Crash Course: Differentiation

When a teacher is bored and craving innovation, she creates a FREE, helpful PDF that is chockful of resources, pre–researched for you!

While the PDF primarily explains differentiating through content, process, and product, though resources provided show a deeper level of differentiated instructional strategies for your pedagogical pleasure. What’s more? Oodles of clickable links to help you exercise that pointer finger while watching the Olympics!




Advertisement + Twitter = Rich Community Conversation

“I don’t get it…” I used to reply with a vacant expression and doe-wide, unblinking eyes.

Twitter. Its 140 character max evaded me, with my peers shouting their thoughts into the internet void.

As a teacher who seeks community, I GET IT NOW.

Perhaps it’s taken a mathematical perspective, but I now understand. Twitter helps to connect people who care about similar topics. I’ve taken to exploring Twitter in the mornings with my toast and a cup of coffee, to see where the hashtag #edchat or #edtech may bring me.

One morning I found a stream of an #edchat from the night before, a Thursday, led by Craig Kemp, on the importance of educator-bloggers.The following week I joined the #edchat on Thursday night and felt instantly connected to other educators around the world who were wondering similar, sophisticated questions.

This Twitterverse makes for a great place to chat, and at first I would have thought the conversation shallow, given the 140 character limit. This is where comes in.

What is is a website and mobile app that allows users to source content into a quick newspaper online. It can link to your social media (ahem, see my Twitter), pull information that you care about, and key in on a search term such as “educational technology” as shown below.

All content is interactive and links out to the original source for the full read (or view, as videos are linked lower in the news stream). I get to read what I care about most a particular moment in time online. (Cool, right?!)

Now, Twitter is strong on its own, and is strong on its own. However, when the two are added together, they become Powerful, like Crossfit, squats urryday Powerful. Craig Kemp harnesses this power as he shares out his “Craig Kemp Daily” with the Twitterverse before #edchats to give his followers rich content to explore and tweet about., like knowledge, should not be kept a secret. It should be shared with all, loudly and proudly. Twitter is the perfect megaphone for the content curated on, as seen in Kemp’s “Craig Kemp Daily” below.

Not only can this be a powerful personal development tool, but I can also see myself using this as a school staff development tool. What’s even better? My students can quickly learn about new topics, whether we’re doing a research project in English class, or they’re checking out current events for social studies. I won’t say the possibilities are endless, but they’re certainly not limited to just 140 characters anymore.

Questions to Consider:

  • How can you see yourself utilizing the + Twitter equation in your classroom?
  • How else might you utilize the + Twitter equation?
  • What other tools or website might you add to this equation to create Rich Community Conversation?

Encouraging Pedagogical Partnerships

Rumors have been whispered; some which are much too loud betray that with advancements in technology, we won’t need teachers anymore! I say, however, that NO technology can replace the creative minds of teachers and students working together, the pedagogy behind the lessons and on-the-spot interactions that only teachers, students, and human beings can have with one another.

As Melinda Gates said at Duke University’s Commencement Address in 2013, “Technology is just a tool. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It’s not a tool…It is the end – the purpose and the result of a meaningful life.” (Fullan, 2014) Gates did not say this with teachers exclusively in mind, but it does feel specifically significant to me as an educator.

Kalantzis and Cope (2010) discuss the future of new learning: “Teachers and learners will be able to make meaningful choices about what and how they learn in order to meet new higher standards of performance.” But I ask this: can’t we engage in these practices now? Technology aside, teachers and students can join together in pedagogical partnerships, which are “equal two-way learning partnership[s] between and among students and teachers.” (Fullan, 2013)

Fullan (2014) narrates interviews with teachers, citing findings that students today are no longer complacent, accepting of didactic pedagogy, but rather skeptical of it. “Young people are now digitally connected to overwhelming amounts of information and ideas,” which makes them desire more of there education.

Now, this makes for a beautiful story, but I will be the first classroom teacher to say that this is not the whole story. Not all students are on their devices during class because they are in silent protest of the teacher’s traditional pedagogy. Some are trying to be social, some are just plain bored, and some just want to beat their high score in [Insert trendy game app that’s all the rage today].

With all this partnership talk, I’ve thought about 5 real, practical ways that I have successfully engaged my students in a pedagogical partnership with me in the past school year:

  1. Reflect on learning outcomes for the day by asking questions like: “Are these short-term goals or long-term goals? Why do you think that?” This can happen at the beginning of a lesson, the end, or both!
  2. Ask students to “Put it in your own words.” Even if it’s just directions you’ve read aloud, there is power in asking a seventh grader to put them in his or her own words for the class. Often times, lagging learners or spacey students will better key in to what and how a peer says something.
  3. Let the students teach. Every once in a while, I like to let a small group of students teach the class for an activity. The slides are ready, I let them know what the goal is, and I sit back and participate as a student. This lets me observe the class, while letting eager students take a leadership role. I get to see studets develop communication skills and utilize various classroom management strategies. Students get to see each other in a different light. For teachers and students, I deem this a win-win situation.

    See the full graphic organizer at:

    See the full graphic organizer at:

  4. Allow students time to reflect on lessons at the end of each day, individually and collectively. Individually, students complete a graphic organizer, which asks them about their confidence in their ability to [insert learning outcome] and perhaps write about the strengths they exhibited that day & something they can improve the next day. Collectively, students may have to come up with a sentence or hashtag, which sums up what we learned that day (to appear as a Class Chat update).
  5. Ask questions of your students. Listen to their answers. Keep the personal relationship aspect of teaching alive. This is perhaps the most significant strategy teachers can utilize. Whether having a one-on-one conversation with a student for 30 seconds, or asking students to reflect on a question in their journals, which you will respond to later, valuing your students’ thoughts holds so much power.

The moment that teachers bow down to technology as the omnipotent educator is the moment students may decide She won’t know the answer, or He won’t care what I think, or She’ll think I’m stupid if I ask that. Change students’ thoughts, opinion, interactions, and reactions. If you engage students in a pedagogical partnership, their inner-talk may transform: I don’t know the answer, but she can help me figure it out, or He always cares what I think, or I bet someone else is wondering this, so I’ll ask. Talk, listen, and above all: keep trying new things.


Fullan, Michael, & Langworthy, Maria. (2014). “A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning.” Pearson. Retrieved from

Fullan, Michael, & Langworthy, Maria. (2013). “Towards a New End: New Pedagogies for Deep Learning.” Collaborative Impact. Retrieved from

Kalantzis, Mary, & Cope, Bill. (2010). “The Teacher as Designer: pedagogy in the new media age.” E–Learning and Digital Media, Volume 7, Number 3. Retrieved from

Raspberry Pi: A $35 Computer Enters the Education Scene

Raspberry Pi is not a sweet pastry crust filled with sugar and strawberries. Raspberry Pi is a tiny $35 computer, which could revolutionize the way students think about and learn with technology.

A Raspberry Pi computer can help students to learn about the basics of computers, to do what it takes to build a project with a set goal from start to finish, to problem-solve, to think critically, and to acquire knowledge through DOING. Raspberry Pi provides lessons and resources for teachers who wish to implement a solitary lesson or entire curriculum based on Raspberry Pi.

The first introductory lesson to Raspberry Pi can be found here.

One of the best features of the lessons is that learning targets are differentiated to let teachers know what all, most, and some students will be able to do, as seen below in the introductory lesson.

How does this technology encourage transformative knowledge-making?

In a traditional technology education class, students might be asked to build a bridge, but with Raspberry Pi as the base, students can dream up and build almost anything, and it doesn’t have to be for a tech ed class.

According to a blog post by Raspberry Pi social media editor Helen Lynn, high school English teacher Sarah Roman will be guiding a Raspberry Pi-based literature project:

“Our English class is going to be using the Raspberry Pi in order to build book-based video games, incorporating Scratch, Sonic Pi, and Python. The students are incredibly excited…”

Others have experimented with building robots, music players, a weather station, and a computer lab in South Africa. I would say the sky is the limit with Raspberry Pi computers, but who knows: tomorrow, students may very well work together to build a satellite that is sent into space.

In many examples I’ve read about, learning is mediated through the Raspberry Pi technology. The technology itself is not the learning goal, but rather it is the vehicle which drives the learning and knowledge-making process. I don’t know about you, but I’m itching to gather funds to experiment with Raspberry Pi at my northern Virginia middle school.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Do you think affordable computer bases like Raspberry Pi have the potential to revolutionize technology education or education in general? How?
  2. How might you envision utilizing Raspberry Pi in your school to help learners make knowledge, rather than just collect it?

Let me know how you intend to get a slice of Raspberry Pi!




Leave Your Ego at The Door (Let Your Students Talk Some More!)

Every day before walking into her classroom, the teacher says to her Ego, “I’m sorry, but I must leave you behind.” Thus, Ego waits outside the school, apart from the teacher, to return to its owner at the end of the day. This separation of teacher and Ego allows for the teacher to focus on what her students desire, need, and are interested in learning each day.

There is no spotlight following the teacher around, no applause for a lecture well done, and no reward for putting her students on pedestals rather than herself. This lack of focus upon oneself allows the teacher to ask:

  • What can I ask the students to do that will show me they know X?
  • How can I structure this experience so that students will collaborate and communicate effectively?
  • How will I support students who need assistance with this experience?

Through my own experience with a month-long case of laryngitis and experiments with technology, I was able to remove Ego from the equation of teaching + learning to create more student-centered, discourse-centric lessons. Our school has a current goal of integrating more academic conversations within lessons. We define academic conversations as peer-to-peer discourse utilizing language, which is centered around academic content.

Previously, our administration had solely shown us ways to get students talking aloud. However, seeing as I myself was incapable of speaking aloud, I searched for ways to utilize technology to get students writing to discuss academic content. With the platform of Google Classroom, students were able to discuss the novel “Under A War Torn Sky using rooms I had set up for each group through Todays Meet. Students were supplied with sentence frames for questions and answers, so that they could utilize academic language in their online conversations. (See full lesson plan here.)

The benefits my students and I encountered:

  • Students could participate in the activity from wherever they sat in the room (and in the case of a sick student—from home)
  • Students had processing time, reflecting on how they would like to “say” their idea while typing
  • As a teacher, I was able to interact in all discussions simultaneously, and I had “recordings” of all my students’ discussions to review after class for assessment purposes

The obstacles my students and I encountered:

  • Groups of four turned out to be too large; students experienced having to delete what they were about to say because someone else just said it
    • (Solution: Partners or groups of 3)
  • Students who lacked strong typing skills usually were less able to contribute as much to the conversation
    • (Solution: Practice, practice, practice)
  • With multiple tabs open, it was hard for some to keep track of sentence frames and the discussion at hand
    • (Solution: Consider creating Academic Conversation Cards with sentence frames for students to reference during their online conversation)

Todays Meet was just one way I have experimented with integrating peer-to-peer discourse in class, but I believe it proved to be a very transformative pedagogical approach. The focus of the activity was on students and the connections they made together with the text. As a teacher, I designed the experience, but I did not drive the vehicle that was the conversation. I instead joined my students in conversation where I could and helped students who ran into technology issues. I was more in charge of providing guidance and contributing as a member of the learning community than I was a bucket-pourer of water onto sponges. That being said, my directions (while whispered and short) were didactic in approach, but the overall approach to the lesson and discussion was transformative.

I find it strange to say it, but I’m thankful for that month-long case of laryngitis. I left my Ego at the door and engaged my students with each other and myself even more.

Questions to Consider:

Thanks for your comments!




Lessons on Lagging Laptops & Laryngitis

“Come on, slow computer! Hurry up!” a student announces, as she watches the gray spinning wheel on her screen, indicating that the page is still, roughly 30 seconds later, loading. This anxious announcement is not uncommon among the computer labs at our middle school. In fact, this sore sentiment is so shared among students that we decided to conduct a scientific experiment:

What is the average time it takes for computers to turn on, log on, and load one internet page?

Before we disclose our shocking answer, let’s delve into some details about our class and computers. As of today, November 13, 2014, my students have spent a lot of time using laptops at our school in English class, both in stationary computer labs and in class with mobile computer carts. They are well-acquainted with login procedures, how to use Google Apps for Education, and now–with Google Classroom. This is a far cry from last year, where I found that a large majority of my students were unaware of the BYOD policy in place at our school. This year, we are now in a place where my students can successfully log on and work in Google Classroom without verbal instructions, which comes in handy now that I have had laryngitis for 12 days. (Teaching with laryngitis is a curse I would not wish upon even my worst enemy, but with Google Classroom, it is possible.) While I have had to explicitly teach how to use the technology (shortcuts for copy & paste, how to print a document, what a hyperlink is…) before my students do any Language Arts content area work with technology, I believe this teaching has laid the groundwork for successful lessons on laryngitis and for future lessons in class and in life.

This sounds perfect on the page, but there are many obstacles sprouting up like stubborn weeds in our path beyond just this lingering laryngitis. Our middle school serves (at last count) 1,067 seventh and eighth grade students. The technology program provided for our students is as follows:

  • Bring Your Own Device Program (Students, if they have and can afford a device, may bring a device to school to use at teacher discretion.)
  • Stationary Computer Labs (We have 6 computer labs, 2 with 15 computers and 4 with 28 computers. Teachers sign up for locations by date via Google docs.)
  • Mobile Computer Labs (We have 11 mobile computer labs: 9 labs with 16 computers, 1 lab with 10 computers, and 1 lab with 8 computers. Teachers also sign up for carts by date via Google docs.) (Source:

That means, if all computers are functioning properly and not under maintenance with tech support staff, we have 304 computers to support 1,067 students. At any one time, technology is only available for 28% of our student population.

Now, add to the equation some unavoidable realities:

  • Some computers shut down without warning.
  • Some computers are being serviced by tech staff.
  • Some computers do not have “logon servers,” which means a RequestIT ticket must be submitted since the computer is not usable.
  • Mobile labs cannot be used for two full periods in a row, as computer batteries die quickly.
  • Lastly, some computers are so slow to load browsers and documents, it eats away at learning time.

Our bell schedule runs on block days Monday through Thursday, when we see classes on alternating days for approximately 90 minutes. We have a neutral day on Fridays, where we see all classes for shorter periods of time, approximately 44 minutes. To make the most of this time, I usually sign up my classes for labs on block days, so that most of our time is used for learning, aided by technology.



What does a daily lesson plan look like with computers?

  1. LINK: Students complete a warm up related to the learning target for the day, as they wait for their computers to log on. We go over the warm up as a class.
  2. ENGAGE: Students log on to Google Classroom to view the announcement (a task list) and the assignment for the day.
  3. ACTIVE LEARNING: Students will begin working on a group activity together to encourage participation. Students will  then work on an individual assignment to show mastery of the learning target.
  4. REFLECT: Finally, students reflect on the day, completing an exit ticket usually by commenting on high-level critical thinking questions on Google Classroom.
  5. NOW & THEN: Reflection questions tie in to previous and future concepts, helping students to connect to content, making it relevant to their lives.
This is a snapshot of a Google doc assignment for one of my classes. Lesson #1 on Laryngitis

This is a snapshot of a Google doc assignment for one of my classes. Lesson #1 on Laryngitis

This sounds like a great lesson in theory, and in a utopic world, all students would be engaged in learning for the entire duration of class. However, this is where today’s realities kick in, and yes, we are now going to answer:

What is the average time it takes for computers to turn on, log on, and load one internet page?

Students were instructed to turn on their computers at the same time, log on, click Google Chrome, and log in to Google Classroom. When this internet page loaded, they were to say, “Now!” I noted the time and computer number for each student in a spreadsheet.


Nineteen students were in attendance for this class experiment. The fastest startup time for a student’s computer was 3 minutes and 25 seconds. This sounds quite reasonable.  The next student’s computer took 6 minutes, and the third student’s chimed in shortly after at 6 minutes and 10 seconds.

The average, however, is much more grim.


The average startup time for computers was 10 minutes and 56 seconds.


Now, add in the fact that the slowest computer took 21 minutes and 39 seconds, and that four students had to switch computers due to unexpected shutdowns; the utopic lesson crumbles to rubble.

Yes, my students and I are thankful to have access to technology.

Yes, we find ways to work around issues by switching computers, sharing computers, and using our personal devices.

Yes, we are flexible, adaptable, and resilient in the face of adversity.

But, is this the best way to teach my students these admirable qualities and life skills? Sure, the student whose computer took 21:39 to start up was able to read her class novel and work on a review packet while waiting, but this was not the intention of the day’s lesson. Further, even when her computer loaded, her internet browser’s sloth-like speed made it completely impractical to actually complete work. She ended up working with the student next to her, sharing a computer instead.

My students are missing out on so many collaboration possibilities and problem-solving discoveries because of lag time. My students and I are waiting for the day that our large school district’s budget allows for new technology to be purchased, but in our school district, which serves more than 180,000 students, “equal opportunity for all” politics rule. If all schools can’t get it, no one gets it. Everyone will be provided the same opportunities. With all the budget cuts of late, it seems new technology will continue drifting further down on the To Do list. In the mean time, my students, my school, other schools in our school district, and schools across the nation will continue waiting for a solution, just as we wait for our laptops to log on and load our learning.

Dear Google, Apple, DELL, IBM, or any computer company with a conscience,

You have the power to change the meaning of equal opportunity in education.

Will you work with schools to provide the resources that your future employees and consumers will use daily? Will you support 21st century learners, who will become the critical thinkers, problem solvers, and flexible, fearless leaders of tomorrow? Will you be the answer to our endlessly loading, spinning wheels and frequently failing computers?

I challenge you to answer truthfully with politics, public relations, and pride aside: Will you fight for our future?


State of Education Report: 2024

*The following is a fictional, projected report on the state of education in the United States in 2024 for a graduate course at the University of Illinois.*

The trilling notes wake Asami from his deep sleep. With his pointer finger, he swipes his smartphone screen to turn off his alarm. He pushes himself up onto his elbows and looks out the window. The sun is already up, streaming through the half-open blinds.

It is 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Asami’s last day of school this week. He has planned to let the dog outside and eat a bowl of cereal before class. Taking Gus outside chews up ten minutes of time before Asami pours himself a bowl of cinnamon cereal. His parents are heading out the door to work, and he yawns as he tells them, “Have a good day!”

It is 8:45 a.m. Asami watches a comedy news show he’d been hoping to watch earlier in the week, and giggles between spoonfuls. An ad flashes onto the screen, and he checks the time.

It is 8:55 a.m. Asami picks up his laptop and signs in to his class portal. The screen shows him today’s assignments and discussions to complete. Asami is enrolled in six 11th grade level courses. Overall for today, he sees he has three assignments: English, Japanese, and Technology Education. He has two synchronous discussions, and two discussion boards to post and comment on. It may seem like a lot, but his class portal has discussion times all laid out for him with event reminders. Further, he is familiarized with this class portal system as he was first acclimated in 9th grade. He sees that his World History course has a synchronous discussion beginning at 9:00 a.m. so he clicks the link with a minute to spare.

It is 9:00 a.m. The class facilitator welcomes students to class, directs students to the question of the day, and shares a video on the screen. Asami looks up a quote he can’t quite remember, but which will aid him immensely in the discussion after the video. He copies the link, and prepares to share it in the class chat box, with a helpful flowchart he stumbled upon as well.

This is Asami’s Friday morning. It is also the average Friday morning, a telecommuting day, for many United States public school students today.

The Three Phase Plan to Technology Integration Across America

Federal, state, and local governments have worked with companies to ensure that all public and private schools have a one-to-one ratio of student to information and communication technologies (ICT). The nation is in the first of three phases of integrating technology within schools and communities, ensuring that all homes (with children attending school) are installed with wireless routers and an ICT device by 2030. The phases, as outlined in the original report, are quoted below:

Phase One: Deadline 2020

  • Pilot schools will work to integrate technology within schools and communities, specifically providing a wireless router to every home with a child attending school. Wireless routers will maintain the same security and privacy measures as in school.
  • A laptop, or other comparable ICT device, will be provided to a families who demonstrate financial need.
  • Homework and assignments will be accessible online throughout the week, though students and teachers will meet in schools four days a week. Students and teachers will telecommute once a week to pilot online class sessions and to evaluate cost savings potential for the school.

Phase Two: Deadline 2025

  • The program will broaden to include more pilot schools across the nation and will enact the same plan, installing wireless routers and ICT devices in homes.
  • Through an application and observation process, students who show strong independent study skills can replace one or more of their in-school courses with online courses, which allow students to complete all work for that course online. Students will still be required to physically come to school for a set amount of hours a week for other non-online courses.

Phase Three: Deadline 2030

  • The program will be offered to every public school in the United States, and while schools may opt out, wireless routers and ICT devices (one per home, by financial need basis) will be provided for every home with a child in school to facilitate parent-teacher communication and student-teacher expectation transparency.
  • Every school will operate on a five day school schedule, with at least one of those days as a telecommuting day for teachers and students.
  • Online courses will be offered to build time management and independent study skills in students who show strong motivation and responsibility

The Theory Behind The Three Phase Plan

Expectations in the workplace have revolutionized with the ever-changing tide of technology. As such, the landscape of education has also evolutionized, growing up from traditional classrooms necessitated from the Industrial Revolution and into the more progressive classrooms of the Age of the Digital Citizen.

The top ten skills requested by today’s and tomorrow’s employers are no longer as transfixed as multiplication tables and five-paragraph essays; the skills have transformed to become the very character of the individual.

  1. Collaboration
  2. Problem-solving
  3. Decision-makinglightbulb1
  4. Planning, prioritization, and time management
  5. Communication
  6. Adaptability and flexibility
  7. Creativity and innovation
  8. Research & information literacy
  9. Responsible citizenship
  10. Interactive mindset

These ten skills encapsulate the expectations of students in the Age of the Digital Citizen. Students are no longer solely beholden to the work and expectations of their immediate community, but must also strive to connect and communicate with the entire online community. Globalization signifies a mandatory shift in education, encouraging a true student-centered learning environment, in which technology is the catalyst, the enabler, and the facilitator. The plan outlined above will launch education into the twenty-first century, and bring with it the promise of selfless, global-minded citizens. Tomorrow will be met with well-informed, truly innovative, curious, and collaborative individuals who grew up in the United States of America, in the time of the most revolutionary educational overhaul to date.

Underdog Schools, Big Dog Companies & Big Data

In October 2012, the Harvard Business Review dubbed Big Data in business “The Management Revolution,” as businesses looked to transform data collected into dollars accumulated in company bank accounts. (McAffee 2012) And in 2014, big data has also struck a chord in schools, aiming to help teachers drowning in data to swim above the sea, and funnel data collected into future student achievement. We are treading water amidst the technological tide that is “The Big Data Education Revolution.” (Guthrie 2013) (This term, begging for streamlining, is thanks to US News.)

Lisa Fleisher (2014) of the Wall Street Journal notes: “With the shift to computerized testing, tablets in the classroom and digitized personal records, schools are collecting more data than ever on how children are doing. Now, some educators believe, it’s time to put that data to use.”

Pause. Now. Now, some educators believe, it’s time to put that data to use. What is the point of collecting data that is solely to be dumped into forgotten folders in a cloud?

The Economist (2014) isolates the source of the issue: “School systems were being swamped by data—like every other sector of the economy. And like other industries, they had no idea how to respond.” Just because there is a demand for data does not mean educators must cram as much data collection into the day as possible. Rather, educators must work together and problem-solve to identify a plausible response for the vast range of possibilities that exist in technology-mediated data collection.

Johns Hopkins University professor Steven Ross forecasts the significance of big data in education’s future, that “using data to help tailor education to individuals will drive learning in the future.” (Anderle 2014) Lately, differentiated and personalized learning have surged forth as necessities in education; these ethereal dreams are having their edges singed off by the reality that is technology.

“Personalized learning is not a replacement for teachers,” Peggy Grant (2014) cautions in Personalized Learning, “Rather, it provides the data and strategies educators need to make better pedagogical and interventional decisions to allow students to learn in their own ways, at their own paces.” Differentiation for all students is possible.

However: “Collecting data just for the sake of having it is not nearly as important as how actionable the data is,” warns Andy Myers of Renaissance Learning. (Anderle 2014) Data is actionable. It informs decisions and propels educators into action.

And if it didn’t before, it should now.

For some educators, big data has been an issue best tackled by outside learning analytics companies, like Renaissance Learning. Teach to One, a program enacted by New Classrooms Innovations Partners, works with schools to track data, informing educators about whether students have mastered math concepts or not. The software assigns students personalized quizzes and lessons, which target their weaknesses’ further students take lessons in various settings: “in a classroom with a live teacher, with a one-on-one tutor online or even through computer lessons.” The software is able to identify which settings allow each student to learn best. (Fleisher 2014)

For some educators, this is quite encouraging. I would be interested in learning which settings suit my students best. However, for me as an English teacher, I find myself thinking, “Math is highly quantitative. What will be done about tracking data for more qualitative content areas, like Language Arts?” Khan Academy is renowned for its game-like, interactive website, tutoring students online in math subjects. I have yet to find a similar English/Language Arts-based website that can deliver a similar experience.

Big data holds big promises for those in education, but I remain leery as of yet, skeptical that big dog companies like Renaissance Learning (last sold at $1.1 billion) may take advantage of the underdog school just trying to help its students learn. Technology-mediated data collection is a godsend to teachers looking to track student progress. But it is also the never-ending bucket bailing torrential downpours of data into classrooms. If I have one caution then, let it be this: Let data inform, but do not let it become the uniform that schools must wear to prove their students’ worth.

CIA, FBI, PLN: You’re already a member of one of these.

Teaching used to be (and for some, arguably, still is) an isolated profession. The teacher, after closing the classroom door, is ultimately in charge of deciding what is taught and how it is taught. Teaching is a profession, however, that has gradually increased in its collaborative nature, attempting to leave behind days of severe isolationism.

Within schools, Collaborative Learning Teams (CLTs) have been implemented to bring together similar content area teachers for the purpose of collaborating, creating, reflecting, and planning with one another. This collaborative team setting has been shown to improve both teaching and learning. While this is certainly encouraging, such collaboration is not fully implemented in all schools. As such, individual educators can work to create their own supportive, collaborative online Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs.

What is a Personal Learning Network? Picture courtesy of

Personal Learning Networks are the collection of resources, connections, peers, communities, courses, and tools that an individual uses to support one’s own learning. This can involve various things like TeachersPayTeachers for free resouces, following certain contributors on Twitter or Pinterest, finding free courses to supplement learning on Coursera, or connecting with fellow educators on community sharing sites like English Companion Ning.

English Companion Ning is a site, created by California English teacher Jim Burke, which is a mix of crowdsourcing, a community of common practices, and a collaborative peer-to-peer learning tool. While other sites may exist for other content areas, this site specifically focuses on giving English Language Arts teachers a space to post questions, resources, and comments regarding topics centered on the content area.

A screenshot of the home page of English Companion Ning

Once a member, an individual has the opportunity to join specific groups, add friends to connect with on the site, post discussion topics, and reply to discussion threads. The National Writing Project featured English Companion Ning on its site in September of 2009, citing its main focus as the following:

“The English Companion Ning brings English teachers a professional community that they sometimes lack in their schools. Teachers discuss books, lesson plans, and a panoply of classroom topics via discussion forums, blog posts, and multimedia.”

The site serves as an online support system to either augment or create a community that individual teachers may or may not have in their schools. Jim Burke spoke about the success of English Companion Ning at an National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference, and the title of the video is quite explanatory of Burke’s feelings about the foundation of his site:

“If WE build it, they will come.”

Originally, Burke had intended on creating a community to connect teachers at his school, especially to give new and first-year teachers support. However, on the first night of inviting friends to the site, he received a request from a New Zealand teacher to join the site. “Of course, I wanted her to join,” he said. And the rest is history.

Connecting educators has never been so easy online, and the opportunities are but a search and click away. English Companion Ning, among other websites, social media, news sources, and online contacts can be the start of a collaborative, connected, and comprehensive online Personal Learning Network, which can lead educators toward interconnectedness and away from isolation.

Poll: What sites, contacts, and resources do YOU have in your Personal Learning Network?

Answer in the comments below!



Burke, Jim. (2012). “If WE Build it, They Will Come: Why The English Companion Ning Continues To Thrive.” National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from

Faulkner, Grant. (2009). “English Teachers Find an Online Friend: the English Companion Ning.” The National Writing Project. Retrieved from

Mangum, Angela. (2010). “Collaborative Learning Teams Improving Teaching And Learning.” Alabama Leadership Academy. Retrieved from

Social Media in Learning Environments

Social media types graphic, courtesy of


An Edutopia article coyly reminds us “Social-networking tools aren’t just for flirting.” Truly, social media has evolved to become much more than a way for teens to interact; it is a news source, a collection of personalized interests, a one-stop (or borrow for free) shop, a medium through which users can continuously learn. Social media has become all these things and much more.

In a report on social media use in higher education faculty, a summation of the findings is listed below:

“Virtually all higher education teaching faculty are aware of the major social media sites; more than three-quarters visited a social media site within the past month for their personal use; and nearly one-half posted content. Even more impressive is their rate of adoption of social media in their professional lives: over 90% of all faculty are using social media in courses they’re teaching or for their professional careers outside the classroom.”

Many educational professionals are embracing the popularity of social media to extend the walls of the classroom. Teens and young adults have learned to “reflex-check” personal cell phones and social media. Using technology and social media has become such a frequent occurrence throughout the day that it seems educators have caught on… One of the best ways to encourage thinking about the content outside of the classroom is to enter the social media environment, many students’ playground.

Students and educators are encouraged to grow “Personal Learning Networks” not only to make professional connections, but also to broaden one’s learning base and to continue learning around-the-clock, as illustrated in the following graphic.

How to Grow Your Personal Learning Network with Social Media


While social media used to creep into classrooms in more traditional ways (and still do today) in the form of Facebook profile get-to-know-you templates or Twitter template exit tickets, the actual technology is more frequently employed today than ever. Social media use has grown exponentially, and growth has flourished differently among various generations. The Search Engine Journal has depicted this comparative social media growth in a clear and comprehensive infographic. The infographic shows daily Twitter use is declining among users, wheras daily and diverse Facebook use is still exponentially on the rise. It may be well-advised, then, for educators to consider a Facebook page designed to connect learners, but an Edudemic “Ultimate Twitter Guidebook for Teachers” posted in 2010 may be verging on obsolete.

Interestingly, Instagram was not explored as a social medium within this infographic; however, due to personal observations in classrooms I propose that it is a popular form of social media today, which calls for investigation. Within my current summer school classroom, I have explored integrating this social media within my SAT Prep class. Though cell phones are confiscated for the entirety of the class sessions by school supervisors, I noticed students using their cell phones before and after school to respond to and send messages and to monitor likes and comments on Instagram pictures. As such, our class has instituted infrequent homework assignments, which ask students to come up with advice, an example, or a picture to post to Instagram and/or Facebook with the class-invented hashtag of #OnMyWay2400. This hashtag was voted upon in a democracy-like election. It can be conjectured that this hashtag was elected due to its ability to capture in a small tidbit the idea of seeking the perfect SAT score of 2400.

One of the many #OnMyWay2400 Instagram pictures shared to extend the learning environment with social media use


It has been enlightening to see what pictures students snap, design, and upload. A word to the wise: if students have private profiles within the social media type used, not all pictures will be visible to all users. While privacy is a wonderful thing, it can also mean closed doors for an assignment designed to be open. Limitations must be understood before integrating a specific technology within a lesson; beyond that, the possibilities are endless for incorporating social media in learning environments. Educators must strive to embrace and integrate technology and social media in the learning process in meaningful and connected ways; indeed, many have already begun.