It.

Anne Collier‘s sharing a new report on online safety and technology, “Youth Safety on a Living Internet.” I wasn’t eager to see yet another report, as I’ve read a few – but as I skimmed the first several pages, I understood why she was excited by the work.  She was the co-chair of the Online Safety and Technology Working Group, the folks that produced the review, and there’s plenty of thoughtfulness baked in.  I’d encourage you to take a close look.  It’s indicative of a shift in thinking about how the Internet should be viewed and used by kids, teachers, parents and schools. (Notice – How.  Not if.)

In particular, I found the frank discussion of youth risks, while not new, to be refreshingly written.  Here’s a taste:

So, based on the research and the opinions of several experts, one of the biggest risks to children may be adults who try to shut down the informal learning involved in their use of Internet technologies at home or school. (p. 18)

Quite right.

There’s lots to like here.  I hope someone in a position to do something about the working group’s recommendations is taking good notes as they review the report. Anne’s got a full wrap up of coverage on her site.  The report’s below.

Online Safety and Technology Working Group Final Report


What’s “Print?”

I’ve assigned many research projects in my time as a teacher. Perhaps you have, too. Research, the process of looking and re-looking at the way an issue or idea has been explored, is a vital part of learning.

Perhaps you, like me, have assigned research projects that required that students cite their sources, and perhaps you, like me, wanted to make sure your students went deeper than a quick Google search and the top five hits for whatever search term or terms they happened to type in the first time they went looking.

So maybe you, like me, made a requirement of the project that students had to include one or more “print sources,” materials that couldn’t be downloaded from the Web.

If so, maybe you have this question, too:

What does “print resource” mean anymore? Has it become a meaningless term?

Let’s consider for a moment what used to count. An article from a newspaper was, in my classroom, considered a print resource. How about now? I’m more likely to read my local paper online than I am to read the print edition. Is an article from the newspaper still a print resource?

How about a magazine article? When I was in middle and high school, one of the great resources at the local library was a collection of magazine articles on CD-ROM databases. Even then, a magazine article wasn’t a print source, but it counted as one. Maybe because I was required to turn in a printout of the article with the final draft of my papers.

Encyclopedias? By high school, encyclopedias shouldn’t be cited by anyone, much less count as sources. But they did, and often do.

So might I humbly suggest a small change to any assignment that requires students to provide a “print” resource?  Ask them for a primary source instead.

The print/electronic binary is over.  Dead.  (And I do so dislike saying that something’s “dead.” But the difference between print and electronic is a meaningless difference, at least when we’re talking research. ) The transmission medium that delivered the message might not be the most important consideration in student research.  And print stuff still matters – but not if it’s included solely because it’s on a piece of paper.

Ask students to think, instead, about primary and secondary sources.   And later, after you’ve mastered that, ask them to think about the difference between citationality and attribution, and why that might matter in their research.  And yours.


On Modeling

Earlier this morning, I tweeted this:

Do you ever want to say to folks who scream they don’t want their private lives online: “Maybe you should just try to be a better person.” ?

And I realized that I didn’t quite say what I meant there.
I believe that privacy is important and special, and that there are plenty of moments in my life that are my business and perhaps my family’s or close friends’ or colleagues’ business. That said, I think anything public is fair game for public. And I think my public persona, the person I am at work and in the world, be it the store, or church, or at the park or anywhere else, should be the same public persona online.

Because that’s who I am. Or who I’m becoming, at least.

I made a choice when I went online in 2005 that I was going to be the same grown up online as I was in the physical public. For the most part, I’ve kept to that. If I’d say it in a classroom, I’ll post it to the web. If I wouldn’t, I tend to keep it to myself. Sure, I’ve stumbled and posted in anger or frustration, but not as a habit. (Maybe. You’re certainly welcome to disagree with me here.) And I’ve made a trade – I don’t say everything that I might wish to say.

Modeling is perhaps the greatest teaching tool that we have. The actions that we engage in say as much and more about us than our directions to students ever will. I’ve never asked a student in one of my classes to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself. And I’ve constantly sought out ways to show my students that I am engaged in the world in the ways that I want them to be – my students caught me reading and writing and thinking about things all the time, just as I asked them to read and write and think. I went to math class and struggled through geometry tests. I participated in science experiments. I got excited about things.

I tried to model for them what learning looked like. And I try to do that in my online public persona as well. So when people say to me “I don’t think I want my students to see my [insert online profile],” I wonder what it is that they’re uncomfortable about.

We all stumble as people and don’t quite do the things we’d like to do, or behave perfectly. That’s human. And there are boundaries between personal and professional, between public and private. But those boundaries are far from hard and fast lines.

I’m sure that I’m not anywhere close to where I’d like to be in my actions. But I think it’s worth it to struggle to be a better person. And I think that struggle is human and worth sharing. We can all be better people, and education is a big piece of how that happens. And modeling is a big piece of education.

These ideas are still developing for me; I wonder what you think about them. What stays private? Public? What do you do online that you wouldn’t want your students to know about? Why not? As more of ourselves finds its way online, will these conversations stop being binary in nature?


Would You Please Block?

Ever since we opened up lots more of the Internet in our school district earlier this year, the district has received several requests from teachers and other staff to block resources that are distractions in the classroom.  I’ve written a stock response to those requests that I thought might be worth sharing.  It’s my hope that their requests and the conversations that come from this response lead to changes in classroom practice.

Here it is:

Thanks for your question.  When we implemented our new filter this school year, we looked at all the things we were currently blocking, what things were required to be blocked by law, and what we were blocking that we shouldn’t be.

What we’ve decided is that we will no longer use the web filter as a classroom management tool.  Blocking one distraction doesn’t solve the problem of students off task – it just encourages them to find another site to distract them.  Students off task is not a technology problem – it’s a behavior problem.  It is our intention that we help students to learn the appropriate on-task behaviors instead of assuming that we can use filters to manage student use.  Rather than blocking sites on an ad hoc basis, we will instead be working with folks to help them through computer and lab management issues in a way that promotes student responsibility.  We know that the best filters in a classroom or lab are the people in that lab – both the educational staff monitoring student computer use as well as the students themselves.

This opens up possibilities for students and staff using websites for instructional purposes that in the past were blocked due to broad category blocks.  It requires that staff and students manage their technology use rather than relying on a third party solution that can never do the job of replacing teachers monitoring students.

That said, we will still block sites that are discovered to violate CIPA requirements.  If you discover one, please do not hesitate to share it with us.  Also, if you discover a site that shouldn’t be blocked, please pass that along so that we can open it up.

I hope this makes sense.  I’d be happy to speak further with you if you have further comments or questions.

How do you talk to folks in your districts about your Internet (un)filtering?