How & Not What

Part 1: The Request:

The following hit my Outlook in-box yesterday morning from our district Public Relation specialist:


I have a tough ask, but I hope that you can help.

Due to the concerns of our students, staff and community around school safety and security, Jamie [Canandaigua District Superintendent] has authorized me to draft a Digest [Our District Community Newsletter] publication that will focus on the District’s response to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida and the difficult issues brought to the public debate in the wake of that crime. We know this is a very sensitive issue that requires real care from us.

Thus, the theme of the publication is that the Canandaigua City School District’s mission is to “teach kids how to think, not what to think”.

I want to develop a central article entitled “How, not What”, so I’d like to gather your perspectives on what “How, not What” looks like in the classroom. What are your thoughts on how skills such as research, inquiry, argumentation supported by evidence, etc. are taught as they relate to how to think, not what to think?

To help you, maybe you could include some concrete examples around such items as [And you’ll see these in the questions below]:

Part 2: The Q& A:

Andy’s questions gave me a lot to think about, and helped me to reflect on my practice. I’ve put his questions below and my responses to his request in red.

How appropriate research technique is actually taught?

If we are really going to emphasize “How, not What” then classroom spaces need to start with questions. Questions that come from teachers to model what good questions look like and then working with student’s to foster curiosity around topics, and develop questions that they want to seek answers to. This is the foundation of the curriculum in the IB, where all courses are driven by inquiry approaches where students are expected to ask questions, and work together to find answers. It culminates in the capstone project, the Extended Essay, which is supposed to expose the student’s ability to engage in sustained, independent research, and reflect what the student has learned about asking important questions and finding answers.

In English 103, students engage in semester long research projects developed around topics they are passionate about, and perhaps more importantly, we ask that these students take their research and work to make it authentic by sharing through creating informative websites, and then ultimately developing arguments written as, again, authentic texts: blogs, wikis, editorials, op-eds, speeches, problem-solving proposals. In this course, students are guided through research—preliminary phases, information collection, evaluation (more below), synthesis, creation. These students get something very similar in approach to what the IB students get. A course in how to conduct college-level research.

In “Media Maker,” student generation of topics and writing is at the center. There is no “content” in the course other than what the students bring. They are asked to ask questions, and then answer them in their blogs and 20-time projects. All of what students create in the course is driven by their own interests. Thus, they are “researching” all the time—through listening to podcasts, reading others blogs, newspapers, articles, following You-tubers.

Another important part of this, and one that I don’t think we do a good job at, is modeling our own curiosity, learning and research. Teachers need to show their students how they authentically learn.

  • how we have students learn about and develop primary and secondary sources?

I think we do a lot of damage with students when all we focus on is primary and secondary and tertiary.  These distinctions are only somewhat helpful to students when we are trying to get them to think about collecting information. Another damage we do is when we get students to think about sources as objects—when a teacher says I want you to collect 5 sources—an article, a website, a newspaper source—we’re having students think about information only in terms of where the information resides.

We need to get kids to think about sources as PEOPLE. Who is giving us this information? What is the person’s bias or perspective? Who does this person work for? What platform is this person publishing on? Who asked this person to create?

Additionally, we need to get students to think about sources not as primary or secondary or article or database, but in terms of their functionality. How is this source being used? How can I or how should I use this source? What about this source must be included or discarded from my work?

Tomorrow Jamie will be talking to all English 103 classes about his recent encounter with Channel 13. We want our students, who are currently working with evaluation of sources and thinking about fake news, to see what happened between what information he had and how it was portrayed. Their story changed the reality of the situation—they created something that is different from what is actually.

  • what we require in the way of “papers” and where those fall on the developmental scale?

Certainly, for many of our students, the academic essay is an important document to learn how to produce. However, we do a disservice to students when all we ask them to produce is a “paper.” When was the last time you wrote an “academic essay” or a paper. Your writing for Gradudates of Distinction, the article you are producing for the digest move outside of the boundaries of this genre. The pieces that Jeanie writes for the first day of school, the BOE presentations that Matt or Jamie create, the emails that come from Jamie—none of these are academic essays or papers. Many of our students are going to need to write leaving CA, and they’ll make arguments—in editorials, presentations, cover letters, blogs…when we think about the product of research only as a “paper” we’re doing damage.

  • how assignments/projects build to mastery and how that skill is reflected/assessed in subject examinations and short answer essays?
  • How we handle the specifics of the Bill of Rights?
  • How we handle discussion of current events in class?

I didn’t answer these questions. I won’t go into that here, but perhaps there’s another blog post in thinking about making some responses as these questions apply to the English classroom. 

#EdcampFLX17 Top 10

Yesterday’s Edcampflx brought almost 100 educator’s from across the Western, New York area together for a morning of personalized professional development. Here are my top 10 moments from the morning:

10. New apps. Can’t wait to play more with and Both of these look like great feedback and formative assessment tools.

9. Even thought she wasn’t there in person, it was cool to know that Rachel Murat (@mrsmurat) was following us on Hootsuite, liking and retweeting our adventures.

8. A fantastic conversation with Ned Dale (@nedatthegrove) about Digital Citizenship and Leadership. I gained a lot of insight into how a school district goes about giving skills students need, and using non-traditional ways to do it.


7. Coming early and doing some setup for Katie McFarland (@katiemc827). With coffee and a little tape, I got to see the goings on behind the scenes and learning about the effort it takes to get an Edcamp off the ground.

6. Conversation about Schoology. I had the chance to facilitate a session on Schoology, and I really tried to invite conversation. Many of the teachers in the room were self-described beginners, but as I listened to the work they’re doing, I wouldn’t use the word beginners. In our district, “beginners” are creating quizzes and assessments, delivering Nearpods and other online activities to students, and providing 24/7 access to their course materials. Awesome!

5. I also got to facilitate a talk on student blogging and discussions. It was a far ranging session from using Edublogs, Blogger, Schoology Discussions. But, at the heart, was a great conversation with teachers who want to give their students more choice, voice, and avenues for self-expression.

4. Working with the always positive, hard working model for technology integrators everywhere, Steve Holmes (@kylelaurie).


3. An empty session board. Oh, the possibilities…With Chromebook in hand (it would have been nice to have the new tablet model our students have in the district), I got lucky and helped to get the physical board into the digital version.


2. Stepping up. As we built the session board, we had to approach a number of our teachers who came to Edcamp expecting to be a participant. Little did they know that they’d be called upon to facilitate a session. It was cool to see people move from hesitant to excited as they got the opportunity to lead a session on something that they had some knowledge about. Thanks to these folks from Canandaigua who stepped up.

1. A full session board. Oh, the possibilities.


It was my second year at EdcampFLX, and my third camp overall. Looking forward to more adventures in the future.

Getting Smore from Your Schoology Pages

The other day I was working with a colleague who was getting Schoology courses setup for the start of the year. At Canandaigua, we’ve done away with teacher webpages, so all teachers are using the LMS as their web presence for students and parents.

In our old system, Schoolworld, my colleague had a notable website. Particularly because it was a clear reflection of her personality–lots of pictures to share  her passion for video games, like the Zelda franchise, classic rock and Harry Potter. Students and parents who went to the site not only knew the course, its materials, but also were instantly connected to this dynamic teacher.

As we were working to create a page in Schoology for parents, she lamented that the pages in Schoology were, well, boring, with little ability to liven them up with colored backgrounds, or other design features that students and parents might find visually appealing. Below you’ll see what I mean. It’s my “Parent Page” in each of my Schoology courses.

Screenshot 2017-08-30 at 8.26.08 AM

My Schoology Parent Page–Lots of Text and Not Much Else

There wasn’t much I could tell her.

Then, light blub!

At home later in the day, I started playing with Smore–a web-based flyer and newsletter designer–as part of a project to aggregate blog posts from our student and teacher bloggers into a weekly newsletter to help them build their audiences.

I happened to notice that one of the sharing tools was an embed link. I quickly copied it off the flyer I was working on, went into my Schoology resources, opened a practice page, and embedded the link.

It worked, and the Smore flyer was there on the page.

Screenshot 2017-08-30 at 11.52.16 AM

A Smore Embedded into a Schoology Page

There are some advantages to this approach as I see it.

First, there are a lot of design and layout features available in Smore that are eye-catching and visually appealing. Second, these modifications could be furthered to use Smore for personalized student playlists or assignments with lots of links. Already looking around Smore’s “Educator Hive” you can find example of teachers who have used this approach. While I’m fully committed to using Schoology as my content delivery system, I’m thinking of using Smore to help give me another option in my playbook.

While these advantages exist, there are some drawbacks. Smore is another tool to learn. Teachers who may already be overwhelmed with trying to learn a new LMS, coupled with a smattering of apps, could easily throw their hands-up at you.

Still, for tech-savy teachers looking to keep their parents and students in Schoology, and looking to spice up the look of their pages, embedding Smores into the pages provides an interesting option.