Monday, June 20, 2016

Part 1: Back In the Trenches

I have been a K-12 Innovative Teaching and Learning Specialist for two years. Prior to that I was a social studies teacher for ten years. Back in May I was told there was a very good chance that I would be asked to teach a couple sections of 9th grade Social Studies (World Geography). I have a sneaky suspicion that my administrators were a little worried that I would not be open to the idea, but I was ECSTATIC! The truth is I absolutely love my job, but I miss working with kids. I didn't realize how much I missed working with them until I was presented with this opportunity. This arrangement will work for everyone involved. The school gets a teacher and I get to actually do all of the fun and crazy things I talk (preach?) about!

I hope teachers and administrators stop in every single day to see what my students are up to. They are going to do some pretty terrific things! I'm going to push them and challenge them to do things they never thought possible. They are going to connect to the world via their blogs and they are going to manage all of their projects through a classroom website. Everything they do they will be tied to the Nebraska Geography Standards. I have a vision for how this is going to work and it is going to ROCK!

This is the first in a series of posts where I will share what I am doing. There isn't anything that cannot be replicated for different subjects and grade levels. Most of the things we will be doing are things I've had students do for years, so I already know it is possible.

The first thing I did when I found out I was teaching 9th grade Geography was get a copy of the book and the pacing guide. While my class will be very different from the traditional way this class has been taught, I still needed to come up with a schedule to make sure we explore the same topics that are stated in the official course description. I set aside roughly five weeks for each unit.  This will allow us some flexibility with our schedule just in case we need to move some things around.

I spent some time today setting up this doc to make sure we get to all of the standards.  I still need to spend some time figuring out which ones we should focus on for each unit. I'm also working on building a rubric to help students (and me!) know how they are doing when it comes to mastery of our standards. This document is not even close to complete, but it is a good start.

My next step is to divide up the standards to provide students with areas on which they can focus while they are working on their projects. I'm so excited to see where this goes!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Preparing for the Worst Case Scenario

It has been three years since my husband wrote this powerful post. During the last few years, he has worked with a several schools and businesses in our region to make sure they are prepared in case the unthinkable happens. I wish we didn't have to talk about active shooters, but the fact remains that they pose a very real threat. If you are not already talking about this in your school, I hope this post will be something you can use to initiate a conversation. _________________________________________________________

My name is Kristofor Still (@kris_still). As you have probably guessed by now, I am married to Beth Still, who is the author of this blog. Before I dive too deep into this guest blog that Beth has asked me to write, I feel you need to know who I am and the level of experience I possess in my fields of expertise.

I have been in Law Enforcement now for almost 19 years; the last 13 years have been with the Scotts Bluff County Sheriff’s Department in Nebraska. I have been a SWAT team member for the last 11 years and a SWAT sniper for the last 6 years. I am also one of the department’s two firearms instructors. In May of 2012, I was given a great opportunity as I was one a select few from across the state who were able to gain a certification as an Active Shooter Response Instructor. I teach a two day class to area Law Enforcement Officers along with Chief Deputy Troy Brown.

As most of you probably know by now, today was one of the most horrific days in the history of the United States. A killer walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and killed 20 children and 6 adults. Of those killed, a majority of were kindergarteners.

When something like this happens and innocent children are killed, it tears at the hearts of a nation. Destroying what we as parents hold dearest to our hearts shock us to the core. It makes us realize how fragile life really is and how one crazed, sick person can take it away in the blink of an eye.

As I mentioned above, I am one of three instructors in our county that teach active shooter response to our area Law Enforcement Officers. Because of this, my wife knows that I am passionate about making sure that our officers are prepared both mentally and physically to go in and meet this evil head on and terminate it as quickly as possible in order to stop the killing.

Like most parents across our nation today, we talked at great length when Beth arrived home from school about what we can do as Law Enforcement Officers and Educators to stop this from happening. Beth came to me because she knows that I have also in the past gone to two of our area schools and provided them in-put on ways the school and teachers can protect themselves and the children. The sad thing about all of this is that my advice fell on deaf ears. I know that neither school followed through with any of the recommendations provided to them. I believe the reason that nothing was done was two fold. First of all, too many administrators fall into a comfort zone and genuinely believe that this kind of evil will never happen here. The second reason is because of the all mighty dollar. In both schools that I went to, I talked about purchasing certain items that could be used to aid teachers in protecting and or keeping intruders out of their rooms in the case that they were unable to escape. I felt that in both cases, I lost them once it came down to spending money.

I am often asked by people and teachers what they need to do in the case of active shooter in the building or school in which they are located. I start off by telling them to follow the acronym A.D.D. This stands for AVOID, DENY, DEFEND. I tell teachers, administrators, law enforcement officers, and citizens the same thing.

AVOID: Escape the scene as quickly as possible. If you are able to run, do so until you are sure you are in a safe place.

DENY (entry): If you unable to get out, barricade yourself in a room. Pile all of the furniture and heavy items in front of the door as possible and then quietly hide in the room in an area that would provide cover and concealment from an active shooter who wants to try to shoot into the room. Remember that an active shooters main goal is to kill as many people as possible to provide the greatest shock factor to his or her audience. They do not like to get hung up on a closed and locked door. This will slow them down too much for them to effectively accomplish their mission or goal. Most likely, they will move on.

DEFEND: If you are unable to escape or secure yourself in a safe room, you need to fight for your life. Find any items that you can use as a weapon. These are items of convenience such as a fire extinguisher, coat rack, trash can, chair, etc. If you are able to, find others in your same position that are of the sound mind and body to assist you in fighting for your life as well as the other innocent people who could fall victim to the senseless killing that is happening.

Another major problem that I am seeing in our schools is that our teachers are given a policy or a flip chart to follow in times of an emergency. This may work if you are talking about a fire drill or tornado drill, but teachers need leeway in their decision making when they are dealing with an active shooter. Most teachers are by nature known to be rule followers. This creates problems as they tend to fall back on a flip chart or policy and ignore that sixth sense about what they should do. The way I describe this to our new law enforcement recruits is by telling them that if something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Learn to follow your sixth sense and do what you feel is right.

Early on in this post, I spoke about certain in-expensive items that I recommended these schools purchase for each teacher or each room. Below is a list of these items that I recommended to them and am now recommending to you.

1) Tactical door wedges. These can be found on-line and typically cost between $15 and $20 a piece. These secure the door to the floor from inside the room, so the door can be permanently locked. If done properly, the only way you can open the door is to tear it down with an axe or chainsaw.

2) A claw hammer with a long handle. These can be used as both a weapon to fight with or a tool to break and rake windows to aid in escape if your room has exterior windows.

3) Medical kit to include a tunicate and a clotting agent. Remember that the first responders that are entering the building are not there to provide medical attention to those that are injured. They by-pass the injured and going straight to the threat so they can stop the killing as quickly as possible.

4) Rope or fire escape ladders. To aid in escape through an outer window if you are on the second or third floor of a school or structure.

5) Emergency blankets. These can be used to help comfort the wounded or to throw over the broken glass in a window pane prior to escape.

6) Cell phones or emergency radios for each classroom. Communication is key to any law enforcement officers or tactical teams arriving on scene. If you are able to provide pertinent information to police dispatch, you can aid in response time by providing the locations of the shooter(s) inside the structure.

7) A box, tote, or five gallon bucket to hold all of these items as they are stored in a safe place inside the classroom.

As you can see above, these are not high priced items. Push your administrator to purchase these for each classroom and tell him or her why you feel it is important. If they refuse to help your school, find ways to make this happen on your own. Some of the items above may be lying around your house or garage and could easily be transported to your school. The rest that needs to be purchased could easily be justified as inexpensive life insurance policy.

As an educator you are responsible for protecting your students if at all possible. Too many times in these cases of school shootings, there were red flags that many noticed, but failed to report until after the unthinkable happened. If you see or hear something that you consider to be red flag with a student, report it. Start by telling an administrator or counselor. If this fails and you believe they pose a true threat, talk to one of your trusted law enforcement officers.

In closing, I want you to ask yourself this; could you live with yourself if you failed to prepare, act, or report a possible future threat that resulted in the death of a student, wife, husband, son, daughter, grandparent or co-worker. You owe it to yourself and your students to be their first line of defense by educating yourself and making good sound decisions!

Below are images of a tactical wedge and a tactical strap. Both can be purchased from Botachtactical.

TAC-Wedge Door Jammer Operational Model BLACK

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Google Innovation Academy

This time last year I was in Austin, TX for the Google Teacher Academy. I had applied for years and I FINALLY made it in! I knew it would be an incredible experience....and it was. Everyone who had a hand in organizing our academy did a fantastic job. Our lead learners were beyond amazing! For two wonderful days I got to learn with and from some of the most talented educators on the planet.

Many of us still stay in contact either in our Google+ community, Voxer group or Twitter. I think I can speak for our entire cohort when I say that some of the friendships that formed during our academy will most certainly last a lifetime.

I'm telling you all of this because applications open TODAY for the Google Certified Innovator. I am so excited that I cannot stand it and I can't even apply! (But I would LOVE to help with the selection process!)

If you visit the Google Training Center you can find out the details of what you need to do to apply. The best advice I can give you is to follow the directions to the letter and don't be afraid to share your passion and enthusiasm for teaching, learning, and sharing. If you applied in the past but weren't accepted I hope you apply again. I was rejected over and over, but I eventually made it in. Each time I didn't make it into an academy, I reflected on what I could have done differently or what areas I could focus on to improve. I knew that the competition was fierce, but I did not let that deter me.

Any moment now the details of the Innovation Academy will be announced. It will be a fantastic opportunity for 50 or so educators to spend a couple of days with truly amazing people while developing an innovation plan that is designed to change education. Will you be one of them?

Follow the hashtag #GoogleEI. I cannot wait to see the next cohort of Google Innovators!

Thank you N.C. :)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Flippity: Create Flashcards Using a Google Sheet

There are times when flashcards can be a good learning tool. Whether it is elementary students learning how to read the time on a clock or high school students trying to match famous paintings with the artist that painted them, flashcards can help. Flippity allows you to turn a simple Google Sheet into flashcards and so much more! The playlist below walks you through the process.

Flippity makes the process so simple. You can build the spreadsheet yourself, have students collaborate to build a shared set of cards, or have students build their own spreadsheet. If you want students to incorporate a nonlinguistic representation of an idea or word it would be best for them to create their own spreadsheet. They can even draw a representation on paper, take a picture of it, then save that image to their spreadsheet. The only limit with what you and your students can do with this is your imagination!

Friday, August 28, 2015

What Can I Do?

My district has been hit with wave after wave of tragedy over the last five years. The loss of three teachers since March has caused so much heartache and created voids that just cannot be filled. Our superintendent, Bob Hastings, wrote a post where he shared some words of wisdom about what we can do in times of such sorrow. With his permission I am reposting What Can I Do ? with the hope that it will inspire you to follow his advice.

Written by Bob Hastings (@BasicBobH) on August 27, 2015

Over the past five months, Gering Public Schools has been stricken with unspeakable tragedy and loss. In March, we dealt with the unexpected death of 39 year Geil Elementary teacher Kathy Keller. In May, we once again faced tragedy with the unexpected death of 23 year Freshman Academy math teacher, coach, and assistant athletic director Gary Smith. Then, just this past Monday, we were struck by the sudden loss of 30 year GHS social studies teacher, theater and speech coach Jason deMaranville.

In each instance, as our staff and students have dealt with extreme grief, we have been touched by the love and support that our community has poured out upon us. The gifts of food, kind words, and support are made meaningful not so much by what they are, but by what they represent. These gifts show us that you are worried about us, that you are thinking of us, that you care.

Through each of these tragedies, after talking about how Mrs. Keller, Mr. Smith, or Mr. D have somehow touched their lives or the lives of their kids, the question that I have been most asked has been, “Is there something I can do?”

I want to tell you, there is something you can do. Something that doesn’t cost money or take a lot of time to do. But it is something that means everything.

What is that something? Find that teacher that made a difference for you. Find that teacher that has touched your child. Find that teacher and tell them what they mean to you. Find that teacher and send them a note of gratitude. Find that teacher and tell them about that time when they did something that made a difference for you or your child.

This week, I have been awestruck listening to the stories of grieving students as they have talked about what Mr. D meant to them. I have listened to friends and students say things like, “I wish I would have said…”

So, is there something you can do? Yes. Go tell your teacher thanks. Thanks for pouring their life into yours. And, please, don’t wait. Do it today!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Ditch the Worksheets and Notes and Make Learning More Meaningful to Your Students

For the first few years I taught I KILLED myself grading. My students would complete at least one worksheet during class and they would usually have at least one other assignment and a test or quiz. It was a LOT of work! It was not only a lot of work to grade all of it, but I usually created the assignments myself. (Other than the first year I taught I never used the materials that came with the textbook.) My classes followed a pattern that way too many classes still follow today: introduce a unit, take notes & answer questions out of the book, review the highlights, take a test (usually multiple choice and true/false so I could use the Scantron to grade them) and repeat for the next unit.

During the summer of 2008 I was part of a group of teachers that was responsible for designing online classes for a virtual academy. One of the classes I created was a World History class and the other one was a US History class. The curriculum specialist that worked with us for the first few days introduced us to the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. She walked us through the framework known as Understanding by Design (UbD) and it completely changed how I looked at teaching, learning, and assessment. UbD is often called Backward Design because traditionally we start with content and then design our assessments which are usually multiple choice tests, at the conclusion of the unit of study. The Backward Design begins with the assessment. I love UbD because it is very simple and straightforward. There are only THREE steps!

Step 1
Determine what students should know, understand, and be able to do.

Step 2
Determine how you will know what students know, understand, and can do.

Step 3
Plan lessons and learning experiences.

This is an incredibly simplified explanation but for the purpose of this post it is enough. There are additional resources regarding UbD at the end of this post, but I want to share how I used this process in my classroom.

During that summer while I was designing courses using the Backward Design model something clicked. I began using this method with the classes I taught face-to-face and things just began to make so much more sense to me. I realized that my old routine of reading/notes, answering questions, then testing was not allowing my students to demonstrate their learning. It was during the 2008-2009 school year that I completely stopped using multiple choice tests and exclusively began using performance-based assessment. The days of trying to keep all students on the same page were over and it was so liberating for both myself and my students!

A common frustration I still have when reading blogs is that teachers share great ideas, but they rarely share the steps in the process. This post might end up being very long, but in the end you might walk away with some ideas that will transform your classroom routine.

The classes I taught were 9 weeks long and I taught 4 different classes each year. It didn't matter if I was teaching geography, history, or government, the planning process was still the same. I always started with a calendar and the state standards. One of the first classes I taught face-to-face using Backward Design was a course I developed called Learning Geography Through the National Parks.

I began by examining the Nebraska geography standards:

  • 12.3.1 Students will analyze where and why people, places, and environments are organized on the Earth's surface. 
  • 12.3.2 Students will examine how regions form and change over time. 
  • 12.3.3 Students will interpret how natural processes interact to create the natural environment. 
  • 12.3.4 Students will analyze and interpret patterns of culture around the world. 
  • 12.3.5 Students will evaluate interrelationships between people and the environment. 
  • 12.3.6 Students will analyze issues and events using the geographic knowledge and skills to make informed decisions. 
Since we only had 9 weeks (approximately 18 90-minute classes and a no homework policy) I had to determine which standards were most important. I eliminated standards 12.3.4  and 12.3.6 right away because they did not fit well into what I wanted my students to focus on for that quarter. Using the remaining four standards I came up with a list of what I wanted my students to know, understand, and be able to do. This list included things such as: 
  • Describe how your park was formed. (Each student selected a national park that they focused on for the quarter.) 
  • Describe how climate impacts the flora and fauna in your park.
  • Explain how erosion, humans, and natural forces such as earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. impact your park. 
Each student set up a Google Site to act as their workspace for the quarter. I created a template for them to use that included a page for each of the standards. Each of those pages included a list of performance indicators such as the ones listed above. (There were a few more, but I only included three for demonstration purposes.) Students had the option of which section they wanted to work on. During class I circulated around the room and made sure they were not stuck and that they were actually making progress. Students would let me know when they completed a section and were ready for me to grade it. In addition to giving them a rubric for each component,  I provided them with constant feedback so they knew exactly how they were doing on each step. I would also let them know if they needed to spend a little extra time outside of class or if they were right where they needed to be. Since everything was done inside of Google it was easy to provide private, written feedback as well as verbal feedback during class. 

Students used resources on the web to find the information they need to answer the questions. They were required to evaluate each site using a form much like this one. Their websites looked very much like an Wikipedia page because they contained facts, images, and references. Once they completed all of the pages they used Google Earth to create a narrated virtual tour of their park that included at least a dozen points of interest. During the last couple days of class the students presented their websites and tours to the class. 

There was no final exam or other tests. The websites and tours were the assessment! Through synthesizing and creating my students demonstrated their knowledge, understanding, and skills. Moving to this type of learning not only was much easier for me, it was much more engaging for my students. They were provided with the opportunity to make choices along the way and I was able to provide support for students when they needed it. 

I was in the classroom five more years after I learned about UbD. As I became more comfortable with technology I allowed my students to make even more choices, especially when it came to how they would demonstrate their learning. Instead of being stressed out about my students being all over the place I embraced it. I was also more confident that the letter grades students were more accurate because they reflected what the students were capable of doing. Students were not held to due dates because they were working on different things. You might be thinking that if there were no due dates then students would just mess around during class. There were a few students who never did much, but that would be the case no matter what. The overwhelming majority enjoyed the challenge of finding information on their own.

The focus was on learning, not grades. They were actively engaged in their learning and they were not the least bit concerned about tinkering with their cell phones. I cannot tell you how satisfying it was when students were upset when class ended each day because they wanted to keep working! No matter what subject you teach I highly recommend redesigning your classes using Backward Design. It will take a little bit of getting used to, but it will be worth it! The links below have more information as well as some very useful templates to help you get started. 

Additional Resources

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dear Teachers,

Dear Teachers,
What an exciting time to be in education! The combination of more affordable devices and bandwidth mean more students have access to technology than ever before. For the first time since I became involved in educational technology, I feel like we are on the cusp of seeing what we can really happen when students have access to devices. But simply having access to devices is not enough.
Education philosopher John Dewey said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Think about the implications of this for a moment. Are we really preparing our students for their world or for the world in which we grew up? So many of us teach the way we were taught because that is what we know and are familiar with. Our need for comfort and our natural desire to resist change can often times stand in the way of progress. Change simply for the sake of change is typically not a good idea, but we can no longer ignore the fact that we have to change and adjust what we are doing to make sure we are equipping our students not just with knowledge, but with vital skills as well. The days of lecturing and taking notes for hours on end and having students read and complete questions out of the book need to come to an end.
Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, research, collaboration, communication, innovation and creativity are not new skills. These are the same skills that have been valued for generations. Technology can be a game changer, but innovation does not happen overnight and it does not happen by accident. Districts across the country have wasted millions of dollars on devices because they made the faulty assumption that simply providing students with devices it would somehow miraculously turn their schools around. Technology with no purpose or vision is worse than having no technology at all.
Many districts hire technology integration support specialists to make sure they keep moving in the right direction. Striving for classrooms where instruction is personalized and differentiated so it meets the interests and needs of students is typically the goal. Technology helps make this process much easier because it gives us unprecedented access to resources including other teachers! Student-centered classrooms where inquiry and project-based learning are the focus are the key to helping students build the skills they need to thrive in 2015 and beyond. Many districts, including mine, have adopted the SAMR model of technology integration as well as the ISTE technology standards for teachers and students. The SAMR framework and ISTE standards have proved to be incredibly useful during our journey.  
As a technology integrationist, a large part of my job is to help teachers increase the use of technology in their classroom. Many times teachers start where they are comfortable. My job is to push teachers out of their comfort zones and support them as they learn and grow. If you are lucky enough to work in a district that has a technology integrations on staff please take advantage of their skills and expertise. They can help you get going in the right direction and provide guidance and support, saving you countless hours of frustration and oceans of tears.  

Using technology to substitute (S in the SAMR model) what they are already doing is the usually the first step in integrating technology, but we HAVE to do more. While Chromebooks (and other devices) are a handy for word processing, reading online textbooks, and taking quizzes, we cannot even think about stopping there! We would be doing a huge disservice to our students if those were the only things they used computers for.
If your students have access to technology here are just some of the things they can do this year:
  • participate in a backchannel chat with their peers and possibly experts in whatever they are learning about
  • work with their peers to find the answer questions and solve problems that are meaningful to them—-not ones found in dry, boring textbooks
  • take virtual field trips (Just wait until I show you Google Cardboard!)
  • Skype and Hangout with other classrooms around the world
  • Blog so their voice can be heard by a real audience and they can get authentic feedback from anyone in the world
  • Connect with experts in a variety of fields using a variety of social media tools
  • Develop a global perspective by connecting and communicating with students from around the world---they can talk about school, culture, music, food, entertainment or anything else they want
  • Use a social bookmarking tool such as Diigo to curate and mark up websites and have an asynchronous conversation around the content on that site
  • Design and publish digital posters using Tackk, LucidPress, and Google Drawings (as well as countless other apps!)
  • Create a website to serve as a digital portfolio of all of their projects during the semester/year
  • Create screencasts where they explain a concept
  • Create interactive images using ThingLink (possibilities for this app are endless!)
  • Use MyMaps in Google to map ANYTHING! (Locations of specific events in the novel they are reading, all of the battles in a war, a trip they plan in a geography class, etc)
  • Use the Google Cultural Project to learn more about different works of art—-great for ELA, world language, math, social studies, music and art classes.
  • Collaborate with peers on shared docs, slides, drawings.
  • Collect and sort data using Google Sheets
  • Use models and simulations to learn about the world
  • Come up with creative and innovative ideas and share them with the world
  • Demonstrate their ability to conduct searches online and evaluate information they find online
  • Apply their prior knowledge to create workarounds when they encounter problems
  • Demonstrate their ability to use social media responsibly by creating positive examples of their work
  • Communicate and express their ideas and products using a variety of media and formats (still pictures, video, audio recordings)
  • Write and publish a book
  • Open a storefront on a site such as Etsy to sell physical items they create
  • Work with their peers to identify issues in our community, state, nation and world and come up with ways to solve them

I'm not suggesting that you should do everything on this list. What I am saying is that if you continue teaching the way you were taught you are holding your students back from reaching their full potential and developing important skills. The world has changed and it is time that our classrooms reflect these changes. What are you waiting for?!