I have been in the Ed-Tech space for a while, and I have attended many events and conferences. As in-person conferences heat back up, I thought it might be good to give you some tips on finding the best learning experience for you. Obviously, funding and time vary depending on many factors, but these are the things I would tell any newbie getting started in the Ed-Tech community and world.
To find the right event, you should look at a couple of places. If you want to go big, you can always look at national events that will be close to you, but they may not be the best community experience. I started my EdTech journey at ISTE. That’s about as big as you can get. While it will get you incredibly into the Ed Tech world, I did feel very lost at ISTE in Philadelphia in 2011. It’s just too big, and I have realized the reason to go is that my friends go. If I don’t have that friend group established first, you end up missing a good deal.
That brings me to my favorite group of conferences: state-level ones. These conferences typically are big enough to feel like you are getting something but small enough where you are bound to see someone you know. It is a great way to see what EdTech can be and meet people who can affect your life. I personally love these, and all you need to do is Google your state’s version of this. You can also always email me, and I am happy to give you some notes and advice on the ones I have attended.
When you get into local conferences, the quality varies widely. I have been to some that I thought were amazing, but others that I thought were lacking. Attendance and quality of presenter can be vast at these conferences, so I would do your research first. I would also stay away from proprietary ones as much as possible. They could turn into sales pitches quickly.
The other option is to get out of the EdTech space completely. These can be events based on grade level, content area, or some specific education field. You can find different communities there. My struggle to attend them and avoid the registration fee is I always want to present. There then has to be a space for my sessions.
If money is a struggle, presenting can be a primary key. Most conferences will comp your registration if you do, and it’s one of the main reasons I have visited so many great events. You may also be limited in how much time you can take away from the classroom, so I would also encourage you to look for summer events. Yes, it means you have to do work stuff, but wouldn’t you rather get PD hours in a way you would love, rather than a way that annoys you?
I love the iPad for schools. Is it challenging? Yes, but no tool gives you a better creative experience. It has tons of software through the app store, and the built-in camera gives you options you just don’t have on other devices. If creation is a key for you, there is not much you won’t like.
The first thing that stands out to me with the IPad is the camera. Video is such an easy way for students to create and tell a story. They also really need a camera that is easy to shoot in the first person. Other devices have cameras but too often have to keep them in a laptop format to shoot with the camera or have some cumbersome flipping motion. I would much rather have something natural like an iPad. It also doesn’t hurt that the iPad camera quality tends to be better.
Video is also the first thing I think of when I think of the App Store. I do t think you can find a better device with more varied tools to edit video than an iPad. You can do all different types of video, and there is an editing tool for every level that of skill. My favorite for years has been TouchCast Studio, and they just happen to only create for iPad because that’s where they will get the most bang for their buck. There are other developers in that same boat that makes some of the best creative tools exclusive to the Apple App Store. We can’t ignore that.
It’s not just video, though. The App Store provides experiences that you just can’t get anywhere else. It had all here office suites, and Keynote is my favorite presentation maker. The only other place you can get that is on Mac. You can create with whiteboards, you can start with VR, and you can code (with Tynker). The only way to get that other places is just not cost-efficient.
It’s not to say there isn’t value in other devices, though. IPads can still be tough to manage, and doing things like essay writing on them isn’t perfect. The main rub, though, is that not every teacher is ready for a completely creative environment. Until we are in that boat, I get purchasing other devices but starting inching your teachers to create with iPad carts. With a bit of training and PD, you won’t regret it. It’s what is best for students.
Have you ever thought Elementary School was two different schools? There is the K-2nd grade group that doesn’t usually have state tests, reading skills are still developing, and you are reluctant to give them much freedom. You then have the 3rd-5th group who all have state tests, reading skills are relatively developed, and you are starting to provide them with some different responsibilities. Teaching coding at the elementary school has to adapt to both groups, and hopefully, this blog will help you approach it.
Naturally, coding is a field of study that requires reading. Actual text code may not be easy for the untrained eye to read, but it is in some type of script or text. How do you let younger kids start in that? You would think it’s next to impossible, but a few pioneering companies have found ways for students to work through code and practice computational thinking. Typically, you see two formats: blocks without words and drawing. I prefer blocks without words (icon coding) to drawing because it translates better to a regular block coding environment. Of course, what’s also really important is the interface, and I think touch is the way to go.
An app that brings that out is Tynker Junior. It has five courses and five maker studios that are continuously building on skills. You start in Ocean Odyssey with simple pattern matching, and then you move through courses to the eventual Super Squad, which has multiple characters and nested loops. You can also give students an avenue to free creation in the maker studios.
As students progress and reading skills are starting to develop, you can move them into regular block-based courses and lessons, but you can limit them to puzzles with voice-over. Think of it as the transitional time. There aren’t many places to find this, but Tynker has four courses that take this approach.
When you get to third grade and reading skills are developed, you transition to complete block coding, and there are a ton of resources out there. When you look at coding curriculum, is there enough varied content that students will continuously build on skills as they use? Can they grow and create with the curriculum? There are many tools out there that focus on one hardware, one theme, or one set of characters. They just don’t have something for everyone.
Part of the growth and creation is to make coding an option in any class. If we depend on computer teachers or STEM teachers to be the only ones to make it happen, it won’t. Kids can create all different types of products that would apply anywhere, like games, stories, and simulations. Why not let them do it? If you want to make it real easy on yourself, there is no better place to start than the Tynker Stem lessons.
Above all, ask yourself with all coding platforms, no matter the grade level, “What is the ceiling?” Can kids move past the initial lesson and can they create imaginative things? Can they progress in that creation with more complex and eventually scripted projects? If you center yourself there, you will never go wrong no matter what tool you use.
What does STEM actually mean? There are so many acronyms now for it: STEM, STEAM, STREAM. I am sure I am missing something. In the end, you can almost put any content or subject areas under one of them. So, the question then becomes, “How can I be a STEM teacher?” The rub is that anyone can actually be one, and it’s not incredibly hard.
Obviously, being a STEM teacher in Math, Science, and Technology is easy. It’s the nature of what you do, but if you are just trying to have students regurgitate facts, are you a STEM teacher? I think the short answer is no. You aren’t exploring, so you are losing the intent of STEM.
To simplify what STEM is, think of it in the realm of exploration and creation. Naturally, that’s what the STEM design process is. You are researching, asking questions, and coming to conclusions. You can do this in any class. It could be in the form of a lab, experiment, research, or, more importantly, a creation process.
It means that if you are creating in your classroom, you can easily be a STEM teacher. When you make, it’s actually the process that matters, and the STEM design process works perfectly in any class. You can apply the steps of brainstorming, researching, and much more to build stories, even in Social Studies and ELA. Yes, you read that right. Social Studies and ELA teachers can be STEM teachers.
In the end, education acronyms are silly. STEM is no different. It’s doing something that we should all be doing anyway and putting a new focus on it. Making and creating gives students a deeper understanding, it can be done in any classroom, and the process can be the STEM design process. Really, if you are making and creating, you are a STEM teacher. It’s just putting a new spin on it.
Do you know what brings meaning to student creation? Having great scenarios for students to create with, Think about all the student projects you have seen. What is one of the common denominators for the bad ones? It is usually that they are just about a specific topic. There is little deeper learning there, and those are easy to copy from Wikipedia. What if we turned that activity on its head and made students be a person or concept. They would have a different understanding because they have to get into that personal headspace. It’s no longer a regurgitation of fact.
By putting students in the mindset of a historical character, literary character, or in some type of concept, they get a deeper understanding of who that person was and their intentions. The best thing about it is there are some great and easy ways to do it. They include:
I get asked a decent bit by teachers what it is like to work at an ed-tech startup and how I can make that transition. With nearing three years under my belly at Tynker, I figured it was a great time to give some advice and tips about what life is like and how to move into a position like mine. It’s an intense environment, but it’s one I have grown to love.
I think the first thing to look for is to find the right company. Obviously, many people want to work for Apple, Google, and Microsoft, making those positions hard to get. While there are great benefits working at one of the big guys and more power to you if you can get those positions, I simply prefer for the moment to work for a company where I can experience exponential growth, and I can make more of an impact in what I do.
I came to Tynker first and foremost because I believed in the mission. I saw one member of the education team at Google speak a few years ago, and he said something to the effect of, “ not everyone needs to be a programmer, but everyone will need to understand how code works.” To me, that put it perfectly, why I am at Tynker. With the way the world is moving, we need to give every kid the opportunity to code, and I think Tynker is the best place to do that. You won’t find any other site that is easier for teachers to use, has core curriculum lessons to code in any class, and goes all the way K-12. To me, that’s magic I can work with.
The second thing to look for is the proper position. The tricky thing is that actual teaching and PD positions in the field are somewhat limited. No matter where you are (big or small), revenue is going to come first. That means the more accessible positions to grab usually are sales roles, and you may have to start there to get your foot in the door. I did. I wasn’t great at it, but I would not be where I am without taking that risk.
Selling is an art, and if you are a people person, you may make that transition well. I am, unfortunately, a bit awkward in initial one on one interactions. I am not super comfortable just going up to a person and introducing myself. I am fine in front of big groups and fine when someone comes to me first, but I don’t do super well initiating. That was my downfall in sales, but what I did do was show enough initiative, smarts, and ideas on education that they kept me around. From there, my role grew with hard work, and if you chose the right company, you could have similar circumstances. Of course, you could also be successful in sales (I have a friend who made that transition.)
The third thing to know going in is that this job and way of life is not for everyone. Startups are intense, and at times can be stressful. The biggest reasons companies grow their workforce is to continue that division of labor as you grow your customer base. That means that when you’re small, it can be challenging, and you do many different tasks. For me, that’s great. I love that my hand is in so many pots, and I can directly see my influence on things. The workload and intensity don’t bother me (although there have been times I have had to grow into.). If you like being comfortable, though, it may not be for you. It’s something to do some soul searching on before you take a position.
If you are thinking about making the transition, the rewards can be huge. It just takes buckling down and doing the work to get there. I love what I do as I get to affect teachers and students worldwide and affect a [product I truly believe in. If you feel like you can get to that place, it’s definitely worth the jump. If you still have questions, you can always email me at email@example.com.
Politics are back meddling in what goes on in the classroom. You see it from how politicians address funding in the pandemic to teaching civil rights movements in schools. Some of it can be positive, but shifting education thinking and ideals based on political headwinds can also be hazardous. It weakens the academic product.
The American education system has always had the problem of being intertwined in political conversations, but there may not be an excellent way to break away from it. With schools publicly funded, they have to do what members of Congress and other government entities require to get those funds. Sometimes that could be as easy as showing some sort of struggle (like in the pandemic). Other times, it could be meeting some tough to reach goal. Whatever it may be, it brings a new level of scrutiny to a group of people who should be focusing on students first.
Schools are supposed to be funded almost wholly through property taxes, but that funding system is broken. Many areas of the country have changed their tax laws to a point where the funding levels just aren’t there, and other schools reside in areas where the property values are so low that they never will be. You have also seen school budgets ballon for various reasons to keep up with the demands and needs of students. There just isn’t enough natural funding flowing in, and it means that politicians can set arbitrary requirements to get what’s needed to supplement.
You are seeing this play out right now with theories focused on race and civil rights movements. Political thought tends to focus on making students patriots and believing that the United States is the most excellent place globally. While at a younger level, that’s incredibly valid, as students get older, it misses the point of what studying history should be. The history of the country is messy. The US is not perfect. People have been oppressed throughout US history, but what makes the US great is adapting and overcoming. Things still aren’t perfect, but I think we will continue that adaptation and overcoming. The thing about it is, though, if we don’t study past mistakes, how can we?
It’s not to say there aren’t extreme cases of theory and thought that have edged their way into schools. There is a thin line there. Politically though, we live in a time of absolutes. With politics involved, we will severely limit the lessons we can learn from the different perspectives that come from historical theories. We will limit the way we adapt and overcome.
To limit radical ideas in schools, I think there are better ways we can approach things. The first thing is that we have to teach theory as theory, and we need to limit the age range it goes to. There is nothing wrong with teaching theories and different perspectives to students that can think critically. They get to see a different perspective on the world, and they can decide with some academic skill how much of that theory applies to both themselves and their views of others. We also need to have academics set content rather than politicians and have politicians be ok with that. Yes, academics will disagree, but they are much less likely to change content requirements than politicians. We can’t bounce what kids learn based on who is in power.
The only way any of this will take is to change the way we do school boards. More often than not, these are members of the community who have had no experience in schools. They are, at their nature, junior or failed politicians. They should have to have experience in education. With that, they could have a unified voice to oppose extreme education bills in state legislatures and the US Congress, and for goodness sake, they for sure do not be aligned with any political party.
Coding is not just for the older kids. There are great tools and apps out there that allow students as young as 3 or 4 to start learning to code and practice their computational thinking skills. Students can build and create just like their older counterparts with the right tool. There are not many of them out there, but tools like Tynker Junior can be great avenues for students as young as three.
When you look at Pre-Reader type coding apps and strategies, you usually see them come in two different shapes. Some apps come with icon-based blocks (blocks with pictures and no text) and voice-over. Icon-based apps give an environment limited in what you can create, but the structure is similar to a full-block coding environment. This makes the transition to the following coding format relatively easy. You also see formats that are more about students drawing commands. Drawing formats often come with robots, and it does not transition easily to other coding formats.
I prefer the icon-based approach, and only a handful of apps do the icon-based method well. While I do work for Tynker, I can say without a doubt that my favorite tool or pre-reader coding is Tynker Junior. It gives a whole experience, and I have tried all of the others during my time at Kennesaw State iTeach.
Tynker Junior has five different courses and five maker studios for students to explore and experience. It starts with simple pattern matching in Ocean Odyssey, and then it gradually builds to a point where you are coding multiple characters and even doing nested loops in Super Squad. It also gives five maker studios where students can create in an icon-based format. It is a complete experience, and you just can’t find that anywhere else
My 4-year-old daughter has been playing and learning in Tynker Junior since before turning 3, so I know the interface is simple. It is also on all mobile devices, making it an excellent option for students and parents. Give it a try!
What is the thing that most students want to be when their expectations are still a bit unrealistic? It used to be an athlete and movie star, then it seemed to be a rap star, but now it’s all about being a video creator and influencer. Youtube has been a dream for students for many years, but TikTok and Instagram have only made that dream potential greater. Students are genuinely interested in video, and you know what that means? We can use it in the classroom.
Video can be an excellent tool for students to show what they know because the scenarios you can lay down are almost endless. Getting more meaning out of what students create starts the scenario they are creating too. Using video means you can design multiple different scenarios just around the type of project. It gives you opportunities to add choice, and that can be the key to add student creation into your class.
Designing scenarios is all about imagination, and I am sure you are already thinking about several. There is no wrong answer here, but I wanted to give you 5 to get started. They are:
I think most teachers would tell you deep down that the best learning experiences and the most incredible products they get all come from letting students create to show what they know in a class. Secretly, they like the outcome, but they hate the process it takes to get there. With that, student creation only becomes an option in limited periods. For most teachers, it simply is just too much for teachers to feel like they are getting the content in and letting students create to show what they know. It’s easier than they think, though.
Building student creation into your classroom all starts with mindset. Most teachers see too many roadblocks to it. It could be a feeling of getting too many bad products (even though the best ones are incredible), or there just simply isn’t enough time. The content can be so overwhelming that they think the only way to get there is to deliver it themselves, even though students may not be getting a deep understanding.
However, the simple truth is that all of this can be overcome with creative scheduling and a great process. Hopefully, through this blog and a couple of others, you might be able to find a schedule and strategy that works for you. Let’s take this one to focus all on making time for creation.
Let’s start the scheduling conversation by defining units, and let’s assume that we will assess after every unit. If you have too many units, you then spend too much time on test days. Assessments are necessary to see where students are, but they can be lost days. Most students will burn out after a significant test, and because of that, you are losing time for creation. The question to ask then is can I split my content up into 5 to 6 units? If you need more assessments to make sure students are in the right place, you can always add short quizzes.
The next step is to calendar your class. I always found that starting with an 80-day calendar for a state test-type class was always about right. It gave me enough time to finish content before the state test with some extra days built in for things like pep rallies, field trip days, and special events. You can always create more content, especially on review days, but this will give you a great place to start.
Now that you have the 80-day timeline, you then have to move into standards. The key is to get everything covered before the state test, and unfortunately, standards are so overstuffed that you have to move quickly. It does not mean you have to spend the same amount on each one. What I always found helpful was to work through the standards and first make sure I have time to cover each topic. I can then adjust the time I spend on each one to take away front the ones that are not interesting to me and add more time to what I love. It’s always better to spend time on the content I like.
The final step is to plan the creation, and I want you to remember two things right off the bat: choice and unit-based. If you wish for student creation to be part of your classroom, find scenarios that fit several different topics in the unit and piece together projects that students can then choose from in the unit. You could then direct students to a specific project if they are struggling with certain content. If the unit is large, you could cut down the choices they have into a couple of different sections to make sure they are doing more than one piece of content.
Now is all of this easy. It isn’t at the beginning, but you can get there with practice. You also have to have great ways to recreate the creation process, so putting these projects and choices together doesn’t take you as long. Guess what? We will cover that in future blogs.