An over-abundance of good: using multiple tools at once.

Integrating multiple tools at once can be challenging.
Integrating multiple tools at once can be challenging.

I’m guilty of band-wagoning. Yup. I admit it. A new tech tool comes out, and the next thing you know, Mr. G is trying it out in his next class. Literally, my next class. I can’t imagine this is healthy for my students’ learning. We all get excited and like to try new things, but the reality is it might not always be the best for the students sitting in front of us.

Here’s something to think about: what happens when we have several really good tools that we want to work in unison? In my classes, I rely on the intersection and interaction between three tools: Google Classroom, Turnitin.com and Engrade.

Truth: I’m a fan of all three. Google Classroom lets me seamlessly get assignments/readings into the hands of my students and collect their work. Turnitin.com gives me the ability to digitally grade major writing assignments with state-of-the-art plagiarism and commenting features. Engrade is the mother of all online grade books, allowing my students to check their grades anytime they want using their devices.

I understand completely that an essential part of being a 21st Century educator (and student) is having the ability and skill set to navigate the plethora of online tools that are out there, and to develop ways to integrate them into practice in a meaningful way. The key is understanding the process (not always product): how can these tools work together to enhance student learning?

When I first started teaching with each of these tools, I made it my mission to use every single aspect of each one, all the time. Guess what? I got overwhelmed. My students got overwhelmed. They got confused. I heard things like “Mr. G, do you want this assignment turned in on Classroom or Turnitin?” “Wait, is our grade on Engrade or Classroom? Are they the same?” It wasn’t working.

After a few years dealing with this quagmire of failed productivity, here’s what I’ve learned: use what you need, and only use it if it works for your students. I use Engrade solely for grade book keeping, but not for assignment collection or digital assessments, even though it has that functionality. Classroom is used in my classes for content delivery and collecting and grading smaller assignments, but I don’t use it as my central grade book. Turnitin.com is for bigger assignments and peer editing, but I don’t use it with every writing assignment I assign. I’ve made a custom, fit-for-me plan that works for my teaching practice and for my students.

If you need help developing your own plan-of-attack, reach out to your ITS or another digital coach in your school.

Most importantly, engage in a conversation with your students about what works for them. When I tried Edmodo a few years ago, I thought most of the features were attractive and complemented my teaching practice and style. However, my students didn’t find it as useful. Don’t misinterpret: Edmodo is a fantastic service that thousands of students use every day. It just happened to not work well for my students.

Opening the doors for feedback from the students is a great first step as you develop your approach to using multiple tech tools at once in your classroom. Our students are “digital natives”. They are ready for the challenges and payoffs of a 21st Century education. Our role as teachers should be to listen to what they have to say and take their feedback with more than a grain of salt. I know I’m a better teacher for it.

The Most Important People in the Room

This article originally appeared on edutopia.org on 6/29/2015. Check it out here.

I’ve learned that the most impactful form of discipline isn’t a reactionary approach, but a proactive one. A mentor teacher of mine once told me something that I think about every day:

“Always remember: there are more important people in the room than you.”

In my first five years of teaching, I haven’t thrown a student out of my room yet. Don’t misinterpret: I’ve come close. I’ve been lucky enough to figure something out pretty early on in my career about the way I want to teach. I certainly don’t think I have found the way to promote a culture of respect and authenticity in my classes, but the very least, I’ve figured something out that works for me, something that’s at the root of who I am as a teacher and what I think the profession of teaching should be all about.

I work every day to build and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with my students. It’s a long, hard process that often takes a while. I’ve noticed that when mutual respect is achieved between me and a class of high school students, great things can happen. Powerful conversations take place. The best part? The need for “discipline” disappears. You just don’t need it. There’s no room for it. My classes are respectful of me and interested in what I have to say simply because I reciprocate.

When I was in high school, I respected the teachers who respected me back. I took interest in those teachers who took interest in me. When we reminisce on the “glory days” of high school, I’m sure we all can think of a teacher or two who was more interested in hearing their own voice than relating to teenagers. It’s funny, because we often forget that students (really at any age) are much keener than we presume – they know which of their teachers are interested in establishing relationships, and which aren’t.

As teachers, we show up at work every day for one reason: our students. We are invested in them: their well-being, comfort, and learning rest and rely on the learning community that we establish in our classroom every day. It’s our responsibility to give those students a safe place where they feel valued, accepted, and cared for.

Students need fewer people in their lives telling them “this is how it’s supposed to be” and more trusted adults saying “this is who you are right now, and thats okay.” I try to meet my students where they are when they walk in the door, but not forgetting about where they could be going.

Edutopia.org featured this quote on Twitter last week. I read it quickly at first when I saw it and thought to myself, "Hey, that sounds familiar..." I was blown away!
Edutopia.org featured this quote on Twitter last week. I read it quickly at first when I saw it and thought to myself, “Hey, that sounds familiar…” I was blown away!

At some point during any given school day, I’ll hear or read about an initiative that doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but perks up my ears. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that new ideas or policy in education are important, and promote and foster change in the “business” of what we do. Common Core is a good thing. New policies and procedures in educator supervision and evaluation are good things. It is important for the culture of education to continue to evolve, shift, and change based on the world in which our students live. This is a fact. Things are changing, so teachers must too.

But, with that being said, one thing that shouldn’t change is our commitment to the social and emotional well-being of our students. This is at the center of what I do.

High school, like many of us can remember, is a weird time for a lot of reasons. Spoiler alert: most teenagers are more worried about who they are going to sit next to at lunch than their English homework. Instead of condemning this mindset – only continuing to fulfill the role of being the mean adult looking over your shoulder – it’s important for trusted adults (in and out of school) to recognize that adolescence is a critical point in a young person’s life. Neurons are firing on overtime trying to make sense of the stresses of seeking a place to fit in. Of course, social pressures and mores take precedent. It’s natural.

As teachers, we have to make a choice: We can either ignore this behavior, putting it off as just a “phase” and playing down the social-emotional needs of our students; or, we can recognize that this stress has a direct impact on student learning and develop and implement effective strategies that teach our students how to cope with this very normal time. The strategy I’ve chosen to focus on is creating and maintaining positive and meaningful relationships with my students, and when I leverage these relationships to promote a culture of understanding and respect in my classes, amazing things can happen.