Adding a Bullet Journal to my Work

I took most of the summer off from writing, but now that school is getting back into swing, it’s time to start thinking out loud again.

Back in May, I wrote about using a new to-do system to stay on top of my work.

Then, Robert Talbert tweeted. Again.

I did a Google search for “bullet journal” and I was down the rabbit hole. After a lot of reading and clicking, I agree with Robert’s initial assessment: most posts are about making your notebook look just right instead of working just right.

I’ve been playing with the bullet journal (you’ll see it called a bujo on most sites…I refuse to use that term) idea for a couple months and I now have a system that works really well for me.

One complaint about the journal is that it cannot possibly hold all the tasks that need to get done day to day, quickly becoming laden with redundancy and non-helpful pages. To mitigate, I use my digital todo list to manage the small tasks (which is actually one of the lessons in Getting Things Done) as a part of the larger project. The todo list helped me with the parts, the bullet journal helped me get the big picture under control.

I wanted something functional, which meant I needed something small. I had some old Field Notes notebooks lying around, which fit perfectly in my back pocket. Bingo.

Each book turns out to be just right for a month’s worth of work. So, each one is labeled with the current month out the front cover. It also provides a nice doodle space during meetings.

Field Notes flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Inside, I break up the first few pages into the month’s calendar and large project logging. After the index, I keep a couple pages for books I read that month, beers I drink, and blog posts to write. There may or may not be a correlation between the number of items on each list at the end of each month. Research is ongoing.

Task and activity logs flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Books, beer, blog flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

My week setup is new to my workflow. Taking a spread and breaking it down into day to day helped me get my mind in order. Large project milestones and appointments tend to take up this space. I’ll take the project milestones and add them to my todo.txt file for completion as I move through the week.

Typical week layout flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The thing I do like about the bullet journal system is that you always have blank pages later in the book. I don’t have to cram everything in between pre-printed week layouts. It’s flexible and it works well for me, especially because my role is expanding this year, with lots of moving parts on a number of projects.

Other pages flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I’m in my third full month of the combination bullet journal/todo.txt list and I haven’t dropped many balls yet, which is good. I feel more prepared day to day, laying out obligations and needs on paper and then adjusting small tasks to make sure those get done.

No frills, no tweeting my immaculate page layouts, no discussion over what type of pen I use. Just a good, efficient, simple system to get stuff done.

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

Using Someone Else’s Videos in Your Class

In November 2015, an independent model showed YouTube received around 500 hours of video content uploaded every minute. There are 1440 minutes in a day, meaning there was roughly 720,000 hours of video every day.

That’s a lot of videos.

Granted, many are of cats, kids, and Barbie Jeep Racing, so it’s not necessarily quality content uploading, but there is a lot of great video available for flipping if you’re not quite ready to make your own yet.

Where to start?

Before looking at how to choose videos, let’s define the goals of using video as an instructional tool (not method) in the first place. Don’t ask yourself, “How do I get rid of lecture?” because it’s too narrow a focus. The intent of using video should be to create space for students to explore ideas with the support of a teacher. Ramsey Musallam says it well: “Good teaching, regardless of discipline, should always limit passive transfer of knowledge in class, and promote learning environments built on the tenants of inquiry, collaboration and critical thinking.”

Flipping can help accomplish the goals of increasing student interaction with material and using existing videos is an easy way to start that process. When it comes to choosing videos to use with students, I focus on three main things:

  1. What value does a video bring?

  2. How well is the idea presented?

  3. How will the video expand on what is happening in class?

Using videos should supplement, not replace your work in the classroom. Your students have a relationship with you, not a video personality. It is important that you frame using outside content as a supporting factor in the interactive and collaborative work happening in the classroom. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing student trust because it appears that you’re taking the easy way out.

What value does a video bring?

There are situations when a video can help you immediately reclaim some time. Algorithmic processes – solving a problem, correcting grammatical mistakes, putting together a timeline of events – are great starting points. They’re usually short and to the point and they become a self-help library for students. When you’re in the middle of a larger activity, these can be a “first line of defense” when students ask procedural questions. At the same time, you can pay attention to which videos you’re referring to the most and address those in class as a whole.

The value here is that you’re not bogged down answering the same, small question over and over. You’re also not obligated to stop the entire activity. You’ll be teaching students self-reliance by curating helpful instructional videos to get the habit started. Eventually, students will go off and find their own help when they need it.

From another angle, resources are limited. I can’t always provide concrete examples in the classroom. Using videos to bring in those topics and examples is a great way to bridge the gap.

How well is it presented?

Presentation isn’t everything, but it’s important. As you’re vetting content, pay attention to the content, obviously, but also make sure it isn’t mind-numbing to watch. Audio is very important in this case. A video that is clear as crystal but sounds like a drive-through is just as bad as a video you can’t see. Don’t pick the first result in the search, either. Take some time to find a video that fits your need and won’t cause more confusion for you later.

How will it expand on what is happening in class?

Remember, you are the teacher and you set the tone of the course with your students. Any video you choose – instructional or exploratory – should fit in with your day to day work. Be explicit and specific about why you’re assigning a particular video to help students see the big picture. Without making connections for the students, you run the risk of looking lazy and the videos become another assignment, not a helpful tool.

Additionally, if you can’t make a solid connection to the learning process, perhaps a video isn’t the best means. It’s a good self-check to make sure you’re proving engaging and meaningful assignments at all levels of the learning cycle.

Big picture

Online video is here to stay. The amount of content available is staggering both in scale and in potential to positively impact learning behaviors. In the end, starting with existing video can help lay a foundation for using video as a learning tool. The major time commitment on your end is starting to curate those materials. Most video sites have playlists that you can create and customize, so start saving videos you like to build out that library.

You may find, though, that you can’t find one that really hits the issue you’re having. Don’t be afraid to make your own. I’ll repeat: you have the relationship with your students. Making a short video is easier than ever and you can find a number of tutorials online to help you get started.

Focus on enhancing the class time. Use the questions above to guide your thinking as you look for materials. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some of my favorites:

Channel Description
:———————: :——————————————–:
Smarter Every Day Mainly physics, some biology and chemistry
Veritasium All sciences, culture of science and inquiry
Bozeman Science Biology, chemistry, nature of science
It’s Okay to be Smart PBS Digital Studios, all content

The featured image is titled Audience Full Movie, a flickr photo by Emily Barney shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Desmos in Science

I’ve wanted to try the Desmos activity builder for a long time, so I finally did. We were finishing up the nervous system, so I grabbed a graph of an action potential and went for it. Here’s a live student link if you want to give it a try.

I set up a few slides with an image of an action potential superimposed on a graph. I then asked students to identify different regions on the graph using the activity input tools.

The really powerful moment came when I revealed their work superimposed on the question. individually, it was easy to see in the dashboard that most people had the right shape.

Superimposed, we could really dive into the differences between the sketches.

At the AP level, we focused on the scales and how it lines up with the chemical concentration in the cells. I’m also glad I had this question first because it immediately helped me target students who were struggling more than others.

From there, I used the same graph but superimposed a horizontal line and asked students to mark the rest state voltage as well as the threshold voltage. Again, the superimposed image gave students a lot to think about.

As a lesson, I’m happy with how it went. Students were able to self-assess and gain insight from seeing multiple, simultaneous responses. I’m thinking hard about how to break the content barrier and get teachers to look at it’s utility for feedback and metacognition.

As a teacher, what could I have done better? What would you have done differently? Can you help me get a true graph of the action potential (ahemplease?).

(Both screenshots are mine, names are anonymized).

No, Today’s Students Don’t Learn Differently

If you’re working in instructional support (#edtech, instructional tech, learning support…whatever you want to call it) you’ve probably heard, “Today’s students just learn differently.”

No they don’t.

Writers will write. Storytellers will tell stories. Musicians will make music. Athletes will compete.

People have drives to be creative, curious, playful, impactful, relevant…

What’s different is the fact that school rams them through a system which actively works to standardize as much of the process as possible. We’ve built a system which prevents students from using the outlets available to show off their learning. By default, the system eliminates creative, playful, impactful work.

Today’s students don’t learn differently.

Standardized Test flickr photo by biologycorner shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

What I’m finding is that teachers, when shown methods and tools that give students opportunities to be creative, are surprised at how learning changes. As they struggle to characterize what’s happening, the easiest explanation is that today’s students are just “different.”

We fail to recognize that it doesn’t take a computer to allow students to engage. My job is to help teachers figure out how to get out of the way. The challenge is to make sure that teachers see instructional benefit in shifting practice with – or without – the technology in the classroom.

Featured image is Creative Playground flickr photo by Radoslav Minchev shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Teach Like a Teacher

Teaching is being overrun by impostors. Perhaps I’m reading into something, but the explosion of “Teach Like a [thing]” culture scares me. Culturally, have we reached a place in education where taking on a persona to find inspiration for change is the best option for our students? Simile is powerful and inspiration comes in many forms. But when inspiration turns into identity, it becomes a problem.

A lot of the personas invoked in these discussions are really awful role models. Working renegade, above the mire of educational bureaucracy, might set you apart on facebook or Twitter, but institutional change – powerful change for all students – rarely comes from one person doing their own thing in isolation.

How do these ideas spread? How do we move beyond the 150 “best” ideas for X, Y, and Z? Where does the inspiration really make lasting impact on our practice and not just the toolset?

Growth flickr photo by rubberkid shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Finding excellence in teaching means recognizing teachers at their best: real interaction with real students. My students don’t want a viking, a ninja, a champion, or a wizard. They want a teacher who is genuine.

Let these ideas serve as inspiration, but remember that real change in learning comes from teaching like a Teacher.

Review Questions with Spreadsheets

I wanted to use a new method of reviewing with students as we wrap up our cell activity unit. I’ve been working with my students on forming questions with the question formulation strategy around content as well as finding new ways to build content knowledge resources. We’re at the point in the year where details are more and more significant and we connect (seemingly) disconnected ideas.

I threw together a template spreadsheet (click to make a copy for yourself) in Drive and then assigned students to groups. Using Doctopus (life changing…really), I was able to give each group a blank template. Their task was to come up with review questions on anything they’d like from this section.

Review questions in Sheets flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The next layer was to have the groups look at their original questions and revamp them into something that is AP Biology-worthy. Groups that do this well will have their questions included on the test.


I noticed three things:

  1. Critical review by individual students. The questions they asked me underscored misconceptions present. I was able to work them through why the right answer was right and where they needed to correct their understanding.

  2. Competition amongst groups to ask better questions was high. I didn’t promise only one question included, so there is a high desire to write really good questions. Group members worked together to revise and strengthen their questions.

  3. Writing questions that really check for understanding is difficult. It’s easy to write a really hard questions. It’s much more difficult to write a question that checks for understanding. Students recognize that the questions I design and ask are very specific for a reason. They’re going through the same process.

In the future, I would build some kind of dashboard to aggregate the questions and look them over as a class, but with time short, I think this is a good first pass.

How would you build or extend this? What am I missing?

There is No Room for Pride on a Team

I’m proud of the work I do every day, both in my classroom and in the small instructional team I work with. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of work, but there’s a world of hurt if pride creeps its way into your team dynamic.

Being prideful serves only one person – you. It will alienate you from relationships, especially when there is shared work to finish. Revision is consistent and this is where, in my experience, pride often comes to a head.

Consider this situation: You and a team are working on a shared document. Your role, just because of time, has turned into synthesizing the bulk of the notes and outlines into the narrative of the piece. You write and re-write multiple times until you’re happy with the finished product. You’re proud of the work and you send it off for approval.

Your team leader comes and reads and makes a number of changes to the document. This is the telling moment: do you discuss and work with their perspective? Or do you let pride well up in your throat and you choke back frustration?

If you choose the latter, from now on, you’re going to carry that hurt. Any work environment, especially a collaborative setting, has to allow for safe and constructive feedback. Changes to a final product improve the performance of the team and not any one team member. Pride tells you to push for your own recognition. Humility tells you to work for the good of others. Powerful, effective teams work for the benefit of their members.

Building this culture in the classroom takes a long time and it takes the guidance of an experienced teacher. These are not normal behaviors for adults, let alone students. This is one argument against assigning random or variable groups in class. Building a cohesive, service-based culture with peers requires consistency. On the other hand, if every student can develop this mindset, then the specifics of a group become less of an issue as each individual is already committed to working for the good of the whole.

Introducing: Endnote Generator Add On

A year ago, I posted a script which converts footnotes in a Google Doc into endnotes. I’ve gotten great comments and feedback and have made the standalone script better, which is still available.

The Endnote Generator Add-On is now available in the Chrome Web Store for Docs. Install it once and you’ll be able to create endnotes from the footnotes you’ve already inserted in your doc.

There are a couple of known issues (pictures with a footnote aren’t included yet), but if you run into anything, leave a note here or on GitHub.

Check out the Endnote Generator.