Category Archives: Organization

Best Practice, Shared Resources, Tools and Community

Mike Caufield’s post made me realize I’ve done a pretty poor job of publicizing what we’re trying to do lately in good old HCPS1. So here’s my attempt to put this out there for people to spot holes, misdirection, etc.

Setting Best Practice

We’re turning to video for best practice more and more. We’re doing that for individual subjects, certain pedagogical techniques, major tools like IWBs (no luck so far) and for other things you might not expect like administrator training.

We have a whole series dedicated to illustrating the art of the post observation interview for our administrators. It’s a three step process so for some of them we now have the planning conference video, the class itself and then the post-observation wrap up interview. That allows administrators to see the steps of the process, put themselves in the classroom to gather data and then watch how that administrator wraps things up. This video series supports a larger web based structure that has different observational tools, process maps etc. We tend to use the videos when the administration is brought together. They’ll watch a video, break it down in small groups etc. etc. and then be directed back to the main site for the tools/process maps/documentation.

So that’s the relatively simple part.

Here’s where we’re attempting to merge a lot of things in a flowing loosely linked communal animal.

What we’ve had in the past are courses usually based on applications like this one I did on Google Earth many moons ago2. There’s some attempt there to provide content based examples but there’s lots of failure points. In some ways the discussion of the pedagogy gets in the way of how to use the application and vice versa. Additionally, there’s no way to communicate, rate or contribute anything back. People could find errors, crazy ways to make things far better etc. and I’d never know nor would anyone else. This is a dead site and there are many like it scattered across the HCPS intranets. They have additional problems like being hard to find, being rarely updated and often ending up off kilter in terms of best practice (both demonstrated and as examples).

So here are our steps to getting this right.

Step one – Set best practice district wide.

Framework – We’re doing this through the TIPC. It’s a mix of a condensed version of P21 and ISTE standards mixed with some student centered and constructivist beliefs. This provides a pretty decent tool for self-reflection and is extensible enough to be used to develop walk through tools.

Best Practice Examples – We’re taking this on in two ways.
Video – We’re video taping exceptional teachers and lessons and making them available in a variety of formats with and without annotations to illustrate key points. We’ll also be working on combining the video with the resources from the lesson when possible.

Content – We also wanted to reward and publicize the teachers who were creating exemplary lessons according to the TIPC. That led to the Henrico 21 awards. There will be 15 winners from k-12 who will be recognized publicly and given a cash prize3. Their winning entries will be published and shared according to some of the ideas I laid out here.

We had about 600 submissions to this contest with about 7GB of student artifacts as well- that doesn’t include a lot that was on linked web pages. We’re in the judging stages right now. It’s been very interesting to think about these submissions as a way to snapshot where we might be as a district in terms of understanding and implementing the TIPC.

How Do I? We have created modules for each category of the TIPC (they still need a lot of work but here’s one). These modules focus on why these skills are important, stress the conceptual understanding, and have some minor examples of how they might be used along with some basic tutorials.

Paralleling these modules we have tool based databases that tie the tool to the concepts and to tutorials on how to use the tools themselves. The databases also need some serious work.

So clearly there’s a lot of work still to be done and I haven’t even gotten to the interweaving portion yet.

Linking It Together Conceptually, I don’t think the majority of k12 teachers browse for information on increasing creativity in the classroom. They’re more likely to be looking for the things that the state says are important like SOLs. So we put up our best practice examples with SOL tags. Then the goal is to look at those lessons and see what the likely support needs for a teacher attempting these lessons will be. That’s where we link in the conceptual frameworks and the tool tutorials. We also want the reverse happening. If a teacher is participating in a course on creativity we want that module to link in the best practice lessons and have the tutorials available as well. Cross pollination is the goal both because it’s more likely to get teachers involved and doing things right and because we have too many pieces of content living on lonely islands.

The other aspect here is an attempt to create a community talking about these lessons and teaching in general. There will be commenting and rating for the elements. More importantly, I’m going to make a concerted effort to get people commenting. I feel this is key and can be an amazingly powerful aspect of a site like this. I also have no illusions about how difficult that is going to be.

Checking for Change So we need to see if doing all this stuff is making a difference and that is where the Reflective Friends process comes in. Despite the awful name4, it’s a pretty intense and powerful process. We did this for 3 high schools this year and will be spreading it to 7 or so next year. Basically –

General data collection about the learning environment and how well aligned it is with the T-PAC model and 21st Century classrooms.

In this option, data collection tools will be used that look for the presence of the following indicators:

* Student centered learning activities
* Critical thinking and problem-solving embedded in the learning activities
* Opportunities for communication and collaboration in the learning activities
* Learning activities that foster student creativity and innovation
* Opportunities for students to find, evaluate, organize and synthesize information
* Use of technology as a tool for meeting all of the above indicators

These data will help school faculty and staff determine their baseline level on each indicator and identify areas for future professional development and training.

Data are gathered through classroom observations and teacher/student interviews. That data is compiled and shared with the administration. We then meet to analyze the data and discuss next steps. It’s really an interesting and intense process.

The results of the Henrico 21 submissions next year will also help us gauge where we are as a district.

I think it’s time to stop now. I’m not sure how clear I was but it feels good to get a chunk of this out of my head. It’s a lot to do and think about that’s for sure.

1 When I have to leave Jim Groom length comments there’s a problem.

2 Yes, it makes me cry too

3 Yeah, I’m not sure money is the right path here either.

4 Critical Friends was seen as too intimidating. Seriously.

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Why I loathe Portaportal

The following is an attack on an idea and a structure. I am in no way trying to attack you if you use Portaportal but I would like to change your mind. I encourage you blasting back in the comments but if you call me names, I’ll likely cry.

Sure, I get a lot of dirty looks from educators when I loathe Portaportal1. Portaportal is, after all, the educators friend.

“Look how easy it is!”

“I can share links with my students!”

“It’s free!”

Yes, yes and yes but just about everything is easy and shareable these days. I have two2 main problems with Portaportal.

Round One – The Surface

I’ll deal with the minor stuff (relatively) first.

The thing is hideous. It is appallingly unattractive- everything from the color schemes to the jagged icons. Who in their right mind comes up with a flesh tone and pink color scheme?
Picture 7

“But,” I can hear the rebukes, “Craigslist is ugly and look how popular it is.” or “I don’t care what it looks like as long as it does what I want.”

First of all, Craigslist is ugly but it’s taking you to free things you actually want. Portaportal, especially in an educational context, is taking you to something you’ve been told you want. That’s a big difference. I’ll put up with ugly if it’s free, bringing me to things I, in my heart of hearts, want and there’s no more attractive3 solution.

Secondly, there’s no reason for educators to eternally accept and be happy with 3rd tier solutions. What would you think of a business using Portaportal? Maybe you wouldn’t notice or care. I would. I’d look at it and wonder with all the more powerful and more attractive ways there are to share links on the web, why in the world would they choose this one. I would then assume they didn’t know about anything better or they decided this was the best. Either way, I’m not drawing good conclusions4.

Round Two – The Core

This is the big one.

Teachers shouldn’t have to double up on work. It’s a waste of time and energy. Portaportal is an online parallel of the old school organization of bookmarks/favorites. I set up my categories (folders in everything but name). I can have categories within categories. If I want a link in two categories, I have to enter it twice. If i need to remove it, I need to remove it twice.

The fact that there’s no real way to aggregate and separate is a key issue. If the link is in my site, I can’t easily make it appear in your site or elsewhere.

Other Issues

  • It doesn’t integrate well into a work flow. If you’re going to use this as your main bookmarking tool then you’ll need multiple portals and keeping things separated is not something I even want to contemplate. If it’s not your main tool then you’re eternally taking something from your bookmarking option of choice and then manually adding it to Portaportal
  • This isn’t the way I want my teachers thinking about bookmarking. It’s on the web but it’s not networked. There’s no social aspect I can easily harness to see who else might be an advantage to me.
  • There are no RSS feeds to let me know when things have changed.
  • This site is eternally outside my other web presences. There’s no way to break off categories from Portaportal and put them on other websites or blogs I have.

So this all started because of a brief twitter conversation with Craig Nansen. Here’s how I use delicious (but really, I could use any bookmarking service with a tag specific RSS feed) to do things that mimic Portaportal in some cases and far exceed it in other cases.

Level One
Delicious has a built in “linkroll” generator although it’s hard to find now. Here’s a direct link. Once you’re there you can set up all kinds of specificity in your feeds based on single tags or a combination of tags. You can then cut and paste the code into WordPress or Dreamweaver or whatever.

You’ve got the option to include your notes and tags. I like that. I can add or remove metadata based on intended audience.

A Few Examples
The first, and easiest, is just putting the delicious feed into a sidebar or blog post. You can see that in the sidebar here. There are a number of plugins that can help as well. To put a similar feed in a blog post or page you’d just paste the link roll code into the editing window in html view. To mimic what Craig did in Portaportal5, I’d set up pages for grades and then child pages based on subject. The interesting thing about doing that would be having a multi-subject list on the grade page for most recent stuff for general interest browsing and then a more direct subject based option if you wanted more specificity. That’d be especially relevant in k-5.

You could get fancy, customize the CSS and make things expandable with some javascript like we did here at the bottom of the page6

Level Two
Secondly, you can use FeedWordPress to autopost from specific tag combinations. You can do that for a specific user account or do it more generally based on a tag (or tag combo) from any delicious user. I’m using that with my tech integration class. They’re posting links of interest to delicious with the URedtech tag and it auto posts them here.
Picture 10

Level Three
The third is a page I built about 4 years ago. I freely admin it’s not particularly attractive but it’s ugly in a way that I can control. There are all kinds of feeds coming in via a variety of delicious linkrolls. Additionally, there are feeds coming in from a flick RSS feeed and one from a Technorati search. Granted, this is far more than most teachers would want to do but it’s an easy thing to set up as a template.
Picture 9

Other Things I Like
I use the send option all the time in Delicious. Once again, it cuts out steps for me. Instead of cutting and pasting into an email and then that person going from email to browser, it’s all in the browser and all in the context of bookmarks. It keeps things clean and concise.

I find lots of things through my network of strange bookmarkers. I’m not really interested in the increased community available on diigo or other sites. I just want to skim the data here. For me, and you may differ, bookmarks are about harnessing collective energy. I don’t need or want the extra layer of conversation around these bits of data.

In the end, of course, you do what works for you. Different people need and want different things. I just hate to see educators following technologies that are essentially dead. Portaportal doesn’t build skills or help expand people’s thoughts on how information should be shared and organized effectively and efficiently in a world where information can flow. It’s still stuck in the box mentality. It creates the illusion of progress while still maintaining the exact mindset of the past. Maybe it’s a necessary middle step. I don’t think so. I’d rather see a clean break with that mentality and its related inefficiencies.

1 It may be because I say it in a really low voice and really draw out the looooooaaaaaathe part.

2 Three if you count the name.

3 By attractive I don’t mean glittery and bespangled but well designed and thought out in terms of a variety of design elements.

4 Harsh, I know but most kids and parents are pretty harsh in their appraisal of teachers and education.

5 I do want to be clear, I’m in no way attacking Craig. He does great things and is an amazing educator. I have the utmost respect for him and what he does. I just really, really don’t like Portaportal.

6 Yes, yes, I know. Purple and green. Not my choice.

Just in time tech . . .

Google spreadsheets now lets you share editing by sending out a custom form. This is a huge deal. No, really. Huge.

It solves so many problems I see happening all the time in schools. This is such a great way to get large amounts of information from all sorts of people of varying technical skill levels so you have it one place to manipulate. No need for the hassle of Adobe PDF and the complications of those forms or the need to create custom web forms of various types. It’s free and dead simple.

I’m going to use it to collect testing information on programs for our upcoming Vista move. Previously, I was going to use cforms ii (awesome WordPress plug in by the way- especially if you need to fully customize the CSS- see an example I did for the NSDC here- it is real so don’t fill out fake info please). But there’s no real easy way to share that information. You could give people the password to the blog but that’s no always a good thing and the information that’s there is really just for looking at or exporting. I wanted something more dynamic. I think you could write some custom php pages and pull the info out but that’s a hassle and it takes time.

I was going to download the data, upload it into a Google spreadsheet and possibly push it out to an Exhibit front end (yes, I’m still in love with them). Major hassle for me in terms of keeping things updated as I’d have to add to the spreadsheet with each new entry to keep things up to date. Blah. I considered trying to write an Applescript to do it for me based on folder update changes but that’s more time and, if you’ve ever messed with Applescript, it’s likely to be a hassle.

Instead, I set up the spreadsheet to feed my data into Exhibit and send out a form. As you can see below it’s got the option to change the field names in the form, add help text etc. I never have to update. Anyone can use it. So very nice. I’ll post my example when I get it finished.


The bridge between these two platforms has never seemed more interesting to me.

  1. Easy to use, free and friendly data entry.
  2. An easy to set up “database” backend – yes I know it’s not relational blah blah but it’ll do for 99% of things normal human need (and I wonder if you linked a series of spreadsheets in the right ways . . . )
  3. A visual and friendly web front end for user interaction with the data using Exhibit.
  4. You need to know NO programming to do any of this. Some html, css will help but no php, mySQL, no real languages. That’s amazing.

Now start thinking of the cool things you can do with students, how you could save your school and district hours of useless work.


Subscribe2: RSS through Email (Update)


I’m creating an information blog for my new school. One of my assistant principals asked me about RSS, and as we talked through what he needed, we realized the root of his request was a very manageable email subscription program. He was maintaining a list of over 1000 email addresses to send out biweekly newsletter. I thought we might be able to manage this through a blog.

I searched the WordPress plugin directory and came up with Subscribe2. The plugin lets users have entire or partial posts sent as plain text or HTML to their email. Scubscribe2 uses a conformation system to verify the address, so my assistant principal will have less housecleaning to do. It puts the burden of entering the emails on the community. It’s an efficient way to disperse information to parents and the community via blogging–even to those who are “RSS challenged”. I’m testing it on my instruction and technology blog. I’ll have the information blog up by the end of the week. Look for an update after we’ve tested it for a couple months .

Download Link

Update:  After playing with Subscribe2 for a week, I realized it was not fulfilling the needs we had.  I uninstalled it and, thanks to the advice of Chris Craft, switched to Feedblitz.   We have been very happy with Feedblitz for a number of reasons.  The service sends out a confirmation email to all subscribers–screening out improperly entered or fake emails from the start.  You are able to manage your list in your Feedblitz account, so I don’t have to download a data file each time you want to make changes to the list.  We do need to moderate when we post new material.  Since the free service sends the material once a day and we don’t want our parents and community bombarded with emails, we make it a point to hold our posts until they can be grouped together.  The only wish we have is for a name field so we can associate the email address with an actual person in the community.  Overall, we are more than pleased with Feedblitz, and several other high schools in our county have adopted it for their communication blogs.

Wikipedia Mindmap – more data visualization!

Wiki mindmap fish

Wiki Mind

This is a really cool free site that’d be great to use in the classroom.

You pick a topic from wikipedia and it creates an interactive mind map of the content. Click on the pluses and topics expand. You can even change the “center” topic of the map on the fly. Lots of cool stuff you could do with this and it’d be a great way to get to those visual learners that don’t respond well to outlines or even static mind maps.

Too bad you can’t point it at any mediawiki site. That’d really open up some interesting options in the classroom.