Reflecting on peer-to-peer feedback

feedbackI was brainstorming with a teacher the other day about the age old question: how do we get students to give each other quality feedback of their work? Far too often I’ve seen students only dish the stock comments – good job, awesome, really cool, etc. When I taught writing it was difficult to coax anything much further than than those friendly, but not very helpful responses. After talking it over for a bit, we decided to try something new: peer review via screencast.

Now, we haven’t done this yet (so results are still pending), but the thinking behind this is:

  1. Technology has made it easier than ever before for students to create screencasts. I recommend either using the Snagit Chrome Extension and App combination (which saves the screencast directly to Google Drive) or Movenote if you’re just reviewing a Google Doc, Presentation, etc. Either way is a breeze.
  2. By having students “talk through” their comments, it forces them to dig a little deeper and more closely analyze an artifact.
  3. Screencasting seems a bit more casual than busting out the red pen – and when things are more casual, it’s possible you’ll draw out more honest feedback (this is debatable…but I think it will be the case).

We plan on introducing this by modeling the procedure to the class – in many ways, this form of peer review is similar to the think aloud reading strategy. Just read through and document (this time verbally) the thoughts and questions that pop into your head – perhaps this could be a good way of reviewing someone’s work. Or, we are considering a rubric which outlines certain criteria that must be analyzed through a peer review…this could work, but my fear is that this could turn a little robotic. And my hope is for peer review to be a bit more casual and honest…so maybe there’s some middle ground to be had.

Look, peer review is tough – I remember in a college history class I had to trade papers with the stranger next to me. By the end of her peer review of my essay, it looked like her red pen had vomited all over my paper. I didn’t take it well. But at least she was honest – and in the end I appreciated it (after drowning my tears in a bowl of Breyer’s ice cream…kidding). Could screencast peer reviews hit the happy medium of honesty and thoroughness? We are launching the screencast peer review process in a few weeks. To be continued.

The Amazing Race – Chromebook Style

chrome-os-logoIf there’s one thing that still resonates from my time at Google Teacher Academy, it’s this: teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. Everything we did was collaborative and team-based. Every. Single. Thing. And while I pride myself on facilitating hands-on trainings with staff and students, the lovely folks at Google and CUE showed me that I can be doing a better job. With that in mind, when I worked with a few teachers at Lake Forest to help plan a Chromebook introduction for freshman students (all LFHS freshmea have been given Chromebooks this school year), I tried as best I could to emulate the spirit and structure of the activities from GTA. Our result was an “Amazing Race: Chromebook Style” challenge. Check it out below:

We made it as collaborative as possible and included tasks and functions that are important to the device itself: sharing files, snapping screenshots, taking and inserting pictures, and filming and uploading videos. Students also dropped pins on a shared Google Maps Engine Lite and shared their expertise via linked text (a relatively simple task, but an important skill to have). We stressed that it’s okay if you aren’t awesome at this the first time…you’ll get better. And now you know other students in your group and the class that can perform these Chromebook functions – AKA, class experts have been established from the get-go, and students know who to go to for help.

Students teaching students.

Students teaching students.

What else was cool? The teachers I worked with really liked Google Maps Engine Lite and we were soon discussing ways to integrate it into their curriculum (what an awesome added bonus). But all in all it was just so cool to watch the students working together and being 100% engaged to get things done.

So what’s next? Students received valuable practice time, they’ve identified experts amongst their peers, we’ve compiled resources for them to review if they desire a refresher, and my school has a Genius Bar-like place in the library for students to come to if they ever need help with anything tech-related. It’s a pretty nice system.

One final note: I’ve always pondered the delicious irony of professional development where someone comes in to teach about collaboration and good teaching….and then they lecture at you for 2 hours and hand you printouts of a 72 slide powerpoint.


This activity was a 180 from that sit-and-get mentality. One of the teachers I worked with brought up the same thing – and he remarked how great it was to have the students learn and practice collaboration in an activity that WAS ACTUALLY COLLABORATIVE. Seems so simple, yeah?

Lining up to film a YouTube video.

Lining up and filming a YouTube video.

5 Things I Learned From Google Teacher Academy

photo (4)Google Teacher Academy in Mountain View (#gtamtv) is in the books. I returned from California three days ago, and I’m still buzzing about the experience. There was such a build-up for GTA, and now it’s over – but not really. Because in a way I still feel like I’m there. It wasn’t meant to be two days and POOF it’s gone, but the relationships, inspirations, action plans and lessons learned are ongoing. Like the stockpile of awesome beverages in the many Google micro-kitchens, GTA will keep refilling my educational philosophies, connections and practice throughout the upcoming school year and surely beyond that as well. I love making lists on my blog (thanks for the idea, Buzzfeed!), so here’s the top five things I learned at GTA:

1. People are awesome. Without getting too Lego-moviey about the experience, everything WAS awesome about GTA…nothing more so than the people. Seriously, EVERY person I met was innovative, like-minded, forward-thinking, a great collaborator, and HUMBLE. GTA really knows how to pick them – with all of the collective knowledge in the room, it was amazing how not one person was braggy or intellectually unapproachable (we’ve all met the type). Heck, even the GCTs facilitating the event were called “Lead Learners” (which is an awesome term that I’m totally bringing back to my school). I felt honored and blessed to be amongst such cool people, and Google certainly made us all feel important. I made so many amazing connections at GTA, and through our Google+ page, Google Educator Group page and action plan collaborations, I know these connections will continue.

2. Raise the bar. When I facilitate professional development workshops, I pride myself on learners doing and exploring as opposed to me being the sage on the stage. But after living GTA, I realized there’s some things I can do differently – like for starters, raising the bar. Okay, all sixty-five of the participants in GTA clearly have Google and general EdTech experience, so you’d think it’d be easier to just throw us into the fire during breakout sessions and activities. Perhaps true – but not necessarily. Not once were we given “step-by-step” instructions on a tool or a procedure – we were instead given short intros, objectives, and challenges. The timer would be set, and we’d have maybe ten minutes to create something using Google Maps Engine. The Lead Learners expected us to dive-in, work together, and create – and if it wasn’t that good, that’s okay. It was our first try. And seriously, if I wanted a step-by-step for something I can find a YouTube video or directional sheet online in like 20 seconds. But that doesn’t inspire, does it? Ask yourself this: are you more likely to want to explore something further on your own after completing an engaging, short challenge or being given a more in-depth, procedural-based presentation? Because exploring further on your own and empowering yourself is the only way you’ll improve as an educator – so which would you choose? For me, I choose raising the bar and employing more engaging, “quickfire” types of challenges in my future professional development offerings.

3. Working with a team is the only way. Everything at GTA was team-based. Every. Single. Thing. And not in some hokey, “Okay, everyone – now we are moving to the team-based and partner activities portion of the program! YAY!” We’ve all been there, right? It feels so forced and awkward. But at GTA, it was sink or swim. You couldn’t NOT work with a team – the way activities were organized, you had a limited amount of time and had to collaborate, divvy up the work, and help your teammates to succeed. Participants were CONSTANTLY teaching each other new things (I’ll say again, the new tricks learned were participant->participant, not presenter->participant) – this is the way a classroom should be. The students can learn more from each other than the instructor in the front of the room, and the activities at GTA modeled this very principle every step of the way.


4. Friendly competitiveness is SWEET. I’m a competitive person by nature. I hate playing games I know I have no chance of winning at…call me a sore loser, but whatever. At GTA, many of the activities were structured around team-based competitions. We did an Amazing Race using Google tools, an Iron Chef challenge with Google Slides, Moonshot Thinking problem-solving – and most things were timed and sometimes we were competing (in a way) against other learners. And that’s okay – the Lead Learners made it fun, and it didn’t really feel like a competition. But like the ESPN principle of adding a timer to it’s sports talk shows, if you add a timer to activities (just simply Google set timer for 7 minutes, for example) it can really get the adrenaline going and give your actions more purpose. Oh, one more thing, and I alluded to this before – it’s okay to suck at something the first time. You WILL get better – and that’s the point. And it’s easier to accept not being great while working with great teammates and Lead Leaders, of which there was an abundance.

5. The hype is real! I can’t end this without mentioning the Google campus. Yes, everything you’ve heard is true. Modern facilities, micro-kitchens, state-of-the-art conference rooms, ping pong tables, pool tables, loungy sofas, comfy collaboration centers, cafes, relaxing on outdoor mats…I didn’t want to leave. It was my vocational Mecca. I know the point of GTA wasn’t to showcase the campus, but boy oh boy, it was an undeniably inspiring secondary treat.

casap inspire

Support During Reading Strategies with Subtext

tech-061412-003-617x416I wanted to share some positive experiences I’ve had with the Subtext app for iOS devices – I’ve used it with a 5th grade social studies and have co-led Subtext workshops with Caroline Haebig from Stevenson High School. In short, Subtext is a “social reading” app that allows you to import PDFs, websites and articles into eBook format (PDFs don’t convert into the pretty eBooks, but otherwise they maintain collaborative commenting functionality). As the teacher you can push out these digital texts to groups of students and learners can highlight, make comments and answer questions all within the same text. Collaboratively, it can’t be beat.

Subtext allows learners to engage with texts in new ways. Because Subtext is based on collaborative discussion and thought sharing, students are able to build deeper comprehension. Furthermore, learners have mechanisms to extend thoughtful conversations about a text beyond the walls of the classroom. Within a shared reading on Subtext learners provide their peers with meaningful feedback and are able to incorporate a variety of before, during and after reading strategies.

From our experience, Subtext provides an authentic and ubiquitous medium for learners to collaborate on a digital reading. Learners were eager to communicate with their peers using the app, and they responded thoughtfully and thoroughly to other learners’ thoughts, opinions and analyses within the readings. From a technical standpoint, the Subtext app performed smoothly and the learners found the different features quite intuitive and easy to use. It’s a fantastic app for building comprehension and allowing further opportunities for meaningful literary discussions at school and at home.

Bottom line: I’ve yet to find an easier way to pull content from the web and deliver it to students to collaboratively read and annotate. If you’d like to access our Subtext iBook for the iPad (or in iBooks on the Max if you’re using Mavericks) – which includes more information and tutorials – you can do so by clicking here.

How I got accepted to Google Teacher Academy

527999355_0d87b65448_zI’ll be honest – I don’t know the magic formula to get accepted to Google Teacher Academy. I don’t have the answers, nor do I know exactly how the 2014 Mountain View and Atlanta classes were evaluated. All I know is that I applied, I was accepted to Mountain View, and I am beyond honored, flattered and thrilled. It’s been two days since I found out I was accepted and I’m still over the moon.

With that being said, I’m going to write a little bit about the application process and how I think I got accepted. Again, I can’t pinpoint exactly what I did. But I can assure you it didn’t involve blackmail.

1. Leadership. I’ve been an instructional technology coach for the last 4 years (I was a classroom teacher for 5 years before this). In my coaching role I’ve been lucky enough to help lead 1:1 initiatives with Chromebooks and iPads, design and deliver workshops and present at conferences….amongst other things. It’s awesome to do this stuff, and as a coach it comes with the territory. I speculate that Google admires folks who put themselves out there and shares knowledge with other learners, which is obviously what any teacher does everyday. But I think my extra pushes to offer workshops and present at conferences helped my case.

2. Personality. I don’t like writing about myself, so I’ll try to keep this brief. At the risk of sounding like the ultimate horn-tooter, I consider myself a pretty funny guy. Others might not think so, but I give it my best effort! The bottom line is I’m a master of self-deprecation and don’t take myself too seriously. I like to have fun and make people laugh, but I can still get the job done at whatever professional task I’m doing (okay I’m starting to write about myself too much…I’ll try to stop the madness!). So when it came time to make my application video, I decided to showcase my personality and make my video funny (or, what I thought was funny). I was nervous because I had seen SO MANY awesome videos and mine is pretty unique, but it somehow worked. I figured the video would get me either laughed out of the program or laughed into the program. Thankfully it was the latter. (But trust me, when I read the application for the first time, did I think I’d make a video that would end with me making dinosaur noises in front of a green screen that was duct-taped to my office wall? Nope. The idea originated from me joking around with friends, saying how it’d be awesome to sublet a room in Mountain View/Atlanta for the summer to get in-region candidate preference. Why yes, Google, I live in Mountain View but commute daily to my job near Chicago. This (lame?) joke eventually blossomed into my actual video – true story!)

3. Honesty. One of the essay questions was writing about navigating hardships – and I did not get all buzz-wordy and write about education. Maybe others did, and maybe it worked – who knows? I wrote about what it’s like to have debilitating writer’s block and how I overcame it.  Writing is a really important part of my life, and I wanted Google to get some insight into the “non-EdTech Jimmy” side of me. I imagine that Googly people are creative and innovate in all areas of their lives, and it was cool write a bit about my work-in-progress YA novel (shameless plug for Dear George Lucas – coming to bookstores in….uh…2016 I hope?) and my literary aspirations. Like my video, I was a little nervous about steering away from the more traditional path, but the Google planets aligned for me and it worked.

4. Experience. I spent some time touching up and updating my resume, making sure to highlight innovative projects, workshops and conferences. Again, I’m lucky to have been an instructional tech coach for 5 years, so I have a lot of experience. So if anyone is reading this that didn’t get in to GTA, keep building that resume! Lead some workshops in your district and go present at conferences! Besides it being fun and an awesome way to pay it forward with the spreading of knowledge and ideas, I think the more experience you have the better your chances are of being accepted to GTA. But again, I’m just speculating.

5. Become a Google Education Trainer. I’ve been a Google Education Trainer for a year. I don’t think this was make or break, but I think it helped.

So there you go – if you have any more questions, give me a shout. Cheers!

A TED-Ed Club connects with France and Cyprus!

photo (14)I’ve been facilitating a TED-ED Club for the last five weeks, and maybe you’re asking yourself, what is a TED-Ed Club? You can read more about it here, but in short, a TED-Ed Club is a group of students working on sharing their own big ideas with the world. They can share their ideas any way they like – a traditional TED Talk, animation, documentary-style, etc. They are encouraged to express their ideas in whatever way they deem best. My club meets weekly to discuss their own ideas, share their thoughts on their peers’ developing presentations, watch and dissect TED Talks and connect with other clubs around the world. It’s that last point that my club members have really latched onto – they are absolutely enamored with Tweeting at other clubs and organizing video-chats. Who knew?

The structure of the club is kind of open-ended, and that’s partially what drew me to apply as a facilitator. I also get sick of being seen as the “tech guy” around my school, and one of the draws of working with a TED Club is that it’s not a tech club. It’s a club where students are encouraged to follow their own passions and are afforded opportunities to connect with the wider world. Their ideas matter, and I knew that I would get some students involved that might not have concrete outlets for their big ideas. TED allows students the avenues to express the ideas they really care about. Some of my club members’ ideas include equality of individuals with disabilities, grammar awareness, promoting healthier eating and individualizing education. It’s an awesome array of ideas, and I can’t wait to watch their presentations develop!

As I said in the beginning of the post, my club loves connecting with other countries and learning about their cultures and their own big ideas. The funniest moment had to be when we asked French students, “How do you picture the stereotypical American?” Their answer?


And likes McDonalds.

The French students even knew that the first McDonalds was in Des Plaines, and they were EXCITED that we were so physically close. My club members had no idea.

How’s that for interesting cultural connections? Feel free to contact me if I can answer any more questions about a TED-Ed Club. It’s awesome, and I totally recommend you starting one at your school.

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Is your EdTech plan a Marvel or D.C. plan?

Marvel D.C. EdTechI can’t escape finding analogies between my hobbies and the EdTech world. It’s just the way my brain works, and I can’t stop myself from doing it. So when I settled in for the opening night of Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (which is awesome, by the way), while my brain was enjoying the comic book awesomeness it was also making an EdTech analogy:

Wow, a good EdTech plan is like the difference between the Marvel and D.C movie universes.

Allow me to explain. Marvel has been building its shared-universe empire since the release of Iron Man in 2008. And while that is a solid stand-alone film, Iron Man was just a single paint stroke in a broader picture. The plan was to introduce Iron Man, and then firmly establish the Hulk, Thor and Captain America in solo films – and the combine them in The Avengers. It was a brilliant move, and it worked – Marvel Studios is printing their own money at this point. Now they’re expanding the universe with Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange…and they’ve allegedly mapped out and plotted their films until the year 2028.

What amazing long-range vision, right? All of the heroes, villains and events tie into each other, and there is a clear plan dictated by visionary film executives and creative minds.

It’s kind of like a solid EdTech plan, isn’t it?

In an EdTech initiative there’s curriculum, hardware and professional development (and others) that need to work together seamlessly to achieve success (like the Avengers!). Each element must be thoughtfully considered and evaluated, just how each Marvel character was given his own standalone film to develop and flesh out the character. And in your district’s EdTech plan, there’s ideally a vision statement and a clear outline of when different elements will be deployed and what the expectations will be for staff and students. And if something goes wrong along the way, that’s acceptable – provided that the game-plan and transparency exist. Marvel Studios hasn’t released a turkey yet, but if they do – that’s fine. Because the overall vision, goals and game-plan will mitigate any problems – which is true of a quality EdTech plan for your district.

Does that sound like your district’s EdTech plan? If not, maybe your EdTech plan is like the D.C Comics movie universe.

D.C. has had some success over the years without any plan or vision. They lucked out with the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films, and then released a fairly popular, but hotly-debated Superman film in 2013. So what’s D.C.’s plan going forward?

They don’t really have one.

D.C. wishes to copy the Marvel formula of “team-up” movies, but there is no vision and no clear outline of what they’re doing. From an outsider’s perspective, they’re just making it up as they go. Green Lantern tanked, and now they’ll be sticking a new Batman and Wonder Woman (and possibly more famous characters) in the next Superman movie without establishing their characters beforehand. There’s worry on the nerd streets that this will be a disaster.

Sound like your EdTech plan? Throwing things together without any long-range consideration and hoping they stick? Maybe your school or district is trying to copy the formula of a successful implementation, but it’s rushed, not thoughtful and no element of the plan is given the correct amount of consideration or analysis. Perhaps your PD, hardware deployment and curriculum tie-ins are done all at once without any of them really shining or working together with extreme fluidity?

Kind of sounds like the D.C. movie universe right now, doesn’t it?

So the next time you’re enjoying Iron Man 3 or checking out Man of Steel – ask yourself: is my district’s EdTech plan a Marvel plan or a D.C. plan? And if it isn’t Marvel, how can you go about righting the ship? Take a look at the Marvel long-range plans, and I think you’ll learn a lot.


Illinois Reading Conference!

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I’m leading two presentations on Thursday and Friday at the 2014 Illinois Reading Conference in Springfield, IL. My two sessions are:

Digital Literacy and the Common Core: Catering to Curiosity

Technology and Common Core Fusion: 10 Ways Google Apps Helps to Improve the Writing Process

If you happen to be at the conference, drop in to one of my sessions and say hello! If not, click on the above links for resources to my presentations. Thanks – and remember, students want to learn like Indy!

indy meme

SXSWedu Day 4 Recap!

And so we’ve reached the end of SXSWedu 2014. Fittingly enough, it was 35 degrees and raining when I touched down in Austin on Sunday, and it was 65 and sunny on Thursday when I went wheels up back to Chicago. Yeah, it’s been that kind of winter. But enough about weather. The final day of SXSWedu began with a few morning sessions and ended with a keynote by Arrested Development star Jeffrey Tambor – you know him as George Bluth (there’s always money in the banana stand!).

A few notes about the last day:

1. Rob Scordino gave a short and enjoyable presentation about history in education. Rob was super droll (in a hilarious way) and also super knowledgable. I got a good vibe from him. One of his major points was that the way we teach history REALLY needs to change in education, because the classic learning/memorization of facts and dates has become pretty useless when we can look up anything at any moment. So with technology increasing constructivist learning and the access to content, it’s FAR easier to focus on critical thinking and analysis in the history classroom. So let’s do it, Rob says. Here, here.

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Click to embiggen and read the slide!

2. Most interesting thing learned today? In Rob’s research he’s found that there’s NO correlation between teacher age and amount of technology integration. In fact, younger teachers currently integrate technology LESS than older teachers. Fascinating, right?

3. One more thing about Rob – he wants to work as a curator at a museum. So if you happen to manage a museum, are looking for a curator, AND are one of the nine people reading this blog post – I throw my full weight behind Rob.

4. I attended a panel discussion called, “When Does ‘EdTech’ Simply Become Education‘” featuring three people not in education. And THAT last fact was super important to a LOT of people in the crowd. At the end of the session the panel fielded questions, and if the panel discussion was a cartoon the members would’ve been pelted with tomatoes. I’ve never quite understood how “ask the panel a question” translates into “soapbox for three minutes, get the crowd riled up, and not ask a question.” Whatever. I thought the panel made some great points (see my Twitter screenshots below point #5), and I enjoyed the discussion. I’ll blame conference fatigue for the restless audience members.

5. Jamie Casap seems to be a conference favorite (he was on the aforementioned panel) – if the #SXSWedu hashtag is accurate, many conference attendees have an EdTech crush on the guy. I get it – he’s an awesome speaker, tells relevant stories about his kids and learning, is a Google guy, and has amazing hair. What more could you ask for, right? Here’s a few of his more memorable points:

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6. Jeffrey Tambor’s keynote was more emotional than I expected. The guy REALLY respects teachers – and it’s obvious he wasn’t faking it. Just super genuine. He used to be a teacher, too – and he cried the day his kids got library cards. Gotta respect that. Books and teachers saved Jeffrey’s life growing up, he said, and I believe him. He also dropped a few F-bombs (what scandal!) and was self-deprecatingly hysterical.

7. Surprisingly enough, on the way out, a teacher was complaining about Jeffrey’s keynote to her coworker. She said she wanted more “practical” advice and wondered why Jeffrey was chosen as the final keynote. Uh, because he was inspiring and awesome? And he used to BE a teacher? Seriously, if you want your KEYNOTE speaker to dole out lesson plan resources and list off iPad apps you can immediately use with your students, I would recommend a different conference.

8. Final thoughts: SXSWedu was amazing. I met some awesome people and I’m excited to take resources and ideas back to my colleagues. If you ever get the chance to attend SXSWedu, jump at it. Seriously. It’s worth it just to be in the same room with so many innovative people. The energy is palpable everywhere you go. Every conversation I had was memorable. Heck, I shared a cab with an attendee on the way to the Austin airport and HE was an awesome guy. The entire experience was super inspiring, and it makes me want to be better at what I do. Oh, and Jack Andraka followed me on Twitter. I’ve arrived!

Hope to see you next year, South By!