Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Engaging Parents with a Parent Tech Breakfast


Parent involvement is a huge mystery to me. Within the context of my school, I’ve learned that many of our students’ parents were once students at our school, and have not so positive memories of their time in middle school. That coupled with busy work schedules makes it difficult to get parents to come to school for events.

I’d like to take a moment to recognize that we do have some incredible parents who show up, volunteer, and are involved in our school. I’m so thankful for them. Every time I call parents, mostly positive phone calls with occasional behavior concerns, I reach friendly and caring parents. I know we have the support of our parents at home.

Parent Tech Breakfast


Last school year, I started hosting monthly Parent Tech Breakfasts. We’re 1:1 iPads, and we have lots of repeated questions from parents on how students use iPads at school, and how parents can more easily access technology for themselves.
The set-up is simple: we provide coffee and breakfast pastries, and we talk about technology for 30-45 minutes. Since we have many Spanish-speaking parents, I usually have a fluent Spanish-speaking techy teacher present to translate and/or run a parallel group. Each month, I invite content teachers to join us as well.

My Viking Tech Crew students have joined us a few times to show off tutorial videos and share projects they’ve created in their academic classes.

Discussion topics include:
- Classroom uses of iPads, including student work samples
- Accessing Jupiter Grades, our online gradebook
- Managing iPads at home
- Digital Citizenship, device contracts (shout out to Common Sense Media for amazing resources in English and Spanish!)
- Google Apps for Education -- we had parents on my Chromebooks experiencing collaborative Docs for the first time!

Even though it’s a fairly simple event to plan, there is a lot that happens behind the scenes. I couldn’t do it without our Coordinator of Intervention Services, or as I call her, Facilitator of Awesome. Her job includes bridging the divide between home and school, and supporting students academically. She sends out reminder emails and phone calls to parents, shops for the goodies, and gets the room read for parents. We host the Parent Tech Breakfast in her room, which is a parent-center, office, and conference space.

I’m thankful that we’ve been able to reach parents and families through the Parent Tech Breakfast!

I’m always looking for new ways to connect with parents and families. How have you/your school successfully reached out to parents?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Inbox Zero!

Sometimes, I’m horribly disorganized. Ok, a lot of time I’m disorganized. Over the summer, I got fed up with the black hole that is my work email, and reached out to a few people on Twitter for help. Big shoutout to Amy Illingworth and Joe Young for providing resources and guidance!

My goal: Inbox Zero!

Inbox Zero is based on a principles: “process email, rather than check email” and be intentional about responding and relocating emails. For more serious info, check out this summary of Merlin Mann’s Google Tech Talk about Inbox Zero.

My first thoughts were, “this is impossible!” -- and with that attitude, it is. After considering Inbox Zero for a couple weeks, I realized that I need to shift my email habits.

Process, not check:
Old habit: My bad habit in the past was to have email open on my computer all day long, and look at everything as it came in. Yes, those notifications on the top right of my computer were very distracti...squirrel! The problem was, I never actually replied to the emails, so they would get buried. 

New habit: Email stays closed, unless I’m actively looking at my email, responding, deleting, and filing.

Strategic email moves:
Old habit: Everything stays in my inbox, until I throw up my arms and have a email deleting party with myself for an hour on a Saturday morning. Oh hey, there’s that email from 6 months ago!

New habit: Every email gets deleted immediately, replied to, and/or read and moved to a folder.

End the day at zero:
Old habit: See above. Black hole. And feeling of adult incompetence for losing important emails.

New habit: Nothing in my inbox! It’s like a huge weight lifted off of me.

I’ve been in school for 9 weeks, and I’ve maintained this Inbox Zero habit!

Remember, whenever you read about someone else’s habits, you have to keep your own personality and strengths in mind. Just because the above method and tips work for me doesn’t mean they’ll be perfect for you. Take it and make it your own. If you have an email tip, please share it with me.

Now, in all efforts of transparency, my personal email is still a disaster….that’s the next habit-changing email project!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Teachers Don't Always Have All the Answers

The mantra of Breakout EDU is “It’s time for something different.” Breakout EDU is an immersive game-based platform that adapts the escape room concepts of problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration into an educational format. Players have to solve riddles to unlock a locked box. As we have shared in this post from Ditch That Textbook blog, we are thrilled to have the chance to live this motto as the Breakout EDU Digital team (in which we adapt the mechanics of Breakout EDU into a digital format). As we have evolved, iterated, and learned from that initial article, two situations have been brought to our attention time and time again. In this post and a follow up, we will examine these points and provide our response to them. 

With a Breakout EDU game using the box, setup instructions are provided. It gives the lock combinations, printable materials, and the paths the students follow to solve the riddles. You need these in order to facilitate the game. With the Breakout EDU Digital games, none of this is provided - everything is ready to go as soon as you enter the game.

Multiple times a week, we receive emails, tweets, Facebook messages, and other assorted communication from teachers asking for an answer key to the Digital games. When we receive these messages, we provide additional prompts and hints, but refuse to provide answer keys.

Why do we do this? Is it because we are evil and want you to suffer? Absolutely not - this is our contribution to the Breakout EDU mantra. For the bulk of the history of education, teachers have been viewed as the keepers of knowledge or the sage on the stage. In our opinion, this has gone on far too long. With the advent of the digital age, students have access to limitless amounts of information. Our roles as teachers need to change.

The “hidden curriculum” of soft skills is just as critical as the content we are mandated to teach. Words like rigor, growth mindset, resilience, and productive struggle thrown around as skills that students need to be successful in life, yet how often do we model this for our students? By not having access to an answer key, you are provided with a perfect opportunity to experience what a student feels when they first encounter a tough trigonometry problem. You're faced with a choice - put in effort to stretch your abilities to their fullest extent and grow your brain or email us for an answer (which is akin to flipping to the back of the textbook for the key.) Which would you prefer your students to do? Why do we not hold ourselves to that same standard? 


You don't have to struggle alone - share your plight with your students. Challenge them to help you complete the puzzles. Students see things differently than adults; something that has stumped us for hours takes a matter of seconds for them. Imagine their moment of glorious success. They solved something their teacher couldn't.

But it's deeper than that. You were vulnerable with them. You shared your struggle. You modeled resiliency and a refuse to give up. You showed them that it's ok to ask for help; that it's ok to admit you don't always have all the answers. This is a bond that can't be forged by playing a video about famous figure who overcame adversity to reach success. They'll be more likely to let down their guard and ask you for help - and you'll understand their feelings even better. 

Nicole Link couldn't solve a clue when I introduced
Breakout EDU to teachers at lunch, so she came back to
play with my students on her prep period! 


By now you're thinking that this is easy for us to say - we have all the answers to the games. However, we've played other's games and been through this productive struggle.

And it's not just us who feel this way. For every few requests for answers, there’s one praising this dedication to doing something differently. We'll close with our favorite, which comes from Dr. Donovan DeBoer, superintendent of Parker School District in South Dakota:

“One of my “mantras” has always been: “The one that does the doing, does the learning.” So when I was ever so close to our first teacher in-service days, and [Breakout EDU Digital] was one of the items I wanted to show my staff, I was very torn when I sent that dreaded, “I need help email.” However, in true educator fashion, [Justin and Mari] did not oblige my begging of “cheats” to complete the task. Instead, I was sent a very subtle hint and encouragement to complete the task.

It was a great lesson for me as a leader of young people, and adults. It helped solidify my belief that if you want to learn, you have to do.

It also proved to me how important collaboration is for our students. I needed help, I didn’t necessarily want the answers, but I needed another brain (or 32). As I introduced the activity to my staff, I was short one lock code. In the essence of time, we worked in groups on the digital breakout “Stranded on the Island.” As time passed I witnessed adults, veteran teachers, cheer with excitement when they found a new clue, or figured out a code, and hide their answers to allow for others to feel the same thing when they found things on their own.

Few more hours went by, in-service over, but I was still plugging away. I had to complete this thing. That’s when the magic happened - one of my football coaches sent me a text. He had solicited a friend from hours away, that started working on it as well, and we finally cracked the mystery lock.

The power of collaboration is real. Shared suffering in the task, and then the jubilation we share in the accomplishment. Two heads are better than one, and three better than two. Students need that time together, to share, to bounce ideas off one another, to enjoy the struggle together.

More importantly, we have to have the patience to let learners learn. They need to make mistakes, they need to learn from them, they need to talk it out with other people to learn the other side of communication not talked about “listening” to one another. Then the “magic,” can happen.”