In the Silence

In the silence, a shuffle is a landslide.

Clicks and ticks shake the air.

Furrowed brows rattle individual hairs.

Teaching is a human invention, the same is true for our Assessments.

learning has been around for longer than you or I.

(And you don’t need a test to show you know that.)

We are a culture of inventions, addicted to “data-adds-value.”

We forget that we all used to learn at one time.

We used to know more about the world, but then, schools started.

In the silence, our history slips away.


I think I’m channeling my inner Doyle.
We are all complicit. We are all responsible.
I feel that responsibility weighing down on me more every year.

Thinking Smarter

I want to think smarter.

I don’t want to know more facts or spout more trivia. I don’t want to just work smarter, either. I want to actually think smarter. It’s a much harder goal to accomplish because I’m constantly evaluating not only what I’m doing, but how I’m doing it.

I used to use an app called to manage a to-do list. Like most productivity apps, it synced across all platforms and I really thought my productivity was going to jump because I would always have access to that list. I would end up ignoring notifications because I had either completed the task or I was being notified during I time when I couldn’t recommit my energy. I was using technology to try and work smarter, but I was actually working harder. I went back to a mix of pen and paper and strategically sending myself text messages, which has worked much better. Because I can now take the time to target – on my calendar – when to be notified to do something, I’m able to work smarter and more effectively.

Working smarter doesn’t always involve an app doing something for us. What really matters is how we can use an app – or a hacked system of tools – to make it easier to work smarter.

In his book Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson explores this idea through the development of computer-aided chess. The question is simple: how does chess change when you play with your computer as a resource alongside? The results are interesting and I’ll let you pick up the book to read the whole story, but the short answer is that people played better. Not because they could research every possible solution or find a computer-suggested move with an algorithm, but because they could play more informed. Ideas and hunches could be tested and iterated quickly which would, in turn, inform their final decision. The ability to test ideas and make an informed play is an example of thinking smarter using technology.

The same should be true in education. Technology is exploding in schools and districts, but often with strings attached. Rather than opening the doors to information and pushing students to make smarter decisions about what they’re learning, we’re canning information and delivering it in the traditional way with non-traditional tools. Technology affords us the opportunity to think smarter, but we’re packaging information and removing the thinking process altogether.

To work smarter, you have to be able to articulate why you do what you do the way you do it. What is the goal you’re trying to achieve? Audrey Watters has a fascinating history of the development of the multiple choice test. It boils down to two main reasons: objectivity (presumably) and scalability. Scoring a test is simple: it’s a binary decision – you get each item correct or incorrect. Machines can do the scoring for us, which should help us think smarter because we can free up cognitive processes to analyze results rather than tally. Unfortunately, instruction is rarely informed and the students’ score, rather than a diagnostic, is now a report.

Working smarter means making difficult decisions about the actual practice of teaching and learning. It means gathering information and taking action on that insight. It also means being critical about the technology you’re using to accomplish goals through action. I wanted to be more productive, but the technology I chose to do that wasn’t helpful, so I dropped it for something more effective. Working smarter is working critically and with an open mind, ready to shift if goals aren’t being met.

When you’re working with students, think about the resources available and what goals you’d like to achieve. Just because you can use an app to do something in class doesn’t mean you should. Don’t allow the push to “integrate technology” obfuscate the real reason for being in school – learning to think.

Withholding Opportunities or Planning Accordingly?

11 days left.

There’s a lot of review happening right now – we’ve finished our final chapter tests and looking ahead at a double-whammy final exam. I’m facing a large bear this year because I wasn’t here first semester, so I don’t have a good idea of what ideas need to revisited more than others. So, I’m assuming we need to touch everything at least once. Tall order, eh?

Review is tedious. Games are fun, but I already wrote about making sure information is more relevant than winning a Dum Dum. Plus, I want to always give opportunities to demonstrate thinking over memorization. If you can think through a problem, you can reason an answer.

Karl had a tweet a few weeks back showing kids finding connections in apartheid South Africa using hexagon cut outs to mind-map the intricacies.

It looked great and came with high recommendations from Karl, so I tried it out using America’s energy use as our framework. I made small adjustments throughout the day and it went really well in most classes.


Is the group or the individual more important in teaching? It’s a maddening question and one I’ve wrestled with multiple times already this year.

Most of my hour was spent running from group to group defending myself from, “Is this okay?”-style questions. Another group didn’t even get their pieces cut out. A third got theirs cut about three minutes before the bell rang. I think only one had a really good start at what I was hoping to see in this review activity.

I find myself asking a new, yet similar question: Do the strengths and weaknesses of the group trump the strengths and weaknesses of individuals? Which should I plan for?

“Differentiate!” you may say. “Alas,” say I.

How do you structure an in-depth activity for three or four and a straightforward, rote(?), activity for others? Fairly easily in practice, but that leads to two sets of materials, two sets of directions, and likely multiple sets of rationales about why they get to do something different.

Everything in my teacher brain says that inquiry driven activities are better for long term analysis and retention of information. Much more so than completion on a review worksheet. But, if the environment isn’t conducive to that activity, something has to give.

It’s hard to let go of the ideal in the interest of making it to the finish line.


Review kills me. I struggle with finding a good balance between fun and actual, deep, review of ideas we’ve talked about during class. I also like to make review a little tough to see if they can apply the ideas, not just recall.

I think this original idea came from Crystal Kirch somewhere way back when, but I can’t seem to find the original blog post I think I may have read. Either way, here’s Trashketball.

I split my students into groups of five – it seemed to be the magic number. Threes and fours also worked well. The team could build an uber set of notes, pulling the best from whatever anyone could contribute. They would realize what they had missed over the unit and then add it to theirs as we went, which was nice. The rules are simple:

  1. Each correct response gets one point for the team.
  2. Each correct response also gets one shot for bonus points for the team.
  3. A shot into the Bonus Bucket doubles the point value of the shooting line you choose.
  4. Each team member must shoot at least once before you begin repeating shooters.
  5. Winning team gets a Dum Dum from the Bucket of Victors’ Spoils.



It was pretty incredible to see how different teams approached strategy. The incentive to answer questions accurately was high because if you get the question wrong, you can’t shoot for bonus points. You fall behind pretty quickly.

Secondly, some teams took the slow-and-steady approach. For each answer, they took easy, one or two point shots. Their score grew steadily while others took miracle shots, which only saved a team once out of the six games we played during the day. Also, teams didn’t consider the fact that shooting a four-point ball was as easy as hitting the Bonus Bucket from the two point line, which was purposely easy to do.

It’s an easy game to pull off with kids and the more you hype it up, the more fun it is. I took – and missed – plenty of “easy” shots, which broke the ice for those who were apprehensive about shooting a newspaper and tape ball. Others were knocked down a little because those long-range shots are hard to make.

I think, though, this was my favorite review because of the drive to do things well. All teams worked well together to answer questions, and that was important. I know exactly what needs to be discussed again leading into the test later this week. Kids were also attentive – up and moving around – which increased focus and helped everyone review the ideas of the unit.

Think Before You Periscope

Bill Fitzgerald is someone you should follow on Twitter if you need help interpreting Terms of Service or Privacy Policies. He pays real close attention to technology use in education, especially new, emerging tech.

Periscope is new and teachers love it. Show the Twitters all the great learning that’s happening in real time??? Definitely sounds like a good idea.

Please, read this.

Click to embiggen.

Click to embiggen.

Privacy is important stuff. You need to pay attention to how you’re sharing information about anyone, including yourself, especially your students.

You can see the whole thread here.

Also, give Bill’s blog a read to dive deeper.

Google Sheets Student Response System

Part two of a post from the other day.

First, head over to the master spreadsheet and make a copy.

What Now?

It’s important to note that this works just fine with form responses – you don’t have to use the text input I wrote about earlier. You can always go back and add it later. Either way you collect information, we can begin analyzing some of the data.

The whole idea is to have a platform-independent polling system. So, this is built with flexibility and bare-bones functionality in mind. It isn’t complex in the way it pulls in student responses, nor is it meant to be. However, there are some tools in place to help you actively identify problem areas.


An idea I’m borrowing from Andy Schwen is to utilize a central class list. Create a new spreadsheet and fill in student names. I sort mine by last name, first initial. You need the spreadsheet key from this document.


Copy the key and paste it into the cell which asks for it.


Your class list will automatically populate for you. That’s all you need to do on this page.


The Responses tab is meant to be an overview for you. So, if you have a way to extend your desktop across the projector rather than duplicating, you’ll have the back-door information.

This page has a response vs. confidence graph that updates as students submit their answers. If you have your class list set (see above), you’ll also be able to sort by class period using the dropdown menu. This will import those students and assign an ID number. Students respond with that ID number rather than their name so you can display comments (read on).

If they make a comment, you can also read it and see who asked that particular question or submitted a particularly salty comment.

Finally, you are given an overall confidence (average of all answers) as well as a chart mapping the student’s confidence score for each item they choose. It’s also broken down by student to aid you in feedback and conversation setting. You could also use this for grouping students on the fly to discuss the question.

Click for full-size image.

Click for full-size image.



This is the page you want to show live to students, and it’s meant to go through three steps. At first, the ID boxes at the top are all red. As responses come in, the box will turn green. There isn’t any way to prevent someone from submitting the incorrect ID number or a duplicate, so duplicates will turn yellow. You can then follow up individually as needed.

When you click on the “Get Responses” button, a pie graph of all the submitted answers is displayed. This is meant to spur conversation and show the beginnings of a pattern.


Clicking on “Set Answer” allows you to submit the multiple choice answer and change the graph. Rather than the pie chart, it shows the confidence score and the number of each answer submitted. Again, this can lead to conversations with your class about how confidence can correlate with making the right selection.


Clicking “Reset Form” clears all the responses from the form, resets the charts, and clears the Responses tab of data so you can ask another question.

This isn’t meant to collect persistent data – it’s meant for flexibility and high-level insight. Hopefully, it’s helpful to you. Please leave comments on this post (also linked from the template) with bugs, functionality improvement requests, or other feedback. This is definitely a pet project, but I’ll try my best to maintain it as it gets used.

How To Get Text Messages into Google Form Responses

Continuing on my data collection and analysis streak, I’ve got a little project to throw out into the wild and see what happens.

Student response systems are expensive and can be clunky. Google Forms are taking over the role of the stand-alone response system because of their flexibility in the wild during collection (device agnostic) and during analysis.

I like using forms, but they don’t work so well when students don’t have access to an Internet-ready device. So, I came up with a way to allow students (or anyone, really) to respond to a poll using either a form input or a text message.

The challenging part of this is getting the message into the spreadsheet. I have a Google Voice number, so I looked into Apps Scripts for Voice. Unfortunately, there is no way to access Voice using Google Scripts. There is an API for Hangouts, but it’s not documented very well and doesn’t look like it would even work with Apps Scripts or Spreadsheets. Maybe I’ll head back down that road someday, but not right now.

I decided to go with IFTTT, which has some benefits (easy to set up and manage) and drawbacks (only checks every 15 minutes-ish, so you need to manually run it during a session). It’s clunky and adds a breakpoint in the flow, but it works.

The Setup

You need to start by making a Google Form. For this, I want to allow students to send in four things: Their name, a multiple choice answer, a confidence rating, and any comments. Create the form with your collection in mind.

In IFTTT, you have to tell the script which cells to populate in the sheet with three straight bars, “     ”. Knowing your form setup is really important before you make the IFTTT recipe because it’ll save you a headache later. My recipe puts the responses into the first three columns and then I use a Google Apps Script to break them into the correct columns.

The Flow

Method 1 – Pure Google Forms

The audience opens the Form and answers the question displayed live. They hit submit.


Method 2 – Text Message to IFTTT

First, in Voice, you set up email notifications for text messages. Then, in Gmail, set up a filter to catch the emails and do two things: add a label (I used “text”) and then mark it as “read” (mostly for your inbox-zero sanity). Now, have the audience send a text to your Google Voice number (see below for formatting).

In IFTTT, set up a trigger which uses Gmail -> Google Drive. The Gmail trigger should do a search for your new Gmail label. When it finds that email, it appends a row to your form input spreadsheet.


More complicated, but now we have a way to get raw text data into the spreadsheet. Now, you need to make sure the text message is formatted correctly.

Splitting the text

Google forms split fields into their own columns. You can’t do that with a text because IFTTT puts the whole message into one cell. To split it, you need a way for a script to find the individual components. For this, I have participants do the following:

Name [comma] MC answer [comma] Confidence (1-4) [comma] comments

IFTTT dumps this into a placeholder cell in the spreadsheet and it can now be broken up at each comma using the following script:


function splitCells(from) {
  var sheet = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSpreadsheet().getSheets()[0];
  var colC = sheet.getRange(2, 3, sheet.getLastRow()).getValues();  // C2:C, only non-blank rows
  for(var i=0; i< colC.length; i++){
    if(colC[i][0] != ''){
      // If we received a SMS response, set a formula to parse it

After running this script, you now have all the responses in the correct column and you can play with the data more and look for patterns in the responses.

    • *So, there’s the start of the idea. I have a second sheet going, but I’ll write that up in a subsequent post. If you’d like to try this yourself and you’re having trouble reading my rambles, here’s the tl;dr version:

    1. Get a Google Voice number.
    2. Turn on email notices when you receive a text message.
    3. In Gmail, set a filter for your email notifications.
    4. Sign into IFTTT and copy this recipe.
    5. In the spreadsheet, copy and paste the Google Apps Script above, which splits the text message rows into columns, into the script editor. You may need to refresh the sheet to have the menu added to run the script.

I’ll follow this up with the data analysis sheet explanation.