Why Google Forms? Because Legends Never Die

Google forms isn’t a new tool. Not even close. But that doesn’t matter.

A good tool is a good tool (particularly if your school has embraced Google). Particularly a tool that has an ease of use (both for students and teachers), is highly flexible, and can be used on any device.

But, the fact that this tool has been around a while doesn’t mean it’s the same tool it was back in 2010. File uploads and different kinds of gridded responses are among the latest updates.

Plus, adding Equatio to Chrome will make adding math notation much easier, too.

So, give Episode 10 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” a watch and remember Google Forms the next time you need to gather input from your students.



Kids love videos… right?

Kids love videos, right? Students enter into this multimedia experience where they… sit and watch. And often do nothing.

I’ve seen a number of big box math curricula that are clearly trying to address their predictable and uninspiring math curricula by offering VIDEOS where some puppet or animated character presents the math.

I’ve had the same reservations about the #FlipClass movement which traditionally makes heavy use of the video as a teaching tool. And I have the same problem with all of them: Very often, the students simply aren’t active participants in the presentation and thus aren’t learning nearly as well as they could be. (Derek Muller discusses this same point here…)

If we want the video to provide any tangible improvement over live presentations, we need to use the video to engage students in ways that live presentations can’t.

That’s where I think tools like EdPuzzle could be powerful. Check out Episode #9 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” up above. I like the potential of EdPuzzle (like I liked Zaption before it.) I agree that videos can be very effective tools. I’ve recommended them on many occasions (See Speedometer Problem, Pencil Sharpener Problem, or Dan Meyer’s Magic Octagon as examples.)

But videos aren’t an absolute good. And tools like EdPuzzle can help take the potential learning of videos and convert it to more kinetic learning.

The Cure for the Common Slideshow

I love slide shows. I do. They’re, like, the biggest mystery tool going. No tool has such a wide range of quality of use.  I’ve actually seen some folks do some wonderful things with it. And I’ve seen some simply terrible slide show presentations.

It’s remarkable how little thought people put into the experience of their learners when they design their slides. So, that’s the key question with any presentation: What should the learners be doing while you are presenting? What should they be learning? Feeling? Experiencing?

Boredom is almost ALWAYS not a goal, I would expect. The key is giving the listeners / learners / audience something to DO while you present. Google had added a built-in “audience needs to do something” module to their slides application. Check out the video above.

I mean, it could be argued that there are times when a slideshow is appropriate. (Although there should be other options explored.) But they don’t have to be passive and boring. Check out the video above to see what Google has done to support better slideshows.

Forget your teaching for a minute – What are the STUDENTS doing?

For a moment, I want to reframe the conversation about instruction. Suppose you’ve got a bit of content the students need to learn. Often, teachers think, “How do I need to teach this?” This a fine question, but I’d like to suggest, perhaps, a better one.

What should the students be doing to learn this bit of content? (You see the difference?)

Episode #7 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” shares Nearpod, which is a tool that gives teachers options and puts them in a position to ask the question “What should my students be doing to learn this?” (Nearpod isn’t the only such tool. It’s just a nice choice that is free, device-agnostic and pretty easy to use.)

A while back, the National Institute of Health published a paper discussing some of the pros and cons of “Wired” Children –That is, children who have a lot of screen and device time.

This matters to education. Our classrooms are becoming increasingly wired. And while the conclusions in the article are definitely not conclusive, a few trends bubble to the top and one of them is simple:

With tech, thought energy is best spent focusing on what the young people are DOING with the tech rather than the form of the tech itself. Chromebooks vs. iPad, Google vs. Microsoft, Kahoot vs. Quizizz… these are the wrong questions. Rather, ask: What should the students be DOING with the tech to maximize learning?

It reminds me of some advice a dietician gave me once. She rhetorically asked me, “What’s the best diet?” And then, after a pause, she answered “The one you’ll stick with.”

This is a similar thought process to the explicit instruction vs. inquiry debate that I’ve discussed several times before. It’s the wrong approach to consider which of those teaching methods is “better.” What are the students doing?

If you’re inquiry exploration has the students spinning their wheels, you may need to explicitly instruct them. If your explicit instruction turns your students into a passive audience, then they need to explore some stuff. Some content is tough and they won’t be able to explore it very well without some instruction. But lectures are boring, so the students need to be active participants in the explicit instruction. (And no… taking notes doesn’t count.)

Nearpod is one tool that gives you options. It can add explicit instruction to inquiry explorations. OR, if you’d prefer, it adds explorations into direct instruction.

Either way, it is a tool that gives you a chance to answer the question: In order to maximize the learning in during this time, what should the students be doing?

“They’re just playing…”

I was recently listening to a conference session by Katie Sellstrom. During the talk, she made a statement that was so simple, it was brilliant. And needs to be repeated. It paraphrases like this: “Yeah, I mean, okay. Maybe you’re only taking this kind of data because the law requires you to. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make the experience awesome for your students.”

Katie was speaking of in-class assessments and formative data and MTSS structures and stuff like that. The stuff that plays into what a lot of people are lamenting about the modern state of education. Education is currently a world of standards, learning targets, data goals, and accountability. I think those are good things. I think that schools should be expected to do a good job growing every single kid in their school. And if they are doing a good job for every kid, they shouldn’t be offended by being asked to prove it. And if they can’t prove it (either because they aren’t keeping track, or because they aren’t doing a good job growing each kid), we shouldn’t be okay with that.

But, we can’t lose sight of what drives change. The ultimate goal is for all students to achieve at a high level. Not simply to do their best, but to change their best and then do the brand new best. And in order to do that, it should be a foregone conclusion that we need the students to come to school. Everyday. All year. Every year. And not simply because the law makes them.

Side note: the data on the negative effects of dropping out are intense and not in dispute and yet, in light of that, many kids see it as a reasonable choice compared to coming to school. So, it should satisfy NO ONE that we have to require kids by law to come to our classrooms. Why aren’t they flocking to them by choice?

Well, for one thing, when the accountability systems started tightening the screws on everyone, many schools (particularly those who need the most growth) decided it was time to buckle down and get to work. #NoMoreFoolinAround Which is completely understandable, but…

… it seemed to often come with a corresponding reduction in the stuff that makes the classroom environment enjoyable. And the concern over that isn’t simply fluffy “kids-should-be-kids, shouldn’t children be happy?” stuff. Not at all. It’s economic. We need those young people to come to school. Enthusiastically, if possible, so that our systems can help them grow. If the learning environment is regularly uninspiring, then we are going to lose our target audience. And everyone loses if that happens.

So, what to do? Well, perhaps we could consider designing academically-meaningful tasks that were also enjoyable. Tools like Desmos, Formative and EdPuzzle (among others) help a lot in creating flexibility in lesson design that can bring a variety of potentially enjoyable elements into core activities. But beyond that, take a look at the two pictures above at the top of this post.

Here, I’ll show you one more.


I visted this school in the midst of their “Oral Language Groups.”

It was collaborative play time. (That doesn’t look as good on a master schedule). But it isn’t “just play time.” First things first, the students were all actively engaged. Secondly, about 90% of them were collaborating actively with a classmate. Third, they weren’t all doing the same thing. The students could pick which group they wanted to be at. And fourth, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Behavior issues were low. Students wanting to brag about their work was high. So, can it be aligned to anything? (This is an important question. All activities should fit in with the broader goals.)

Common Core ELA: 

CCRA.SL.1 – Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasive; CCRA.SL.6 – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks…

Common Core Math:

SMP3 – Construct viable argument and critique the reasoning of others, SMP5 – Use appropriate tools strategically, SMP6 – Attend to precision

Next Gen Science Practice Standards

Planning and Carrying out investigations, Analyzing and interpreting data, Using mathematical and computational thinking, Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Some of those are a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. Strategic play time isn’t “just” play time. Just like maker space time isn’t “just” maker space time. These environments can be built to create academically supportive learning experiences.

Notice: “can be built”… it requires strategic design to make it valuable. So, here are some thoughts I have about how to take “just” play time and make it meaningful.

  1. Have a goal for your students during your play/maker time. What type of learning are you trying to get? Do you want the students to collaborate? Communicate? What do you expect that to look like in this type of setting? How do you intend to communicate those expectations to your students?
  2. Don’t let your goal be an excuse for reducing student autonomy. This isn’t a cookbook chemistry lab. This is play time. And many of the growth pieces that you are hoping for with your students are cut out when you start micromanaging the play. Skenazy and Haidt put it this way: “Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood. In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.”
  3. Take data during the play time. The students are playing. You are not. Your job is to figure out if this thing is working toward your goal. So, decide what data you are going to take. Take it. And monitor their progress. Remember, data isn’t always quantitative.
  4. Have the students reflect a bit. Having a bit off a “show-off something cool” time will give the groups a chance to describe to the class what they made, tell a story about it, and gather ideas for next time while listening to the others.
  5. Be reasonable about how much time you have to devote to play/maker time. It’s possible that given the “have-to’s” of your situation, you can only make this work out once per week. That’s okay. Do the best you can. But please, please… whatever you do… please. Don’t turn this into a reward for learning fast. Planning these in as a reward for behaving and passing assessments sends the exact wrong message and sends that message to the group of students most likely to benefit from the play/maker time. (The message: You struggle in school, so you don’t get to have fun. Stop struggling, then we’ll let you have fun.)

Rushton Hurley says “it isn’t our job to entertain the kids, but if we do our jobs in an entertaining way, then they are much more likely to come along for the ride.” I endorse that message, because them coming along for the ride is exactly what we need them to do. Remember, if we are going to grow them, we need them to be in school. Everyday. All year. Every year.

Let’s start thinking about creating the kinds of environments where a young person would voluntarily do that.

Desmos for Not Math

If I were Desmos, I’m not sure how I would feel about this development. Mostly because I think it is potentially huge. And they’ve made their mark on developing the best online math application anywhere around.

So, what happens when an ELA teacher looks to you and decides that your platform is better than anything they have available to them and simply isn’t bothered by the fact that it’s a math app?

Well, naturally, that teacher makes an ELA lesson. And then Desmos becomes an ELA application.

I’m not the first person to think this. I have to credit Julie Reulbach for my first exposure to this idea. But, I’d like to submit for consideration a custom Desmos activity I call “The Letter K” inspired by my kindergarten son’s handwriting. (If you want your kindergartener to play, you can see the class code. Go to student.desmos.com and enter “JCFES”.)


This isn’t a stretch. It’s very, very doable. So much so, that in a position like mine, it’s time to stop talk about “this great math app that I know of” and start talking about “this awesome platform I know for building great teaching-and-learning activities.”

Because that’s what it is.

Proofs (and writing) are difficult

The moment I started to have success helping student really learn how to write proof in geometry was the moment I realized that”The Proof” is nothing more than a persuasive essay converted to math class. It’s disciplinary literacy. And thinking of them as mathy-style essays can help us isolate some of the reasons the students struggle with proof in general. My experience leads me to think that many of the struggles are the same the ones the students experience with writing outside of math class. They don’t understand the structure, they don’t appreciate the value of honoring their target audience, and they don’t understand the content well enough.

Luckily for us, the ELA department has often hit those three points really hard. As math teachers, we just need to help the students bridge the gap.

What’s the structure to an essay? Thesis, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. Or, in math, “Given angle a is congruent to b, I’ll prove that segment a is congruent to segment b. Here’s the evidence I’m using to support my claim. And here’s what I just proved.”

Who’s the target audience? In math, it’s often either someone who doesn’t understand or someone who disagrees with you. That explains why you need to back up each statement with theorem, definition, or previously proven statement. Take nothing for granted or you’ll lose your reader.

And as for content? Well, have you ever read an essay from someone who plain ol’ doesn’t know what they are talking about? The best structure in the world isn’t going to save them if they can’t define the words they are trying to use.

So, when it comes to proof-writing, I think we math teachers need to appreciate that “writing” really is at the core of it, and the better we make that connection explicit to our proof-learning students, the more likely they are to be successful. And perhaps there’s a role for some meaning collaboration between high school math and ELA departments.

And with that, enjoy the latest “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” discussing, of all things, writing.