Archive for the ‘Ask a Tech Teacher’ Category

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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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?

Read the rest of this entry »


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

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


How to Compare and Contrast Authentically

18 May

compare contrastTo students, knowing how to ‘compare and contrast’ sounds academic, not real world, but we teachers know most of life is choosing between options. The better adults are at this skill, the more they thrive in the world.

Common Core Standards recognize the importance of this skill by addressing it in over 29 Standards, at every grade level from Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade. Here’s a partial list:

Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take. (K-5 and 6-12 Reading Anchor Standards)

With prompting and support, compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in familiar stories and With prompting and support, identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (K Reading Standards–2)
Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories and Identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (1st grade Reading Standards–2)

Read the rest of this entry »


Google Hangouts–Are You Using Them Yet?

08 Apr

google hangoutClasstime traditionally is a static point in time. Students show up in your room. You teach for 50 minutes (or however long the period is). You may post study guides and homework on a class website, but they don’t make a lot of sense to the student who missed class because s/he was sick or out of town. Those students—you try to meet after school to catch them up, which may or may not work with your schedule or theirs. Or they get notes from friends which also may or may not work.

That has become a dated idea. Let me give you an example. My daughter invited me to participate in one of her MBA classes at the University of Maryland (with instructor permission). I’m in California; she’s in DC. Five years ago, that would have been a show-stopper, but not anymore. She broadcast the class on her iPad with her Google Hangouts (GHO) app, sent me an invite, and that’s it. I saw everything she did. When her professor accessed an internet program, I brought it up on my computer and worked along with him. When he played a TED talk, I listened on my screen. When I had a question, I typed it into the backchannel (a message board that pops up with GHO) and my daughter asked for me (since I was observing, I muted my mic).

Read the rest of this entry »


Summer PD–from Ask a Tech Teacher

02 Apr

Summer is coming, and so is Tech Training! Join me with a great group of professionals (who will quickly become your best online friends) for three weeks of intensive training on tech topics you want to learn about. All the details are below.

Note: Early Bird special for those who sign up by May 31st. Use coupon code SUMMERPD to get 10% off!

Sign up now–

  • it’s all online, but a lot of 1:1 assistance, so space is limited.
  • you get lots of the materials as soon as you sign up. Take from now until June 22nd to review them, use them in your end-of-year and next-year planning


Read the rest of this entry »


What is the 21st Century Lesson Plan?

27 Mar

lesson plansTechnology and the connected world put a fork in the old model of teaching–instructor in front of the class, sage on the stage, students madly taking notes, textbooks opened to the chapter being reviewed, homework as worksheets based on the text, tests regurgitating important facts.

Did I miss anything?

This model is outdated not because it didn’t work (many statistics show students ranked higher on global testing years ago than they do now), but because the environment changed. Our classrooms are more diverse. Students are digital natives, already in the habit of learning via technology. The ‘college and career’ students are preparing for is different so the education model must be different.

Preparing for this new environment requires radical changes in teacher lesson plans. Here are seventeen concepts you’ll want to include in your preparation:

  1. Students are graduating from high school unable to work in the jobs that are available. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to insure students learn over-arching concepts such as how to speak to a group, how to listen effectively, how to think critically, and how to solve problems. The vehicle for teaching these ideas is history, science, and literature, but they aren’t the goal.industry analyst
  2. To focus on the over-arching concepts above, make learning platform-neutral. For example, when teaching spreadsheets, make the software or online tools a vehicle for practicing critical thinking, data analysis, and evidence-based learning, not for learning one brand of software or a particular spreadsheet tool. Besides, what you use at school may not be what students have at home. You don’t want students to conflate your lessons with ‘something done at school’. You want them to apply them to their life.
  3. Morph the purpose from ‘knowing’ to ‘understanding’. Teach the process, not a skill. Students should understand why they select a particular tool, not just how to use it. Why use PowerPoint instead of a word processing program? Or a spreadsheet instead of a slideshow? Expect students to be critical thinkers, not passive learners.
  4. Transfer of knowledge is critical. What students learn in one class is applied to all classes (where relevant). For example, word study is no longer about memorizing vocabulary, but knowing how to decode unknown academic and domain-specific words using affixes, roots, and context.
  5. Collaboration and sharing is part of what students learn. They help each other by reviewing and commenting on projects before submittal to the teacher (GAFE makes that easy). The definition of ‘project’ itself has changed from ‘shiny perfect student work’ to review-edit-rewrite-submit. You grade them on all four steps, not just the last one. This makes a lot of sense–who gets it right the first time? I rewrote this article at least three times before submitting. Why expect differently from students? Plus: No longer do students submit a project that only the teacher sees (and then a few are posted on classroom bulletin boards). Now, it is shared with all classmates, so all benefit from every students’ work.collaboration
  6. Self-help methods are provided and you expect students to use them. This includes online dictionaries and thesauruses, how-to videos, and access to teacher assistance outside of class. These are available 24/7 for students, not just during classroom hours. This happens via online videos, taped class sessions, the class website, downloadable materials so students don’t worry that they ‘left it in their desk’.
  7. Teachers are transparent with parents. You let them know what’s going on in the classroom, welcome their questions and visits, communicate often via email or blogs when it’s convenient for them. That doesn’t mean you’re on duty around the clock. It means you differentiate for the needs of your parents. Your Admin understands that change by providing extended lunch hours, compensatory time off, or subs when you’re fulfilling this responsibility.App icons
  8. Failure is a learning tool. Assessments aren’t about ‘getting everything right’ but about making progress toward the goal of preparing for life
  9. Differentiation is the norm. You allow different approaches as long as students achieve the Big Idea or answer the Essential Question. You aren’t the only one to come up with these varied approaches–students know what works best for their learning and present it to you as an option.
  10. The textbook is a resource, supplemented by a panoply of books, primary documents, online sites, experts, Skype chats, and anything else that supports the topic. This information doesn’t always agree on a conclusion. Students use habits of mind like critical thinking, deep learning, and evidence-based decisions to decide on the right resources
  11. The lesson plan changes from the first day to the last–and that’s OK. It is adapted to student needs, interests, and hurdles that arise as it unfolds, while staying true to its essential question and big idea.
  12. Assessment might include a quiz or test, but it also judges the student’s transfer of knowledge from other classes, their tenacity in digging into the topic, their participation in classroom discussions, and more.big idea Light bulb  illustration icon
  13. Vocabulary is integrated into lessons, not a stand-alone topic. Students are expected to decode words in class materials that they don’t understand by using quickly-accessed online vocabulary tools, or deriving meaning from affixes, roots, and context.word study
  14. Problem solving is integral to learning. It’s not a stressful event, rather viewed as a life skill. Who doesn’t have problems every day that must be solved? Students are expected to attempt a solution using tools at their disposal (such as prior knowledge, classmates, and classroom resources) before asking for help.
  15. Digital citizenship is taught, modeled and enforced in every lesson, every day, every class. It’s no longer something covered in the ‘tech lab’ because every class has as much potential for working online as offline. Every time the lesson plan calls for an online tool or research using a search engine or a YouTube video, teachers review/remind/teach how to visit the online neighborhood safely. It’s frightening how students blithely follow weblinks to places most parent wouldn’t allow their child to visit in their neighborhood. Just as students have learned how to survive in a physical community of strangers, they must learn to do the same in a digital neighborhood.
  16. Keyboarding skills are granular. They aren’t used only in the computer lab, but in every class students take. If students are using iPads, Chromebooks, laptops, or desktops for learning, they are using keyboarding–which means they must know how to do so efficiently, quickly, and stresslessly. Since keyboarding benefits all classes, all teachers–including the librarian–become partners in this effort. I go into classrooms and show students the broad strokes; the teacher reinforces it every time the student sits down at the computer.typing on keyboard
  17. Play is the new teaching. It is a well-accepted concept for pre-schoolers and has made a successful leap to the classroom, relabeled as ‘gamification’. Use the power of games to draw students into learning and encourage them to build on their own interests. Popular games in the classroom include Minecraft, Mission US, Scratch, and others on this list. If your school is new to this concept, clear it with admin first and be prepared to support your

When I first wrote lesson plans, it was all about aligning learning with standards, completing the school’s curricula, ticking off required skills. Now, I build the habits of mind that allow for success in education and home life and construct a personal knowledge base with students that will work for their differentiated needs. Like any lesson plan, this is only difficult the first time. After that, it seems natural.

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, and dozens of books on how to integrate technology into education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, 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.

Follow me