Are You All In For Innovation?

Are You “All In!” for Innovation?

June 28, 2012
By cbirk

“How was ISTE?”

I think that this will be the most commonly asked question that will be asked of each of us who attended the mind-blowing stimulus rush known as ISTE in San Diego this past week. But for any new people to this conference (myself included), I am wondering if some of the more common answers will be:

”I’ll have to get back to you.”, or

”I don’t really know, actually.”

For me, the International Symposium on Tech Education was a dazzling array of creativity, commercialism, chaos, conversation, collaboration, connectedness, comedy, and yes, karaoke packed into three and a half days. To try and put into words what I learned for someone who has never been to ISTE is difficult, and I know that it will take several days for me to unpack my notes and thoughts into some cogent semblance of a summary. I know that I did find an odd sense of kinship with the 15000 people who were there to find new and innovative ways to make learning come alive in their own educational situation. But as I sit here on the plane home, my thoughts are still vacillating somewhere in between apps and appies.

In one of our many conversations on the trip, Blake Buemann (our Learning Coach, follow him on Twitter @edubuemann — he’s got it going on) and I started discussing innovation. We were both astounded at the amazing ideas, presentations, apps, and structures that had been put in place by educators who were, well, just like us. Normal people. Of course they were passionate, dynamic, and tech savvy–those were givens. But in each of the stories that they told, we repeatedly heard a distinct commonality: each of them was required to take a significant set of risks. And perhaps moreover, they were given the license and the support to take those risks by those in leadership positions.

Everyone wants innovation. They want their organization to be a lexicon in the education world. They want their districts to be on the leading edge. They want their schools to be frontrunners, their classrooms to be exemplary, and their teachers to be pioneers. And ultimately, they want their students to be the benefactors of a rich and meaningful learning environment that empowers the students to themselves become future innovators.

But ask yourself, how much do you REALLY want innovation? As a leader in your classroom, school or district, do your actions support innovation? Ultimately, are you willing to take the risks that are REQUIRED for innovation?

I would contend that as much as people SAY they want innovation, their actions dictate that what they want is innovation………..without risk. Or at least with very minimal risk.

Unfortunately, the simple truth is that there is NO SUCH THING as innovation without risk. And sometimes a lot of risk.

Linking these two points together, one can draw the conclusion that as much as we SAY we want innovation, we may not want it as much as we think.

In my opinion, if we want innovation, we need to be well aware that we may be faced with:

1. Financial Risk- While not absolute, innovation rarely comes for free. Are we prepared to put in the required infrastructure, staffing, training and equipment that this innovation requires, especially if we want to make it scalable.

2. Logistical Risk- Sometimes an innovation requires us to look at the frameworks that exist in our schools and change them. But sometimes, when we innovate, we are not sure what we need to change them TO, we just know that we can’t do things the way we did them before. Plain and simple, this means that it could get messy in a big hurry. Are we willing to breathe through the hiccups, expect and embrace the chaos, and not revert back to what we know doesn’t work well when the going gets tough? Are we willing to adapt on the fly, admit that it didn’t go so well, but keep moving towrds are target? Are we willing to develop the emotional body armour that will protect us from those who want to (and will) say “I told you it wouldn’t work!”

3. Emotional Risk- Innovation could mean that we may be doing something that we have done before, but differently. It could mean that we need to do something completely new altogether. Or perhaps even more challenging, an innovation may force us to STOP doing something. Are we prepared for the emotional response that WILL come back at us, without fail? Are we willing to ride out the huge ups and downs that will inevitably happen? Are we willing to walk in a zig zag down the hallway so that the arrows don’t hit the target on our backs?

While I am sure that there are many others, I think about these risks and the support that I need to provide to people that want to innovate to meet the mission of our school. Yes, financial. Yes, logistical. Yes, emotional. But the most important support that I can give is not bringing my saw to the end of the plank.

Innovators need to know that their leaders have their back. As a school leader, I cannot put an innovative staff member in a position where they feel like they are walking the plank; I can’t be the Captain standing on the ship with my saw at the ready to cut the plank from underneath them when the sharks are circling. Once I have committed to the idea of the innovation, I need to throw my chips on the table and say “I’m all in!”.

So how do we get more leaders to throw their chips on the table when it may appear that they have an unsuited 8 and 2 in their poker hand (a lousy set of cards in Texas Hold ‘Em, for those who are not familiar)?

As a school leader, I think there are a few ways that an innovator can help me to say “I’m all in!”:

1. Come with a clear vision of what will be achieved by the innovation and how it fits in with our vision of improving learning.

2. Come with the rationale and research that shows that the desired result of the innovation is something that is going to benefit learning.

3. Come with an idea of who needs to be involved, who might be assets, where the potholes might be, where adversity may come from, what the contingencies could be if things go sideways, what the check points are, and what the indicators and measurements will be of progress and success so that our progress can be informed. This will not be a complete list, and it will change constantly, but you should have a good idea.

4. Come prepared for as many questions as it takes for me to develop an understanding of what it is that we are going to be doing, and don’t be offended by my questions. If I have questions, others will too. I need to understand so that when I get asked why I am supporting this, I can clearly articulate my position.

5. Come with passion and conviction, and with a track record of persevering in the face of adversity. Come in with a motor that doesn’t stop running for your project. If I’m in for a penny, I want you to be in for a pound.

6. When things are going well, tell me. When things are not going well, tell me. It’s ok, I am a partner in this as well, and if we need to change direction, I need to know about it. Be honest. If we are going in the wrong direction, let’s stop riding a horse that is laying dead on the ground. We pick up and retool what we are doing. If it was important enough to start, we need to see it through as far as we can. There is no failure unless we quit.

At ISTE, I saw many innovative people who were willing to take risks to make things better for their own learning situation and, in many ways, all of our learning situations. It is a fallacy to believe that innovation happens without risk. Innovation always involves risk, but risks can be mimized by doing the appropriate planning and having the support of from leaders. Not so much planning that it stifles the creative process, but more than enough to make sure that leaders are “All in!” for innovation.

My plane is about to land! Yawn.

Original article

5 Useful iPad Apps For Any Classroom

Saturday, September 8, 2012 1:45 pm, Posted by

5 Useful iPad Apps For Any Classroom


Tablets are poised to become one of the most revolutionary education tools in a generation. They have streamlined various aspects of education in such a way that we couldn’t imagine just ten years ago, causing many parents and educators to reevaluate the old textbook and notepad standards.

Children and college students alike respond to the interactivity of learning material on tablets in the form of free and modestly priced educational apps. The iPad in particular has many engaging and informative apps for those who want to incorporate tablet usage into their lesson plan. Here are 5 of my favorites.


Letterschool is a visually stunning iPad app designed to make children familiar with letters and words. The app encourages children to draw and sound out letters through fun minigames meant to give them confidence in their ability to recognize and utilize the alphabet.

For instance, you can draw out a giant letter ‘R’ by following the outline of the letter as set by a curvy set of railroad tracks (‘R’ for railroad!). In addition to alphabet and phonics education, Letterschool will help a child to write out their own name so they can start to master their personal handwriting skills.


MathBoard is the iPhone app for the math classes. The interface of the app is designed to look like an old school chalkboard from back in the day where children are encouraged to work out countless math formulas in basic arithmetic.

The math problems on MathBoard range widely in difficulty from basic addition to fairly complex division and multiplication. The app is endlessly customizable, allowing teachers to design large and small math quizzes (with or without time limits) of varying difficulty.

This is a great app for students who might be intimidated by traditional teaching methods in arithmetic!

Stack the Countries

At a slightly more advanced level is the app Stack the Countries which puts an entertaining spin on geography by streamlining the process of identifying all the world’s countries.

The app mixes teaching methods in order to achieve its goal: at first students will be subject to a multitude of flashcard exercises familiarizing them with various countries, and then they’ll be quizzed to “stack the countries” in their geographical location.

More than basic geography, this app will also teach students about capitals, country flags, known landmarks, and cultural trivia.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy may be one of the most important educational apps for the iPad if only for its diversity and quality of content. Students and educators alike will be stunned at the length and breadth of material offered on this app, as it has lessons on everything from astronomy to geometry to U.S. history lessons.

As a free app, there’s no reason why any student or teacher would pass up an opportunity to add this learning tool to their educational arsenal.


The TED organization has become famous for streaming their engrossing TED Talks on their website for free. TED Talks are educational, inspirational, and above all motivational speeches given by prominent figures in their fields about any one subject.

The TED iPad app allows a the user to stream all available TED Talks for free, so they can watch a moving lecture in microbiology or nutrition or fashion design for only the click of the button.

The app is a worthwhile download for educators and students looking for an uplifting lecture.

This guest post is contributed by Angelita Williams, who writes on the topics of online courses. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: angelita.williams7

Democracy in the Classroom

Democracy in the Classroom

Erin Scholes

Recently, the MiddleTalk listserve was abuzz with a discussion about the nine most dangerous things taught at school as outlined in Forbes magazine. Number 3 on the Forbes list of dangerous things is “The best and brightest follow the rules.”

Liking the idea of allowing our students to challenge “the rules,” for my eighth grade U.S. history class, I instituted a democratic classroom, which has worked in extraordinary ways this year.

We began the year by setting classroom expectations as a class. I gave the students two words, respect and responsibility, and asked them to come up with a definition for each word and what it would look and sound like in our classroom. Then we looked at the state standards and determined what it was we were supposed to learn this year.

I then gave the students a choice. We could go through the content chronologically throughout the year or use thematic units. The students chose thematic units. As we moved through the year, I offered lots of choices and asked the students how they would like to learn about things. I usually had a few options in mind but was flexible and willing to alter the ideas based on students’ thoughts. We were very democratic about decision making in that the big decisions went to a vote. This led to some great discussions.

For example, there was an end-of-quarter project that some students didn’t do well on. This affected their final grade, so a group of them asked if we could move the project grade to the beginning of the next quarter. There was a lot of discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of both options.

Some students brought up the point that it would be much more difficult to bring up a grade in the next quarter. Others reminded the class that they had been expecting it to be on that quarter’s report card, and that they had a rubric to follow, so it wasn’t that expectations were not clear. In the end the class voted and chose to leave the grade in the original quarter.

As another example, some of my students didn’t feel ready for our Constitution test, so they wrote and signed a petition to postpone the test, with an alternate activity of using the class period to study. To help illustrate what we had learned about the democratic process, I vetoed the petition. The students knew they needed a 2/3 majority vote to over-ride the veto—and they got it! The students then took it upon themselves to lead small study groups and games to continue to prepare for the test.

Erin Scholes teaches social studies at Mabelle B. Avery Middle School in Somers, Connecticut. E-mail:

Original article