How to Build Your Personal Learning Network

01 Jul

plnWhen a colleague tells you she heard about a new tech tool from someone in her PLN, do you first wonder what she’s talking about–not the tool but the three-letter acronym? Or maybe you think, ‘Of course  [Amanda] has a PLN. She’s a geek.’ You might even understand the purpose of a PLN–to provide educators with a collaborative learning environment–but think you don’t need one, or staff development provided by your school is all you can handle.

What is a PLN

According to D. Johnson (2013), a PLN is:
“a self-created set of experts, colleagues, and resources…that meet one’s daily learning needs.”

More simply, it’s:

…an extended group of knowledgeable people you reach out to for answers, and trust to guide your learning.

These individuals can be anywhere in the world, but are always carefully selected by you for their expertise in your subject area. It doesn’t mean they have all the answers. It means that when you have questions, you trust them to inform your thinking, guide your research, and provide answers and directions scaffolded from their personal experience. You may never meet them in person, though you likely collaborate through Google Hangouts, Skypes, or pre-arranged TweetUps.

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Let’s Talk About Habits of Mind

24 Jun

habits of mindPedagogic experts have spent an enormous amount of time attempting to unravel the definition of ‘educated’. It used to be the 3 R’s–reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. The problem with that metric is that, in the fullness of time, those who excelled in the three areas weren’t necessarily the ones who succeeded. As long ago as the early 1900’s, Teddy Roosevelt warned:

“C students rule the world.”

It’s the kids without their nose in a book that notice the world around them, make connections, and learn natively. They excel at activities that aren’t the result of a GPA and an Ivy League college. Their motivation is often failure, and taking the wrong path again and again. As Thomas Edison said:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, and Albert Einstein are poster children for that approach. Both became change agents in their fields despite following a non-traditional path.

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How I’m Doing on ‘To Hunt a Sub’

22 Jun

tridentAfter a four-year hiatus from the first book in my Delamagente-Rowe series, I finally think I’ll get it done. I had a few interruptions–agent interest in the series’ second book, deadline for two non-fic series I write–but I think I’m going to make it this time. The short blurb for this thriller–still a work-in-progress is:

…a brilliant PhD candidate, a cynical ex-SEAL, and a quirky bot team up to stop terrorists from stealing America’s most powerful nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine.

Here’s what I did this week:

  • finished the final draft. I still have the Prologue to tighten up, but that’s it. Ah, I can almost smell the scent of freshly-printed books awaiting their new owners.
  • creating a short list (not my usual 101 people) of agents who might be interested. I’d love for this to work because then I don’t have to design the cover, copy edit, arrange printing–but I’m fine self-publishing. Part of what slowed this book down (and the other three I have languishing in the bottom drawer of my desk) was waiting for responses. More importantly: Hoping for acceptances that never arrived. I’m not going down that rabbit hole again.
  • thought about reviewing my acknowledgements. A lot of people helped me with their knowledge of military procedures, but it’s been awhile and I need to make sure the information is still current.
  • thought about the cover. I have found a few people who might be able to help with that.
  • thought about a copy editor. Like the cover, I have a few names, maybe narrowed down to one. I’m crossing my fingers
  • not yet thinking about marketing. Maybe that’ll show up on the next update.
  • not yet thinking about a book trailer. I’ve seen some I like done with a free tool like Animoto. That’s probably the direction I’ll go if I even do this.

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Faceoff: What Digital Device Should My School Buy?

19 Jun

chromebookIn the not so distant past, two types of computers battled for supremacy in the classroom: Macs or PCs. Both were desktops and both did the same things, but in hugely different ways.

Today, whether it’s a Mac or a PC, a desktop is only one of the digital devices available in the education toolkit. First laptops eased their way into schools, pricey but popular for their portability and collaborative qualities. Then came iPads with their focus on the visual, ease of use, and engagement of users. The most recent entrant into the education digital device market is Chromebooks–able to do ‘most’ of what ‘most’ students need–at a precipitously lower price.

That means educators now have four options (desktops, laptops, iPads, Chromebooks) as they select tools to unpack education. The challenge is to understand the differences between these options and select based on personal criteria. That includes classroom needs, infrastructure, maintenance, and–yes–money. What gives the most value for the least investment?

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3 Great Special Needs Digital Tools

17 Jun

Besides iPads and Chromebooks and a plethora of free websites that enable students to collaborate, share and publish, education’s tech explosion has resulted in a wide (and increasing) variety of tools that extend the teachers reach, making it easier to differentiate for the varied needs of students even in a busy classroom. Tech-infused alternatives to granular education activities such as note-taking, math, and reading allow students with specialized needs to use their abilities (strengths) to work around their disabilities (challenges). Technology has become the great equalizer, providing students of all skill levels the tools needed to fully participate in school.

Mixed in with the scores of digital tools I see every week, I’ve found three that stand above the rest and will quickly become staples in your teaching toolkit:

  • Sonocent–for note-taking and study skills
  • Babakus–for mathematical functions
  • Signed Stories–for reading

Sonocent Audio Notetakertool_imageBETTERl

Free to try; fee to keep

There are a lot of digital note-takers that can tape a lecture or a class or even a conversation. Many embed the audio file into a note page that includes writing and images. At that point, you have an audio recording that sits to the side of the rest of your notes. It’s not blended and there’s no way to mix the audio with the images and written text.

Award-winning desktop application Sonocent Audio Notetaker 4 (available for PC, Mac or as an iOS app) fixes that. Arriving just a decade after the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments 197 insured that students with disabilities have access to general education, its powerful recorder, transcription, and study tools take aim at the needs of reluctant readers. Using the free app, students can tape a live lecture, a Skype call, an online webinar on their iPhone or iPad (or directly to the software), transfer it to their dashboard where they can transcribe, annotate, highlight, edit, format, add to, delete, or simply play it back for reference. Students can integrate it with text notes, slideshows, screenshots, pdfs–even pictures they’ve taken of the whiteboard.

The result is not only a powerful summary, but a comprehensive study guide that can be viewed, read, or listened to, whatever works best for the student.

Grammaropolis is aligned with both national Common Core standards and Texas Expected Knowledge and Skills Objectives for grades K-6. – See more at:


With Audio Notetaker, students move well beyond hand-written notes in their quest to learn. This is especially important for those easily distracted by note-taking while listening, or who simply learn better with a wider variety of senses.

Reviewing notes can be a challenge for dyslexic students, but Audio Notetaker reads back a student’s notes, both audio and text, and enables the student to rearrange them as needed for their personal better understanding.

The audio recorder not only records the room you’re in but, with the flip of a toggle, will record your computer. This is great if the student is watching a webinar and wants to incorporate that into his/her note-taking.

There are a lot of training webinars available for teachers and students addressing the basics and sophistications of the tool. Once I watched a few (and a few more–there’s a lot to the software), I had no trouble using the program even my first time.


This is a robust tool with a rich learning curve. Don’t expect to intuit how to use it. Be prepared to spend time watching their thorough webinars and practicing a bit before the all-important lecture you have coming up. This isn’t so much a ‘con’ as a warning.

Insider tips

Importing from the iPad to the computer is quite easy for PCs, a little more complicated for Macs. No worries, though. There’s a detailed video explaining how to do this.

Educational Applications

Use Sonocent to record students as they work on a foreign language, tape their speaking style, and provide benchmarks for their reading skills to be compared against yearly progress. You can even record a story for a student who struggles with writing and then let them copy their own words from the audio.

Create digital flashcards with Audio Notetaker by exporting the data to a file that then plays on an iPod or smartphone.

Sonocent offers a school pack that includes lesson plans and sample files for elementary and high school.


Audio Notetaker is a robust digital note-taking and study tool. It fulfills many steps in the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid–recall and understanding of information/knowledge, applying and analyzing, making knowledge available to create new ideas, and facilitating evaluation of both the original material and the outcomes. It’s a credit to Sonocet that one tool can do so much. If you were adding only one new tool to your teacher toolkit, this should be it.

Design: 5/5

Functionality: 5/5

Fun Factor: 5/5

Availability: 5/5 (iOS, PC, Mac, Web, Android in beta)

Overall: 5/5



Babakus (for 1st grade and up) is a calculator that combines the slide ruler with the Abacus. It’s part of a revolutionary and unique method for students with dyscalculia or other math disabilities to succeed with basic math functions. Invented by a neuropsychologist Bjorn Adler, he created it to address a specific difficulty some students faced when working with numbers and figures not addressed by traditional math programs.

Babakus is a visual representation of the relationships between numbers (up to seven digits) when performing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The app includes exercises in nine different difficulty levels, enough to challenge any student, as well as explanations for both teachers and students.

The app is well-suited to the Common Core math class or schools that follow the Everyday Math program, offering a distinct difference in its approach to accomplishing traditional math functions.

Grammaropolis is aligned with both national Common Core standards and Texas Expected Knowledge and Skills Objectives for grades K-6. – See more at:


For me, the Babakus process was not intuitive, so I was pleased to find an extensive training program of YouTube videos to teach the basic functions. The app also includes a complete teacher’s guide.


There is a definite learning curve to using Babakus, though it could be me rather than the app. I’ve never had trouble with math, so my approach is probably ingrained in my brain. For someone who has trouble, Babakus’ abacus structure may seem easy. I didn’t find any reviews by writers who had dysgrafia or dyscalcula. If that describes you, I’d love to hear your opinion on this app.

Educational Applications

Use Babakus as an alternative method for mathematical functions, especially for those students who don’t flourish with your current method.


Babakus is one of those wonderful apps every school should have available to students as an alternative method of performing math functions. Offer it to any student who doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the traditional method before they give up on themselves.

Design: 5/5

Functionality: 5/5

Fun Factor: 5/5

Availability: 5/5 (iOS, Web)

Overall: 5/5

signed stories 1Signed Stories

Signed Stories App by ITV used to be a free website. You might remember your students oohing and aahing over graphics so gorgeous they made your teeth hurt, and the signing so authentic speaking students wanted to learn it. Now, these glorious books are offered only as an app and there is a hefty charge per book. Still, thanks to a perfect blend of reading, visual, audio, and movement, they are worth ten times their price. Special needs children–and all children–will find it irresistible.

Special features include:

  • fully animated stories
  • an on-off toggle switch for the ASL
  • An ASL video dictionary
  • Narration, music and sound effects
  • an on-off toggle for captions
  • options for caption fonts, sizes and backgrounds
  • two ASL learning games on iPad
  • ability to watch without Wi-Fi after download

Stories are delivered in sign language by ASL master performers. One look at the inset image shows you the passion and energy these individuals bring to every story. Each story is age-appropriate for K-3, user-friendly, G-rated with no advertising to distract from the message. The books are intuitive to use, load quickly, and deliver exactly as promised–engaging, scintillating stories.

Grammaropolis is aligned with both national Common Core standards and Texas Expected Knowledge and Skills Objectives for grades K-6. – See more at:


These stories are so well done, they become the student’s choice activity whether they read sign language or not. In my classes, students began learning basic ASL, thanks to the authentic delivery in the stories and the app’s organic dictionary of ASL terms.


There’s nothing I’d change. Sure, less expensive would be good, but not if it impacted quality. Each story costs no more than I’d normally pay for a child’s storybook.

Insider tips

Much to my surprise, the stories are produced by ITV plc, an international powerhouse entertainment company that also produces shows like Downton Abbey.

Educational Applications

Use this for both reading practice and learning to read. When I play it on my Smartscreen, the class falls quiet as everyone is watching the story. Even when they know how it ends, they are entranced by the performers and the artwork.


If you buy books for your child, add these digital books to the list. Displayed on a retinal display iPad, the colors are so vibrant, the story leaps off the screen. This is a must-have addition to your child’s digital library.

Design: 5/5

Functionality: 5/5

Fun Factor: 5/5

Availability: 5/5 (iOS, Web)

Overall: 5/5

The impressive nature of these three apps says a lot about the special needs field. There are dozens of honorable mentions, but these three stood out. I’d love to hear what your most effective tools are for your exceptional students.

More on specialized learning tools:

11 Resources to Blend Technology and Special Needs

50 Special Needs Tools

Technology Removes Obstructed Writers’ Barriers to Learning (a student experience with Sonocent)

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of dozens of tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, adjunct professor in tech ed, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, a tech ed columnist for, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.


Computer Shortkeys to Streamline Your Day

12 Jun

shortkeysAfter twelve years of teaching K-8, I know as sure as I know August comes earlier every year that kids will try harder if its fun. The challenge for us as teachers: How do we make a the geeky side of technology ‘fun’?

The answer is keyboard shortcuts–aka shortkeys. According to Wikipedia, keyboard shortkeys are:

a series of one or several keys that invoke a software or operating system operation when triggered by the user. 

Shortkeys are one of the teacher tools that scaffold differentiation. Students learn in different ways. Some excel with toolbars, ribbons, drop-down menus, or mouse clicks. Others find the mishmash of tiny pictures and icons confusing and prefer the ease and speed of the keyboard. Give students the option to complete a task in the manner best suited for their learning style. Once they know shortkeys, these will be an option available when they can’t find the program tool, or when it’s nested so deeply in menus, they can’t drill down far enough to find it. Shortkeys provide an alternative method of accomplishing simple tasks, like exit a program (Alt+F4), print (Ctrl+P), or copy (Ctrl+C).

My students love them. I start in kindergarten with the easy ones–like Alt+F4–and build each year until they discover their own. Throw in a few quirky ones and you’ve won their hearts and minds. My two favorites are –> and :):

keyboard shortcuts

  1. To create the first: Type – – >; many programs automatically switch it to an arrow
  2. To create the second: Type : followed by ); many programs automatically switch it to a smiley face

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Writers Tip #98: 18 Tips on Grammar from William Safire

01 Jun

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

William Safire, speechwriter for President Nixon, Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times (and one of their few conservative columnists), died in 2009, but lives on through both his writing and his wisdom about writing. The highly-acclaimed column he started in 1973 for the NYTimes called “On Language” (now written by Ben Zimmer) established him as one of the most significant voices on how to write well. His wildly-popular approach to the who-whom problem  is now called Safire’s Law of Who/Whom:

“When whom is correct, recast the sentence.”

Despite the assumed dullness of his topic, Safire had a wonderful sense of humor. Read these quotes:

The wonderful thing about being a New York Times columnist is that it’s like a Supreme Court appointment – they’re stuck with you for a long time.

Only in grammar can you be more than perfect.

Cast aside any column about two subjects. It means the pundit chickened out on the hard decision about what to write about that day.
Here are eighteen grammar tips that include his wry humor I found useful:

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7 Reasons For and Three Against Critique Groups

29 May

I tend to be a solitary person. I have no problem spending the day with myself–me and my computer (and a good book), exploring the world from the safety of my home-based office. I live through my characters, test my boundaries through them. I prevail over great adversaries and unbeatable bad guys. I out-think both friend and foe as I write, rewrite, and refine my story until it comes out exactly as I’d like it to. Nowhere in my real world can I be as popular, smart, strong, and energetic as I can be in my fictional life.

There is one compelling reason, though, I venture into the physical world: Monday evenings, twice a month, for my critique group. I joined this wonderful group of fellow writers so I could bond with kindred souls, be around others who could talk non-stop and forever (literally) about authors, books, POVs and story arcs. I found not only that, but more as I wandered down the yellow brick road in search of authorial fame and fortune. What I found instead were some glorious victories and a few hard truths (mostly about myself).

Here are seven reasons I’ll never give up my writer’s group:writers group

  • They catch my factual errors. In fact, they announce them, challenge me, and dispute my research if they’re sure I’m wrong. I better know what I’m talking about before I’m on the hot seat.
  • They let me know if a scene sounds authentic. That’s a gem. It’s easy to think the image is perfect the 2,159th time I stare bleary-eyed at the same page. They read with fresh eyes.
  • They tell me when a scene sounds right and delivers what I’d hoped. I love that.
  • They force me to show my work to others. They saw my first and second novel before my husband did.
  • I get as much out of listening to the review of other author’s WIP as I do my own. My fellow writers take their job seriously and do their best to accurately and intelligently decode the mistakes found in the selection being reviewed. I learn a lot from their words that I can apply to my story.
  • They are fascinating people. I could listen to their life experiences all day and when one of them misses a few meetings, I worry about them. I see these people more than most of my family. Well, that’s a good thing.
  • Agents want your work to be critiqued before you arrive in their mailbox.  They want to know they’re not the first besides your mother and dog who have read your story. A critique group qualifies.

That’s pretty convincing, isn’t it? These next three are all on me. They are personal quirks even as I intellectually understand the pluses of having my work critiqued:facial expression boulder man

  • I am too shy. It’s difficult to put myself out there, bare my soul, share secrets I don’t tell anyone. Yet, here I am trying to explain to this circle of patient, caring writers the motivation for one of my scenes. I don’t like talking about myself and that will never change.
  • It hurts. I don’t take criticism well. I get upset. Sure, I should have a thick skin, but I don’t. I never have and–here’s the surprise–I don’t believe that should preclude me from being a writer. The fact that I die inside when people don’t like something I’ve slaved over for months doesn’t mean I’ll never make it.
  • They contradict each other sometimes. That’s not a bad thing. It means that in the end, it’s my decision to follow well-intentioned advice or toss it to the curb.

That’s it. The pros of my writing group vastly outweigh the cons so I’m sticking with them.

Are you struggling with a decision about joining a writer’s group–really committing the time and effort it requires to make it work? Here’s Holly Lisle’s take on that subject and Writing-World’s overview on the subject.

More on writing:

Writers Tip #52: Join a Writers Groups

Writers Tip #72: Don’t Worry About What Others Think

10 Tips from Toxic Feedback

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 

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Posted in Writing


15 Tips for Young Adult Writers

19 May

I Read YA week is May 18-22. “YA” or “Young Adult” fiction is novels, stories, poetry, and various non-fiction written for adolescents, the group somewhere between ‘children’ and ‘adults’. It includes popular novels like Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and SE Hinton’s The Outsiders.

HarperCollins made this great infographic that suggests 365 YA books for you to read in 2015.  To see all of the details, go here.

ya novels

The YA market is exploding, not only in published novels but readers. Plus, as many adults read YA as the core audience, so if you’re writing in that genre, it becomes a difficult requirement to fulfill at times.  Here are fifteen tips to help you succeed (some from my YA post last year):

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5 Must-have tools for Ed Conferences

19 May

digital note-takingIt’s summer, time for teachers to recharge their cerebral batteries. That could mean reading, going on field trips, spending time with online PLNs, or taking calls from family members who usually end up at voice mail. For many, it means attending conferences like ISTE and NEA to learn how the heck to integrate technology into their lesson plans. If you aren’t a veteran conference attendee, you may wonder what you should bring. That’s a fair questions considering learning is no longer done sitting in auditoriums nodding off to the wisdom of a guest speaker behind a podium. Now, you might be asked to scan a QR code and visit a website, access meeting documents online, interact digitally, or use a backchannel device to share your real-time thoughts with the presenter. Besides a toothbrush and aspirin, what should you take to your upcoming conference? Here are five tools that will make you look and act like the Diva of Digital:

Google Maps

Some conferences take multiple buildings spread out over several blocks, and depending upon the number of attendees (ISTE last year had about 15,000), your hotel may not be around the corner from the Hall. Bring the latest version of the Google Maps app on your smartphone or iPad, complete with audio directions. All you do is tell it where you’re going, ask for directions, and Siri (the voice behind the iPhone) will lock into your GPS and hold your hand the entire way. If friends are looking for a Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts near the conference, Google Maps will find one. If you want Chinese, use an app like Yelp to find one patrons like (although I’m becoming a tad leery about Yelp. Anyone have a good alternative?)

Conference App

Most educational conferences have one. I find these more useful than the conference website. They are geared for people who are manipulating digital device one-handed, half their attention on the phone and the rest on traffic, meaning: they’re simple and straight-forward. Test drive it so you know where the buttons are, then use it to find meeting rooms, changes in schedules, and updates.

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