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What is Innovation?

When I posted last month about Innovation in Education, I was starting to work on my application for the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle this summer. Well, now that I’ve finished, I thought I’d share my application video with the few of you that read this blog. Before sharing, here is what GTA says they are looking for in application videos:

Create an original one minute video on ONE of the following topics: “Motivation and Learning” OR “Classroom Innovation.” This video is a very important part of your application. We’re specifically looking for educators who creatively address one of the specific topics listed above. You do not need to be in the video, but, the task is designed to demonstrate your technical ability, your resourcefulness, your commitment, and your unique personality and interests. Please do not submit videos produced for another project or videos created by others. We realize that you may have never produced a video before and that you may not own video equipment, but through perseverance we are confident you can find a way to meet this requirement.

With that in mind, here is the video I created. I’d love to hear what you think.


The Dangers of a Personalized Internet

This TED talk is brilliant and thought-provoking, though haunting at the same time.

I’m really not sure what else I can say in response to Mr. Pariser. I’ve shared similar thoughts for a few years now, not just about the internet, but about the books we read and the people we associate with. Variety is the spice of life, and those that live in a filter bubble like the one Mr. Pariser describes tend to lose perspective on the world around them.

To expand on his metaphor, when we indulge in that filtered “junk food” that isn’t building us and edifying us and challenging us to think outside of our own sheltered existence, our minds end up like Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me – out of shape and on the verge of death.

Innovation in Education

When I found out that the Google Teacher Academy would be held here in Seattle this year, I decided that now was the ideal time to apply for it. I’ve been looking at GTA for a couple of years now and always hesitated because I didn’t want to make the trek to some distant locale for a one-day workshop. And with our district likely going forward with Google Apps in the next year, I started thinking about the application process.

Like a good English teacher, I’ve drafted and will revise my responses to the written questions, but I also want to plan out my video ahead of time. The written responses are fairly natural for me, but the video requires some serious thinking. There are two topics to choose from, and I decided that “Innovation in Education” would be a better fit for me than “Motivation and Learning.” But what do I do? What should I include in the video? What kind of video should I make? What the heck is “Innovation in Education”?Innovation

What is Innovation?

As is often the case, I begin with definitions. What is innovation? Webster’s defines it as “a new idea, method, or device.” Wikipedia points the word’s etymology to the Latin innovare, which means “to renew or change.” Good definitions, but innovation also goes deeper than that. Many inventions are new or changed, as are many theories. The difference between invention and innovation, though, is that an innovation is “put to use, is accepted by users and effectively causes a social or commercial reorganization(Wikipedia).

In other words, innovation is about taking something and using it in a new way – a way that changes the way we think about that idea, method, or device. The Chia Pet, for example, is an invention, but does it cause us to reorganize what we do? No. In contrast, the internet has fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world around us – it is an innovation. Microsoft Windows is an innovation. WYSIWYG editing is an innovation. Electronic fart machines are not.

Of course, innovation is more than just products. Ideas can be just as revolutionary as products. Based on the definitions above, republican democracy is a tremendous innovation – it has completely altered the world as we know it. Similarly, the assembly line was a tremendous innovation because it caused us to reorganize the way we did business in the 20th century.

Innovation is not change for the sake of change – it’s refining things that work and replacing things that don’t. Henry Ford saw the need for a specific change in his business, so he devised a new method that caused commercial reorganization. That is innovation. The Romans saw a need for change on the battlefield, so they devised a new method called the Testudo, which protected their legions and allowed them to move together as armored units. That is innovation. Knute Rockne and a small Catholic school called Notre Dame utilized something called the forward pass to upset powerhouse Army 35-13 and changed the way that football was played. That is innovation.

The Innovator

In addition to these definitions, there is also some research – specifically the work of Everett M. Rogers – about those people who are the innovators. In his work, Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers tries to explain how (and why) new ideas, methods, and devices take hold – how they become innovations. One of the key components in the process is the people involved in the process of adopting the innovation, of which he says there are 5 categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. The innovators, he says, are the risk-takers – the people willing to try something out in the hopes that it makes their lives or work better. As risk takers, these are also the people who are willing to fail if it means they have a chance of doing something great. Typically, Rogers says, these people are young, often not wanting for money, and interact most frequently with other innovators. Comparatively, early adopters jump on board after innovators have done test runs, early majority take their time and watch what happens to the first two groups, while late majority and laggards are slow to jump on board, if they jump on at all.

Rogers’ work reveals one more interesting detail: innovators are not the group that make an innovation successful. They may be the group that tries something first, but the majority look at them as being something akin to mad scientists. It is the early adopters, however, that are also the opinion leaders; they are the group that the majority will look to and trust because they are taking a more responsible risk. While the innovators are often young and frequently considered naive, the early adopters often demonstrate prudence in the innovations they adopt and are viewed as more responsible because of it. They are typically the group refining and perfecting the ideas and methods put forth by the innovators. It is because of this that early adopters often make or break a particular innovation.

Innovation in Education

So what does this look like in education? What are the educational equivalents of the assembly line, the Testudo, and the forward pass? What does it mean to be an innovator in education? No doubt the Socratic Method was innovative in its own time and changed the way people learned. Surely inquiry learning is an innovative approach to teaching content and/or skills. And there are countless other innovations that have impacted education over time – the printing press, chalkboard, and more recently, the computer. These are all innovations.

While innovation certainly has to happen at every level of the education system, I’m not sure this is the sort of innovation the Google Teacher Academy is talking about here. I imagine they are looking for innovation on a smaller scale – individual teachers, departments, or schools that are utilizing new tools, methods, or ideas to change the way students learn about the content.

Without question, technology plays a critical role in this sort of innovation. But technology is only one piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of teachers (and schools and districts) that simply use technology for technology’s sake. And there are innumerable ways to use technology without being innovative. The question, then, is how we are using technology in ways that will change the way we teach and the way students learn?

In my experience, there is perhaps no more significant technological innovation in the Language Arts classroom than the internet. Even if only used for research, the ability to access nearly any material in the entire world is an unbelievable advance in education. Doing the research for this particular post, for example, would likely have taken months using traditional library research methods, rather than hours. Email changed how teachers communicate with students and parents – everything from quick messages to class newsletters can be sent via email. Web-based grading systems allow parents and students to track their grades on a regular basis.

Other digital tools have the potential to be equally innovative. This year, a few of us (probably “innovators” according to Rogers) have been piloting Moodle – an open-source learning management system. It’s a great tool that enables us to utilize a controlled digital environment with our students. We can use forums, wikis, online assignments, surveys, resources, quizzes – just about anything we might want. Using Moodle has helped us dramatically cut paper usage, given us opportunities to use a number of web-based resources in conjunction with activities, and changed the way I teach my classes.

Cell phones also have the potential to change how students learn. Access to the internet in students’ pockets allows them to quickly look up facts and information. Tools like PollEverywhere change the way teachers can formatively assess students. And combined with tools like Twitter, cell phones can allow students to get reminders and announcements anywhere, any time.

And while technology tools like cell phones and Moodle have innovative potential, it is often the simple adjustments or “tweaks” that become real innovations. For example, I discovered shortly after we began using digital projectors that I could simply project writing onto a whiteboard and make it “interactive” (rather than spending $5,000 on a big, digital version). This is an easily adopted change that impacts teaching directly and immediately without great expense or labor. This is the sort of change that is quickly adopted by the early majority and becomes innovation.

What About Me?

I suppose, since this is an application, there ought to be some explanation of how I have been innovative. I always hate this part because I worry about coming off as an arrogant braggart. Nevertheless, I do think that I would quickly be identified as an “innovator” by my colleagues, particularly around technology. I like to try new things, even when I don’t know if they will work out. I am quick to jump on pilot programs, such as our Moodle pilot (which has been very successful) or a Wiimote Whiteboard pilot (which failed miserably), and I’ll share my experiences with anyone who will listen. In particular, I enjoy experimenting with different technologies and how they can positively influence learning in my classroom. Honestly, even this blog is an extension of this mentality – I wanted to see what this blogging thing was all about and see how it could affect my teaching. I can live with (and learn from) failure, I enjoy taking responsible risks, and I fit Rogers’ general profile of an “innovator.”

But as an “innovator,” I also recognize that I am not an opinion leader. I am the “mad scientist” that many people will ignore. In order to turn an idea into a true innovation, I understand that I need the help of those that are opinion leaders – I have to identify and utilize the early adopters. This is why I teach workshop classes at our 10Tech Summer Conference. This is why I share things that I find to be successful (such as Moodle or Delicious) with people in my department and in my building that I recognize to be opinion leaders. I show them how a new tool, idea, or method has positively impacted my students so they can try it out and convince everyone else the idea is worthwhile. Of course, any innovation would be meaningless if it doesn’t impact the world in some way. Whatever innovations I may be trying to share will be utterly worthless if they do not accomplish one simple goal: help students learn.

Classroom Tech, Part II: iGoogle

I am in the midst of a series of posts outlining how I plan on using technology during the coming school year. I’ll share some tools, resources, and ideas that I intend to use with students in the classroom, and hopefully you, the reader, will share some advice or thoughts of your own, either in the comments section, or on your own blog (just let me know if you do!).

The second tech tool in this summer series is one many of you may already use: iGoogle. This is a fantastic tool that I’ve been using for about 2 years now, though really only frequently during the past school year.In addition to talking about iGoogle, though, this post will include a little bit on several Google tools I’m thinking about using this year.

For those that haven’t heard of it, iGoogle is an internet home page that tries to aggregate all of your web experiences into one place. If you use Gmail or Outlook, Google Reader or Delicious, Google Docs or Facebook, CNN or ESPN, iGoogle wants to bring those all to one place using what it calls “gadgets.” To borrow a phrase, if you want to do something, there’s a gadget for that. The obvious benefit of using these gadgets is that you will spend less time clicking through frequently used websites or web tools.

To give you an idea of what iGoogle is like, here are the gadgets I currently use on my iGoogle page:

  • Sticky Note
  • Gmail
  • Google Reader
  • Google Calendar
  • Delicious
  • Google Docs
  • AccuWeather
  • Sports Scores
  • Daily Literary Quote
  • Notable Shakespeare Quote.

By using iGoogle, I can bring all of these tools onto one website and minimize the amount of time that I spend surfing the web

My hope is that I can have students create their own iGoogle pages in order to organize their web experience a little better. In a way, I envision it as a sort of digital planner where they can keep track of assignments, due dates, and other important information. Of course, iGoogle is completely worthless without the right gadgets on it, and that is what the rest of this post will focus on.

I think there are a few gadgets that will be mission-critical for students who are using iGoogle. First and foremost is Google Reader, which lets me read RSS feed updates from my iGoogle page. This tool has saved me countless hours since I began using it, but I’m discovering that a lot of educators don’t know about RSS feeds. If this describes you, I encourage you to learn more about RSS by watching CommonCraft’s “RSS in Plain English.” I promise it will be worth your time. A couple of ways I’ve considered using Google Reader with students:

  1. Our school uses SWIFT websites, which are RSS enabled. Students who have a Google account can use the Reader gadget on their iGoogle pages to subscribe to their teachers’ websites and get updates right on their home page, hopefully resulting in increased awareness and accountability for assignments.
  2. In addition to students subscribing to teacher websites, teaching parents about RSS feeds could make it much easier for them to stay connected with their student’s classes.
  3. Students can subscribe to something that is specifically required for class, such as another student’s Shelfari page (more on this in another post).
  4. Students can subscribe to other useful/informational sites like CNN or the Seattle Times. If they want, they can even subscribe to a specific writer’s feed or a narrower topic feed (say, the Seattle Times Husky Football Blog).

The second tool that I think will be really valuable on a student’s iGoogle page is Google Docs. If you’ve never used Google Docs, it’s like having Microsoft Office online and available to share with others. It can be used to share finished documents or to collaborate on documents in progress, whether text, spreadsheet, or presentation (take the tour here). It even has a way to create surveys that anyone can take. A couple of ways I’m thinking about using Google Docs this coming school year:

  1. Students can use Google Docs to compose their essays. This means no saving to flash drives or emailing papers to themselves (or even worse, printing out the unfinished draft and typing it into a different computer). Instead, they can edit the paper from multiple locations.
  2. Once their essays are finished, students can click the “Share” button and send me their papers to be graded and returned online. I’m still debating doing this or having them email Word documents so I can use the Track Changes features. If you have experience with this, I would really love to get your input.
  3. Collaborate on group assignments using a shared Google Doc. It can also be shared with me so I can monitor their progress any time I need to.
  4. Maintain a digital portfolio documenting standards met, evidence of meeting standard, and reflections. This can then be shared with me and I can grade it online without printing a single piece of paper.

There are a lot of other tools I’m thinking about having students add to their iGoogle pages – a Delicious gadget (more on Delicious here), a Google Calendar gadget to keep track of the updates they receive via Reader, and even a sticky note/to do list gadget to write down whatever they might need to remember. However, these are the essential ones that will help make students’ iGoogle pages a 21st century planner and, hopefully, help them become better students as a result.

Feel free to comment and share your thoughts or your own ideas for using iGoogle with students.

Part III in the Classroom Tech series will share a couple of ideas about using Animoto in the classroom (and will hopefully be much, much shorter!).

Ideas for Next Year…Already?

The end of the school year brings a lot of things for teachers: frantic efforts to help students pass, piles of grading, the ritualistic cleansing of the classroom, and of course, a couple of days off before we start preparing for next year.

Of course, for the obsessive among us, we have already begun planning, plotting, and prepping brilliant activities and assessments for next year. I’m no different – I’ve already begun hatching maniacal schemes that I can inflict on students from Day 1 next year.

I thought I’d share a couple of those ideas and, hopefully, get some feedback from more experienced, battle-hardened educators.

1. iGoogle. On day 1, I am planning to introduce students to the world of Google by having them create a Google account and an iGoogle page. I have a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that students can use Reader to subscribe to their teachers’ websites. Other connected ideas including using Google Docs (and Forms), shared calendars, to-do lists, bookmarks, and a host of other potentially useful and productive tools. My thinking is that, once it’s been created, this is something students should use every day outside of school (and can customize to include some “fun” stuff, as well.

2. Documenting Standards. We have a host of standards we expect students to meet over the course of the year – reading targets, writing targets, district outcomes and indicators, even the NETS. We try to document students meeting those standards by creating good assessments, but the students still feel like they don’t learn anything.

My plan is to give them standards worksheets at the start of the year, and over the course of the school year, they will accumulate “evidence” (read: assignments) that document how they have met each standard over the course of the year. For each standard, they will also write a short reflection, explaining how this proves that they met that standard.

I’m still not sure what standards I’ll be including, but I’ll definitely include reading and writing targets and our outcomes and indicators. In addition, I could include the Habits of Mind, thinking skills, NETS, and who knows what else, but all of that might be too much work. What I really want to do with this is minimize the environmental impact by doing it all digitally. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we have the access for that quite yet.

3. Digital Turn-In / Paperless Grading. I’m thinking about having students submit essays either via email, through Google Docs, or through a wiki. I’m still not sure if this is a good idea. I know Word has some great features for editing and commenting, so that might be the best option. Anyone with experience doing this? I’d love to hear how you set it up. I already use “Track Changes,” and I’ve read some stuff on using macros for common mistakes/comments, as well as some Word add-ons that look pretty cool. I’d love to take it a step further and do this all the time.

These are just a couple of the ideas I’m already getting jazzed about for next school year. How about you? What are you already planning to do differently?

Teachable Moment…Blocked?

"Isle of the Dead" by hkoppdelaney

A quick little note: my students are looking for words inspired by the names of the Greek/Roman gods and goddesses. One student wondered if “hate” was derived from the name Hades (seems to fit, I guess). As I often do, I avoided giving him a direct answer and said he should look it up. But when he Googled “hate,” we discovered that searching explicitly for this term was blocked by the school’s web filters.

While I understand the rationale the powers-that-be would share about this example (avoiding hate sites, for example), I’m not sure I agree with it. It’s hard to teach students how to find informationand evaluate sources when something is so swiftly blocked – especially when it’s a general search term. I would think that seeing the daunting variety of results to his search would be a good opportunity to talk about how to refine searches. Instead, the web filters block both the search results and a teachable moment.

Of course, I’m just a lowly teacher; what do I know?

Edumacation Greatest Hits

Have you ever watched a new episode of your favorite TV show, only to find that it was a compilation of clips (usually “flashbacks”) from old episodes? The Simpsons, my favorite TV show of all time, certainly had its share of clip shows. Since it’s wise to emulate success, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider this post (which arrives at the one-year anniversary of this ridiculous blog) an attempt to reach that level of quality. So without further adieu, I give you Edumacation’s Greatest Hits (A Clip Show):

1. Whale Rider Teaching Resources: A collection of links to online and print resources for those who are teaching the novel, The Whale Rider. How ironic that my most popular post is one that I haven’t yet gotten to use myself. In any case, it’s rewarding to share something that a great many people are excited to read and use.

2. Short Story Mentor Texts: A collection of links to short stories that teachers can use as both reading material and as mentor texts for writing workshops. The idea hinged on Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, which has since inspired a great many posts.

3. Google Lit Trips: My first “huge” post (I couldn’t believe 50 people had visited my blog that week) was an introduction to a great resource that combines literature with the amazing Google Earth – always worth checking out. This was my first foray into sharing the cool tools I’m trying to use.

4. Government and Education: A surprising member of the list – a probably weak summary of the history of the U.S. government’s role in the education system and how it has evolved. I include this in spite of my regret for having written it – in retrospect, it seems like such a waste of time.

5. In Search of Hope: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: The first post I ever wrote that got past 20 visitors (what a huge deal that was). Really it was just a book review I wrote as part of our Reader’s Workshop unit last year. It turned out to be the start of a long, painfully reflective journey.

One observation I had from looking over these posts should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t: people gravitate towards resources, not opinions. I don’t know if it was the tags, the content, or something else, but every one of these posts was attempting to share resources I had discovered for myself. As I move into Year 2 of Edumacation, the single goal I have for this blog is to provide more resources and less personal opinion and commentary. The way I see it, there’s a lot of good stuff out there that I’ve found – why not share it with people?