Magnificent Seven Websites to Support 21st Century Staff Development

Posted by Bob Blackney on September 18, 2014

Magnificent Seven movie poster
The Magnificent Seven is a classic movie released in 1960. Click the image and check it out!

I know that you have been to one, probably several.  I’m talking about a workshop focused on changing classroom instruction, using the Internet, having students use technology for learning, and changing the teaching paradigm. In an age when everyone is connected everywhere, the only place that people are not connected is the classroom. Perhaps you’ve led such a workshop. Regardless, you know the workshop.

Yet, how is this paradigm-changing message delivered? Usually it’s done by means of whole group lecture, typically with a bad slide show that does not model media literacy. This needs to change!

If we want to get workshop participants excited and motivated to change, we need our workshops to exemplify the 21st century teaching and learning that we advocate. Seeing is believing! Experiencing is understanding. Professional development needs to model 21st century teaching so teachers and staff become motivated and engaged. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you seek in the world.” It is time to walk the talk.

Here are seven websites that can be used in staff development to model 21st century teaching and learning. Each offers a free version for education, and is relatively easy to use. None require participants to have a computer and can be accessed with a smart phone. Since the vast majority of the members of every workshop have a smart phone, they can be easily integrated into a presentation.

Collaborize Classroom

This is a new website and has some great qualities that are not available in other websites. The one that I like is the “vote or suggest” option. It allows teachers or students to suggest solutions and have other participants comment on the suggested solution. Having teachers list the ways that they could use the information in their classrooms provides a number of alternatives to the other members of the group and allows the teacher who posted the idea to get feedback and ideas to improve their suggestion.

Today’s Meet

If you believe that everyone in the room has something to contribute, then using Today’s Meet is a wonderful way to put that into practice. This is a great site to use as a workshop back channel. By setting up a second projector and having it display your “Today’s Meet” page, participants can comment and ask questions as the workshop proceeds. If you need any help setting up and using this web site, watch this short video.

Classflow

Classflow is a new web-based product from Promethean, the interactive white board maker. To use Classflow you do not have to use an interactive white board, a projector will work just fine. The presenter should plan to download the free App for their smart phone. It is available from the iTunes Store or Google Play. The app allows the presenter to take a picture on their smart phone or tablet and immediately post it for all to see on the projector. This replaces the old process of having groups work on chart paper and then post the charts. In a workshop, a group can work on a problem, list solutions, or draw a picture on a sheet of paper and the presenter can snap a quick picture and show the group. Additionally, you can use all the tools of an interactive whiteboard to annotate or add ideas to the picture from the computer that is attached to the projector. There is much more to this website, but I will leave you to discover it yourself. There are many support videos and resources on the website, but here is a video on getting the Classflow teacher app.

GooseChase

This is a website and an app combo that is used to create a high-tech scavenger hunt, or “GooseChase.” You use the website to devise tasks for the teams of GooseChasers to compete. Teams of GooseChasers use the smartphone app to take photos documenting their accomplishment of a task. These tasks can be silly, or they can be attached to workshop material. For example, you might ask teams to take a photo of their team each holding a fifth grade Common Core writing standard, or take a photo of the entire team next to a classroom poster of PBIS guidelines. The goal of the teams is not to do everything on the task list, but to pick tasks they can do in the time provided. Generally, you do not give them enough time to complete all the tasks. They select tasks from the list and each task has a different point value. The team with the most points wins, but everyone has a great time and reviews the material, skills or content that was included in the workshop.

Infuse Learning

Infuse Learning allows you to construct quizzes that participants can take on their smart phones. You can select from multiple choice, fill in, open answer, sort in order, numeric and Likert Scale. There are other programs that do this also, but what I like about Infuse is that there is an option for drawing your answer. This allows you to ask workshop participants to represent their learning in a diagram showing the interrelationship of ideas. This is a great summative activity! Another feature that I really like is the ability to give the quiz takers immediate feedback on how they did. I frequently use this as a pre-test to open a professional development session. This does two things. First, participants are given information that they do not have all the answers on this topic and secondly, it piques their interest in the correct answers that show up during the training.

Kahoot

This is very similar to Infuse Learning above, but they do a nice job with pictures. I have made quizzes that are nothing but pictures from around the training area. I break up the group into teams and they use their smart phone to find the area that is shown in the picture. When they find it, I have hidden a QR code there. After viewing or reading the resource accessed by the QR code, they must answer a question from that resource before they get another picture. Kahoot allows you to mix up the questions for each team, which is important so they don’t all go to the same spot at once. This gets teams active and engaged in the content in a fun way.

Poll Everywhere

Poll Everywhere is great and has been used for some time. This is a polling resource that allows you to display the participants’ responses in real time. Participants use their cell phones to text their answers to true/false, multiple choice, order and open-ended questions. Recently they have added a real time word cloud feature that is great. Ask participants for three words that describe anything, from the skills they will need to develop or the differences between traditional math and Common Core math. In real time the text messages of their three words will be constructed into a word cloud that will clearly display the needs or priorities of the group.

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The Debilitating Effects of Micromanagement

Posted by Bob Blackney on August 6, 2013

vision-control matrix with micromanager in bottom right

At some point in our careers, we get to work with a micromanager—the person who tries to control everything that happens in a school or office. Micromanagers pay excessive attention to details and avoid delegation of tasks and decisions to staff members. The parody of the micromanager is the leader who spends the better part of the day counting the office supplies used. While micromanagers may feel they are doing a great job and being very structured, the often are oblivious to the effects that they are having on the rest of the organization.

In the best situations, micromanagement is an impediment to progress and in extreme cases it can cause the organization to stagnate. Let’s look at the some of the effects that come with micromanagement.

Effects of Micromangement

Micromanagement prevents innovation. Employees can’t come up with new ideas and procedures on their own; they have to constantly check with the micromanager who is often unavailable. Workers become “drones” that wait to be told what to do rather than take risks that come with innovation. Employees with skills and knowledge will leave such situations and the organization is left with workers who are content to wait to follow instructions.

Micromanagement slows workflow, as all approvals have to go through the manager who will not give up control. It is not efficient for normal work to have to wait for approval from an overzealous manager. Delegation is an essential element in any organization and it is an essential skill for any manager.

Micromanagement prevents an organization from using the talents and skills of the staff. Employees are hired because they have the knowledge and ability to do a job. If they are constantly being hovered over by an oppressive manager, then they cannot do the jobs that they were hired to do.

Micromanagement creates a “wait to be told” culture. Why do work ahead of time if the micromanager will come by and change everything? Better for employees to just wait until the deadline approaches and then do the job. There will be far less time to have to make changes and have to re-do the work. Everyone in the organization learns to just wait until it has to be done and then do what they are told to do.

Micromanagement slows progress because meetings must include the micromanager. Workers learn that if the micromanager has not “signed off” on the project there is no use in moving forward unless it is done exactly the way the micromanager wants it to be done.

Micromanagement retards communication within a school or office and with the community. When someone asks a question, workers will often reply, “I’ll have to check with my manager.” Employees should be able to respond to coworkers and with the community without being held hostage. If the answer is not correct, then it can be corrected. The damage that is caused by inaccurate communications is not nearly as great as the damage that is caused by communicating in a timely manner.

Micromanagement discourages teamwork. Workers don’t work together; they just have to work with the micromanager. I have heard work groups say, “What’s the use of getting together to plan, we will just have to change it all.” This is not how an efficient organization runs. Managers should encourage everyone in the organization to constantly be innovating, communicating and improving and this cannot be done if the manager cannot delegate and respect the work of his or her employees.

In some situations, the micromanager will assign work and then micromanage the work to enable the oppressive manager to take credit for any positive results, and also to blame the employee for negative results. In this scenario the micromanager actually delegates the accountability for failure to the worker without giving them the ability to take initiative that might have made the project a success.

Are you a micromanager?

Might you be a micromanager and not know it? According to Alyssa Gregory, here are some telltale signs:

You have more work than you can handle because you can’t delegate effectively.

You frequently assign work, then take it back because it’s not getting done the way you want it done.

You tell your team exactly how you want things done and leave them no room for them to take initiative.

You continuously take on project manager roles, even when there already is a project manager.

You rarely complete projects on time because you can’t get past the details.

You need to know what everyone is doing, all the time.

Your team avoids you and all one-on-one conversations with you.

You don’t let any of your team members contribute ideas, communicate with clients or even talk to each other.

You become the bottleneck because everyone is always waiting for your approval on everything.

Your team has unreasonably high turnover.

You question the processes followed, work completed and proposed next steps at every status meeting.

You feel that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

 

Micromanagement disables a school or office in countless ways. All managers should be careful not to fall into the traps of over-managing. The damage that comes with micromanagement is not easily or quickly corrected.

 

 

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Reading the Tea Leaves in Tight Times

Posted by Bob Blackney on January 30, 2013

Image of scissors For school districts, this year could see the worst budget struggles in California’s history.  Most districts used up their reserves long ago; the rest have scant reserves left.  Districts have tapped categorical funds in historically-unprecedented ways.  One-time funds and the American Renewal and Reinvestment Act money have been expended.    Maintenance projects have been deferred year after year.  Furlough days and salary cutbacks have been implemented.  What to cut next?

How districts choose to reduce budgets can be very revealing. When under pressure, a district’s true colors come out.    Let’s look at some of the most common ways that a school district might approach budget reductions.

Across-the-board cuts

One of the most common is an across-the-board simple percentage cut of all budgets.  For example a district might cut all school budgets by 10%.  This kind of cut can be politically expedient; it treats every budget and program equally, and has the appearance of being even-handed.  What an across the board cut does not account for are the goals of the district.  If a district has a goal of getting all students to learn and use twenty-first century skills, an equal cut to all budgets will reduce the funding on programs that support this goal and the programs that are unrelated to the goal equally.

Targeted cuts

Another common way to reduce budgets is to target specific programs for reduction. Ideally, the long-term goals of the district are used to select which programs will be eliminated.  On the other hand, such cuts may be linked to certain personalities or to local politics.  For example, an easy way to eliminate a personality conflict is to transfer or lay off the person at the center of the conflict.  It is an old budget axiom that in tight budget times, “dead wood burns fast.”  Targeting programs for reduction can be a beneficial to an organization if it goes through a period of reflection and makes choices that increase the efficiency of the organization as a whole.

Turning down the flame

“Turning down the flame” is budget reduction strategy in which programs are reduced to a level where they are kept alive but are not given the funding to be particularly effective.  The organizational statement here is that the program is valued, and there is hope that when funding returns the program can be rejuvenated.  To implement a turning down the flame strategy, each program is evaluated to see the minimal level of funding that it it would need to survive.  Each program is given a reduction based those calculations.  Such calculations are time-consuming and difficult to predict. What appears to be the minimal level to one observer might appear very differently to another.

Focus on the future

Finally a district might choose to focus on the future.  In this method a district would fully fund the programs that link  directly to the most important goals of the district first, and then reduce other programs.  In this method the district commits to achieving stated goal, even at the risk of doing damage or eliminating other programs.  A district at a turning point might adopt this approach, because it is essential that strategic goals be accomplished regardless of the ramifications. This is a very difficult approach to implement and requires strong leadership and vision and clear goals linked to a shared vision.

Insights into decision-making

Each of these strategies provides insight into the decision-making of a school district.  They are indicators of how a district functions, what it values, and the goals it is setting for the future.  Perhaps a number of these strategies are employed.  An observer might examine the motivation and inspiration for each.  Interpreting how a school district chooses to reduce  expenditures in hard times is like reading tea leaves at the bottom of a the cup—a skilled observer will see more than tea leaves.

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Three Wishes for the New Ed Tech Task Force

Posted by Bob Blackney on April 30, 2012

I guess you know when you are getting old when you can say things like, “I have watched educational technology in California for thirty years.”  Unfortunately, this statement is all too true in my case.  From the days of AB 803 to the current state initiatives, the State of California developed many technology master plans and visions for technology in education.

Recently, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson called together a group of bright and energetic stakeholders from across the state to update the California State Technology Plan.  As this talented group headed to Sacramento, I thought, “If I could have three wishes that could actually be granted by this group, what would they be?”  After some hours of pondering—and lowering of expectations from grand to achievable in the present budget environment—I was left with these:

Wish Number 1: A simple tech plan

While Wish Number 1 would cost no money, it could save hundreds of hours of time at each school and district.  Right now we have the “kitchen sink” template for technology planning.  It includes detailed planning for the next three to five years out.  The resulting document easily exceeds 100 pages.  Much more beneficial would be a simple two to five page document that is updated yearly/bi-yearly in light of the changing technology and budget landscape that might be accomplished within that shortened period.  This makes particular sense given how quickly the tech environment changes.  Fives years ago, who could have foretold the present explosion of mobile technologies, software as a service, and lightweight operating systems?  Certainly not Microsoft.

Wish Number 2: On-line learning

Most of the nation has devised a plan to enable schools and districts to provide on-line learning and for districts to collect ADA for student participation in these programs as part of the general educational program.  On-line learning in its many forms is not a futuristic vision, but is a fact for most industries, local governments and state educational systems.  Woefully, this is not reality in California. California should look to the many states that appear to have this figured out and adopt or adapt one of their systems.  Last year, it appeared we might have new legislation that would allow our schools to offer on-line learning, but at the last minute the bill was gutted and morphed into a bill to protect shark fins.  (Really!  You can’t make this stuff up.)  California’s students should have the same priority as shark fins, but in the meantime, we deprive students of valuable options.

Wish Number 3: Funding for schools

Funding for technology in California has varied between miniscule and non-existent.  Given this dearth of funding, two general strategies have been used, both based upon the notion that since there is so little money in the pot, equal distribution would be too small to make a difference.  One strategy has been to pool funding into more significant amounts and have schools write grants to access resources.  Using this strategy, successful applicants might have enough money to implement a program.   The second, and current, plan gives funding to leadership projects and county offices to provide services within the counties.  What’s the matter with that approach?  The answer is pretty simple.  Learning takes place in schools, and if no money is going there then students never get it.  In some form, at least half of the state funding should find its way to support schools.

Some general principles

In granting my three wishes, there are some general principles I recommend to the Task Force.  First, allow for a great deal of local discretion in planning and implementation.  California is a big place and planning for the whole state is difficult if not impossible to do from Sacramento.  How can a single school district in a remote area of the state do the same things that a large urban district might?  Would you even want them to try?   Second, shoot for the middle.  The average teacher and student are not looking for a cutting edge solution but for simple, easy-to-use, proven technologies.  Lastly, plan for a “beer budget.”  We don’t have the funding to support grand designs and would be better not to start there.  California is more like the Simpsons than the Kardashians, and a plan that acknowledges the budgetary facts would be welcome.

Well that’s it, my three wishes.  None of these would cost additional money and could be accomplished in the next school year.  Not a grand vision of a digitally connected future with each student linked to a myriad of digital resources, but a more pragmatic look at what can actually be done.

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Time to End the Tech Plan?

Posted by Bob Blackney on September 27, 2010

Oh dread. It is time again to rewrite our district technology plan. Contemplating this Sisyphean task got me thinking about where the requirement for a technology use plan came from and how can we improve it?

I did an Internet search for school technology plans to see what I could find. The oldest plan that I could find is a technology plan from September 1982 from a district in Salt Lake City. Interestingly, it was a 12-year plan for the small school district that totaled 412 words. Juxtapose that with the nearly 300 pages of our district’s last technology plan! It makes me wonder if all the energy we’ll spend rewriting it will pay off.

Sure, thirty years ago when the first computers started appearing on the steps of the schoolhouse, we desperately needed a plan for what to do with them. That was a good idea!

Fast-forward to 2010 and technology is so integrated into everything we do that it is nearly impossible to find an activity that has not been impacted by it. Instead of “How do we use this?” I’m far more likely to hear, “Why can’t I get this online?”

We are awash in a digital tidal wave. Like the music and printing industries, education is quickly moving to being completely digital. Instead of planning how to use technology, we are more likely to look for an electronic solution as our first alternative.

At this point, it makes little sense to write a detailed, three-year technology plan that is separate from every other planning document that a school district writes. What we need is a brief description that easily communicates the district’s direction to the stakeholders. Leave out the massive details that change before the plan can even get through the approval process. Forget the budget section that attempts to project expenses five years out when the Legislature hasn’t even passed a budget for this year! We need a simple plan that is integrated with other district planning documents and is revisited often—not once every three years.

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