Sharing Ed. Content In Ways That Don’t Suck

I work in a decent sized school system. We have 69 schools and about 50,000 students.

That means we have a lot of teachers, a lot of teachers teaching the same content, a lot of teachers struggling with the same problems, a lot of teachers re-doing work that’s already been done.

At a district level we spend untold hours and untold amounts of money trying to provide support for teachers and trying to promote best practice. We have teachers who exemplify the concepts we’re trying to share but they are, too often, unknown outside their school, or their grade, or their subject, or their classroom.

So our current goal is to end anonymity, to effectively publicize best practice on a global level. One of the ways that we’d like that to happen is through online content distribution and building conversation around that content. The ability to put multimedia content online is nothing new. What has changed is the facility with which it can be done and the ability to easily have conversations1 around very specific pieces of media.

Changing the concept

It’s important to look at how educational content sharing has failed in the past and present if you’re going to try to get it right. I looked at as many different online sharing options as I could find.2 I’ve also been on the user end of a number of systems.

I think we can go ahead and skip the file hierarchy systems. They suck in such a huge number of ways. There’s no visual, no readily available meta data etc. etc. Their one benefit is they’re easy to publish with but that’s not much of a benefit when no one bothers trying to use them.

The place I’d like to focus is on the database backed web content creation systems. I think it’s key to have them on the web and open to anyone who’s interested and it’s key to have the database backend to prevent needless duplication and other hassles for the creator and consumer.

There are two big places these systems tend to fail. They can fail to provide what the consumer needs and/or they can fail to facilitate the creation of content on the producer end. I’m arguing that these two aspects are more tightly linked than it might initially appear. I see both issues stemming from a misunderstanding about what teachers want out of these sharing sites. Most sites focus on providing a highly structured and rigidly standardized lesson plan format. Essentially, ‘Here is your lesson in a box.’ I don’t think that’s what teachers want and it’s certainly not the way you get teachers thinking about changing practice. The other path for these sites is ‘Here’s your widget to add to your widget collection.’ The most interaction either option tends to give teachers is the ability to rate the content.

I think we’re pitching the wrong content and doing it in the wrong way. “This is perfect. Download it and follow the directions. We know what’s best.” is not a message that works. People drop in, they glance around and if they don’t find engaging content before having to go download a file, they leave.

My Pitch

So here’s my pitch on how I’d like to see this system work.

Philosophy: Teachers are looking for inspiration and community as opposed to directions. This is as much about the conversation that occurs around the content as it is about the content itself. As a result –

  • loosely structured narratives should replace highly structured lesson plans
  • content should be housed in a way that encourages conversation to occur around it (as opposed to elsewhere)
  • it’s not just about perfect finished products, this is a valuable space for exploring ideas


Main Page: On the consumer end, you have to make this content look interesting and keep it fresh. What shows up, as well as how it shows up, is absolutely key. So my main page would be very similar to the way a number of consumer sites work. I think those sites have quite a lot to teach in terms of what people expect and want when browsing for content online. I think iTunes is an interesting model to look at. It has a wide user base and I think it does a good job of displaying content.3

Picture 4
We’re not talking rocket science here. Many blog themes also echo this display format. Essentially, you’ve got a larger box that is animated and shuffles editor designated content. Then you’ve got some content showing up based on user interest and activity. All of this is visual and allows the user to drill down into more specific detail. It is simple but it’s also the opposite of nearly every education based website I could find that shares content. Apple’s Learning Interchange gets close on the display side. I also really liked the revamped look of the CUNY Commons site. Compare these initial interfaces to sites like Merlot, Lola or the OER Commons. I’m not arguing content, social purpose etc. here. I just want you to look at the page and compare how you feel viewing it.

Search: The next place people will end up is the search page. There are so many ways this is done in unpleasant ways. I’ll use the Merlot example below because it’s actually one of the better options but suffers from pretty universal flaws.
Picture 5

The only image on the page is the “Editors’ Choice” badge. The data is laid out in ways that don’t really take advantage of the space, nor do they use formatting to help make the data more legible. I found the dual star based review systems somewhat unpleasant and for some reason it was hard for me to count the stars. What data is present in this view should also change pretty radically if it doesn’t function as a link to other information in that same category.

I remade it with the same essential information below.

Picture 8 4
or alternately
Picture 9

In a perfect world, I’d probably have a number of things activate based on mouse overs. So you could get a better description if you wanted it but a lot of the initial interest would be based on the look, title and metadata regarding ratings and conversation.

That’s probably enough for now. Next time around I’ll get into tagging, searching, aggregation and what the content and conversation might look like.

1 I’m defining ‘conversation’ pretty loosely here.

2 Feel free to send me any good examples you’re aware of. I have no need of additional bad examples.

3 Music is not an inherently visual piece of content but album art has played a major role in its packaging for some time. iTunes certainly takes advantage of that.

4 You may say that image sucks and has nothing to do with the content. I’d agree except it’s from the content which sucks in ways I have a hard time explaining.

The Academic Achievement Team

The Academic Achievement Team is a group of people that have a series of meetings at schools in danger of not making AYP. This movie is an attempt to help individual schools organize these meetings effectively and make sure they’re looking at the right things and having the right type of conversations. Chris Corallo, our director of staff development, was the guiding force behind the whole thing.

Academic Achievement Team from Tom Woodward on Vimeo.

I have mixed feelings about this video. I think this is the right way to do this kind of meeting, I just worry we’re working hard at doing the wrong things well. I’d really prefer these meetings addressing real learning rather than SOL test scores.

The video itself is ok. I’m slowly learning some stuff about Motion but I’ve got a lot to learn on a lot of levels before I make a video I actually like. I would really be happier with a second cameraman.

The amount of pre-planning that needs to be done to get this kind of thing right is pretty insane. We had to shoot the interview portion later to provide context for the meeting and then add voice over as well.

The Three Buckets of Staff Development

Disclaimer—- believe it or not this is really worth reading and thinking about if you have anything to do with staff dev or have been the victim of hit and run staff dev in the past. Arm yourself and be ready to counterattack in the future. 1

This idea is the brainchild of our director of staff development, Chris Corallo2. I believe that this structure has the potential to really change the conversation around staff development in schools.

We are putting it out into the wild under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Which is a cool and good thing for him to authorize.

So I’ve excerpted the document below. It’s available in full here.

There are three types of staff development- experiences, training and professional growth. These simple buckets will help you have a conversation that gets you somewhere else. Most people want to provide professional growth but deliver experience or training. These buckets allow you to show people that and move towards staff dev that’s longer term and more focused on changing practice and impacting learning.


Picture 3

This is an opportunity to explore new learning without making any commitment to implementation or change in practice and/or with no expectation of impacting student learning.



This type is typically required to carry out management or process tasks. There is a level of expectation that the new learning will change practice in someway, but with no direct link to or measurement of student learning.

Professional Growth

Professional Growth

There is an expectation that the new learning will be implemented (with appropriate support) in the classroom to change teacher practice. There is also an expectation that this change in practice impact student learning.

Professional Growth Cycle- In order to both change practice and impact student learning, the following cycle should be implemented:

Picture 7

Assess: Review of data to identify the need for improved student learning.
Learn: Engage in new learning to meet the need.
Implement: Receive support for implementing new learning.
Reflect: Continually collect data and monitor outcomes of implementation of the new learning to determine if it is meeting the goal.
Assess: Revisit the data to identify further need for improved student learning.

The following is an example of how staff development on one topic can be seen through the three types of staff development. The only difference between each type is the expected outcomes in terms of teacher practice and impact on student learning.

At the opening of school the principal wants to set a warm tone for the school year and decides to do an activity around communication and building relationships. She uses the Whale Done video series and has the teachers talk about the video in small groups. She then leads the faculty in a team building exercise with the hopes that everyone will leave the meeting feeling like a member of the team.

Scaffolding: None
Outcome: Immediately following the team building exercise the faculty members feel like a team.
Expectation for Student Learning: None
Expectation for Change in Practice: None

At the opening of school the principal wants to set a warm tone for the school year and decides to do an activity around communication and building relationships. She selects this because she believes her teachers often take a combative tone with each other as well with parents and students. The principal decides to introduce the Whale Done video series and has the teachers talk about the video in small groups.

Scaffolding: She shares with the faculty her desire to see more positive interactions and asks if they would be willing to continue work on this. The faculty agree to continue working with the Whale Done series as a faculty. At the first staff development day the principal brings in a Whale Done trainer who focuses attention on the three tenets of the programs communication model. Faculty are trained in the steps to implement the model. The faculty makes a commitment to each other to use the model in working with each other. They also all agree to give permission to be “coached” in the model, which means that each teacher has the right to remind others of the model when their specific behavior does not match the model protocol.
Outcome: Teachers will initiate more positive interactions.
Expectation for Student Learning: None
Expectation for Change in Practice: None

Professional Growth: A school leadership team is examining its end of year data and determines that they have a school-wide discipline problem. The principal wonders if this issue is created by poor relationships between teachers and students. At the opening of school the principal wants to set a warm tone for the school year and decides to do an activity around communication and building relationships. She uses the Whale Done video series and has the teachers talk about the video in small groups. As part of the group discussion the teachers review student behavior data (discipline referrals) to identify issues. They discover a large number of referrals for inappropriate and disrespectful comments made to teachers. In relating this to the video they watched the teachers decide to delve more deeply into the Whale Done concepts with hopes that, if they improve their communication skills and are able to build relationships, there will be less student discipline issues.

On the first full staff development day, faculty are trained in the steps to implement the model. The faculty also makes a commitment to each other to use the model in working with each other and students. They all agree to give permission to be “coached” in the model, which means that each teacher has the right to remind others when their specific behavior does not match the model protocol. In fact, they pair up and periodically do short observations of each other in the classroom to provide feedback about their use of the Whale Done model with students. At monthly team meetings they review student discipline data to monitor their progress toward meeting their goal. If they have students who seem to be having specific behavior problems they may coach the teacher in how to work with the student.

After reviewing the discipline data with all the teams and getting feedback from the teachers, the principal sets up the next staff development day to delve more deeply into one of the parts of the Whale Done program. The entire faculty get additional training in “redirecting energy.” The teachers recommit to the process and continue their classroom observations and team meetings. At the end of the year they revisit their goal for improved student behavior to see if they met their goal of reducing the number of discipline referrals.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

1 Oh, yeah and I don’t really know why they’re called buckets. Feel free to call them cups, cans, decanters etc.

2 I’ve quoted a document he authored with input from various members of our department below.

From Good to Outstanding-PD on Steroids

Picture 2

From Good to Outstanding

Follow teachers as they work to improve their practice with a team of experts. Each teacher delivers an initial lesson, observed by school inspector Clare Gillies, then using her and other expert feedback, they fine-tune their skills and try deliver an outstanding second lesson a few weeks later.

This is one of those things that makes me want to move to the UK. If you have anything to do with professional development at your school this should really get you thinking.

So basically-

  • the lesson is filmed and observed by a master teacher
  • they post the raw class footage
  • people can then offer suggestions etc. online
  • the input from the master teacher and online suggestions is analyzed
  • expert feedback is given
  • the lesson is retaught
  • a compiled version showing before, expert mentoring and the after lesson is posted

I’m looking at it like this.

  • Classroom visits- You want teachers seeing other teachers teach. The way they capture the raw footage and put it up on the site is awesome. If you’re doing this you’re building a library of visits for people to use whenever and wherever without the additional overhead of providing subs etc.
  • Modeling classroom skills- Perfect, real-world demonstrations of skills teachers want to learn done with your population. The video may need additional aspects to make it a complete package for this but you’ve can show the skill happening in the classroom and that’s invaluable1.
  • Modeling coaching- You’ve got the chance to show adminstrators, department heads, grade level chairs exactly how to help teachers improve practice- how to have those conversations and it’s in a real-world, authentic situation. How do you give useful feedback? What types of questions do you ask?
  • Set standards- I forget the book right now but the author talks about how varied people’s ideas are regarding good practice and the problems this causes. This gives you a chance to discuss that and build a very concrete set of examples.
  • Professional Development- You’re giving people all sorts of ways to improve their own practice. They see things they like/don’t like and start thinking about how to incorporate or remove those things from their own classroom. They also have the ability to comment on ways to improve the lesson when it’s initially posted in raw format. That conversation, done correctly, could mimic some of the things Dan’s WCYDWT series that I find so interesting2 It also brings in elements of the Iron Teacher concept that I like. And there’s no reason you couldn’t have both those options working alongside the Good to Outstanding videos.

There are a million other advantages and ways I would use this. There are a bunch of videos up there now. Go check them out and then figure out what it’d take to make your own. Even without the after part, the raw video footage would be incredibly useful.

1 and almost always missing or done with models or simulated etc.

2 Despite the fact that I’m totally out of my element with math instruction.

High Speed Film Making

We had a pretty interesting staff development team meeting on Wednesday. We met Lucas Krost the director of a local film company who’d won the 48 Hour Film Festival1 and had their film screened at Cannes.

So we spoke to him for a while. Lucas wasn’t a fan of school (if I recall correctly he was thrown out of five high schools). He told the story of how he eventually found editing and film work. It was a good story but nothing you haven’t heard in variations a number of other times. What was interesting was hearing how this group communicated and worked together to make a film in only 48 hours.

So here’s what we did following the conversation. We drew a genre from a hat and got our topic- 21st Century Skills. We then had 48 minutes to write our scripts and 48 minutes to film and edit. My group of 6 drew cop/detective for genre. The hardest part for us was coming up with the idea which took pretty much the whole 48 minutes due to differing ideas as to how to attack the project. We never wrote a script so all the dialogue is freestyle2 We then shot the thing in about 25 minutes leaving a grand 23 minutes for editing. It took a frustratingly long time to import the clips from the flip video camera. I first tried editing in Final Cut but the AVI playback sucked horribly. I didn’t have time to trouble shoot it so I moved to iMovie 7 which didn’t like them either. Starting to get frustrated I moved to iMovie HD which thankfully worked but all this switching ate up a lot of time3. Now the clips had to import, some speed editing and with a little fudge time during lunch we had our two minute movie which you can see below4

So what’s the point of doing this? Well the proof is in the doing and so is the ability to speak from experience.

Things Worth Knowing

  • Making a movie doesn’t have to be a multi-hour, huge ordeal- it’s doable in two or three classes if you adjust your goals and expectations. In a lot of cases, it’s more about the process of re-assimilating the information than in creating the final product anyway.
  • Restrictions help focus and drive creativity- I’ve said this before but some basic restrictions regarding length, genre, topic etc. really help focus teams and get them focusing on what’s really important.
  • Working in groups is hard- even for adults (or maybe especially). It’s no wonder most of the group work in schools fails. We throw kids into groups with little idea and less guidance on how to collaborate on projects like these. Working up to major group projects with smaller projects is a good idea. I’d keep the same teams. That gives students a chance to get used to personalities and roles as well as time for you to reassess groups or rearrange them if necessary.
  • Video is difficult- it might make sense to start with something easier. Think about it. Video requires you to think in terms of plot, dialogue, camera angles, music and a lot more. That’s a lot for a first project. I think building up to the video project with different projects that focus on specific aspects5 makes sense.

1 Each team draws a genre (science fiction, horror, comedy, etc.), a line of dialogue and a prop. Then they have 48 hours to write, shoot and edit their film.

2 Which explains, at least in part, why I’m a rambling fool.

3 the kind of thing you need to test out first to prevent unhappy surprises with your students

4 It is what it is. I include it mainly to break up all this text :)

5 I’m thinking you attack visuals first with a simple presentation. Really get into how images reinforce ideas. Audio with sound effects can be done in another project etc. etc. By the time they get to the final project with video they’ll have experience with all the components and putting them together will be a challenge but not the challenge learning all of them at once and putting them together would be.

Killing People with Bronze Axes

Bronze Age Orientation

The “lessons” in the video are funny because they’re true (I think I’m quoting Homer Simpson)-

  • don’t be a pompous ass (period, but especially not when advocating for a major change)

    positive version – Be humble. You don’t know everything and your way is not the only way.

  • don’t make change a threat or tie it to a threat (the tribes with the bronze axes will kill you, the kids won’t learn etc.)

    positive version – Tie the change to positive outcomes for those involved. Focus on how it will improve their life. Why is it worthwhile for them?

  • don’t put down the old ways (and then they’ll throw away your stone axes because they’re rubbish)

    positive version – Honor the past*. Even if you hate the old way, insulting it will tend to increase resistance to change. In education, the focus should be on adding tools and exploring options rather than in taking them away. The bronze shoes and window are also pretty similar to the “must use twitter based podcasts wikis” in class mentality too often seen in EduBlogosphere Land. Tools are tools and each has its place.

This video shows the hypothetical meeting held to discuss changing from stone age technology to bronze age technology.

You’ve got the reluctance you normally see (funny but done in lots of things) but you also see something of the pomposity and threat possible in the “change agent.” It’s easy to end up seeming/being** pompous when you believe your way is clearly superior and you want others to adopt it.

via Merlin Mann on Mac Break Weekly although not suggested as being in any way educational





*honoring the past does not apply to crazy things like the Nazi party, cult membership etc.


**There is a difference – seeming pompous means you’ll still listen to others despite coming across as a know-it-all, being pompous means you won’t listen because in your heart you do believe you know it all. There’s a fine line between advocating for something and becoming a zealot.

Creating a Safe Space: Hacking WP

60% of my teachers have been in our county for less than 3 years (and, most of these newcomers, have never worked with a 1 to 1 initiative). More than 40% of my teachers have put less than 3 years into this vocation. With this in mind, I have created a space, online, for teachers to discuss instruction, vocation, and solutions for our school. I hope it will be a community building experience that gives teachers as much time as they can to the process without having to commit to meetings.

Following the lead of Alan Levine with Tom’s guidance, I started by sketching out my vision. I wanted a place that was password protected and required unique usernames for participation. This site would be a  safe place where teachers could speak their minds in a professional manner. At the same time, I wanted to foster open communication, so anonymous responses would not be an option. I didn’t want a traditional blog format. The U/I needed to be as intuitive as possible, and I wanted meta-data to be presented in a way that encourage conversation. I sketched up two different layouts and solicited some feedback from my faculty.


The overwhelming response was for the second layout. After sifting through themes that mirrored my sketch, I decided on Blue Earth. Then, it was time to edit the Main Index Page to pull posts according to category (instead of arranging posts chronologically). The code is annotated, so feel free to play with it:

Right Click to Download index.txt file

On the right sidebar, I’ve added a section that lists the most recent comments using Get Recent Comments, and I’ve also created a section with the most discussed topics using Most Commented Posts. This will give my faculty an idea of what topics are most engaging at the moment.

On the left sidebar I added a section where I can place featured topics that committees and clubs will use to solicit feedback.  Finally, because the topics cycle through the main page weekly, I wanted the archive to go beyond a general archive based on month. The challenge was figuring out how to sort the posts by week for the first month without having to change the tags or code each week. I tried to find a plugin that would do this for me, but nothing seemed to fit. In the end I was digging through the WordPress Codex and found this little gem:

<?php query_posts(“showposts=3&offset=9″); ?>

Since I am only posting three entries a week, I was able to code the archive on the left by counting back (offsetting) from the most recent set of posts, and I added an archive that sorted by category along with the traditional monthly archive.

In an effort to model open communication, I added a FAQ and a Feedback page along the header so my staff could participate in the evolution of this site.  Finally, I had to remove the rss/atom feeds from the site to seal up the blog.  Being a fearless hack (who always backs up data/copies code into a NotePad or TextMate/saves the original theme in a folder on my hard drive) I simply found the rss and atom php files in the wordpress folder and deleted them.  Yes, I deleted them.  Refreshing the page (and expecting the white-screen fatal error message of doom), I was pleasantly surprised that everything worked fine.  I tested my hack by trying to subscribe with Google Reader and NewsFire, but was stone-walled.  

Below you will find a list of the plugins I used and links to helpful resources. Again, Alan’s walk-through was an unbelievably helpful starting point (Thanks, Allen). I’m going to leave the demo site open for your exploration (with commenting turned off). I’ve ported the site to a secure location for my staff, but I’d be happy to update you on how it is being used.


Angsuman’s Authenticated WordPress Plugin (password protect with unique passwords)
Brian’s Threaded Comments (threaded discussions)
Dagon Design Import Users (bulk user creator)
Exec-PHP (used for querying the database for specific posts, images, categories)
FAQ-tastic (FAQ creator–very user friendly)
Get Recent Comments (pulls the most recent comments on your blog–can be adapted very easily)
Secure and Accessible PHP Contact Form (Feedback Form)
Smart Archives (Archives by Month and Subject/Category)
The Excerpt Reloaded (Excerpt Generator)
Most Commented Posts (Tracks the most discussed posts) 

Technology Mistakes

This question on the MACUL Ning space got me thinking (you may be wondering why I’m part of a Michigan edtech group when I live in VA- answer Ben Rimes).

As a School Board Trustee in Lapeer Community Schools(6500 students) I am very excited about passing our first Bond in 34 years!!! With the passage were looking at $6,000,000 for technology. The big question now is…where do we spend the money and how do we get the biggest bang for our taxpayers hard earned dollars. Certainly we are involving the teachers, administration, students,etc…but I dont want to just dump computers and white boards in every class only to see them sitting in the corner not being used. Has anyone observed mistakes when purchasing technology, or have any success stories about implementing teachnology in their schools?

So here’s my two cents based on my experience in Henrico county with our 1 to 1. It’s not exactly coherent or ordered but I think there’s some truth in there. Am I missing things? Too paranoid? Plain wrong?

I think these concepts seem to get left behind or only partially implemented far too often.

1. Staff development- this isn’t just how to use the computer/white board etc. (although that is important) the focus should be on why you’d want to use it, ways to use it and then time to create resources/lesson plans with it. Administrators need to have training in how to implement the change, how to support the change, and how to assess the change. Teachers need to look at the their teaching and think about what should/should not change. This can’t be a one time thing or something that’s front loaded- staffdev has to be continual and constant. Teachers need to keep reassessing and being given opportunities to grow.

The big plan has to include goals for the initiative. You’ve spent all this money. What did it get you? How are you going to measure progress? Is it based on test scores, student engagement, decreased drop out rates, qualitative survey data, a combination of all those? If you don’t have this critics in the community will pick you apart. It doesn’t take many to do this, they just have to be loud.

How will the technology be supported in the schools? Do you have on site tech support? What about integration support? In my county in VA we have dedicated instructional technology resource teachers who don’t teach classes. They focus on helping teachers use technology in ways that impact learning. That’s one way to do it.

Another way, which appeals to me more in certain ways, is to set up lead teachers in schools. Give them the technology first and let them run with it. They should have reduced schedules (stipends?) and as the technology is phased in for others, they’d then help them with both technology and pedagogy. You have to be careful though, because this is a big task for the lead teachers so something large needs to be taken off their plate.

2. Community education- If you don’t keep the community on your side it’s easy for a few minor issues to be blown out of proportion. Keep talking to the parents. Offer them training. Get them to see the good that you’re doing. PR is absolutely key for a technology initiative.

3. Sharing- So you’ve got all these teachers doing great things in their classrooms, maybe a whole school is doing amazing things- how are they going to share their successes with others? Why should they bother? Thinking about ways to make sure great ideas/lessons etc. are shared is really important and often not done at all. That infrastructure and incentives to use it should be set up early. Get master teachers creating a variety of resources before the technology gets in everyone’s hands. Then make sure everyone knows where to get those resources and give them incentives to make more.