Professional Learning Can Be ‘Squirrelly’ Business

*3D printed squirrels used as part of the professional learning lesson

Guiding Questions

Recently, I was asked to ponder the following questions:

  • What is an example of professional development that has worked for you? 
  • What is an example of professional development that has not worked for you?
  • What does research say about planning professional learning?

The first two questions are relatively easy to answer as they bring to mind all sorts of examples as I’ve experience a lot of professional learning over my 20-year career in education.  Reflecting on what the research says about planning professional learning requires some more thought, reflection, reading, and research.  There’s a lot written about professional learning and sorting through any of it takes time.  All three are guiding questions are applicable to the following essential question and relevant ISTE Coaching Standard:

  • How should we plan professional development that utilizes educational technology?

ISTE Coaching Standard 5

Professional Learning Facilitator: Coaches plan, provide and evaluate the impact of professional learning for educators and leaders to use technology to advance teaching and learning.

Good Professional Learning

The vast majority of what makes professional learning high quality applies to trainings whether they are focused on educational technology or not.  In fact, focusing in on cutting edge, advanced, or complicated technology as part of a professional learning example often distracts from the more general topic of good professional learning.  Since good professional learning is good professional learning whether technology focused or not, the guiding questions really kept bringing me back to particular low-tech professional learning experience that I had.  It was one of the best that I led as an instructional coach because of some very unique circumstances, and I think the lessons that I learned apply to all professional learning whether low tech, high tech, or even no tech.

Professional Learning Literature

I read several different articles published by Edsurge and Edutopia while pondering questions I was given to consider.  There were several things in common across what I read in terms of how best to improve professional learning opportunities for teachers.  A major theme was making sure that training is relevant whether by surveying in advance, careful observation, addressing known needs, and/or personalizing training.  Another theme was providing teachers with choice, which could be general choice of learning topics or differentiation within a specific topic.  Surveying teachers in advance can help in both cases. These things can help ensure that training is engaging and even interactive which was another theme.  Finally, being respectful of teachers’ time also reflects in all the themes as well as treating teachers like professionals and having the professional learning presented by someone who understands their experiences.  Even the advice mentioned only once across the four articles seemed like sound options to keep in mind: sustained over time, utilize protocols, include extension activities, acknowledge teachers’ well-being, and be transparent. Additionally, all of this advice seems to apply equally well to regular teacher professional learning as well as technology-specific professional learning.

A Nutty Example with Some Squirrelly Activities

As mentioned earlier, low-tech professional learning approaches can teach us a lot about professional learning focused on educational technology.  One example that stands out in my mind given the original guiding questions, is a low-tech STEM training that was arguably the most successful professional learning that I led as an instructional coach.  While there was definitely room for improvement, the experienced utilized a significant number of the professional learning recommendations already listed.  The training itself was one that I was asked to recreate a number of times for different audiences, and the lessons that I learned from leading this training are ones that I applied later across a variety of technology-intensive trainings. Essentially, the training was an introduction to the engineering design process from Next Generation Science Standards utilizing a limited number of common items as the “technology” in a design challenge designed to work in tandem with a picture book called “Those Darn Squirrels”.  There are a lot of different ways to outline the details of the training.  I think the most helpful might be using the five professional learning recommendations from “5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves” by Karen Johnson.

Relevant: Each teacher received a copy of the book “Those Darn Squirrels” by Adam Rubin. I devised a lesson series that would take advantage of the “Those Darn Squirrels” book that each staff member received.  The premise was a vehicle for introducing the new NGSS engineering standards. 

Interactive: After introducing the standards and reading the book, teachers took the role of the squirrels and had to use a Ziploc bag full of everyday objects to design a squirrel launcher to help the squirrels.  The constraints were that they could only use the materials in the bag and they only had so much time.  The success criteria focused simply on the distance launched.  I’ve rarely seen staff get so into an activity before. They designed feverishly and were very competitive while thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Delivered by Someone Who Understands Their Experience: I had recently transition out of the classroom into the role of instructional coach.  I was excited because I was going to run my first Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) professional development (PD) training for the building and I wanted to have a “door prize” for the staff since it was an optional workshop day. My colleagues saw me as one of them and knew that I was familiar with the overall context of the myriad of challenges that they faced.

Sustained Over Time: The follow-up involved taking this mini-lesson with the staff and mirroring it through a series of lessons in each classroom 3rd-6thgrade at my school.  The result was one of the most successful lesson series that I’ve ever taught because teachers had already experienced the professional learning side of things and were able to apply their learning in the classroom by co-teaching alongside their instructor (me).

Treats Teachers Like Professionals: This one was extremely important to me then as I’d recently exited the classroom.  This is still as if not more important to me now.  I strongly believe that one of the biggest issues facing education in our country is that teachers are not given credit for the level of professionalism required on the job and the amount of respect they deserve for what is an incredibly hard, stressful, and challenging profession.

Final Thought

Again, all of the professional learning approaches applied in this low-tech setting are every bit as relevant, and perhaps even more so, to a high-tech focused training.  Good teaching is good teaching is good teaching. The same goes for professional learning, and it’s important that we keep that in mind for our teachers and ourselves.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. The Next Generation Science Standards for States by States. (2013). Home Page. Next Generation Science Standards. Retrieved from 
  3. Johnson, K. (2016, June 28). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves. EdSurge. Retrieved from
  4. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from
  5. Lewis, V. (2015, October 25). Why Most Professional Development Stinks—and How You Can Make It Better. Edsurge. Retrieved from
  6. Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2018, October 30). The Importance of Choice in PD. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  7. Mancinelli, D. (2020, September 16). 6 Things to Consider When Planning Professional Development. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Coaching the Coaches

Peer-Ed, 2018. Dr. Les Foltos.

Peer coaching in the teaching profession is a humbling job. Whether part-time or full-time, a peer coach’s job is to help his or her colleagues improve their practice. In his book, “Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration”, Dr. Les Foltos speaks to the critical role that a peer coach can play in a fellow teacher’s practice, “This process of observation and reflection is the most effective form of formative assessment for educators. It is their key to life-long learning.” Given that a teacher’s practice is as much personal as professional, a peer coach’s job is to take this into full consideration while helping the observed colleague to reflect, ask questions, and improve upon his or her practice. On an annual basis, this is the fall focus of the Digital Educational Leadership (DEL) program at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) where Dr. Les Foltos and Dr. David Wicks coach a cohort of instructional coaches on the delicate art and science of peer coaching.

Essential Question

How does an educational professional take pedagogical and andragogical instructional theory related to peer coaching and practically apply this in practice with a colleague?

Coaching a Colleague

The overarching task of peer coaches in the SPU DEL program is partnering with a peer to practice applied coaching skills and strategies. One of the first things to consider are the various roles and approaches that a peer coach can take on: facilitator, collaborator, expert, and catalyst. There are times for each, however, a 1-on-1 focus lends itself well to collaboration. If the interaction were more of a large-group instructional setting then facilitator may have been the best option, whereas more of a one-time consulting-type interaction may have meant an expert approach. Growing into relationship over time can result in a catalyst role, however, this generally takes time and a significant level of relational capacity. With all of this in mind, my approach to working with a colleague was to focus on the role of collaborator so that we could grow our peer coaching relationship together. Our initial meeting focused on getting to know each other with relation to this task, agreeing upon relational norms of interaction, and setting goals for our time together. This naturally led into and supported the rest of our peer coaching work together.

Planning Together

After our initial introductory meeting, my peer coaching colleague and I arranged a follow-up meeting to focus on a possible lesson together. We looked at a relatively new project that covered six hours of professional development learning for teachers. This presented a good opportunity to practice all of the critical skills that Dr. Foltos describes as essential to successful peer coaching, “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design. Remove any leg and coaching could fail.” The skills of communication and collaboration were critical in our first session as well as leading into the planning session. My job was to actively listen and verify understanding through listening strategies such as paraphrasing and summary. Once my peer coaching partner verified mutual understanding then we could focus on the collaborative act of lesson planning together. Given that the lesson instruction focused around online teaching, information and communication technology skills became a critical part of the process by the very nature of the instructional context. We maintained the focus on the learning first and foremost, and then explored a variety of technology tools to support this process. Lastly, the third facet of lesson design was certainly part of the process from beginning to end. We approached lesson design based on the collaborating teacher’s experience, and kept this in mind as this would drive a lot of the reflection process.

Reflecting as a Team

The lesson reflection process centered around the Learning Design Matrix referenced and featured in Dr. Foltos’s peer coaching book. The matrix serves as the feature image of this blog post, and, as you can see, the focus of the four quadrants is on standards-based tasks, engaging tasks, problem-based tasks, and technology enables and accelerates learning. Fortunate enough to have established a positive rapport, my peer coaching partner and I were able to review the lesson of focus through the lens of all four quadrants from the Learning Design Matrix. Through the standards-based lens, we were able to look more closely at the learning targets. While the selected standards seemed well aligned, we were able to brainstorm ways to make them more explicit for learners. Engaging tasks take on a new dimension when learning online, so we looked at ways to build more interaction among participants. By keeping breakout group members consistent, we discussed how this would likely lead to more relational engagement by participants which would help increase task engagement. The lesson contained several problem-based tasks. What seemed missing, though, were ways to empower participants to better support each other so we brainstormed ongoing discussion board ideas. Lastly, we looked at technology–something that’s pervasive throughout online learning but can also become a distraction or impediment to application as a result. With this in mind, we looked at how technology could better support interaction and looked at learning tools that better support the human element of learning. The overarching coaching and reflection discussion had both breadth and depth as we explored numerous applications across the entire Learning Design Matrix for iterating upon the existing lesson design for future instructional improvements and implementation.

Next Steps

The act of learning about peer coaching became real through the practical applications of these lessons learned under the guidance of Dr. Foltos and Dr. Wicks. These theoretical lessons offered many possibilities for practice, while the application offered real-life examples. My personal goal is to continue to improve upon my utilization of these applied skills as well as to continue my overall study of peer coaching skills and strategies. As a lifelong learner, I realize this is a lifelong process where the process is the journey and the destination is an ever-moving target of growth where one never truly “arrives”.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Les Foltos. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration.
  3. Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek.

Integrating Social Justice and STEM Pedagogy

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

As educators, we are constantly searching for new ways to meaningfully engage our students. Amidst a wave of requirements, numerous standards, and unforeseen circumstances, it is easy to get lost in the overwhelming list of “have to’s” forced on us. So much so that when students ask the inevitable “why are we learning this” question, it is tempting to default to the “because I said so” answer. This response is both well known and disappointing to students while also feeling empty and unsatisfactory to the adult providing the answer. We want to be better than this, we want our students to care about their learning, and we want the education we provide to be relevant. One meaningful way to approach this conundrum amidst the chaos is to look to social justice issues and ways that that they overlap with STEM. The intersection of these two pedagogical paradigms engages a wide variety of students, provides relevant learning opportunities, and all while potentially addressing a wide swatch of standards.

Why Social Justice?

If we as educators don’t start the conversation and work against the inherent injustices within the framework of systems that we and our students function then who will? When it comes to wealth, opportunities, and societal privileges, kids don’t get to choose these things. If our job is to truly prepare our students for their futures then our job is also to prepare students to change those futures for the better as well. Students are always asking why?  And, rightfully so.  When students see that they can help others and improve the world around them in a concrete way then that answers their why at a visceral level.


Ensuring diversity of representation as we prepare all students for a future that doesn’t exist yet is important, and that future will be heavily dependent upon STEM understanding and applications. Someone who is “STEM literate” understands this and can apply that working knowledge in a variety of contexts and real-world situations. Overall, we need STEM literate workers to fill the employment gap while simultaneously addressing the wage gap. Just as important, we need STEM literate citizens that understand the consequences of their vote on issues such as climate change and genetic modification.

Why the Combination of Social Justice and STEM?

Social Justice is a collective effort toward addressing many of the issues facing society and STEM provides a way to address many of these challenges in new, unique, and innovative ways. Together, Social Justice and STEM can provide an effective platform for identifying, addressing, and even solving a lot of the modern societal issues that exist. STEM education opportunities provide a variety of ways to magnify student voice which is critical to empowering students’ ability to effect change on social justice issues. Ironically, a major issue of inequity centers around underrepresented populations in STEM fields. This in and of itself is a social justice issue.  These same populations are inherently interested in solving social justice issues so when STEM is introduced in this manner then the diversity of interest in STEM education increases.

What Does Combining Social Justice and STEM Look Like?

Combining Social Justice and STEM in education can take on a variety of forms. Social Justice issues can be big problems that occur at a state, national, or even global level.  The same is true for STEM issues.  One example would be the climate crisis and the social impact that this has on exacerbating equity issues across society.  A solution this combined issue would be one example. Global problems are often difficult for students to relate to so looking at the local community can help improve relevance, engagement, and understanding.  Food scarcity for local populations within the community may be addressed or even solved by a STEM-based solution. Younger students, and, honestly, students of all ages, may also benefit from looking at age-appropriate social justice issues in their school community.  Is everyone being included at recess regardless of differences?  How can this be addressed?  Is there a STEM-based solution that might help?

How Does One Begin to Go About Combining Social Justice and STEM?

Meaningful and engaging learning opportunities with the “why” built into the activities provide students with relevancy and reason for their learning. Starting with what students know is arguably the easiest way to build on background knowledge when attempting a new idea or approach in the classroom.  School-based solutions have the added advantage of students being able to help their peers and benefit from their solutions.  This could be something as simple as friendship solutions, conflict resolution, and addressing litter. Local community issues allow students to engage with what they know at a broader level.  Making a difference in what may seem like their broader world can also build confidence combined with important civic engagement lessons.  Issues such as retirement community support, homeless shelter needs, and overall safety provide some examples. Global problems provide an opportunity to raise student awareness to a broader level.  Many STEM-based resources allow students to now participate in a broader dialogue.  Looking at problems to evaluate and propose solutions for such as world hunger, education, and basic health needs are just some of the possible examples.

All of these potential problems, topics, and approaches make for potential classroom projects. A guiding pedagogical structure can be very helpful when trying to figure out how to plan for multiple areas of focus within the scope of the overall learning. PBL pedagogies are a great place to start. Select a school of thought such as project-based learning, problem-based learning, place-based learning, or another, and then start small. A great STEM mantra to keep in mind when designing a potential lesson or unit that blends social justice and STEM is to KISS: Keep It Super Simple, learn alongside your students one step at a time, and “be the change you want to see in the world”.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Careless, J.E. (2015). Social Media for Social Justice in Adult Education: A Critical Framework. JOURNAL OF TEACHING AND LEARNING, VOL.10 (NO. 1), pp. 13-26.
  3. Kukulska-Hulme, A., Beirne, E., Conole, G., Costello, E., Coughlan, T., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Holmes, W., Lochlainn, C.M., Mhichíl, M.N.G., Rienties, B., Sargent, J., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Whitelock, D. (2020). Innovative Pedagogy 2020. National Institute for Digital Learning. Retrieved from
  4. Miller, A. (May, 2015). Avoiding Learned Helplessness. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  5. LEXICO. (2020). LEXICO Powered by OXFORD. and Oxford University Press. Retrieved from
  6. Teaching Tolerance. (2016). A Framework for Anti-bias Education. The Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from
  7. Basham, J.D. & Marino, M.T. (2013). Understanding STEM Education and Supporting Students Through Universal Design for LearningTeaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 45 (No. 4), pp. 8-15.
  8. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from
  9. Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., & Ganley, P. (2015). Addressing Learning Disabilities With UDL and Technology: Strategic ReaderLearning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 38 (No. 2), pp. 72-83.
  10. Reed, M. (2018, July 9). Making STEM Accessible to All. Edutopia. Retrieved from

STEM for All Students

Meeting Students Where They’re At

So often school has a one-size fits all approach.  This is partially because individualizing content and activities is hard and time-consuming.  On the other side of this coin, a lot of students aren’t getting the opportunities that they deserve to access their education.  This is a broad topic and way beyond the scope of one blog post.  With this in mind, I’d like to narrow down to looking at ISTE Standard 3 which focuses on addressing digital learning needs, but I’d like to broaden the discussion a little from there to include STEM since I can speak to this from my overall background and experiences.  While I’m not sure how to individualize STEM education for every student in a given classroom setting, I do think we can do little things to move beyond a singular approach so that more students can have the opportunity to access this learning.  Culturally relevant pedagogy can help more students access standards-based content in a manner that’s developmentally appropriate for them. And, per the Edutopia article entitled Making STEM Accessible to All (Reed, M. 2018), “But there are benefits to being exposed to STEM in the classroom beyond test scores, such as improved problem-solving skills, creativity, mental alertness, and teamwork and collaboration. As leaders, we must ensure that every student has a chance to reap these benefits.”

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

3) Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.

3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.

3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

How can instructional coaches and professional development providers partner with other educators to engage and support all students with culturally relevant digital and STEM learning content that’s both developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards?

Providing STEM Opportunities For All Students in the Classroom

I’ll be honest, I struggled with how to individualize learning for students in my classroom.  I have yet to find an approach that accomplishes this without exponentially increasing the teacher’s workload.  This did get me thinking about how to better reach my students for whom the generic approach wasn’t working, though.  I tried to consider how to integrate reading in a way that students reading 2-3 levels below grade-level could still participate and be successful because reading to learn is where students with learning disabilities most often struggle (Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., Ganley, P., 2015).  In my experience, the same was true for writing to learn and for the math involved.  I also partnered, paired, and grouped very carefully with this in mind.  How were students balancing each other out skill-wise so that their team could learn and perform at a higher level than any of them could on their own (we transformed our table groups into “learning teams”).  In support of my English learners and special education students, this often meant collaborating with the corresponding teachers.  Could we move content around for a special event or flex the schedule?  Could the teachers and students try pushing into my classroom for a unit?  Could the various groups of learners work on the content in parallel and then come together for a culminating activity?  Getting creative is key and often not as much work as one might think… just intimidating when it comes to the hardest part: getting started.

STEM Instructional Coaching in Support of All Students

As an instructional specialist and coach, I tried to continue collaborating with other specialists so as to better reach more students.  The special education and English learner teachers and I collaborated on activities that were unique and special just for their students.  We also worked with classroom teachers that were willing to make adjustments wherever possible.  I branched out to working with the music and PE teachers when I could. According to Basham, J.D. and Marino, M.T. (2013), “The success of students with disabilities who participate in general education STEM classes is directly linked to teachers’ abilities to understand students’ unique learning need and problem-solving abilities (Marino, 2010).”  Technology is incredibly powerful when it comes to helping students access learning in a variety of ways.  If they can’t write then can they speak to text?  Can we use a text reader for reading?  How about video access?  Screen recorders?  All different ways for students to show they learned the STEM content itself as opposed to testing them on other skills like communication, reading, writing, etc.

One thing I learned along the way is that there are a lot of students who will find their first big successes in STEM-based activities, if they are given the chance.  I first saw this in my first year teaching.  “J” was special education student that struggled with reading and writing in particular.  Traditional school was a chore, though, from which he derived no joy and was barely passing, except, when it came to STEM oriented activities that possessed a technology component.  Here he excelled.  I tried to nurture this where I could but opportunities were limited at that time. In spring, when I received a flyer about the new district technology academy opening up, I saved a copy and handed it to his mom and implored her to look into it for him.  She did, he blossomed, and eventually became one of the IT leads for the district, went on to work for a leading technology company, developed brilliant anti-malware software in his free time that he sold to a company, and now serves as a lead network administrator for a leading nonprofit.  “S” was another student who had Tier 3 interventions and so missed most classroom content time yet excelled.  I was able to engage and support him in our after-school robotics club where he became a leader, one of the most adept programmers, and a brilliant designer.  He figured out challenges that stumped the adults and was able to do so remarkably fast.  With regard to anything mechanical, he was absolutely brilliant.  The special education teacher and I created as many unique and special opportunities for him as we could and he shined.

Students like “S” and “J” are examples in the current educational system where essentially taking our metaphorical “fish” that are gifted swimmers and only testing them on their ability to “climb trees”.  The system is hardwired, mammoth, and often set in stone so it’s difficult for teachers to make adjustments but it’s worth doing what we can where we can.  Getting creative with the standards is one way so that students can demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of contexts.  I kept a clipboard with a roster on the wall for each content area and would grab the appropriate one in a hurry if I noticed an opportunity for a quick data point in the midst of a unique learning opportunity that I hadn’t anticipated.  Adjusting schedules where we can around the edges is another place that we can make small changes that add up over time and if enough teachers speak out then larger changes can occur, e.g. in my previous district, over many years and much advocacy science instruction eventually became protected time during the K-6 elementary school day.

Professional Development Provider: How Do I Support All Students?

These are all connections based on my current research connected to my previous educational experience.  This all comes back around to my essential question but from my current context as a professional development provider.  Every context is so different, and I my experience is limited.  Even the most experienced teacher cannot hope to experience even 1% of possible contexts out there.  Knowing this is to recognize that every educator is the expert on their teaching context, so, as a professional development provider, how can I support and empower them?  I think looking at the research, identifying patterns of success, and truly listening to each educator in order to learn from their experience are good places to start. Teachers want professional development that’s relevant, treats them like professionals, and is delivered by someone who understands their experience (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014).  Some things I’ve noticed so far, most teachers did not have any STEM training as part of their teacher certification process so some initial basics are needed in order to help them get up and running.  Growing teacher confidence is key and even more important than ability.  We can always learn alongside the students as we go.  Planting seeds, encouraging ideas, and validating early thinking are some ways to encourage teachers to support all students in STEM education efforts. 

Drawing Conclusions for a Truly Broader Impact

I’ve written mostly to special education examples because that’s where my current research led me but there are so many broader examples to explore.  English learners need additional ways to access content and it needs to be okay for them to find ways to show what they know via native language when possible and native culture when appropriate.  Student minorities need to see themselves and their cultural values reflected in the learning and career opportunities so that they can truly see themselves growing up into a variety of STEM roles.  Girls need supports and encouragement that are at least as supportive and encouraging as boys often receive in these areas.  By providing a variety of ways for students to access their learning and working to make STEM both available and accessible to all learners, we can start to make small steps together as educators to show that all means all and truly starts with meeting each student as an individual where they are at.


  1. Basham, J.D. & Marino, M.T. (2013). Understanding STEM Education and Supporting Students Through Universal Design for Learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 45 (No. 4), pp. 8-15.
  2. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from
  3. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  4. Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., & Ganley, P. (2015). Addressing Learning Disabilities With UDL and Technology: Strategic Reader. Learning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 38 (No. 2), pp. 72-83.
  5. Reed, M. (2018, July 9). Making STEM Accessible to All. Edutopia. Retrieved from

If You Build It (Relationships) Then They (Teachers) Will Come To You

It’s All About Relationships

My principal, Gregory Kroll, is one of my personal and professional heroes.  Now, I no longer teach at Martin Sortun Elementary, but, at 8 years, he was my longest running principal.  The man gave more than I knew was possible and had a heart to match.  Whatever you needed, whatever it took, he was there for you.  One of the things he used to tell me is that teaching, coaching, and working in a school “are all about relationships” at the end of the day.  What your relationship is with a person (colleague, parent, student, etc.) will affect every aspect of the interactions and outcomes.  His insight shed light on the need to be aware of relationships as will as the need to grow and cultivate positive relationships with everyone (not taking anything for granted).  This leads me directly into the first component ISTE Coaching Standard.  Without 3a, components 3b-3d are difficult at best.  Establishing trusting relationships is the foundation to any form of instructional coaching. 

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

  • 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.
  • 3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.
  • 3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.
  • 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

As a professional development provider and instructional coach, based on my experiences and expertise how do I establish trusting and respectful relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies?

My Time as a Teacher: True confessions time…

True confession, as a classroom teacher, I thought I knew a lot more than I did.  While I sought out and grew under mentors, I was not generally open to working with instructional coaches on a 1:1 basis.  I think part of this extends from the fact that I spent my first six years in a building that did not have an instructional coach and thought I was doing fine growing through other professional development opportunities.  It helped that my principal, Cathy Lendosky, was extremely skilled at delivering effective professional development so our teacher workshop days were high quality experiences.  So when I arrived at Martin Sortun going into my seventh year of teaching, I didn’t see the need.  It also didn’t help that the instructional coaches were both in my peer group and so had the exact same amount of instructional experience.  Knowing what I know now, I was definitely wrong.  I still participated in every PD opportunity provided by the instructional coaches outside of 1:1 coaching, but I only engaged in that when requested and wasn’t an active, growth-minded customer interested in continuing the practice over time.  I think in part, it’s because of relationship.  They were my friends and colleagues, so there was something there but there wasn’t an established professional development relationship with my instructional coaches.

Instructional Coaching: Lessons Learned…

The tables had certainly turned when the opportunity presented itself for me to become an instructional coach.  Very quickly, I realized that I needed to learn and grow a lot if I was to be an effective instructional coach.  My (now fellow) instructional coaches were probably delighted at my newfound interest and both readily coached me.  I was trying to make up for lost time.  On the flip side of things, having been a reticent classroom teacher when it came to coaching, I knew how to engage the other teachers like me.  It was all about relationship.  I made sure that they felt “invited” but not pressured so that there would be no hard feelings but they’d also feel free to say “no thank you” to opportunities that I provided.  Conversely, I went out of my way to make sure that they’d be curious about whatever little tidbit from the training did make it their way and to profusely thank any of them that did show up.  I sincerely believe that teacher planning time is far more precious than gold.  My follow-up touch points would also be quick, to the point, and hopefully meaningful which I’d do via a quick in-person interaction or short email.  Mostly, I’d just see how it was going and if there was anymore that I could do to support following the training or activity.  Would they like me to come in and co-teach a lesson?  I’d be happy to do all of the planning and teaching if they’d just like to present alongside me.  This approach usually worked and each co-teaching experience looked different depending on the teacher’s experience.  As time and interactions progressed, I focused on building the relationship.  What did they need help with?  What worked?  What could I offer that helped them accomplish one of their goals?  Relationship, relationship, relationship.

Professional Development Provider: The More You Know…

Relationship as a professional development provider is definitely much harder.  It’s hard to have relationships with 50 or more of your “closest friends” from across the country that you just met.  And yet, relationships are just as important in this context.  So building relational capacity from the moment those educators walk through that door is key.  And, as a designer of these professional development opportunities, it’s really important that those relational capacity building activities are built into the course syllabus design.

This is all much easier said than done. Designing in time for developing relational capacity takes discipline because it is so tempting to either view this as “fluff” or cut this time in the interest of other content. Additionally, building relationship is work. Hard work. You have to care. People can sense a lack of authenticity so this means being vulnerable because you have to be your real self and invest emotionally. Passion for the topic can help but there’s no substitute for legitimate relational connection.

The More You Know, The More You Realize How Little You Know

The more you know, the less you know seems to have been a theme for my career.  Every time a professional opportunity expands my horizons and helps me to grow and learn more as an educator, the more I realize that the percentage of what I actually know is really much smaller than I thought.  It’s almost like professional knowledge pie chart where my personal piece grows at a much slower rate than the total knowledge I’m aware of and therefore appears to always be shrinking over time.  The realization can be a bit overwhelming, but there is also comfort in knowing that no one person can possibly have all of the answers.

Ultimately, you don’t know what you don’t know and so need to be open to learning along the way.  Relationships were a constantly recurring theme for me when it came to my professional growth.  Either it was there or it wasn’t there and I often grew in my practice in direct proportion to the type of relationship I had with my professional development providers.  In turn, the same was true for participants that I supported.  Relationships are a two-way street and so both people need to invest in order for there to be a relational benefit.  When they do, then relatable learning can happen and level of relational capacity developed forms the foundation for broader and deeper levels of professional learning and shared throughout all of ISTE Coaching Standard 3.

Interestingly enough, there was a video that I participated in as part of my instructional coaching work when I was bridging over to the role of professional development provider.  It’s a snapshot of where I was at during that point in time as well as a representation of the many different kinds of amazing educators that I had the opportunity to work with and support.  If you’re curious, you can watch this video as it highlights one of my final projects as an instruction coach focused on STEM integration at a K-6 STEM Lighthouse School.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Johnson, K. (2016, June 28th). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves. EdSurge. Retrieved from
  3. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from
  4. Dorr, E. (2015, November). How Administrators Can Design the Best Learning Experiences for Teachers. EdSurge. Retrieved from
  5. Gilliam, J. & Ferguson D. (2018, September). GUEST VIDEO: STEM TEACHING AND LEARNING AT MARTIN SORTUN ELEMENTARY. Washington STEM. Retrieved from

Open Education Resources in Action

Introductory Section

In a previous blog entitled Open Sourcing Education, I explored the topic, or “what”, of Open Education Resources (OERs) while this post looks more at the application, or “how”, of OERs.  OERs have an intriguing history that is mostly tied to the evolution of the internet with some influences from other open sourcing movements such as software.  Open Education Resources didn’t really take off until the early 2000’s, and both the growth and adoption of this approach to freely sharing educational content and curriculum has not consisted of a smooth evolution.  The current educational challenges surrounding remote teaching due to the pandemic-induced closure of physical school locations has created a resurgence in interest surrounding Open Education Resources as a way to support educators everywhere during this challenging time.  This provides an opportunity for intentional, standards-based educational support for digital teaching and learning as well as an opportunity to learn how to better utilize Open Education Resources across public and private education.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 4

Learning Designer: Coaches model and support educators to design learning experiences and environments to meet the needs and interests of all students. Coaches:

  • 4a. Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency.
  • 4b. Help educators use digital tools to create effective assessments that provide timely feedback and support personalized learning.
  • 4c. Collaborate with educators to design accessible and active digital learning environments that accommodate learner variability.
  • 4d. Model the use of instructional design principles 

The components of ISTE Coaching Standard 4 lend themselves to supporting development and implementation of Open Education Resources.  Component 1 is especially strong in this area because of the emphasis on collaborating with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences.  Any efforts to develop resources for teachers should be done in conjunction with current classroom practitioners.  Such an informed approach ensures real and relevant content that fosters student agency, deepens content mastery, and truly allows students to demonstrate their competency.

Essential Question

How can educators collaborate together to develop authentic learning experiences that can be shared online with teachers everywhere in order to foster student agency and deepen student learning?

Types of Open Education Resources

What defines the designation of Open Education Resource has a variety of interpretations and there are many different approaches by organizations that are creating and providing OERs.  In general, there are OERs that provide an entire curriculum (or even curricula) from beginning to end, there are OERs that provide vast searchable lesson libraries, there are OERs that focus on specific types of content (multimedia versus lesson plans for example), and there are OERs that focus on quality over quantity.  The sheer variation, lack of standardization, and quantity of content has left many educators feeling frustrated with the OER concept and unsure as to how to utilize them, if at all.

The last category of quality over quantity probably has the fewest OERs, however, this is where things get interesting because most OERs are trying just to provide as much free and accessible content as possible.  This is also where the approach taken by the AVID Open Access platform comes into play.  AVID’s take on the OER focuses on quality over quantity of lesson content available for teachers.  Because of this manageable amount, AVID Open Access provides a good case study in terms of how to approach, utilize, and apply OERs in a classroom instructional setting.

Using an Open Education Resource

Starting with a basic example of how to approach, explore, and utilize a specific Open Education Resource is probably the best way to begin to figure out how to approach OERs in general as an educator.  AVID Open Access is an OER-style resource that I can speak to based on my experience because I’ve worked directly on the project.  While this familiarity may come with a slight inherent bias as a result, it also allows me to more clearly speak to the overall intent of the tool.  Here are some general thoughts on how to approach an Open Education Resource based on my work with AVID Open Access.

  • Decide ahead of time your intent: Looking for something specific or general, searching for inspiration, or just browsing?  By deciding ahead of time what your goal is then you can save yourself some frustration if you end up clicking your way down a hyperlinked “rabbit hole” of content.
  • Know what kind of content is being offered: Some OERs intend to be a one-size-fits-all approach but many do not.  If you go looking for ELA resources on a STEM OER then you’re probably going to come away disappointed.
  • Become familiar with the organizational system: Second to content, understanding how the OER is organized is key to successful navigation.  For example, AVID Open Access is organized into three general buckets of Virtual Teaching, Virtual Student Learning, and STEM, so pick your overarching area and then take note of the sub-categories, e.g. STEM is divided up into Invention, Exploration, Cardboard Engineering, and Robotics.
  • If relevant, conduct a practice search: If an Open Education Resource is big enough to essentially have a library of content then it should have a means to searching this content.  Practice, get familiar, and become comfortable with how to find what you’re looking for via any search tool (Open AVID Access is not large enough yet for this to be the case).
  • Keep a running list of potential lessons to use: As you come across possibilities, write them down or record them somewhere.  This is probably true in general for keeping track of potential resources but you’ll thank yourself later.
  • Pick a short lesson to test the quality: Kick the proverbial “tires” of the resource by “test driving” one of the shorter activities with your students.  Get a feel for the accuracy of content timing and writing as well as the measures of grade-appropriate difficulty.  This will limit your commitment but give you a direct feel for the quality of substance inherent in the overall resource.
  • Keep a running record of quality: Make notes in regard to what worked and what didn’t so as to determine if the content is consistently high quality.  The more dependable the resource is in terms of screening high-quality content before posting then the more confident a classroom teacher can be to “grab and go” with a lesson.
  • Use tools to evaluate the OER as a resource: This takes time and so may limited in value depending on a teachers context and overall situation, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Achieve has developed a tool specifically created to function as an OER rubric

Applying Lessons Learned to OERs in General

One way to arguably measure if an OER is even worth a teacher’s time is whether or not it saves the teacher work over simply designing and developing the content lessons themselves.  If it’s less work for the teacher to design a lesson from scratch than it is to search through a vast library for a quality lesson to use then the Open Education Resource being used is probably not an effective tool or even a good use of time.  This is something that OER creators should keep at the forefront of their minds.  As soon as the OER fails to pass the simple lesson design time test then it is actually quite a ways past being an efficient or even effective resource for teachers.  A teacher’s planning time is worth more than its weight in gold because they have so little of it.  Don’t take that time for granted.  Ever.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Educators. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Edutopia. (2015, December 4). Open Educational Resources (OER): Resource Roundup. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  3. Vega, V. (2011, August 30). A Primer on Curriculum-Sharing Sites. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  4. Sparks, S. D. (2017, April 12). Open Educational Resources (OER): Overview and Definition. Education Week. Retrieved from
  5. UNESCO. (2020, January 4). Launch of the UNESCO Dynamic Coalition for Open Education Resources (OER). UNESCO (United Nations). Retrieved from

Open Sourcing Education

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Introductory Section

One of the earliest definitions for Open Education Resource (OER) comes from the UNESCO 2002 Forum on Open Courseware: “teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation, and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”  Knowing early thinking around OER helps to understand how the concept has grown and developed over the years with the evolution of the Information Age.  Where open source as an idea facilitated largely by technology meets education can be confusing, however, it can also be clarified by looking through the lens of educational technology standards.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Educator Standard 6

Facilitator: Educators facilitate learning with technology to support student achievement of the ISTE Standards for Students. Educators:

  • 6a. Foster a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes in both independent and group settings.
  • 6b. Manage the use of technology and student learning strategies in digital platforms, virtual environments, hands-on makerspaces or in the field.
  • 6c. Create learning opportunities that challenge students to use a design process and computational thinking to innovate and solve problems.
  • 6d. Model and nurture creativity and creative expression to communicate ideas, knowledge or connections.

ISTE Educator Standard 6 describes how educators can facilitate learning with technology by managing use in regard to student learning strategies in digital platforms and virtual environments.  There is a strong connection between this standards language and utilizing an Open Education Resource.  Online OERs provide accessible digital content for students in a virtual environment that teachers can scaffold, adapt, and leverage for both classwide and individualized learning.

Essential Question

How can educators manage the use of technology and pedagogical practices in digital platforms and virtual environments in such a way that facilitates student engagement and learning?

Learning Strategies and Digital Platforms

Leveraging ISTE standards with Open Education Resources helps answer some of the questions around management of technology and digital pedagogical practices in regard to student engagement and learning.  There are a wide range of OERs online. Some OERs serve as an entire curriculum unto themselves.  EngageNY is one of the most widely known examples and was created in response to the lack of curriculum supporting Common Core State Standards.  Another gold standard in this area is YouCubed which is technically a MOOC (Massive Open Online Curriculum).  YouCubed provides curriculum with videos that essentially form self-contained courses.  As one can imagine, adopting an entire curriculum is not realistic for most contexts so educators may be more interested in utilizing collections of individual lessons that they can search, adapt, modify, and customize for their educational contexts.

OER Lesson Libraries

While EngageNY and YouCubed function as relatively quality one-size fits all curriculum, other OERs function as searchable online lesson libraries that allow teachers to mix and match per their context.  The advantage is flexibility but the disadvantage is the time required to search through what’s available.  Gauging quality within and across these types of OERs is also a challenge because there may be multiple authors, limited rating and feedback mechanisms, and a variety of lesson templates among other things.  Edutopia speaks to this aspect in a 2015 article entitled “Open Educational Resources (OER): Resource Roundup” and suggests utilizing an OER rubric tool developed by Achieve.  Ultimately, each educator is the best judge of what meets the unique and specific needs of his or her educational context.  Based on my experience and research, the OERs below are good places to start in order to build familiarity and to begin to learn what’s out there.

Curriki: This is a collection of lessons and units across content areas.  Curriki has a five-star rating system and a strong history as it’s been operating as an award-winning OER since 2007.  Curriki also offers wide-variety of resources across content areas.  Curriki also has arguably one of the largest collections of open-source curriculum online.

Better Lesson: Backed by both the National Education Association and the Gates Foundation (a rare combination), Better Lesson certainly warrants a visit.  More recently, Better Lesson has started focusing on how to promote peer coaching but the resource did start out as an OER focused on providing national standards-based lessons.

OER Commons: OER Commons is a platform for organizations to create and share their own Open Education Resource.  The advantage is that look, feel, and navigation are more consistent from one resource to another and there’s an entire collection of OERs all in one spot.  Many states have started to utilize this resource with Washington State launching an OER here in response to various educational needs created by the current pandemic and quarantine.

Polyup and Cue US Challenge: Polyup is a website that utilizes Reverse Polish Notation to gamify mathematics by removing order of operations (PEMDAS) and focusing on the process as opposed to the answer.  Polyup has partnered with CUE and November Learning among others to create an OER library of standards-based math lesson activities for grades 1-8.  Polyup is working toward K-12 support and in the meantime is providing a US Challenge with prizes for teams/classes that earn enough “math points” collectively by not just solving problems but also creating content for others.

Learning Keeps Going: Learning Keeps Going is an an OER created in direct response to the current pandemic and quarantine circumstances.  The resource has powerhouse sponsor organizations in the form of ISTE, EdSurge, Digital Promise, Education Week, and several others.  Learning Keeps Going is more of a curiation OER highlighting and sorting resources available for educators in response to COVID-19 as a one-stop shop.  The sheer volume of everything out there is overwhelming so having a searchable library like this can be helpful.  Learning Keeps Going lists materials, resources, and OERs (including the next example on the list).

AVID Open Access: AVID Open Access (AOA) emphasizes quality over quantity as an OER resource.  It’s not meant to be a one-stop shop but one of several quality options for teachers where they know that what they find will be high quality.  AVID Open Access focuses on virtual teaching and student resources for online learning as well as STEM lessons and activities.  Partner organizations include MIT, Wonder Workshop, Blue Origin, Microsoft, Engineering is Elementary, and more added every week!  Full disclosure: as the author of this blog, I am also working on and supporting AOA so there is some implicit bias due to my involvement.

Other Well-Known Examples: There are far too many examples to list and searching through all that’s out there can be a little overwhelming.  Some additional examples that may be more well-known as well as more niche include the following: Khan Academy, TED Ed, PhET Science and Math Simulations, Wikipedia, the Micro:bit Foundation, and much more!

Beyond a Basic Introduction

While OERs have a 20+ year history in education, the recent pandemic conditions have created resurgence of both interest and creation of content in this space.  The dramatic increase of materials available at no cost to classroom teachers means more quality educational content but also more materials to sort through.  Educators will need help, time, and support in navigating these resources so curation done at all levels will greatly assist and improve the ability to leverage the increased number of OERs and their expanded libraries.  School administrators, government education officials and policy makers, and non-government education organizations would all do well to keep this in mind as we seek to support all teachers as best we can in meeting all students’ needs. Some ideas related to this can be found in the post, Open Education Resources in Action, which builds on the “what” of OER found in this post to look more closely at the “How” of using OERs.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Educators. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Edutopia. (2015, December 4). Open Educational Resources (OER): Resource Roundup. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  3. Vega, V. (2011, August 30). A Primer on Curriculum-Sharing Sites. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  4. Sparks, S. D. (2017, April 12). Open Educational Resources (OER): Overview and Definition. Education Week. Retrieved from
  5. UNESCO. (2020, January 4). Launch of the UNESCO Dynamic Coalition for Open Education Resources (OER). UNESCO (United Nations). Retrieved from

Gaming the Educational System

Games in School?

Games in school are, more often than not, a taboo topic.  The conversation has shifted, for sure, due to recent research and gradual changes in educator opinions, but games as learning vehicles in the classroom are generally still not taken seriously.  Isolated educator success has definitely raised interest but also proven difficult to duplicate.  A lot this is due to the chicken and egg scenario of established approaches, research, and, most importantly, administrative support for game-based learning and gamification in the classroom.  As with most things in modern education, a good place to start is the standards.  As far as game-based learning and gamification are concerned, the ISTE standards provide an excellent cornerstone to build upon.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Educator Standard 5

Designer: Educators design authentic, learner-driven activities and environments that recognize and accommodate learner variability. Educators:

  • 5a. Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.
  • 5b. Design authentic learning activities that align with content area standards and use digital tools and resources to maximize active, deep learning.
  • 5c. Explore and apply instructional design principles to create innovative digital learning environments that engage and support learning.

ISTE Educator Standard 5, Designer, provides good guidance for educators in terms of focusing on designing authentic, learner-driven experiences.  By focusing on supporting student learning and learner engagement and then matching that with something like game-based learning and gamification, educators can create digital learning environments that explore and apply instructional design principles in truly innovative ways.  This type of unique approach can both increase intrinsic motivation and overall student learning at the same time.

Essential Question

How can educators explore and apply innovative instructional design approaches to create new unique digital learning environments that increase student engagement and learning? 

Game-based Learning vs. Gamification

In any general conversation regarding game-based learning and gamification, it’s important to clarify similarities and differences.  Game-based learning utilizes games as the primary vehicle for the learning itself.  So students are learning directly through a game.  Gamification is when something other than a game is taken and game-like qualities are added on.  Examples include a traditional lesson or homework where points are added and classroom management strategies where positive behavior choices lead to earning points.  There are countless examples of each and many ways to approach both game-based learning and gamification.  It is a little bit of a spectrum too where sometimes there can be a some blurring of the lines between the two classifications.  Ultimately, while helpful, understanding the distinction between game-based learning and gamification is less important at the outset then focusing on the intended result of increasing student engagement, content retention, and overall learning.

Innovating in Schools with Games

Innovation, by definition, means doing something new, unique, and different in order to more effectively and or efficiently accomplish a task, goal, and/or objective.  In this case, improving upon the traditional educational experience in such a way that students are more engaged, remember more content, and learn more standards-based material overall.  If they have fun along the way then all the better!  Piaget is often quoted as saying that “Play is the work of childhood” so if we can tap into this in the classroom then we can create a naturally more effective means for learning in the classroom.  Game-based learning and gamification tap into play and utilize this as a means to facilitate learning, thereby tapping into how children are naturally wired to learn.  Even simple multiplication games are start toward helping increase engagement and any number of game-focused approaches can help make all content areas more interesting for students.  Even gamification of classroom management can help make the generic class experience more fun for students.  All of these approaches can be analog or digital in terms of the game-based approach.  Digital, or video, games do provide some additional opportunities that weren’t readily available even just a few years ago.

MakeCode Makes Video Games Easy

One platform for engaging students with a focus on game-based learning via video games is Microsoft’s MakeCode platform.  MakeCode Arcade, especially, provides a readily available approach for leveraging this area in the classroom.  MakeCode’s coding environment is very intuitive and user friendly.  I was able to get on, explore, teach myself, and program my first video game via MakeCode in approximately 15 minutes.  The first lesson is a basic environment where a character can be moved around to eat a food item for points with the more items eaten before time lapses then the higher the score (you can play my first MakeCode video game pictured above by clicking here).  There are so many possibilities in terms of utilizing this as a means to encourage students to practice content standards.  Students could easily design a similar game where the main character needed to “eat” the correct answer to a math problem in order to earn points.  Or, students could write a story to go along with the video game adventure and utilize the experience as motivation for a writing prompt.  In social studies, this simple mechanism could illustrate an experience around finding appropriate food sources on the Oregon Trail.  The list goes on and that’s just via a very simple introductory video game.  Very quickly more complex approaches and concepts become possible where students can program to demonstrate their own learning, program games to teach concepts to classmates, program solutions to project-based problems, and much more.  Very quickly, students can make the transition from learning to code to coding to learn.

Where Educational Games meet Pedagogy

Okay, this is great and all, you may even have gotten excited about trying out some sort of game-based learning or gamification in your classroom, but where to begin?  I recommend thinking about your current teaching context.  Are there any other teachers in your building that have experimented with either?  If so then ask them what’s worked in their case.  How does your administrator feel about this?  Is it better to ask in advance in case s/he walks in or is it better to ask forgiveness?  Is there anything in your existing curriculum that resembles game-based learning or gamification?  Or, can you start with something as simple as classroom Jeopardy?  Your teaching context and experience is incredibly relevant when considering your starting point.  Teaching basic coding before attempting to teach any sort of computer game programming is also important.  By starting with activities that are clearly standards based and connected to existing curriculum, an educator can build a track record of gradual transition and implementation into more in-depth game-based learning and gamification where the learning involved will be more obvious to all that observe the educational progression.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Educators. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Microsoft (2020). MakeCode Arcade. Retrieved from 
  3. Farber, M. (2020, January 22nd). How to Find Games for Classroom Learning. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  4. Farber, M. (2014, October 9th). Games in Education: Teacher Takeaways. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  5. Gee, J.P. (2012, March 19th). James Paul Gee on Learning With Video Games. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  6. Samueli Foundation. (2020). North America Scholastic Esports Federation. Retrieved from
  7. Nazerian, T. (2019, January 31st). Can Designing Video Games Help Kids Gain Hard and Soft Skills? Edsurge. Retrieved from
  8. Nazerian, T. (2019, January 22nd). Educators Share How Video Games Can Help Kids Build SEL Skills. Edsurge. Retrieved from
  9. Noonoo, S.  (2019, February 12th). Playing Games Can Build 21st-Century Skills. Research Explains How. Edsurge. Retrieved from

Technology Standards and Tools for Teachers

Learning Standards for Teachers?

One of the more unique aspects of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards is the creation of not just teaching standards, but instructional standards that apply to teachers themselves.  My initial reaction when I first heard this was probably similar to many educators: why? I have enough on my plate already and I don’t need another group of standards that apply to me in addition to my students. While I still agree with this statement depending on the timing, I also think that, for those that have the bandwidth to focus on professional development, the ISTE Educator Standards can provide helpful guidelines for personal growth.  At this unique time in education, a good area to grow is around learning to collaborate online.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Educator Standard 4

ISTE Educator Standard 4: Collaborator: Educators dedicate time to collaborate with both colleagues and students to improve practice, discover and share resources and ideas, and solve problems. Educators: 

  1. Dedicate planning time to collaborate with colleagues to create authentic learning experiences that leverage technology.
  2. Collaborate and co-learn with students to discover and use new digital resources and diagnose and troubleshoot technology issues.
  3. Use collaborative tools to expand students’ authentic, real-world learning experiences by engaging virtually with experts, teams and students, locally and globally.
  4. Demonstrate cultural competency when communicating with students, parents and colleagues and interact with them as co-collaborators in student learning.

One of the things that I like about this standard is the inclusion of students as potential collaborators for educators.  We are charged with educating all of the students that come through our door, whether physical or virtual, but we also have so much that we can learn from these students.  One concept that I used to explain to my students in September was that my job was to figure out what unique thing each of them had to teach me, and then learn from them over the course of the year.  When we become co-learners with our students and learn with them as the “chief learner” in the classroom, then we are able to try out lesson ideas that wouldn’t normally work because we’ve modeled that we don’t know everything and that learning together is important.  With this in mind, I’d like to focus on the second component of ISTE Educator Standard 4, because when learning something so entirely new such as online learning there is no way to successfully accomplish this without our students help so we need to be able to collaborate, co-learn, discover, diagnose, and troubleshoot together.

Essential Question

How can teachers and students utilize online tools and resources together in lieu of hands-on learning with physical manipulatives?

Virtual Hands-on Learning

Hands-on learning is so important.  I chose the essential question because I am very interested in how educators may be looking to uniquely engage students with online tools that attempt to simulate hands-on learning.  Even though one cannot truly substitute or replicate, there are some resources out there that attempt to provide the next best thing. Since humans are wired to learn via their hands (see homunculus model), I believe it’s important to do as much with our hands in a virtual online learning environment as possible.  The closer that we, as educators, can come to helping our learners simulate hands-on learning in an online environment then the more effective we can be in terms of maximizing natural learning modalities, individual comprehension, and overall learning retention.

Computer Assisted Design

Computer assisted design, or CAD, programs help people to create a variety of virtual design versions of real physical objects.  This can be as simple as dealing with very basic shapes to things as complex and intricate as microprocessors, engines, and airplanes.  There are many advantages to CAD programs, but the most relevant application in this case is the ability to design and interact with virtual versions of physical objects.  In many ways, this is the closest virtual version of hands-on manipulatives. There are dozens of CAD programs so one of the biggest challenges is finding the right program to utilize in an educational environment.

Tinkercad as a Solution for CAD in Education

Tinkercad is created by Autodesk which is known for a variety of CAD programs.  Tinkercad has several advantages for use by educators. Autodesk provides Tinkercad to educators and students at no cost which greatly increases accessibility.  Tinkercad is also web-based which means no program installation is necessary. Most importantly, Tinkercad is user-friendly and intuitive so students as young as 3rd grade can learn the platform quickly and begin virtual hands-on learning in a digital environment.  For teachers, Tinkercad has an easy to get started tutorial series as well as an entire library of classroom lesson activities. Given that a new Tinkercad project starts as a blank canvas with unlimited possibilities, there are numerous learning applications that can be taken on with Tinkercad.  Tinkercad’s user-friendly environment incorporates lots of opportunities for measurement which opens the door to all sorts of math applications covering most basic math standards from basic shapes to area and volume to angles and more. In addition to math, there are plenty of applications in regard to engineering design and science standards.  More creative applications can even look at creating settings for narratives and story panels in a virtual environment. Regardless of subject area, the resulting designs can be saved, converted to image files, printed on paper, printed via a 3D printer, imported to Minecraft, converted to basic LEGO shapes, and more. Students learning to program can alsocode shapes in Tinkercad.  The possibilities for creating convergence between the hands-on physical world and the minds-on virtual world are endless, and the savvy teacher will highlight the aspects of the platform that tie into student interests as way to increase overall engagement.

How Then Do Classroom Teachers Go About Applying This?

Like so many things with technology, starting small and trying one new step at a time.  This becomes much more doable and even powerful when collaborating with students themselves.  The key as the lead learner is to engage students in the concept, students will often take the learning from there and figure out far more things than the average adult learner.  They aren’t afraid to click on anything and everything. An additional advantage to Tinkercad for collaborative online learning, is that multiple users can interactive with, design, and adjust objects in the same virtual online environment.  This means the teacher can design alongside students while talking them through the learning activity, and in addition to this assign groups of students to work on the same design project together. This type of collaborative virtual learning is not a direct substitute for hands-on learning but certainly compliments and even enhances what can be done with physical manipulatives.  When distance learning is the only option then Tinkercad provides the next best way for students to interact with virtual versions of physical objects while interacting with other students.


  1. Autodesk.  (2020). Tinkercad. Retrieved from
  2. Huddleston, L.  (July 10, 2019).  Using a Makerspace for English and Humanities Instruction. Edutopia.  Retrieved from:
  3. Instructables.  (2020). Design Thinking and Tinkercad.  Retrieved from:
  4. Instructables.  (2020). How to Bring Tinkercad into Your Classroom.  Retrieved from:
  5. Thingiverse.  (2020). Tinkercad.  Retrieved from:
  6. Common Sense Media.  (2020). Lesson Plans for Tinkercad.  Retrieved from:
  7. Edsurge.  (2020). Tinkercad by Autodesk.  Retrieved from:

Pivoting from In-Person to Virtual PD

Live and In-person to Virtual, Remote, & Online Learning

Every year as part of my job as a learning designer, I help to design, host, and train teachers that will be running professional development training over the coming year.  We do this training in person over the course of a long weekend. So what happens when that training suddenly has to pivot to being done online? How do we adapt? What does that even begin to look like?  So many questions! And, not a lot of answers. In some ways, I feel fortunate because I’m trying to figure out how to host online training for adults as opposed to many of my k-12 teacher friends that are currently trying to figure out how to approach a similar shift with kids.  All the same, I think there are some similarities, and right now is a good time to share thoughts around what’s sure to be a common challenge faced by many educators across the country and even around the world. In some ways, this is much bigger than any of us as individuals or as educators and is a question of citizenship because the root cause is a global pandemic.  Since we’re taking this online, it’s a good opportunity to review digital citizenship as outlined by the International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) Standards.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 2

ISTE Standard 2, Digital Citizen, students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical. Students will:

  1. Cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation and are aware of the permanence of their actions in the digital world.
  2. Engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices.
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property.
  4. Manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online.

As we look at being good citizens overall during a challenging time, thinking about what good online citizenship means is a good review and preparation for better overall interactions and guiding of learning online.  Acting in model ways that are safe, legal, and ethical are important ideas to keep in mind. As educators, we should model the type of choices and behaviors that we want to see from our students. Online actions are much more permanent because there’s a digital record so being cognizant of this is important.  Assuming positive intent is especially important because tone and body language are often hard to communicate online. Additionally, a genuine understanding and respect for intellectual property is important online as well as a general area for improvement in education. Finally, managing personal data as an educator means not only monitoring your own personal data but protecting that of those whom you work with and teach as well.  All of these things are natural extensions of good citizenship during the best of times let alone during challenging times, and extending these critical ideals to an online learning environment will make for a much better and overall more productive experience for everyone.

Essential Question

How do teachers shift from in-person professional development to virtual online learning for their own edification and what are the andragogical versus pedagogical implications?

Shifting from Face-to-Face to Online Face Time

Synchronous Video Chat Programs with Chat Rooms: Transitioning from face-to-face in person to face-to-face online is not as straightforward as one might imagine.  It is difficult to engage a large group via video chat. Some programs support up to 9-10 in a group well but once you grow beyond the “brady bunch” frame then it’s extremely difficult to have small interactions that normally occur in an in-person large group setting.  So this medium cannot just be approached as a substitute for in-person but as its own unique thing and as a different way to engage a group of people. For example, one difference that can be an enhancement is the back-channel chat that allows more voices to be heard without interrupting the presenters and also allow for more interaction.  This combined with breakout rooms for smaller chats that can instantaneously become small group discussions or work groups which can then regroup with the large group. Some examples of common video chat programs are Skype, Google Chat, Zoom, WebEx, Teams, Big Blue Button, and Google Meet, but there are definitely many more options out there.

Asynchronous Video Chat Programs: This is where online gets more interesting, in my opinion, and it can truly augment in-person interactions.  The ability to record short videos that can then be shared with a group, interacted with, commented on, and viewed or saved for later enhances in-person as well as remote interaction adds quite a bit to the learning experience.  There are many options and programs that can be used for this approach, including many of the common video chat programs. The one that is most common and launched this kind of interaction to the mainstream is called Flipgrid.  Approaching online interaction with unique tools and approaches helps to make the time more engaging and compensate for some of the aspects lost from being all together. Whether live or virtual, at the end of the day, it all comes back to relationships and a sense of community among participants and the instructors.

Online Professional Development Beyond the Video

Interactive note-taking applications: This is one type of tool that allows for a fair amount of asynchronous interactivity online but is not a huge shift for users. These are not too different from current computer word processing applications except that they add an interactive collaboration component.  Google Docs, Word 365, and OneNote are all great examples of spaces where people can share their notes together and add information while watching the same presentation, in a meeting, or working asynchronously on a particular problem.

Interactive annotation applications: A slight variation on interactive note-taking is digital annotation web applications, which are becoming common.  These allow for a commonly selected text to be shared and then both highlighted and commented on in such a way that all participants can interact with the information and grow the interactive annotation into a more global conversation.  Perusall and Edpuzzle are great examples. Edpuzzle even allows the usage of digital media with questions inserted by an instructor for a slight variation on the task. This is also an excellent way to practice digital citizenship in terms of both honoring and emphasizing intellectual property.

Interactive brainstorming: This is another take on web collaboration and allows everything from a virtual whiteboard to an online mind map to virtual sticky notes.  Virtual whiteboards, like Miro, allow for people to virtually interact in a Whiteboard space. The disadvantage is the lack of kinesthetic movement in the space and interactivity but the advantage is that the work is instantaneously saved and people can work on the project asynchronously from any location.  If mind mapping is the focus then Coggle is a great resource for quick and efficient mind maps outlining ideas, workflows, and similar tasks.

Additionally, padlet allows for interactive usage of sticky notes and is a great way to conduct online group interactions, thinking, brainstorms, and reflections.  Again, the information is automatically saved for later review and accessible to any group members at a later time for reference.

Less Obvious Online Interactions

While somewhat less obvious, online simulations and interactive coding opportunities provide new and unique ways for participants to experience a virtual version of hands-on learning.  Freely available PhET simulations from the University of Colorado are a great option for both math and science simulations that can be done via a computer, tablet, or phone. Block-based coding software makes computer programming much more accessible and can be both quickly learned and shared via platforms such as, Scratch, MakeCode, and Polyup to name just a few.

Completely Synchronous to Asynchronous and Beyond

When pivoting from in-person synchronous to online synchronous and asynchronous, I think the main lesson to learn is that there are very few direct substitutes or replacements.  Most interactive online learning tools have their own advantages and disadvantages when compared with in-person learning. Most importantly, there are many ways in which these online tools can also be used to augment and improve in-person professional development.  This is probably the best of both worlds where both tools can be used to supplement, complement, enhance, and amplify learning together. In this way, tools such as Google Office and Microsoft Office 365 can be used both in person and online. These traditional office tools now have several options for online collaboration and can make working together digitally more seamless when done both in-person and virtually as well as synchronous activities combined with asynchronous activities.

How then does the average classroom teacher apply this?  This is a question that’s been in the back of my mind as I prepare to adapt adult professional development and many of my peers prepare for their students to learn remotely.  In some ways, this means looking at where the andragogical aspects end and the pedagogical implications begin. In other ways, it means simply jumping in, trying whatever you can, doing your very best, and giving yourself permission to struggle, fail, and try again with different approaches.  Normally, I’d recommended starting small and just trying an activity here or there but recent events mean many educators are going from all in-person learning to completely online learning environments virtually overnight. This is a challenging transition in the best of circumstances, and so I hope my colleagues will give themselves and their students grace while they try to learn in a brave new virtual world that’s familiar only to some and foreign to most.  I know it can be done, though, I believe in my fellow educators, and I hope that somehow I can help support them as we all work through these unique circumstances together.


  1. MIT. (2020). Scratch. Retrieved from
  2. (2020). Hour of Code Full course catalog. Retrieved from
  3. Microsoft. (2020). MakeCode. Retrieved from
  4. Polyup. (2020). Poly Challenge. Retrieved from
  5. International Society for Technology in Education. (2016). ISTE Standards For Students. ISTE. Retrieved from