Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Opposite of 'The Secret File Folder' - 10 Ideas for Authentic Audience

Let's follow the life of two assignments:

The first: I'll call it 'the poster'. 'The poster' is a go-to assignment. After a PowerPoint-aided lesson about modern day issues and controversies related to the Unites States Constitution, students create a poster to explain their opinion. On 'the poster' students need to list facts of the controversy, explain their position, cite evidence to back the claim, and finally draw a picture. Students will be graded on evidence, analysis, strength of argument, creativity, and overall fit and finish of the poster.

When students turn in 'the poster', the work sits motionless on the teacher's desk. For weeks. Eventually one brave student asks, "Did we ever get a grade for 'the poster'?"

"I'll put those in tonight!"

The teacher returns to his desk, looks over 'the posters', and assigns grades. The grades get inputted into the grading system, and 'the posters' remain on the desk. The next day in class the teacher announces to check the online grading system, "The grades for 'the poster' are up."

'The posters' soon find their way into the teacher's 'secret file folder', the trash.

Image Credit - User Nemo,

The second: I'll call it the 'the presentation'. The teacher creates a larger project with a project based learning pedagogy. She poses a challenge statement for the students to work through - "Find a problem in your community and design a realistic solution." Students are motivated to deeply study local government, budgets, community, cost-benefits, and sociology. At the end, students will show 'the presentation' to an authentic audience of community stakeholders and city council members. Students must also be prepared to answer audience questions and defend their solution.

What assignment is more meaningful, more relevant, more engaging, more powerful? What assignment calls for deep learning, cross discipline study, and problem solving? What assignment is more authentic? Door 1 or Door 2?

Image Credit - User Geralt,

The answer should be clear, assignment #2 - 'the presentation'. 'The presentation' is so powerful because students are accountable for the assignment to an authentic audience. The assignment will be seen by people outside the classroom. 'The presentation' means something, it is for something. There is a purpose. Students see a relevancy to their work. Students see how their work matters and how their work impacts the world around them.

Providing an authentic audience can be a game changer, but it can also be overwhelming. Truth be told, it is much, much easier to resort to the 'secret file folder'.  I worked at a school where the teachers openly joked about the 'secret file folder'. Students even asked about whether assignments were destined for the 'secret file folder'. It became a big joke for everyone. It's hard for me to admit that I succumbed to peer pressure and joked about it myself. I hate that. No wonder students viewed their work as a joke.

This last year, I recommitted myself to providing an authentic audience for my student work. Whether it was posting student work through CrowdSchool or arranging events like 'the presentation', I pushed myself to create opportunities for students to share their high quality projects. It's no surprise that authentic audiences increased motivation and engagement. I think it is one of the most underrated components of curriculum. If you are looking for ways to build authentic audience for your students, here are 10 ideas:

My students present solutions to a community problem to friends, family, and city council members. 

1) Use the Web
Sometimes we forget how powerful the web actually is. We get caught using devices to simply consume information. Google this. YouTube that. The Web is more than a place for consumption, it provides many rich platforms for creating. Students are more than capable of creating the Internet they absorb. The Web opens up a worldwide audience for students. Students can blog, create a website, make a YouTube video, record a podcast, or start a hashtag. Students can embed a Prezi, a Google Presentation, or an eMaze into a site or blog. Teachers can share student work with their PLN, on Twitter, or with their larger community. Some creative teachers are even using tools like Medium to publish student writing in an authentic and relevant way.

2) Hold a Mini-Conference or Symposium with Experts (professionals, community stakeholders/organizers, and/or academics)
At first glance this seems like A LOT of work. Here's a bit of advice - don't shoot for the moon. Find a date well in advance and simply ask people to come. Aim for 5-10 respected people associated with the topic of your assignment or project. Email is great for this. Throw in a couple pictures of smiling kids working with the assignment and you'll be surprised at how many 'yes' responses come back. Many companies will jump at the opportunity to interact in the classroom, and local college professors typically enjoy sharing their passions with an excited audience. You can also ask the kids themselves. Allow them (depending on age and safety) to invite experts to attend. Often, children will have a family member who shares some interest or professional skill in a subject area.

3) Hold a Film Festival 
Kids love movies. Kids love making movies. Kids are good at making movies. If a project or assignment calls for making a movie, why not hold a film festival? A couple years ago, my students created Public Service Announcements about a genocide of their choosing. We made popcorn, rolled out a red carpet, and listened to groups explain their pieces. It was an experience I will never forget. You can do the same at your school. Pick an evening and invite friends and family to walk the red carpet. Sell some (healthy) snacks and turn the event into an educational fundraiser.

Students can create amazing movies right from their device

4) Web Video and Live Stream 
The great thing about live video streams is you can control access to who sees them. You can create a closed Google Hangout and invite a select group to watch students present or explain their work. You can also use a live streaming app live Periscope to open a presentation up to the world. There are all sorts of options in between. I love being invited to watch other classes present their work. It is inspiring to see groups of teachers watch another classroom. Many services like Ustream also allow for messaging to aid the live stream.

5) Other Classes and Students
I have heard some people complain peers and other students do no constitute an authentic audience. I beg to differ. Students really enjoy interacting with, and sharing their work, with other students. It is a point of pride to share a project with younger and older students. It is also motivating to feel like an expert. Often times, it proves mastery of a concept because students must adapt their work to different audiences. Making children's books, filming videos, or explaining complex topics in simple terms are ways to build projects to connect with other students. You can also use web tools like Skype to virtually share with classrooms around the world. Something as simple as contacting a colleague at the other school in town for 'an exchange' is certainly doable.

Students in Maryland show bullying prevention campaigns to other students

6) Launch a Campaign
Depending on the project or assignment, students can build campaigns to advocate for a change or bring awareness to an issue. Creating a campaign and delivering it to an authentic audience is easier than ever. Students can create a petition on, start a social media hashtag, or create websites to share with a worldwide audience. You can even go "low-tech" by writing letters to the editor or presenting student ideas to the school board or city council.

7) Invite the Community for an Open House
There are many things the traditional science fair does wrong. There are also many things the traditional science fair does right. One of which is the opportunity to showcase work to friends, grandparents, parents, community members, and local stakeholders. Set up student work for a day or night and have students explain it to attendees. Students can present findings with the typical trifold, or share posters, powerpoints, animations, videos, and other creations. It doesn't take much added work to have students design an invitation for community members. You can also invite local television, newspaper, or public radio to cover the event.

8) Hold a Pitch Day
Hold a day where students need to pitch their projects, ideas, or plans to local leaders. Students love Shark Tank and it can be a fun experience to recreate an event like this at school. Students can also 'pitch' ideas to the principal or administration. Supportive administrations jump at the opportunity to listen to student concerns and ideas.

9) Create a Book 
When I was a kid, my school put together a recipe book every year. Each family submitted a favorite recipe and they were compiled into a spiral book. The recipe books were sold as a fundraiser. Although I never directly produced parts of the book, I was excited to see my family's name and recipe in the book. It was fun to see what other families submitted, and I felt that I was an integral part of the book. It was personal, and something physical I could go back to. Long story aside, it is possible, and fairly easy, to create books today. How powerful would it be for students to see their work published? Jeff Robin, a teacher from High Tech High in San Diego, uses to create large books of student work. There are various services that do similar printing if you are going for a more professional look. There are also many places to publish work and create digital books. I used Issuu in the past to create a digital magazine from student blog posts. You can also use myriad apps to create digital books and content.

10) Enter an Event or Competition
Design competitions. Robot competitions. Writing competitions. Media competitions. Video competitions. There are no shortage of competitions to enter. While I am not generally a fan of competitions (I want students to create their own meaning and value rather than a third party), they can drive interest and structure.

Whatever the way, giving students an opportunity to showcase their ideas, projects, or assignments to an authentic audience is empowering to all involved. Students rise to the occasion, teachers push their comfort zone, and the outside community is impressed. A well crafted authentic audience is certainly a mark of 21st century learning and drives students to see a relevancy that is often lacking in school. Like everything else, start small. If that doesn't work, dive right in :)

At CrowdSchool, we are working to provide teachers and students an authentic audience to share projects. Sign up for free today.

Friday, May 15, 2015

5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending in Education

5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending in Education


Abandoned School House, Image Credit - User Junebab,
Inspired by Kyle Pace’s list, I want to offer my own. Write a response and share your ideas.
In education, we need to stop pretending that:
  1. Students cannot be trusted to contribute their own voice and choice to their education and schooling.
  2. Education technology, without an emphasis on pedagogy, is a panacea for all that ails education.
  3. Competition is good for learners. 
  4. Structural issues like oppression and poverty do not affect school systems. 
  5. Education fits nice and tidy into traditional subjects. 

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Be a Bit Weary of "Free" EdTech

 This post was written in response to John Spencer's great piece, "Why The Freemium Model Fails and What Ed Tech Startups Can Do About it?"

Spencer writes, “Unfortunately, there is no such thing as 'free tech for teachers.' Never. Someone is paying for development, either through sweat equity or paying developers. Someone is paying for server space. Sometimes this happens through advertising (or worse, selling data).”

I was a “techie” teacher for a number of years. I insisted that everything be free, free, free. I refused to spend any money on the technology I advocated for. I complained if an amazing tool cost a few dollars regardless of the difference it made in my classroom.

Last year, I cofounded CrowdSchool to help create, organize, and use project based learning in my classroom. WHAT A WAKE UP CALL!

Almost a year after founding CrowdSchool, my perspective has changed. It’s not just because I want to make money from my idea. It’s because I have a much better understanding of the technology and education technology industry. Free does not work because it is not sustainable. Unless purely non-profit, every company needs to pay the bills.

Worse yet, I have come to be cynical of completely free tools. Let me tell you why. Some of the biggest companies in ed tech are free to teachers and students. They remain free because they want to build up a very, very, very large pool of users. The growth of users is the highest aim of the company. To acquire users, many of these companies take on LARGE amounts of investment and capital. This investment and capital allows companies to grow bigger and bigger and keep the product absolutely free. This all sounds good, but…

People who invest like to get their money back. They also like to get much, much more than their money back.

So what will these companies with free products do?

This is where the water becomes murky. The companies can hope to be acquired by a bigger company, can look to charge for the product, or can look to monetize their user base in another way.

If you really think about this, the problems start to surface. How are they going to make money? How are they going to return the investment? What happens to users after an acquisition? Data? Advertising?

A series of drastic measures to return investment is not a particularly great prospect, especially when you think of all the users on the books.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with seeking investment or with acquiring a lot of users. If an edtech product is really doing good work, then growing with investment allows it to impact more people faster. What I am saying is that I like to see edtech companies with a clear path to revenue (i.e. charging even a small amount). Given my understanding of the industry, I now like to see good products charge a bit of money. If something is working for me in the classroom, I will gladly give a few bucks. Yes, it may not be free, but at least it may be sustainable. At least, I have a decent understanding of what the company plans to do, and survive, long term.

*It is possible to education technology is developed by non-profits. This would allow for "free" use. Still, not all non-profits are created equally and grants/donations run out.

I Was More Than My Suspension — #ThankATeacher

This piece was originally published on The Synapse ( at the end of Teacher Appreciation Week - 05/08/2015

 Image Credit: User Public Domain Pictures —

When I was 17, a combination of bad choices, insecurity, and teenage stupidity climaxed into me being suspended from high school. What did I do to get the boot? I’m going to leave that out of the story for now. Although I hope to share more in the future, the culminating ‘event’ is not central to this post. Instead, I want to talk more about what happened after.

First, some context. I very much disliked high school. I suppose I put up a good front. I played varsity sports, received (not earned) decent grades, and was usually invited to front line social events. Deep down, I felt terribly out of place and alone. We were a working class family at a rich school. I lived in a different town, apart from my school and classmates. I struggled to break through the long standing groups and friendships my classmates shared. I distinctly remember spending more than a few breaks walking the halls alone or holed up in the bathroom. In short, my experience was probably similar to millions and millions of high school students. That experience didn’t feel good.

I consistently tried wild stunts and fabricated ridiculous stories to seem ‘cool’. I was a time bomb walking on glass. Sooner or later, something bad was bound to happen. One of my short-sighted antics resulted in a three-day ‘break’ from school.

Those three days sucked. My parents were disappointed. My family asked questions I didn’t want to answer. I was ashamed. Worse yet, I was scared to return to school.

I wanted to crawl into a dark hole and never come out. I didn’t want to step foot on campus ever again. I would be looked at, pointed out, and laughed at. My teachers would never see me the same. I was a pathetic failure stuck in a deep pit of self-pity and embarrassment.

Image Credit, User Geralt —

I did return to school. And I was looked at, pointed out, and laughed at. I felt every conversation was about me. I felt every gaze was directed at me. I felt half of my teachers viewed me with contempt, the other half with deep concern. I felt more alone than I had before.

There were three teachers who welcomed me back — Mr. Garabedian, Ms. Williams, and Fr. Congdon. They never judged. They never stared. They never pitied. They somehow made it clear that I would be okay. I can’t recall specific words they used or actions they took. It was more a feeling they gave me. Maybe it was a smile here or a “how’s it going?” there. They let me make up my work. Ms Williams even gave me the Literature award at the end of the school year. They were warm. They were loving. I will be forever grateful.

As Teacher Appreciation Week winds down, I wanted to say thank you to those three teachers. They knew I wasn’t a bad kid. In fact, they made it clear I was the opposite. The valued me. They knew their job wasn’t to judge or condemn, to lecture, or to scream. Rather, they wanted to make me feel at home, to make me feel safe. Teaching wasn’t so much about U.S. Government or World Literature, it was about the struggling person right in front of them. They saw a talented, smart, and successful person. Although the rest of my high school career was far from spotless, they kept believing in me. You can’t express how powerful a feeling like that is.

In a small way, this trio of teachers set me down the path to my wonderful career as an educator. I know first hand teaching is more than a series of facts. My teachers proved that each child deserves to be loved, welcomed, and cared for each day at school. At its best, teaching is about building relationships with other people. Teaching is about understanding that everyone is a good kid. Some just need more love and belief than the others. When I appreciate teachers I think of my junior self. I remind myself that the eyeballs staring back at me don’t need to see the smartest man in the world. They simply need to see the same love I saw in Mr. Garabedian, Ms. Williams, and Fr. Congdon.

Bonus picture — My brother and I in high school. I am on the right.

Thanks to all the teachers out there who work so hard every day. You deserve all the praise showered on you during Teacher Appreciation Week.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

More Than Engagment

Image by escolaepai,

Most days in sixth grade Social Studies were strikingly monotonous. We sat in rows, opened up our thick textbooks, took notes, and answered the review questions at the end of a section. Occasionally, we read a portion of a document out loud, and on good days the teacher posed an interesting question to spark discussion. I’m guessing many of you can visualize my sixth grade Social Studies class perfectly. It was probably yours as well. 

Alas, the day before a big test everything changed. My teacher, Ms. Roberts, stepped beyond her wooden podium, sat on a stool, and kicked off a period of “candy questions”. There was nothing complex or innovative about candy questions, but boy did we get excited. Ms. Roberts had a list of test questions, all simple recall and memorized fact based knowledge. 

“What was the nickname for Northerners in The Civil War?” 


“What was the first battle of The Civil War?” 

Fort Sumter 

We waited impatiently for the next question. We raised our hand quickly and hoped Ms. Roberts would pick us. If you got the question right, Ms. Roberts threw a piece of candy at you. Throwing in class? Candy in class? Eating in class? Sign me up! 

Image from Shirley,

Everyone was on task. Everyone was paying attention. Everyone was literally on the edge of their seat. Everyone was engaged. What else could a teacher ask for? 

A few years ago I would have said nothing. An engaged class was a good class. If you can engage students everything else will fall into line. 

But there is more than engagement. 

Recently, I have been to quite a few ed tech conferences and professional developments. Beside data, engagement is what many companies are selling. Engagement. Engagement. Engagement. Get your engagement here! Use our product ‘X’ to engage your students. Use product “Y” to excite kids into learning. 

There is a whole line of products devoted to making Ms. Robert’s “candy questions” available online. Nowadays, you can post a set of questions and the whole class can answer them via their devices. Students get points or characters instead of candy. Maybe if they are lucky, they can even earn a badge. This is way fun, but has much really changed? 

There is more than engagement. 

My point here is not to bash ed tech products or programs. I know how hard entrepreneurs and engineers work to develop ed tech applications. Their heart is in the right place. My point here is that classrooms need to go beyond engagement. Engagement is a super duper start, it can be a great motivator, but it does not automatically lead to deep learning. Think about Trivia Crack for example. High engagement for sure, but there isn’t much more going on than repeating and memorizing facts. Trivia Crack is great to pass the time and to drill a few caveats of knowledge into one’s brain. Trivia Crack is not great to build the type of skills students need and crave. Trivia Crack does not teach one how to learn, how to ask questions, how to develop passions, how to solve problems. Trivia Crack and candy questions train kids to respond to stimuli, not to take ownership of their own learning.

There is more than engagement. 

So, so much more. 

Image from Pezibear,

There is a time and place for pure engagement, just as I suppose there was a place for Ms. Roberts’s candy questions. On the flip side, this type of engagement is not necessarily new or innovative. Teachers have always found ways to engage students into memorizing facts and bits of knowledge. In fact, we have a whole system of rewards and punishments designed to try and engage students into recalling as much information as possible. 

I think students deserve more than engagement. They deserve purpose, authenticity, and autonomy. They deserve work that matters. They deserve deep learning that sparks passion and genuine, intrinsic motivation. We can and should ask for more than engagement. We can do better than “candy questions” on a screen. 

If you enjoyed this post it would mean the world to me if you pressed the recommend button below and shared it on social media. I’ll give you candy…