Reflections from Digital Leadership

Digital Leadership Takeaways
Digital Leadership Takeaways

About a month ago I started to read Digital Leadership by Eric Sheninger.  His book is full of leadership strategies that are applicable at any school level.  Specifically, he speaks of how to integrate technology in schools and the reasoning to do so.  While reading I took out of my highlighter and it was busy as they’re many gems in the book.   I thought the topics on the role of technology in the classroom and student content creation opportunities were especially intriguing. I’ve outlined my takeaways and reflections below.

1.  Combining pedagogically experienced educators with technology-savvy students can be beneficial

Students often come into the classroom with an average to above average understanding of how to use technology.  Their understanding of technology can benefit a classroom and the learning experiences within.  I like the concept of being able to combine background knowledge of technology-savvy students and pedagogically experienced educators.  Weaving instructionally sound teachers and technology can reap dividends.  Both parties bring an understanding to the table.  Merging both can can turn technology into a tool for learning.

2. Students need to be aware that technology tools are for learning  

I believe that students are aware of the capabilities of the devices that they use, although understanding how they can be used for learning is another story.  I think this is where it’s essential for pedagogically experienced educators to seek avenues to combine  the capabilities of the device with learning opportunities. The transition from a perceived consuming/gaming device to a learning device may take time.  Due to corporate marketing and education success stories, I believe that transition is taking place in the field of education.  Naming them as learning devices also reinforces the concept that technology in schools can contribute to the learning process.  Regardless of the device, the opportunities for learning exist.  Educators and students can benefit from revealing this possibility.

 3.  Students’ learning experiences become more meaningful when they use real-world tools to show conceptual mastery

It’s becoming clear that technology devices can be utilized to showcase conceptual mastery. This year my students created online tutorials and various projects to demonstrate their learning of mathematical concepts.  Based on my end-of-year survey, students found the content creation projects meaningful.  Seeing that they were published online and available for comments provided opportunities to showcase their projects for an authentic audience.  To be honest, not all projects were optimal and I’m going to make changes for next year, but I was encouraged to see students use real-world tools to demonstrate learning.

4.  The aim is that students move towards creating an actual product.  They need opportunities to show what they’ve learned in a variety of forms

Students in many classes are expected to show mastery of particular concepts through worksheets, usually categorized as unit assessments.  Many times this is mandatory, in the form of district summative testing or state-wide standardized assessments.  Students should be afforded the opportunity to showcase their learning beyond worksheets. Technology devices and apps offer presentation tools that didn’t exist before.  These student content creation tools also give students opportunities to infuse their projects with voice and creativity. This aspect brings student ownership and an opportunity to extend their learning beyond the requirements.  I’ve found that student content creation can showcase learning while providing a lead to engage students in their own curiosity regarding a particular concept. With flexibility and clear expectations, this  type of product can show learning and at the same time be a publishing opportunity for students.

photo credit: Jamais Cascio via photopin cc

Using Badges in the Elementary Classroom


During the last #msmathchat the topic of digital badges was brought to the forefront.  The idea of badges in the classroom has always interested me.  I was first exposed to the idea of using badges in the classroom by @mrmatera last summer at a Downer’s Grove PD event. Michael used a form of a digital badge/achievement token while integrating gamification in his own classroom.   His idea spurred on a brainstorming session with another colleague which resulted in the creation of badges for my own classroom.

Looking back, this past year was the first year I decided to use a form of badges within my classroom.  Back in September I decided to research a few different options for using badges.  After much review I decided to use the badge philosophy without a digital component.  Even though there are many digital badge sites, I wanted to start small and simple and using paper badges seemed like the right move.  I decided to create a simple badge template.  The one below is for the app Prezi.

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 11.25.48 AM

The  badges were going to be used to show milestones or proficient use of certain skills.   One larger theme in my classroom revolved around the idea of student content creation.  My students were using a variety of apps to showcase their learning through digital means. Since students were using content creation apps, the badges would show proficient use of specific apps.  I found some blank Avery mailing labels around the house and created a simple badge template and then imported it into Word.

Flowboard Badge Label
Flowboard Badge Label
Label Template
Label Template

The title of the class was on the top and the name of the app was on this inside of the logo. Students received a badge when they successfully created a math product with a particular app.  Students decided to put the labels/badges on their personal folders. Individual student folders started to fill up with badges as the year progressed.


Student folder w/badges
Student folder w/badges

Not only were the students proud of their accomplishments in creating mathematical content, but they were able to reflect back on all their badges and growth since the beginning of the school year.  It was encouraging to hear how excited the students were to receive a badge once they finished their project successfully.  Even more powerful was the reflection component that the students recognized as they wrote their final reflections at the end of the school year.  I’m still brainstorming how this idea could transfer to mathematical concepts without turning this into student competition.  Regardless, I’m looking at using a form of a digital badge next year, but using labels is my first step in that journey.


How do you use badges in the classroom?


Student Choice in the Classroom


I continue to find that student choice is important.  Giving students a choice in the classroom is a shift from some classroom models, but this change that can make a large difference.  My journey with student choice began many years back.  During my first year of teaching I started to ease into giving students options in completing specific problems on assignments.  Students were able to pick 5 out of the 20 problems on a particular page.  From there I started to give students choices in what assignments to complete.  I limited the option to two assignments and then progressed from there.  As I gave students choices they became more engaged and took more ownership.  I took this as a sign to continue. From once a month, to twice a month, to once a week, I gradually was giving up some my control to allow opportunities for students to choose their assignments.  Students started to ask for additional choices as the year continued.

For the next few years I taught a different grade level.  Another colleague and I started to use student choice for a math presentation assignment.   We gave a list of concepts to students and they created a presentation on one of the topics with a Power Point presentation.  The assignment was a success and we decided to use a similar strategy the following year.

A big shift happened when I started to give students choices in how the classroom was setup.  I remember the class had a discussing on how the learning environment plays a pivotal role in the learning process.  After the discussion students offered feedback on how our classroom could be improved to optimize learning.  Students decided on how to group the desks, move the classroom library, and modify the arrival/dismissal process.  Each change was agreed upon keeping in mind that the change helped create a better learning experience. Students started to take initiative, take risks and offer solutions.  Students that were less enthusiastic about student choice with their academics took full advantage and offered their opinion on classroom design.  Students created floor plans on where the desks should be placed and how table groups should be created.  The learning spaces were changed every few months depending on the feedback I received from the students.

This year my students created digital math projects.  Students are self-selecting topics within units and creating presentations to showcase their learning.  The tool was standard but the topic choice varied.  Some students created presentations on algebraic expressions, while others showed examples of how to use the order of operations.  Rubrics were created for each presentation.  For the first few presentations I created and gave the rubric to the students.  Eventually the students became part of the rubric creation process.

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 7.59.29 AM

As the year progressed the quality of the projects increased.  Students began to independently research their chosen topics.  Students started to use different research tools to find information about specific mathematical concepts.  Various Internet sites, student reference books, math journals, and manipulatives were all used to research math topics to create a presentation.  Students were also starting to use apps simultaneously to create final products.

Importing picture into presentation
Importing pictures into a presentation

As my classes enter the last few weeks of school our final content creation project is in its early stages.  Last week I gave students a choice on what tool to use and what concept to cover within the unit.  I was encouraged as all the tools that have been introduced this year will be used by the students.

Tool Selection
Tool Selection

Next Steps:  Eventually I would like to incorporate some type of math genius hour.  I’m still brainstorming ideas on how to use this for next school year.


How do you offer student choice in the classroom?


Homework and Learning


Homework has been a contentious subject in the field of education.  Many people in education have been/are willing to talk about the subject; see examples 1, 2, 3.  Beyond the annual science fair and occasional project, homework in elementary school is generally used to practice or reinforce skills learned in school.  Reinforcing skills through application is important, although the homework that is often assigned at the elementary level tends to be worksheet based.  I’ve found this to be especially evident in math classes.  Beneficial math homework has value and can extend the learning experience.  I’ve observed some amazing educators assign math homework that stretches their students’ thinking.  I believe that this type of homework isn’t the norm, although I wish it was.  At times, I’ve seen math homework being used as a motivator, but there are definitely myths related to homework. Some teachers use homework as part of a student’s grade.  This can be problematic, as the environment outside of school can play a role in whether the homework is done and if it’s actually accurate.

Adam @agholman wrote a Tweet that seemed to be spot-on when talking about grades.  I connected the Tweet below with the idea of homework and motivation.

“But they won’t do it if it’s not for a grade” – This tells me way more about your motivation than your students’

As soon as I read the Tweet I started asking questions …

  • So in theory, one way that educators can encourage students to complete homework is to assign it with point values attached?
  • If a reduction in a grade is based on incomplete homework, does the grade really reflect mastery?

I believe that rewarding/punishing students for doing/not doing their homework can limit motivational tendencies in and outside of the classroom.  Can a teacher truly validate that a student should receive a “C” instead of a “B” because of homework issues?

Now … for some students homework fulfills its purpose.  Students practice and may receive help, but through the practice they are improving in their understanding of certain concepts. This can be beneficial.  As educators already know, this is not the case for all students.  Students that don’t complete the homework on time or turn it in may need some type of intervention in the form of extra help or possible enrichment, depending on the student.

Grading homework in itself can be a form of feedback, but purposeful direct feedback can help students understand concepts more clearly.  Unfortunately, many students don’t look beyond the grade on their paper for feedback.  There isn’t an easy answer for this problem, but I believe moving towards standards based grading practices may help in this situation.  An emphasis on formative assessment practices and feedback may also provide value.  Written feedback with a self-reflection component can be especially valuable in enabling students to become more responsible for their own learning.

My Takeaways:

  • Homework may benefit some students, but definitely not all
  • Grading homework doesn’t necessarily increase motivation or accurately reflect understanding
  • If you’re required to assign homework, assign meaningful and relevant homework
  • Direct feedback (not the actual grade) on formative assessments/homework continues to play an ever important role in the learning process

photo credit: bgilliard via photopin cc

Releasing Control

In a matter of weeks schools will be opening in my state and across the nation.  Most students and teachers are anticipating a smooth start to a new school year.   For me, this summer has been full of opportunities to hone in my teaching practice and expand my PLN.  Reading Teach Like a Pirate and attending Playdatedg58 were two opportunities that stretched my thinking in preparation for a new school year.  This post is based on what I’ve learned through these events/activities.

1. Teachers have control (for the most part) and can take risks in the classroom

The experiences that I highlighted above have brought insight to the idea of teacher control in/out of the classroom.  Teachers  often have more control in their classroom than many educators would like to admit.  Besides the curriculum given to the teachers by administration, how much input do teachers have in how their classroom is constructed/run?  Speaking from an elementary teaching perspective, teachers have quite a few opportunities to modify their classroom environment.  Middle and high school may be a bit different as more than one teacher is in one classroom throughout a day.

The concept of instructional academic freedom often gives teachers the ability to teach how they feel best engages students in the learning process.  Of course this depends on how academic freedom is interpreted.  The book Teach Like a Pirate has reminded me that educators can take risks in their classroom.  Trying out a new teaching strategy can bring fruitful results.  Creating lessons that with unique hooks can engage students in new and exciting ways.  Students are more likely to retain and apply knowledge when their learning experiences are memorable.  Moving outside of general lesson plans that are often created by publishing companies, gives teachers the ability to differentiate lessons based on students’ needs. Engaging lessons might include lots of conversations, noise, excitement, wonder, curiosity, disarray … but also learning.  This may not always the norm in your building or school but I feel that action is needed to move beyond standardizing all schools, classrooms and students.

Now, I understand that not all teachers feel this way.  Some are in organizations that mandate specific teaching protocols that may limit teacher academic freedom in the classroom.  Also, some teachers may feel that they are unable to take these types of risks in the classroom because of expectations from administration.   If you find yourself in a situation where taking a teaching risk isn’t the norm, feel free to speak with your administration about the benefits of your idea.  Within reason, most administrators will support the enthusiasm and ideas that a teacher brings to the table.

2.  Give the control back to the students

Many of the teachers that I met at Playdatedg58 seemed to feel comfortable creating engaging learning opportunities for their students. I’ve found that most teachers want students to become intrinsically motivated to do their best. That motivation is vital in enabling student ownership in the classroom.  I’ve found that materialistic motivators to be less than stellar in developing student ownership.   Moving beyond materialistic rewards also communicates that some of the satisfaction gained from learning and accomplishing tasks is internal.

I remember being a student and rarely having input in classroom decisions.  It was informally communicated that the teacher was in control of what/how I learned, resulting in close to zero student ownership.  The near 100% teacher direct instruction didn’t help my situation. Fortunately this changed for the better as I progressed through elementary school.  I believe that giving students the opportunity to make decisions in the classroom is important.  It also communicates that the teacher has created an environment where there is trust between the students and teacher.  Creating that climate of trust is essential for student ownership.

How do educators create an environment where students feel comfortable and are encouraged to take ownership of their own learning?

Keep in mind that this list is designed for elementary students, but I’m sure it could apply to other grade levels.

Students are given opportunities to  …

  • Make classroom decisions – rubrics, what problems/assignments to complete
  • Set expectations – set rules for class
  • Set goals – analyze their performance, set personal goals, monitor progress along way
  • Give/offer feedback – use plus/delta, quality tools, reflect and offer input regarding learning
  • Publish their writing – use blogging platforms to publish/scan in digital works
  • Use social media – Tweet , Vine, Instagram, Twitpic throughout day/week/month
  • Participate in Student jobs – electrician, technician, paper passer, etc.
  • Journal – reflect on progress made and respond to written feedback by teacher
  • Setup the classroom – help in arranging classroom setup
  • Respectfully debate – participate in conversations about most effective way to solve ______.

I believe that a classroom is a community of learners.  To accomplish some of the tasks above teachers need to be able to step back and give students opportunities to take control/ownership. Many new teachers that I’ve encountered feel that if they allow students opportunities to express themselves they won’t be able to regain control and that will negatively impact their evaluations. I’m sure many educators have heard the sarcastic phrase “don’t smile till January” or something like that.  I’ve found that giving students opportunities to control their learning also benefits the entire classroom community.  Giving up some control in the classroom means that educators are willing to take a risk and create a classroom environment that enables students to take responsibility for their own decisions.

4 Ways to Encourage Student Self-Reflection in Math Class

Math teachers have a variety of tools that can enhance the learning process.  Technology, math manipulatives and problem-based learning activities can all play an important role in a math classroom.  Regardless of the tools or strategies, one of the most powerful motivators that I’ve utilized over the past few years deals with the concept of reflection.  Adults often learn by experiencing events and reflecting on them later.  Generally the reflection lets us make better or more informed decisions in the future.  Many educators blog, which I believe is one form of reflection.  Allowing students opportunities to reflect on their math learning experiences, including celebrations and mistakes can be time that is well spent.  A sense of ownership develops when students begin to understand that their success isn’t only dependent on the teacher or tools within the classroom, but on themselves as well.  Reflection is especially powerful after making mistakes.  By reflecting on math mistakes, whether they are procedural, formula issues, or simple errors, students become aware that mistakes are part of the learning process and shouldn’t be on the taboo list.  How do we give students opportunities to reflect in math? Here are four possible ideas:

  • Math Journals – This is a great way to gauge a student’s understanding of particular math concepts.  I’m continuing to find that students are using their math journals to communicate their conceived strengths and personal concerns.  Students are asked to reflect on their learning experiences in the journal through various journal prompts.  I check the journals periodically and am able to provide feedback to individual students.
  • Student Led Math Conferences – Throughout the year I have personal math conferences with the students.  Students bring their formative assessments to the conference and the student reflects on their progress.  We work together to find areas that need strengthening and write a personal goal related to specific academic concepts.  Students may decide to bring their math journal to their math conference.
  • Class Anchor Charts or Plus/Delta Chart – After a formative assessment or test the class may have a discussion about what problems on the assignment caused concerns.  We then reflect on the processes used to find the answer and have a thorough discussion about the mathematical process.
  • Blogging – Student blogs allow time to reflect on their mathematical process.  Students can blog about how they solved a particular problem and what steps were needed.  I find that blog explanations are especially useful when explaining solutions to problem-based learning activities.  It’s also a stellar documentation tool.   Keep in mind that the blogs may be public and not all students want to wave their mistakes in the air.

photo credit: doctor paradox via photopin cc

How do you encourage student reflections in math class?

Student Self-Reflections

photo credit: karola riegler photography via photopin cc

Over the past few years my teaching practice has evolved.  Growth in the teaching profession often occurs through experience and professional development.  As continuous learners, teachers generally hone in on their craft over time.  I believe reflecting on teaching experiences plays a role in the professional growth of an educator.

  • How often are teachers able to reflect on their craft?

I’d hope that it would be more often than not at all.  Personally, reflecting on past experiences can lead to better decision making and goal setting in the future.  They’re many ways in which educators can reflect.  Off the top of my head I can think of:  after a professional development session, reading or commenting on a blog post, participating in an education twitter chat, attending workshops, and many more.

  • If educators feel that reflecting on experiences is important, why not give students opportunities to reflect on their progress?

Absolutely.  One way in which reflection has been beneficial in my classroom is actually rooted in the formative assessment process.  Local formative assessments give quality information that can be used to drive instruction in the classroom, while other data (standardized assessments) are used for district/state/nation purposes.  Formative assessment data not only serves the teacher, but it also informs students of areas of strengths and concerns.  Last year I decided to have my students use a reflection journal to analyze their own achievement levels in class.  Students reviewed their formative assessments, usually in the form of exit cards, and wrote a short paragraph regarding how they performed.  I asked the students to write a few sentences related to how close they are in understanding the concepts observed on the exit card.  Every so often, generally after a grading period, students were guided to setting individual goals for themselves. These goals were based on the journal entries and learning experiences throughout the grading period.  This process required modeling during the introduction phase, but after two grading periods the students were ready to complete this independently.

I vaguely remember using journals during my K-12 experience.  The teachers that assigned the journal entries rarely wrote any comments back to me.  This peeved me as a student and I’m over it still does as an educator.  Therefore, I make a conscious attempt to review all the student reflection journals and write short individualized comments to the students.  The comments show the students that their teacher is aware and cares about their progress.  This action is especially important to students that might not be as assertive in class or might be embarrassed to state how they truly feel.  I place an emphasis on the student created goal. Student goals are highlighted  as I will often share them with the parents to ensure that we’re all working towards the same end goal.

I also find that the student reflection journals show student growth on a personal level.  When growth is evident, students often gain confidence in setting new goals.  Reflecting on progress made can be a tremendous opportunity to set goals.  These goals can empower students to own their learning.

Side note:

 Reflections can take on many different forms.  Incorporating various prompts throughout the entire school year also communicates to the students that goals don’t have to be directly associated with scores.  In the past I’ve used field trips, current events, literature, and problem based learning activities for reflection journal prompts.  

* Feel free to visit Helen Barret’s reflection for learning site for more information on this topic.