Reading Summaries

Reading Summaries thumbnail

I've decided to fire up a new, static website to reflect on books I read this year. In all honesty, much of this is bring prompted by my grad school reading, but my reading list is also expanding for once classes are done and putting longer pieces together in response have helped.

Anyways, I have two up right now:

  1. Deep Learning by Michael Fullan, Joanne Quinn, and Joanne McEachen
  2. Poor Students, Richer Teaching by Eric Jensen.

All books will be listed on the homepage, sum.ohheybrian.com.

The Big Dig

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Our septic system needed to be upgraded, so we took the hottest weekend of the year (so far) to do it. My wife's dad and brother spent the day with me on Saturday digging large trenches to bury leach chambers. We redid all the plumbing. We plowed a new, larger garden and cut down some nuisance trees.

I've also learned about navigating the permitting stages with the health department. Good news is that I'll never need to do this again.

Septic Field Repair

Moving back to WordPress

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You might not have noticed (or you might have...who knows) but this site is now back on WordPress. I had shifted to Jekyll back in December for the speed and security of static pages, but I ended up writing less, and I didn't like that. So, it's back to WordPress.

Most pages should be working correctly. There will definitely be problems with embeds (images, etc) and I'll be working through those over the next several weeks (years?).

Post categories and tags are also messed up and I'll be reindexing those as well. The search bar on the right works, so stick to that if you're looking for something specific.


Featured image Monopoly flickr photo by randomwire shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

New Tab Flickr Background Extension

I’m part of digital-only secret Santa exchange. It’s a cool idea…you’re assigned someone you may (or may not know) and tasked with coming up with a free (or very cheap, ~$5) digital gift. Some ideas were things like creating customized Spotify playlists or blog lists, creative portraits of the person from images you find online, to recipe or book suggestions.

After snooping out my person, I found that they really like being outside, but they’re a programmer by day. So, I decided to throw together a little Chrome/Firefox extension which replaces their new tab page with a randomly-found picture from Flickr.

Originally, I hardcoded tags that would always return an image of a forest. I decided that wasn’t much fun. What if they wanted to look at a beach that day?

So, I tapped into Chrome and Firefox local storage. You can input some tags (comma separated) into a simple form and hey presto! The image changes. It will use those tags with each new tab load until you change the tags.

I’m pulling the large image (1600px on the longest side) and every now and then an image fails to load. I don’t know of a good way to preprocess for missing image URLs yet. Plus, I did this in a two-day blitz. In good fashion, each photo is linked to the original file in Flickr at the bottom of the screen so you can go and give it a fav if you’re a Flickr user.

If you want to try it out you can download this zip holding both extension files.

To Install

Chrome

  1. Go to chrome:extensions in the address bar.

  2. Make sure the “Developer Mode” checkbox is selected.

  3. Click on “Load unpacked extension” and select the folder you downloaded.

  4. Enable it and then open a new tab. You’ll need to set the tags the first time.

Firefox

  1. Go to about:addons in the address bar.

  2. Click on the gear icon (top right) and select “Install Add-On From File…”

  3. Select the .xpi file from your download and enable it in the popup.

  4. Open a new tab and set your keywords.

Featured image is a screenshot of the extension which is showing Crowded summer beach. High angle view flickr photo by slon.pics shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

Tweeting Google Slides Automatically

An app called Keynote Tweet has been around (in various working and non-working states) since the late 2000’s and let users auto-tweet images of their Keynote slides during a presentation to a hashtag or stream. Google released the Slides API this year and one of the API methods allows you to get a thumbnail of the image which can then be sent to other applications. You can see an example of this in a slideshow now by going to View > HTML View. It opens a tab with slide images embedded in plain HTML formatting. Since we can now get the image, we can start to push them out to other platforms with Google Apps Script.

This post is going to be technical in nature and is really meant as a proof-of-concept. I’ll explain some of the shortcomings of this implementation in context. The code is broken up into several chunks and the entire source is posted to GitHub.

Setup

First, the Slides API has to be enabled in the Google Cloud Console. Once that’s done, getting the thumbnails is pretty easy.

Off the bat, the API doesn’t have event triggers like the Forms, Sheets, or Docs. I wanted each slide to be tweeted as the presentation advanced, so I needed a custom presentation view. To get this to work, I wrote up a web app presentation window served by Google’s HtmlService.

This simple HTML page requests and displays the slides from an array created by the backend. There are some controls that hide on the bottom of the screen and a position indicator in the top right. Hover the mouse and they’ll pop up for interaction.

Issue 1

  1. The initial page load for the web app varies depending on the size of the presentation. The request for slides on line 37 fires as soon as the document loads in the browser. The loading GIF is replaced by the slides when they’re returned.

  2. The slide thumbnails are returned as 1600×900 pixel PNGs, so they’re big, which increases load time. There is no way to specify the size of the image returned at this point.

Each slide is sent as an image on a tweet as they show is advanced and has posted class added to prevent multiple tweets of the same slide. The “previous” button does not trigger a tweet in the event you go backwards.

I used Martin Hawksey’s TwtrService library to connect my Twitter account. He has a detailed post on how to connect and use the library, so I’m not going to go through that here. This is also where the second major snag comes up.

Issue 2

Google recommends not using libraries in production code because they can negative impact on script runtime. This is especially apparent on the first slide in this script – it times out frequently (3 of 5 times?) and I’m not sure why. Subsequent slides come in between 20-50 seconds, which isn’t terrible, considering the image size being uploaded. But, if you’re a fast talker, this won’t be able to keep up unless some kind of queueing is implemented.

To do this without a library, the OAuth flow needs to be incorporated into the main script. It’s beyond my ability at the moment, so if you’d like to contribute that component and help this run as a standalone app, you can do submit a pull request on the GitHub repo.

Tweeting

Sending the tweet is actually a two-step process. First, the slide thumbnail is posted and then the media_id assigned is attached to the tweet. This is all done on the Google Apps Script side of the code to account for security considerations.

Google’s thumbnail is generated and hosted on their server, so I used the UrlFetchApp to request the content as a blob. This is serialized data that can be passed on to Twitter’s image hosting service.

Once the image is uploaded, we can take the returned media_id string and attach it to a tweet. The Twitter API object for a tweet has a number of options, but all I’m using is status (what you’re saying) and media_ids, which takes the image ID string from the upload.

Right now, the string is hard-coded into the script. This could be set via the Apps Script UI tools if this gets turned into an AddOn at some point if I can speed it up.

Issue 3

Twitter requires a high degree of authorization for posting. I tried implementing the OAuth flow without using a library to speed up performance, but I couldn’t get it to work. TwtrService stores the app credentials for the OAuth flow and has both an upload and post method that make the tweeting easy. But, performance varies for 20 seconds to as long as 300.

Conclusion

The app works, which was exciting to put together and see. It’s a function that would be great in a number of situations and implementation will only get better as the Slides API improves. I’d love to work with someone with more experience to speed the API calls up significantly by including all the necessary authentication in the main script rather than in a library. If you’d be willing to contribute, the source code is on GitHub.

If you’d like to play with it, you can either copy all the files from GitHub or copy and paste the separate embeds here into an empty project. Add postTweet and getThumbnails to the code below.

Mountain Bluebird flickr photo by Andrej Chudy shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Glaringly “For-Profit”

Audrey Watters shared a Bloomberg article this morning on Silicon Valley-based AltSchool which is closing locations to focus on “strategy” and a “path to growth and finances.” It’s a glaring admission that Silicon Valley money and “vision” have nothing to do with bettering education for students.

Interestingly, the last paragraph of the article highlights what we already know about improving schools, almost as an afterthought:

Although the company touts the magic of its technology, two parents said their children benefited more from the extensive attention of talented teachers and small class sizes.

Original article

Pig surrounded by the notes of British pounds flickr photo by Petr Sejba shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Digital Teaching and Learning is Great (Until It’s Not)

The nuances of digital teaching and learning are often lost on Twitter and off-the-cuff blogs. Posts long enough to explore some of the finer points of teaching and learning today are often skipped over as being “too academic” or “too heady.” Nope, those posts aren’t written for teachers “in the trenches.”

I’ve moved fully into a coaching position with my district. One of my primary goals in this role is to help teachers digest and process what it means to teach effectively, equitably, and responsibly in a digital world.

We cannot separate ourselves completely from bits and bytes. The Internet has gone from being encased in phone lines to flowing in, around, and through us all day, every day. The Internet used to be hard to use. Now, it’s an expectation that it’s just there. The change in availability and usability means the user base increases exponentially while understanding of the mechanisms for use decrease.

With the explosion of online “learning media,” it seems that teaching can be boiled down to engaging videos and the right entrepreneurial mindset. The personal branding narrative of edu-Twitter and edtech in general is a byproduct of the deconstruction and dissolution of structured debate and discussion about solid pedagogical practices.

Intentionality in Instruction

Popular posts in the edu-blogosphere inevitably come back to teachers leaving the “sage on the stage” role to become a “guide on the side.” The sentiment rolls off the tongue and it makes us feel good about making connections with students. But, it lacks the nuance necessary to have any kind of significant conversation about the differences between didactic instruction and active learning.

We have set up a false narrative. I do not have to remove myself as an expert in teaching and learning in order to make connections with students or allow them to explore their interests. The guide-as-greater narrative attempts to make the case that we are partners in learning, but not without the devaluation of a profession as a whole. As a result, schools are throwing students into virtual credit programs led by a single teacher at a dashboard and equivocating it with an in-person experience down the hall.

Sherry Turkle calls this out in Reclaiming Conversation in a chapter focused on changes in education practices which have shifted as a result of prolific digital resources. She doesn’t go so far as to say that Internet-ready tools are destroying a generation but she does call for specific behaviors to change on the part of developers and users alike.

Her most poignant observation was calling out the difference between the natural, as-is instructional setting with the digital, as-if representation. When students are working in the same space – conversing and collaborating with one another, they are experiencing community and content in a real way. “The message is the medium,” as they say, and when we connect teaching and learning with very human interactions, the content gains new relevance.

As a teacher, it’s still your responsibility to construct a learning environment where context lends relevance to the content, whether it’s through constructionist work or through direct instruction. Without intentional preparation and implementation, digital or tangible, instruction suffers.

Finding the Proper Place

Andy Crouch offers insight on technology being in its proper place in his book, The Tech Wise Family. He opens with a story about blitzkrieg cleaning when his children were young. Anything out after 10 minutes was either donated or trashed. (He tells a story about dangling favorite toys over the donation bin to speed things along.) The point being that a house is out of order when things are not in their proper place.

In the classroom, we make proper place decisions about everything, it seems, except for technology. Since we have it, the edu-Twitter cultural push is to use it all the time. Need to do an assessment? There’s an app for that. Want to encourage collaboration? Use this website. Ditch your books for Google because “they’re out of date the minute they’re printed anyway.” The suggestions for technology uses for teachers starting out on this path are wholesale and without nuance and it’s hurting educators across the world.

Technology is not taught in its proper place, and that is a problem. Just like intentional instruction, technology use has to be hyper-intentional. We’re seeing this right now as we move into year one of a distributed iPad rollout in our district. The iPad (or Chromebook or Surface tablet or Linux machine) can be a powerful tool for learning but only when it is in its proper place. Students need to be taught to use the hardware as an instructional aid. Teachers need to be taught how to design units and lessons which intentionally place technology in spots where it can be used for powerful purposes. It requires a cultural shift for all parties.

For teachers, it is much more than taking a plunge into paperless classrooms, making sure they’re a part of every Twitter chat they can get in on, and starting a blog. It’s important to remember that we are training future adults – we have to keep the long game in mind. Using some gimmicks now to keep students “engaged” for the day is robbing them of a life skill which can help them function as adults. Some growth may come through chats and blogging (my own growth included those things) but not without recognizing that they aren’t required for change to happen. Instead of making flat recommendations about what people should do, we need to be approaching these conversations from our personal perspectives, telling stories of what worked – and, more importantly, what didn’t work – as we grew.

Reading and Writing for Nuance

Another component of my work is staying on top of what teachers in the district are reading and talking about. I noticed our central library had a number of copies of Ditch That Textbook by Matt Miller. I grabbed a copy so I would be able to carry on a conversation with people who have read it.

If there is a book that exemplifies a lack of nuance, it was Ditch. Much of the book can be boiled down to:

– Join Twitter.

– Use Google Apps [G Suite] religiously

– Talk about how awesome you are now that you’re on Twitter and G Suite.

Each chapter up until Section 4 – page 197 – read like a blog post pushing a thin implementation of tech for poor reasons. For example, much of the first section talked about the power of being paperless without really diving into instructional effectiveness. As I read I tried to highlight simple suggestions written as if they were the best solution to a particular problem in the margins. My intent is to go back through and try to identify instructional situations where those suggestions are relevant to give context to teachers looking for help in school.

The difference in tone between books that were all taking on the same topic is stark. Segmentation in a market (education is a market, after all, and edtech is a particularly lucrative submarket) and these books speak to their particular audience. After three months, I’m focusing on ways to bring teachers from the realm of edtech sex appeal into technology-rich instruction with fidelity to nuanced practice.

Making the Transition

I realize that some of the judgements I’m making are not fair at face value. I’m also very aware that changing practice takes a long time, especially if you’re searching for methods to change on your own without support. But, I’m not convinced that the path most teachers follow through the edtech regions is the best, or only, one.

The discrepancy between these books is stark. I don’t disagree that the more exciting changes come from trying apps and tools because they show off well. Changes in philosophy are harder to show in a Tweet and even harder to process and make essential in our day to day goings on. As a coach, it would be a disservice to not push teachers for the philosophical shift in everything I do, even through the lens of using a particular tool more effectively.

This is the spot when I would offer a handful of poignant, but not heady, methods for making the shift.

I don’t have any.

This is an intensely personal process. It requires reflection and relationships. The goal for teachers, in any case, is the same: improve teaching using resources intentionally.

Edtech preaches a wholesale shift away from the tangible in favor of the digital. Deniers push back with a deep-seeded reluctance to discuss new ideas or methods. I’m convinced that proselytizing either approach, while good for personal branding and making a name for yourself, is ineffective in the long run. Reading with a critical eye, looking for statements in absolutes and ultimatums, and thinking beyond short-term gains make the difference.

Featured image is abstract green flickr photo by dr.larsbergmann shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Ultra-Specific Classification

The edu-blogification of ideas gets overwhelming. Six years ago, I went to a workshop on using videos to help with my instruction. We called it the flipped classroom and it helped me work more effectively with my students. I learned about my own strengths and weaknesses (watching your videos day after day is a great opportunity for reflection) and I had the fortune of being pushed by some great friends to think deeper about instruction.

A couple years later, many of us felt like “flipped classroom” wasn’t descriptive enough. Words mattered and suggesting that the classroom space alone is what changes wasn’t accurate. So, we started saying “flipped learning.” We even got together one weekend and wrote up what we called the four “pillars” of flipped learning.

For me, the biggest piece comes from Ramsey Musallam, who says that flipping, at its core, is distinguishing between the “community” space and the “individual” space. What happens in community traditionally is lecture – whole group instruction. Move that to the individual space in whatever way you’d like and you’ve essentially flipped.

The pillars also make no specific mention of when or how you do this to be considered “flipped.” I tend to move my instruction to video so students can watch it if (or when) they’re ready. This might be a week early, it could be a month later. I don’t really care how, when, (or even if) they watch my video. The video is simply a step they can take at one point or another to work from.

Distinguishing between an “in-flip” or “out-flip”, a “homework” flip or a “nowayhomework” flip (or any other naming convention slapped onto the idea) begins to wall off possible points of collaboration and growth because camps have been set up. Lots of posts outlining the core tenants of being an “in-flipper” vs an “out-flipper” discourages discussion because it focuses on a single implementation in a single classroom with one particular set of students.

When we wrote the pillars, we worked to be specifically non-specific. Indicators can help define what happens the majority of the time and it can provide common ground for discussion or debate. Specializing criterion – often to stamp a brand on it – doesn’t help the broader community grow. Look for ways to describe a method or structure without coining a new label, as innocuous as it may seem, because of the danger of isolating ideas.

Featured image is a flickr photo by stenz shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

2017 End of Year Notes

In what’s become a half-tradition, some unfiltered thoughts as I finish another school year.

– Splitting time between teaching and instructional coaching is really, really difficult. It’s hard to pour into both equally. Next year, I’m going to be coaching 100% of the time.

– I still need to work on alternative assessment and measurement methods. Using Canvas has helped me implement SBG more effectively this year, but I still need to make improvements, especially giving feedback.

– I tend to close in on myself when working with other teachers. I need to focus on opening up and encouraging reflective dialog about effective instructional strategies.

– As I work with curriculum development and implementation teams, I need to bone up on my frameworks.

– I’m not teaching a class next year, which feels very strange…again.

There is a ton of change happening in the district and the implementation of the growth plan is wide open. My team continues to set high goals to make sure we’re constantly pushing the bar. It takes a lot of energy and effort, but the growth this year has been astronomical. Maintaining momentum and implementing new support structures in the fall is the big challenge ahead.


Featured image is Unpopular Opinions, a flickr photo by DarlingJack shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Tech Training Outside of Content

Our district is distributing 13,000 iPads in the next 24 months. We have ~1,300 staff who need to be trained on instructional methods with technology in addition to functional training on a new platform, using GSuite effectively and building a course in Canvas.

Training has been touchpoint number one for our team. We’re not in a culture where it’s normal – or expected – for you to go research and try something before requesting in-person help. Before this year, there was no in-person help. When I started this role in July, we were starting from ground zero. To handle how-to requests, we started a YouTube channel and a simple ticketing system. On Mondays, we host some simple how-to training workshops to get functional basics down. Otherwise, all of our training has focused on instructional changes in the classroom.

The hardest thing about building a culture of exploration and self-driven growth is the temptation to just fall back on what would alleviate people’s stress, but not actually solve the problem. Designing an effective workshop is much more than answering the questions asked. We’re constantly evaluating ways in which we ask teachers to engage with the principles of instruction we’re modeling without falling into the trap of giving lesson templates to be repeated throughout the district.

Orange Flowers Ruin Camouflage flickr photo by mikecogh shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Move training beyond content

It’s difficult to model a lesson completely void of content. In fact, I think it would be bad practice to do so because ignoring content for the sake of context is a disservice to students. Content is important. But, in this case, it needs to be the backdrop. The lesson we’re modeling may be based on science, but we want to pull out the instructional practices that can be applied anywhere, not just in the immediate context. We use “metacognitive moments” embedded at strategic points in the task which ask teachers to identify what would work in their situation.

Prompts that force teachers to abstract to the lesson, not go through a lesson

Stemming from moving beyond content, my content expertise is in high school science. We focus on helping teachers apply the methods we’re modeling to their classroom using their expertise. I cannot tell an elementary english teacher to model the lesson in exactly the way I did. But, I can ask probing questions and push that teacher to reflect on what the principles of the lesson are, where they’re already utilizing those ideas, and where they could implement more.

Avoid key phrases like “compare and contrast”

Trigger phrases can immediately drop the level of discussion. Compare and contrast is especially egregious because people – teachers and students – fall back to a two-circle Venn diagram to complete the task without analyzing the problem. Action verbs are important…we do want people to compare and contrast, but we avoid the trigger attached to the status quo.

Encourage big thinking

When you’ve never had training on changing practice, you don’t know how to think big. Or, you don’t feel empowered to take the risks. Our workshops are often the first time a teacher has been encouraged to express agency and implement the big ideas. We regularly get emails weeks after a workshop where a teacher has taken something they’d learned and implemented it successfully. Excitement is palpable and it pushes them to continue to try new things.

Repurpose existing tools for new uses

“Hacking” education is all the rage right now, but the term comes with baggage. I don’t want teachers to feel like they need to be “hip” or a “rockstar” to change practice. We ask them to repurpose something – a tool they use regularly – to accomplish a new task. danah boyd talks about using Wikipedia article discussions to teach lessons about history, culture, and context in her book, It’s Complicated (jump to page 190 for the example). The idea is simple in merit but difficult to implement, especially if you’re not used to thinking beyond the immediate function.