Saturday, November 5, 2011


We are at #EdCampKC today in Lee's Summit, Missouri today. Looking forward to learning with everyone who comes!

What is EdCampKC?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

ShowMe App for the iPad

A few months ago I came across this *free* app and I have been excited about its potential use in the classroom.  Below I have embedded a ShowMe recording that shares a few of the ideas that have been bouncing around in my head.  Share your ideas for other ways to use this app with students.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Learning to Present to Adults

Over the weekend we had the opportunity to present at the Podstock conference in Wichita, KS. We chose to discuss why and how we have our students blog in our classrooms. Blogging has been around for a while now so this was nothing revolutionary. But, it is a simple starting point for teachers who want their students to be more engaged in their writing and it is great practice for interacting appropriately online.

This was just our second time to lead a presentation at a conference so we have a lot to learn about the art of effectively communicating to a group of adults.

What we know so far ...
  • Discussion rules. Questions are difficult to frame well, but very important.
  • Blended discussion (verbal and using a Google Doc) appears to be a great method to involve all participants.
  • Allow the group to learn from each other. Provide a backchannel opportunity to foster interaction among participants. Don’t pretend that we have all the knowledge.
  • Keep it simple. Avoid the theoretical and the education jargon and just talk about what works in the classroom.
  • Be a learner before being a teacher.

What we need to learn more about ...
  • How this format will work with other topics. We have the student blogging presentation down at this point. But, will this format work well for other tools?  
  • Working with larger groups of adults.  Both of our presentations have been between 20-40 adults.  
  • Differentiating technology.  

Reflecting on this experience I (Jon) am struck by what I have learned can be applied to the classroom. Far too often I will get in a rut of gushing out information at my students. This year I will strive to involve my students more the learning process. I would like to have a Google Doc serve as a discussion platform and backchannel throughout the day in my classroom.

Reflecting on this experience I (Britt) find myself mulling over all of the professional development I have been a part of at the building and district level.  I wonder if this more interactive approach would enhance those times.  There is a significant difference between the voluntary mid-summer conference and the mandatory, district inservice in February - but I am not sure the mid-summer conference holds the advantage.  I believe teachers would thrive in the interactive learning environment, and make strong connections to their own rooms (as Jon did).  I mostly wonder if the average professional development session involves enough learning to inspire the kind of discussion we got to be a part of?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Blogging with Students - Podstock 2011

Tomorrow we are leading a session on blogging with students at the Podstock 2011 conference in Wichita, KS.  The plan is to facilitate discussion around blogging with students and spend time creating a class in kidblog while exploring the platform.  

Follow the conference on Twitter using #podstock2011.

We will be using a live document to aid and document our discussion.  Here is the link to the doc.  It is a semi-organic document that will be filled with ideas and information during the session.  Feel free to join in even if you can’t make it!  The doc will be most useful to reference after the session is over.

Here is the proposal for the presentation just in case you are going to be at the conference tomorrow and are wanting to know more about what exactly we will be doing.  We look forward to seeing you!

Our plan for this session is to provide teachers with an engaging conversation about student blogging with additional hands-on time to create and setup blogs for their students. Both presenters blog with their students. After experiencing the benefits of blogging with our students we are eager to share this valuable tool with other educators. We have experience using Kidblog, Blogger, and Edublogs with our students. During this presentation we will demonstrate setting up student blogs with Kidblog due to the extreme easy of use.
The session focus will be on sharing ideas about blogging best practices. This conversation will be held verbally while also utilizing a backchannel discussion using Google Docs to aid in engagement and comprehension.

The session focus will be on sharing ideas about blogging best practices. This conversation will be held verbally while also utilizing a backchannel discussion using Google Docs to aid in engagement and comprehension.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Changing Subjects

In August I will begin my fifth year of teaching sixth grade. I love my job. I enjoying spending each day with energetic, quirky, and lovable students. It is a privilege to be able to lead my class as we explore and learn about life together.

The previous four years I have taught math, reading, writing, and social studies. This year I will keep the core subjects and switch out social studies for science.

While I am intrigued by science I would be remiss not to mention my sadness at losing my social studies classes. In sixth grade we explore the ancient civilizations and it is a blast. I will miss uncovering the ancient mysteries and retelling awesome stories of those who came before us.

Transitioning to science this summer has been an exciting and humbling process. Exciting because of the new challenges and interesting content. Humbling because it has highlighted what I don’t know. I have a basic understanding of these topics and could pass a test. Yet, to teach something well one must possess a far deeper understanding and fluency with the topic.

Luckily, I am in a profession that affords me the opportunity to spend the summer learning and exploring. So, I have devoted time this summer to deepening my understanding of science. So far I have found some great science blogs, read a handful of science books, watched a couple of documentaries, and sought the wisdom of those with experience teaching science. I am beginning to get to that deeper level but I still have so much to learn.

I hope to model this attitude of not knowing everything and seeking knowledge with my class in the fall.

I would love to hear your advice - what is your one nugget of wisdom for a beginning science teacher?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Best Environment for Educators

This question is posed to US public school teachers: "How do we create the best environment for our educators to lead their classrooms and help their students perform better?"

Vicki Davis of the Cool Cat Teacher blog posed this question and a subsequent survey yesterday. This post will be my response to that question, a question I think all teachers should answer. I will use the questions I give my students when we are setting goals to answer the question.

Jonathan Ferrell shared this link yesterday on Twitter. In the article, which is an interview with Jonathan Kozol (don't stop reading just because they misspelled Kozol's name in the title!), Kozol says he learned from Paulo Friere to "not to think I always know the answer".  I need that printed on my forehead.  It is an important caution as I or you attempt to answer the above question.

Here are the questions I ask my students when they are setting goals. The answer to the question at the top of this post is really a goal, that is why I am choosing to use these questions to structure my answer.

1.  Where are you?

  • I teach 5th grade in a large, urban district.  
  • My school is predominantly hispanic, and 98% free and reduced lunch (or low socioeconomic) with the majority of those students on the free lunch side of things.  
  • I have taught for 4 years.  
  • My first year was in a small-town district, made up of majority white students.  
  • I am planning to start my masters in administration this fall, so this question is very important for me as I think about eventually leading a school.  
  • I am currently team teaching.  We have two teachers and two classes, all day in all subjects. 
  • We get 4 plan times each week, one of them is a common plan time with the other 5th grade teachers.
  • Our district has progressively decided to adopt components of the common core standards as well as ACT standards as well as the current state standards and we are tested every 4 1/2 weeks around these.  
  • Our school struggles to meet the federal requirements for AYP on the state test and it seems to be an annual struggle to avoid potential restructuring consequences of low scores.
  • Our district has early release every Wednesday.  Students go home and teachers are in professional development.
I could go on, but the list covers enough for this post.

2.  Where do you want to be? (providing the best environment for educators to lead their classrooms and help their students perform better)
  • TIME: Structure the plan times to be more collaborative.  Teachers should be planning and developing units together as well as assessing and reflecting together.  
  • TIME: Instead of top-down professional development, the time should be spent having teachers critically reflect on their teaching practices as well as jointly analyzing the curriculum and pacing.  
  • TESTING: The current model of excessive testing leads to a flood of data.  To best help teachers, the tests should be boiled down to the most important ones and there should be support in analyzing the data so that it can inform classroom instruction.  As it is, tests are a statistical mess that bore students and scare teachers.  To the point to where our "best" students are best at factual memorization and regurgitation and not necessarily at learning, being creative, or being inquisitive.  
  • MEANINGFUL REVIEWS: Bogged down administration and closed-door teaching practices means that teacher reviews are generally a triangulation of test scores, a 15-min observation, and a personal lean (do I like you or not).  Even then, the observation is usually focused on a correct lesson plan format, whether or not the standards are posted, and did the teacher manage the student's behavior well.  For the students' sake, this needs a change.
    • Allow for peer evaluations.  How about the principal cover a class while that teacher goes to observe another teacher.  They could be looking for something (were students engaged) or they could be learning from a teacher who is awesome at teaching a certain skill.  The teachers could then spend 10 minutes talking about the observation.
    • Instead of 15-minute reviews, once or twice a year.  Principals should be given/should take the time to be in classrooms every week.  It would be natural for that to lead to discussions around how to improve the environment.
    • At professional development, teachers should bring videos of their teaching.  Not their best lesson, but rather of them teaching something their students just aren't getting.  Constructively and critically, teachers should provide feedback and ideas for that lesson.  For me?  I would like to bring a clip of me conferring with a student during reading.  I need to get better at this!
    • Instead of asking, "are the standards posted", the question should be, "is the lesson focused and do the students know what they are supposed to be learning."  As I believe that is the spirit behind the movement to post standards.  

  • SUPPORT: Everyone agrees that schools should be 100% about students.  Attacking teachers does not help students learn.  So support them.  If a teacher is not improving even with support, then help them find a job where they can be successful.  Supporting teachers does not mean to blindly tell them they are awesome and doing great.  

3.  How will you get there?
  • This year I will seek out teachers who are strong where I am weak.  I will ask my principal to let me observe them with students.
  • I will work to minimize the excessive testing by providing good instruction for my students and not relaying my worry for the results to their 5th-grade shoulders.  I will not spend hours every week doing test prep.  Though common, it is not best practice.
  • I will continue to take time, on my own, to be reflective around my classroom data.  No, I am not paid extra for this.  Even if there was merit pay, I wouldn't be paid more.  I wouldn't receive much for taking a student from four grade levels behind to two grade levels behind, according to the test I am still a failure.  The point is that it helps my students.
Ultimately, I will work to get better at what I can control and not get held back by the systematic or environmental things I cannot control.

Thanks for reading.

Enjoy being reflective today!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Setting Goals

1.  Where are you?

2.  Where do you want to be?

3.  How will you get there?

These are the questions I want students to think about.  I start out by asking them these questions with reading. Using the Fountas and Pinnell test, each student knows their reading level.  From that data, they think through each of the above questions.  We revisit their goals often.  In math we discuss their strengths and weaknesses and then the students write out their answers to the questions.

This year I will have students set goals for their behavior.  These goals will come after we have developed the classroom expectations and discussed ways to make our room the best room in which ALL can learn.  I want each student to understand their responsibility to the class.

After a week into the school year, every student will have these three goals in place and documented.  Setting the goals is not enough, students need to understand why we are setting goals and understand what their next steps should be to reach the objective.

Here are the two visuals I provide for students to help them understand setting goals.

1.  We go outside to play soccer.  I divide them to teams and give them a ball and tell them to play.  When the students - automatically - set up the two goals, I stop them.  I make them play without goals.  They have fun for a while, but soon they become bored.  Especially my more competitive students.  This is a great teachable moment to talk about setting goals, identifying what is in the way of reaching your goals, and why knowing where/what the goal is is so important.

Of course school can be boring if there are no goals set.  I guarantee that my students will have a subpar teacher at some point during their educational career.  If they have a goal set, the boredom of the classroom can be viewed as an opponent to be overcome.  Whereas if they have no goals set - imagine how bad that class will be!  They are just running around, kicking a ball back and forth and they don't even like the people on the field with them.

2.  I bring in a weightlifting bar with 250 lbs on it.  I have a student try to lift it.  They can't.  I ask them to imagine that I ask them to come in every morning until the last day of the year and try to lift it.

 Then I ask, "on the last day of school, will you be able to lift it?".

"What if you come in every day and sit in that chair and stare at me every day, will you be able to lift it on the last day of school?"

"What if you come in every day and lift this 1 lb weight, will that help?"

I turn to the class, "how do you get stronger?".  We talk about the questions above.  How does that apply to weightlifting?

This analogy is great for reading, for setting realistic goals, and for developing real steps to reach them.  Choosing good fit books - not too easy or too hard - is important to help you grow as a reader.  Reading every day is extremely important.

After these two lessons, we are ready to revisit our goals.  Do you need to rewrite your goal?  What steps do you plan to take to reach your goal?

By the way.  Just three days ago I committed to a challenge to try something new for 30 days.  I decided to blog for 30 days straight.  It is 11:35 PM on day 3.

Whew!  Barely kept this goal alive.  Goals are hard to keep, but worth it.

Enjoy learning today.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Planning for a Blog Hour

Like most teachers, I have been taking several hours this summer to dream about next year.  At the end of this last school year we were told that due to budget cuts, one of our plan times would be cut next year, leaving us with four plan times each week.  The fifth-grade team at my school has decided to take this time each week and have a designated "blog hour" with our class.

Over the last two years I have used student blogs mostly for publishing work and for some free writing.  The task of typing was laborious and frustrating for many of my students, so many didn't have time to finish during the school day and only a handful of my students have internet access at home.  I often encouraged them to go to the public library, but this solution didn't work for all students all of the time.

I found myself in an annoying cycle; my students were not great at typing > we would type to practice and publish our work > because they weren't good at typing, we would run out of time > they would be frustrated at the lack of time and not want to type > many didn't improve their typing abilities > blogging was difficult > by the end of the year my students were still not great at typing or blogging.

Here's the new plan for the upcoming school year:

  1. Each of the five 5th-grade classes will have a designated, weekly blogging hour.  
  2. In the first couple of weeks, we will spend time learning about blogging and typing whatever comes to mind.  The objective will be to practice typing.
  3. After students are comfortable with the interface and typing, we will work on publishing stories for a wide audience.  We will practice things like commenting and sharing as well as some basics like conventions, paragraphing, and formatting.
  4. A couple of months into it, with our confidence built, we will open our class blog up to the world.  I will use #comments4kids on Twitter and Skype for Education to connect us with other students and teachers.  
  5. We will use the blog hour to read what others are writing as well as publish our own stories or research. 

The goal is that the added time this year will allow us to develop the necessary skills and confidence before I simply ask them to type their stories in a 45-minute block.

The "blog hour" will not replace our writing instruction, but rather serve to supplement and enhance it.  I want my students to leave being able to type and knowing how to share with wider audiences.

Any feedback from a more experienced teacher would be appreciated!  As always, my Twitter name is @brpumphrey or you can leave a comment here.  Thanks!

Thank you to Silvia Tolisano for her Langwitches blog, as I plan to reference her .pdf on blogging with students often throughout this process.  Thanks!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Writing for 30 days

Encouraged by Richard Byrne through his Free Tech 4 Teachers blog - who was inspired by Matt Cutts of Google through his Ted talk - I am going to attempt to write for 15-20 minutes a day for the next 30 days.  I am accepting Matt Cutts' try something new for 30 days challenge because I want to become a better writer, a better blogger, and a better teacher.

Blogging is a great platform for all three of those goals.  

Like I tell my students, the best way to become a better reader or writer?  Read and write.  If I write everyday, I will become a better writer.  Hopefully, I can receive some critical feedback from others to help my writing become enjoyable to read.

I want to become a better blogger.  The bloggers I respect open themselves up for criticism and share ideas.  I have spent a few years receiving from others - which isn't really sharing, it's just taking.  Blogging about my classroom and my teaching will help me give as well as receive.

I want to become a better teacher.  I have only taught for four years and I have a lot to learn.  One thing I have learned is that when my classroom has it's door open and I am being reflective, that's when I grow.  Blogging opens up my classroom to the world and writing about my teaching will force me to be reflective.

Day one.

So this is my blog post number one of the 30-day challenge.  I don't think I will publish a post every day, but I will write every day.  Join me in sharing!  Document your comments on this blog or talk with me on Twitter at @brpumphrey.

Enjoy breathing today!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Layering Apps

The day before school started this past August I received a set of 1:1 iPods.  Most of the year I tried to find apps to fit the set of standards we were working on and using them to distribute text and quizzes.  I knew I was not using the full potential of the mobile technology, but I couldn't find the time to figure out how to nor the instructional time to use trial and error.

I've become more comfortable.  I've made the time.  Here is one simple way I have found that requires students to create, to share, and to be critical.  I linked my class to a common dropbox account and had them set up folders on it.  We had just wrapped up a poetry unit and every student had a few final products.  I told them to choose their best one and figure out a way to publish it to dropbox so that others could look at it for ideas.

Here are a few of the apps the students chose to use prior to submitting an image to dropbox:

Comic Life
Students used Comic Life to create a dialogue base for presenting their poetry.  Some students just created a comic strip and then submitted it, but others spurred them on by opening their comic strip in brushes and making it look better.  One student took it to brushes and then to LifeCards so that she could add more description to her poem - awesome.


Students used DoodleBuddy for a couple of purposes.  It is many of the students' go-to app for artistic creation because of its simplicity.  Like brushes you can open up saved images for editing, but it is not as precise.  Mostly, students chose DoodleBuddy to create a simple image or two and then opened those images up in LifeCards.

Students used Brushes to do precise editing on images they had created in LifeCards or DoodleBuddy.  A few students became 'Brushes evangelists' because of the ability to layer pictures.  They walked around showing students what they had figured out and they started to get into the intricacies of the app.  Brushes works great to edit out unwanted parts of a screen shot, this turned out to be its hottest use for this lesson

Students used LifeCards if they wanted to add substantial text to their submission.  They would create an image in DoodleBuddy or Brushes or GlowDoodle and then insert that picture into LifeCards and write 2-3 paragraphs to go with it.  The image creation apps often permit small text boxes, but some student's poems were very long and they needed the ability to write more text clearly. 

Google Earth
Some students used Google Earth just because they thought it was cool.  Others used it because they had a poem about the city or the ocean and they wanted an image of that setting - I didn't expect this to come into play.

Google Maps
In the same way as students used Google Earth, students used Maps to capture an image of their house, the school, the city, or whatever it was that matched their topic.  I only had a few use this app to find an image for their work but it was fun to have an actual picture of the park or restaurant instead of only a simple picture from DoodleBuddy or GlowDoodle.

GlowDoodle was good for students to create a simple image to stood out.  For students that wrote poems using onomatopoeia they found this app useful for supplementing their poetry.  How else do you accurately show "woof" or "bang" with an image?

The assignment to layer apps, or to use multiple apps to reach an end product, was fun to watch blossom.    It is one of the things about teaching that I love the most - giving students freedom and discovering that they are capable of doing some amazing thinking.

Ultimately, if I can not envision an end product to something I am assigning, I don't assign it.

Likewise, if I can only envision one end product to an assignment where students are publishing their thoughts/knowledge, I don't assign it.

Thanks for reading.  What other apps are well designed for layering and creative use?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Skyping with an Egyptologist

The sixth grade social studies curriculum is awesome. We get to study ancient history. It is my favorite subject to teach. The people, places, ideas, and cultures we get to learn about are fascinating. The highlight of the year, in my opinion, is our study of ancient Egypt. Who isn’t intrigued by Egypt? Pyramids, pharaohs, hieroglyphics, the Nile, and mummies. It is the perfect recipe for making history exciting for a sixth grade student.

This year in class we were able to add another layer of learning to our study of Egypt. Last week my students had the immense honor of being able to have a Skype conversation with Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney. Dr. Cooney is an Assistant Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA.

She was absolutely wonderful with my class. They had a ball asking her all kinds of questions about ancient and modern Egypt. The questions ranged from inquiring of her opinion on the mystery of King Tut’s death to the controversy surrounding former President Mubarak. Her insights were invaluable and she did a remarkable job of breaking down her answers so my students could understand.

As I stood in the back of the class soaking it all in I was amazed by the potential Skype brings to the classroom. With a simple webcam, a free program, and a willingness to ask I was able to connect my students to an expert from across the country. Using Skype my students were able to talk with a real-life Egyptologist! I am blown away by how cool that is.

My mind has been churning ever since about other ideas for using Skype in the classroom. I hope to continue to use this tool to connect my students with people far smarter than myself. We currently have plans to interview experts from the other civilizations we study. I would also like to find more classrooms for my students to connect with and share what we are learning. If you have ideas for how you use or would like to use Skype in the classroom let us know in the comments or on Twitter @jonathanferrell.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

MACE 2011 Manhattan Kansas

We are presenting and learning at the MACE 2011 conference today. We will be posting our reflections soon.

Follow the conference at #mace11 and our presentation's live doc

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

QR Codes in 6th Grade

QR Code - Scan it with your phone!
What is a QR code?
A QR code is a barcode that can be scanned by a cell phone camera (CSI Explains QR Codes). Once scanned this barcode acts as a link to a website, image, or audio file. QR codes  are easy for users to create, print, and share with other people. Once a code is made, anyone with a capable device can scan it and instantly be connected to a particular website. These codes are becoming increasingly more popular as advertisements and ways for businesses to connect with their audience.

Introduction to Students
After learning about QR codes I was intrigued by the potential for use in the classroom. The technology is nothing revolutionary but seemed like a method for connecting the analog world to the digital world.

I introduced QR codes to my students, let them create their own codes, and practice scanning them with their phones. They were also intrigued by the new technology.

PT Conferences
My first foray into actually using QR codes came at our recent parent teacher conferences. Each semester I create a basic one page document about each of my students. This document lists the student’s strengths, areas in need of improvement, and general classroom news. This time around I inserted a QR code into each document. This code linked the parent to their student’s blog. I encouraged them to use the code to visit the blog and leave a comment on the most recent post.

Vocabulary Posters
Last week during class we were creating vocabulary posters for the words we were learning. I thought it would be fun to link these paper posters to the digital world through QR codes. My students created the posters and then attached printed QR codes to add an interactive element. These QR codes linked to various websites that helped the audience gain a better understanding of how to use the word.

Making a QR Code
Using a URL shortener service such as or making a code is simple. Just enter the web address for the site you want to link to and click the shorten button. Once the shortened URL is created simply add “.qr” to the address to see the QR code.

Once you have the image of the QR code, the possibilities are endless.

Visit Tom Barrett’s 40 Interesting Ways to Use QR Codes in the Classroom for additional ideas.

I don’t think QR codes will change the world or really even revolutionize learning. But, they are a neat tool for making paper more interactive.

Plus - they are pretty cool.

What kind of ideas do you have for using QR codes in the classroom?