Reflections on Edcamp Boston from an independent school teacher

My main takeaway from Edcamp Boston was the brilliance of the overall structure and feel of the day. I am now totally a convert to unconferences. The model just makes sense. I appreciated the collaborative we’re-all-in-it-together feel. I appreciated that sessions were sometimes just questions or calls for help. I appreciated that everyone was treated like an expert, and everyone’s opinion held equal esteem. One of the sessions I went to was about how one school transformed their inservice through an Edcamp model, and that was pretty inspiring to me. We have lots of professional development at my school, and while there is some amount of agency among the teachers to propose and lead sessions, I think we could take it one step further. That’s something I’ll definitely bring up to my school leadership as we start planning for summer inservice.

The spectacular view from Edcamp Boston at the Microsoft NERD.
The spectacular view from Edcamp Boston at the Microsoft NERD.

My other takeaway from Edcamp was how glad I am to not work in public school. Throughout the day, I heard so much from other teachers about feeling isolated at their schools, feeling unsupported by administration, feeling distanced from their peers. In one session on urban education, I talked about my school’s framework of “unconditional positive regard” toward students. One teacher asked me how that was implemented – how do you get teachers to start living that? I was lucky enough to be able to answer that that’s the way it’s been since before I started working at my school – that’s just part of our culture. I am so lucky that I have peers who support me, administration who really care about and believe in our students, and the autonomy to implement changes or experiment with pedagogy in my classroom.

I was also reminded all day of how grateful I am to not have to deal with standardized testing. My kids have the option to take the Vermont state tests, but it may not surprise you that most of them opt out. I don’t have any pressure from my administration to get higher test scores. I take that for granted most of the time, and Edcamp gave me a new appreciation that the pressures at my school are about how to best serve each individual student. That’s the way it should be.

Don’t get me wrong – I respect so much those who work in public schools. It just hurts my heart that some of my peers at public schools are struggling so much, and I wish there was a way for the positive culture at places like my school to influence culture at the public schools around us. On the flip side of the coin, I definitely developed some envy over the day of the institutional support received by some of my fellow tech integrators. I recognize that at my school, the idea of structured technology integration is new, and these things take time. It was inspiring to hear about established programs at other schools and dream about where my program can be in the future.

Networking and collaboration at Edcamp Boston
Networking and collaboration at Edcamp Boston

I guess that brings me back around to the importance of something like Edcamp. A free conference allows a wider cross-section of teachers from schools that may not be able to fund attendance at other conferences. I got to meet a great range of teachers from different settings, and as much as I took from them, I hope they’ll take a little from me as well. Maybe then we can close the gap of isolation that so many people talked about, and become more of a community that can come together to support our students with care.

Tools for small schools: Ninite.com

If you’re working at a larger school, chances are your computers are networked and it’s a little easier for you to install and update your machines. At my small school, anything I want to install has to be done manually, sitting in front of each computer. Ninite.com is a huge time saver and makes my life so much easier.

Ninite gives you a great list of programs to choose from.

Head on over to ninite and get started. You just choose the programs you want (including many open-source options) and then download an installer. The installer skips all those annoying toolbar downloads and saves you a ton of time. I’ve been using ninite for about a year to set up school and personal computers, and I’ve been happy with every experience.

If you’re curious, the blend of programs I usually download from ninite for school machines:

  • Chrome
  • GIMP
  • LibreOffice
  • Foxit Reader
  • Microsoft Security Essentials
  • Google Earth
  • 7-Zip
  • MalwareBytes

Anyone else have good tools they like to use when setting up a new computer?

Why open source is great for schools

  • It’s free (usually). Here I’m referring to the open source movement as a subset of the free software movement (see here).  When you’re teaching kids from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, free is better. You shouldn’t train kids to use programs that they can’t actually acquire at home. That’s part of why I love teaching with Google Apps – it’s free for them to get at home. Same goes for GIMP, OpenOffice, Avast, etc. If they can get it for free, they can use technology to improve their lives at home, not just at school.
  • It’s just as good. Yes, proprietary versions of products can look prettier, but nine times out of ten there’s an open-source alternative that might be rough around the edges with the same functionality. Prime example: Word vs. OpenOffice or Libre Office. I don’t have Word on my school or home machine and I don’t miss it at all. Same goes for open-source virus protection, which in most cases I actually prefer to Norton.
  • It’s a great philosophy. Open-source is all about freedom of information and relies on members of the community helping each other. Those are great values for any student, and I like that the story is also a concrete example of what it means to be in an intellectual community in the real world.

To me, those are the big three, but this is a nice article that highlights some of the more technical reasons to appreciate open source. Check it out.

What to delete off your new computer

Came home today to the most wonderful kind of mail – my new laptop! Thanks to woot, I’m now the proud owner of a Lenovo Thinkpad. Not the prettiest of computers but it has the specs I wanted and the price was most definitely right. And now I get to go about my favorite part of setting up a new machine – cleaning it out!

Before you get to adding iTunes, Photoshop and games to your new computer, you should take the time to clear out the junk. Yes, your brand-new computer already has a bunch of crap on it. Most computers come with what’s called “bloatware.” These are programs pre-installed by the manufacturer, most of which you really don’t need. Bloatware comes in different packages, but look for ambiguously named programs labeled with the name of the manufacturer. On my new laptop, “Lenovo ThinkVantage.” Yikes. HP is notorious for coming with lots of bloatware, for instance, the “HP Solution Center” that comes with printers. These programs are meant to make it easier for the consumer to access settings and brand-specific help pages. But you’re a smart consumer, and you have half a brain, so you don’t really need any “centers.” Take the time to get to know the Windows Control Panel, and ask your local techie how to target your Google searches to get answers on any software or hardware question you may have. No bloatware needed.

Not sure what to delete? Again, consult with the nearest nerd, but if you’re feeling confident, just Google “bloatware” + make and model of your new computer. Check out a couple of different results and if you’re not sure, err on the side of caution until you can ask someone in the know – you don’t want to accidentally delete important drivers.

Computer manufacturers also sometimes partner with software companies to pre-load your laptop with all kinds of goodies. Sometimes these are convenient – for example, I was excited to see that my Thinkpad came with Google Chrome already installed – that’s my browser of choice and having it ready to go saved me a step. But my computer also came pre-loaded with Norton Antivirus, which takes up way more space than an antivirus needs to. Goodbye, Norton! Hello, Microsoft Security Essentials. Same goes for CD burning utilities, media players, and trial versions of programs you have no intention of buying. If you know of a free, open-source, or cheap alternative, go ahead and get rid of that pre-installed program (Google tip: search for “open source alternative to” + name of the program you’re getting rid of).

With a little time and research you’ll get the hang of what’s OK to delete and what you want to save. The same way you’d strip the wallpaper off a wall before laying down a new coat of paint, you should always remove bloatware before tricking out your new machine.

Next post: what to install on your new computer, and why open-source is great for schools.

How can we teach smartphone skills in class?

The traditional response to cell phones in school is “hand that over.” That doesn’t work for me. A student is never going to learn to manage the phone on her own if I’m constantly providing an external structure for her. She needs to internally figure out a way to manage having a phone and not using it. That aspect of having a phone in class makes sense to me, and I know how to work with it.

More importantly, I don’t want students to get the message that phones and learning can’t coexist. Smartphones are business tools and education aids. I don’t use a smartphone for work, but I think that makes me among the minority.  I do use my smartphone for pretty much everything else – getting around, managing my money, and keeping track of my responsibilities and calendar, just to name a few.

I support students to use email and online apps to do their schoolwork because I think those skills are essential to post-secondary education and employment. Lately, though, it seems that successfully navigating a smartphone is an essential skill as well. I want to help my students with that as well: how do you find out how much data an app is using? How do you tell if an app is probably carrying malware? How do you dig into the files on your Android? What’s the best way to sync your Google calendar to your iPhone?  What happens if you click “factory reset?”

Small problem, though.  You see, any student who walks into my classroom has access to the internet, because my computer is sitting on my desk with the blue LED-lit fan whirring away. Smartphones, though? A little more complicated. Any school has a mix of students from varying socioeconomic situations. Let’s say a student does have a smartphone – they still can’t get on our school WiFi, because that’s password protected, and I’m not about to start handing that password out to students (while I may want students to be learning tech skills in my class, I don’t want to make it any easier for them to be on Twitter in someone else’s). I wouldn’t ask a student to use their 3G or 4G, because that’s not my dime and I don’t have information on their provider’s plans and costs. And while I’m happy to have students use my computer, I’d never let a student use my phone, nor would I want to use theirs. I’ll always err on the side of respecting someone’s boundaries and privacy.

So that leaves me with this question: how can I teach students the skills they need to master their cell phones?  iPod Touches or non-cellular Android devices would be great, but it’s unlikely my school will ever budget those in. I’d love to find a way to work with what I already have at my disposal. But how?

Updates to come if I have a flash of brilliance.

3 Reasons Google Apps is Great for Therapeutic Schools

First of all, you might be asking “what the heck is a therapeutic school?” I’m not an expert beyond what we do at my own school, but basically I understand therapeutic schools to be schools that teach academic subjects side by side with skills for living a healthy life, including emotional regulation, relationship skills and strategies for functioning successfully in a community. At my school, our students are all working on different goals related to these skills, and as such, we serve them in a variety of groups and in 1-to-1 classes.

We’ve had a Google Apps for Education account for a little less than a year so far, and already there are so many great applications to our work. Here are some of the reasons I think Google Apps is great for therapeutic schools.

  1. Students get peer interaction without being face-to-face. Many of our students are learning the best way to be in relationship with each other, and sometimes sitting in a room with a peer can be stressful, confusing and hard. Google Apps allows students to interact with one another in a low-stakes way. I can edit this paper with my classmate, but I don’t have to think about my body language and my facial expression and constantly talking to them while I’m also trying to remember how to edit a paper. Real-time collaboration on Google Docs gives a sense of working together while also giving space to each student to think and breathe.
  2. Students can practice real-world skills in a closed environment. While some of Google Apps for Education’s monitoring settings leave something to be desired, Google does make it easy to close your Google Apps environment so that students and teachers are interacting with each other only, and not the outside world. You can email peers and teachers you’ve already met in the real world or share your website with only a handful of teachers you know will provide supportive feedback. One of the scariest things when you’re learning how to navigate the world is the unexpectedness of interactions with people you don’t know. Learning how to be online in a community of people whose faces you’ve seen makes all of that much less scary.
  3. Google Apps and constructivist learning go hand in hand. One of the tenets of constructivist learning is to allow students to develop their own knowledge with a hands-on tasks rather than being instructed from above by the teacher. Because Google Apps is generally very user-friendly with intuitive controls, students with even a little bit of prior web experience take to it easily. I typically only need to prompt once or twice that the red button is create, the blue button is share. Since Google’s been making efforts recently to unify design across Apps, the kids can pick up the visual language and apply it throughout. This way, students are developing their own understanding of how to navigate the web. I can be a guide rather than an instructor.
This is a topic I spend lots of time thinking about, so you’re sure to see more posts about it here. How about you? Any experiences with Google Apps helping students with their therapeutic goals?

photo credit: missha via photopin cc