The power of community

The Student Council at Duxbury High School composed the phrased “Define Your Legacy” as the catchphrase to frame their efforts for the 2016-2017 school year.  Student Council President Emily M. took that phrase as a challenge and used it to inspire an idea she had about bringing seniors citizens into our school, into our classrooms to participate in discussions with our current senior students.  In early October, Emily began meeting with the school administration, with leaders in our community, as well as with teachers who might be interested in participating, adopting a highly collaborative and professional approach to making this idea a reality.  On Friday, November 18th, 2016, a group of about a dozen members of the Duxbury Senior Center came to Duxbury High School and spent the day touring the facility, observing classes and student demonstrations, and engaging in thoughtful discussions on the past, present and future of teaching and learning in Duxbury.

The group of visitors arrived just after 9:00 am and was greeted by representatives of the student body, faculty and administration.  Mr. Stephens, principal of DHS, welcomed the group over coffee and light refreshments in our Breadboard area located in the central concourse of the school that we like to refer to as “Main Street.”  During this meet and greet, Emily paired each visitor with a junior or senior student who would act as a personal guide for the remainder of the day.  Soon after, the principal led the group on a tour of the facilities, giving some insights into the construction process and how the plan for the building was developed collaboratively by the building committee a few years ago.  The tour made a lengthy stop in the music suite and visitors were able to observe rehearsals by the symphonic orchestra and string orchestra.  Visitors were introduced to Mr. Ric Madru, director of the music program, who gave them an overview of all the programs offered and answered questions as they came up.  The tour continued on to the wood shop where our Tech. Ed. teacher, Mr. Files showed the group around the woodshop and then introduced the group to members of the Robotics Team.  The group was amazed while viewing a demonstration of the team’s robot which was remotely controlled by one of the students to play soccer with members of the visiting group.

The robotics demonstration was followed by classroom visits.  Each visitor was given a choice as to the types of classes they were interested in visiting–choosing among AP English Literature, AP English Language, AP Biology, US History II, and AP Calculus.  For this part of the program, each visitor traveled with their personal student guide and had a chance to interact and engage with students and the teacher of the classes they visited.  Most visitors were able to spend about 30 minutes in two different classes.

The visitors enjoyed lunch provided by the student chefs of the Breadboard kitchen in the faculty dining room.  This was a good opportunity for visitors to talk informally with teachers, administrators and students about the new building, teaching and learning, or the wonderful food on the menu.

After lunch, visitors, students, teachers and administrators participated in a round-table discussion during which all participants could ask questions and share insights about how education has changed over the years.  The group was delighted to listen to Mrs. Mary Ciccarelli give a wonderful presentation about the history of Duxbury High School and how teaching methods have developed over the years and how the educational values are reflected in the architecture of the buildings that have housed schools over the decades.

At the end of the day, all who participated raved about the experience!  The leadership of the Senior Center and the Duxbury Student Government in collaboration with the DHS Administration have committed to running this program for more members of the senior center in the Spring.  In the end, this intergenerational learning opportunity is on its way to becoming a part of the fabric of Duxbury High School, ensuring that Emily M. has gone a long way towards Defining her Legacy and proving the power of community!


As the descriptions and images of the carnage in Paris pour across our screens and our hearts go out to the families of the innocent, it is important for us to think of our children and our students.  While the candidates and commentators build up their own rankings by fanning the flames of vengeance and blame, we have to find a way to be attentive to the concerns and questions of our students.  Most educators do a fine job of keeping their own personal political opinions out of the discussion when they are carrying out the planned curriculum. It is a little more challenging when we have to face questions about the terrible tragedies that happen over the weekend, whether they happen in our towns or across the world.  Before smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle, we could hope that our students would not know about these terrible events.  Now we are obliged to assume that kids have heard the news or have seen a few of the front-page images that appear automatically when apps are opened or TV channels are surfed across.  We must face this discussion courageously with our students.  We must stay true to our mission by hearing all sides and considering all points of view.  We must, as we aspire to do every day while guiding our students through inquiry, be comfortable in posing questions that do not have clear, unambiguous answers.  We must allow students the space to grapple with these questions and allow them to hear the thoughts and opinions of their peers.  We must caution them to not jump to conclusions or label large populations of people based on the actions of a few.  We must encourage them to hold fast to the values that we hold dear.  We must encourage them to stand with all people across the world who hold similar values. We must encourage them to stand with our fellows who are struggling against a common enemy of intolerance. By engaging in this discussion with our student, we stand with the people of Paris as they mourn the dead, care for the injured, and comfort the traumatized.

image credit: Justin Minggan Wei

Microsoft Education’s Top 5 Free Tools for Teachers

I’ve been out of my building all this week to attend a Microsoft Innovative Educator Training Workshop to become a Trainer in Microsoft tools for education.  Having been an avid user of OneDrive for over a year now, at the beginning of the week, I thought, “how on earth is there enough content to fill up four days?”  My mind was completely blown by the depth and breadth of Microsoft’s offerings.

Below is a my own ranking of tools we learned about on Days 1 & 2, with a description in my own words as to what this tool is all about and how it might be useful to teachers in the classroom:

1. OneDrive--In our district, we have have been “on the cloud” for a couple of years now.  However, just because we all had a little training, doesn’t mean that you know everything.  Learning takes time you learn as you use it.  What I know about OneDrive today is much greater than two years ago because I have made it part of my daily routine and keep all my professional docs on it.  The advantage of putting all my docs up on OneDrive is that I can have access to them from any device.  As a teacher, you may always have a desktop or a laptop in your classroom, so you might think you don’t need to have your docs on the cloud, but if you have them on the cloud, you can share them with students without having to be always dependent on printing and photocopying.  The power of OneDrive for teachers happens when you use it as an organization or district so that all students, teacher and staff members have an account with free storage, email, and a whole “waffle” of tools that are available for free using online versions.  Here’s a screen clipping of “the waffle” (made with Snip):


Be patient because when you are new to the cloud, seeing all these tools can be overwhelming. But don’t be afraid to try out new tools! Microsoft has a multitude of trading videos available and there’s a whole network of Microsoft Innovative Educators out on social media (#miechat) who are there to help.

2. OneNote–I have been using this tool as a three ring binder to keep track of all my notes for everything I do at work.  I wish this tool was around when I was a teacher, because now there are versions for teachers One Note Class Notebook and for administrators, One Note Staff Notebook, to have everything all in one place.  What I like about OneNote is that I can drag and drop content right into it, I can include voice and video clips, printouts of emails all cataloged and saved in a searchable way so that I can find that info easily.  Because it’s linked to the cloud, I can find those notes on any device at any time and I can share notebooks and set permissions for who sees what and who can add and edit info.

3. Office Mix (Add on for Powerpoint)--The name here is a bit confusing, but this tool is essentially an add-on to Powerpoint.  I’m excited about this add-on mainly because many teachers already use Powerpoint to deliver content.  Office Mix allows teachers to make their existing ppts interactive by adding video, voice-overs, ink-overs and employs analytics when shared inside an organization.  Office mix will allow teachers to flip the classroom, pushing content out that is rich and interactive to students at home, while also being able to make sure students are doing it, interacting and completely viewing through the analytics feature. You can download the free add-on by going to and clicking the download button. Here’s a demo video that will do a much better job of explaining Mix than I could ever do!

4. Sway–This is a free tool that appears on your Office 365 “waffle” that allows you to easily create rich content and push it out to students, parents, colleagues who can view it on any device.  This tool allows you to drag and drop photos, videos and clips from the web, add text, organize and arrange and then share easily.  This tool facilitates digital storytelling.  I made a sample Sway that is kind of like an About Me, which could also be thought of as a digital resume, even though I did not put any work experience on mine.  I set the sharing settings to “anyone with the link” and then pushed out the link.  It looks good on any device.  So teachers could use this to present short bursts of information, or to arrange a deck of photos for a lesson.  Students could use this easily to do class presentations. Here’s link to a tutorial on YouTube.

5. Delve–This is one of the tools inside your Office 365 homepage.  Delve is helpful when you share a lot of documents inside an organization.  If your organization share documents saved on OneDrive around, like meeting agendas, policy docs, etc, or if you are a teacher and share documents with your students who also have OneDrive accounts.  It becomes difficult to keep track of all the docs that are being shared.  Clicking on Delve allows you to see your Delve homepage and then along the left side all the people within your organization that you share with.  You can click on the person and see all the docs you collaborate on together.  The layout of Delve also allows you create boards, much like Pinterest, to keep stuff organized.  If you are using the O365 Cloud, Delve learns about all the ways you use the cloud and organizes your whole interface and your top collaborators right there in one place.


And one for good luck… Excel Survey–I’m starting to use this more in more as an assistant principal to collect information for a variety of stakeholders.  I used it last June to put a link up on our school website to collect info from parents attending the graduation ceremony.  Teachers could use Excel Surveys to do formative assessments of students, who may access the survey using any web-connected device, collect information from parents on Back-to-School Night, or do worksheets, quizzes, or tests in a computer lab or with a laptop cart.  The survey allows teachers to create and manage a spreadsheet full of information collected from a variety of users.  Don’t look any further than the menu ribbon inside of Excel. Or while logged into OneDrive, click on “+” and select Excel Survey.”

Collaboration in Cyberspace

In order to foster genuine collaboration in the classroom, a skilled teacher will focus on creating the right conditions in the class that will allow students to work together effectively.  Students have to know that they are accountable for doing or not doing their work.  They have to trust in the teacher by following the parameters of the project.  Students have to have adequate time to get to know their group-mates, so they get a sense of each other’s strengths that can help the group succeed, as well as how the group can help remedy or offset any weaknesses in any of the individual members.  To be able to get to this point, students have to let their guards down and trust each other.

The same is true on social media in cyberspace.

Some people will immediately dismiss this premise because they don’t believe that there can be any genuine collaboration among strangers on the internet.  They see the internet as a valuable source of information and they might even buy into being able to connect to people in a meaningful way, but more so as a way to facilitate real-world, face-to-face relationships.

As an educator who has worked in the classroom throughout the rise of the internet, I have noticed a clear evolution.  In classrooms of yesterday, we used the internet to access information and communicate with folks that we mainly had relationships with in our schools or communities.

Now, we can develop and maintain collaborative relationships with people we never meet with face-to-face.  These relationships can be just as beneficial and real as those we have with people we work with or go to school with.  In order to develop these kinds of relationships, we need time to get to know our collaborators in cyber-space.  That’s where social networks come in.  These are the spaces in which we can frequent our collaborators. We develop our own Personal Learning Networks, which are the equivalent of the small groups we work with in the classroom. We need time to get to know the strengths of our colleagues.  We can build teams in cyberspace the same way we build teams in the classroom and workplace.  In order for these teams to be “real,” each user must be “real.”  This is why I advocate using one’s full name in one’s Twitter handle.  When people Tweet on behalf of an institution or when they take on an alias, it hinders genuine collaboration because it prohibits your potential collaborators from knowing the real person behind the account.  It’s ok to protect one’s privacy, especially if the users are minors.  I am not in favor of requiring students to use their full names when social media is used in the classroom.  But as long everyone in the class knows each of the usernames, they will be able to get to know the person behind it.  When reaching out to others across the globe on social media, it is important to be yourself, even if you only use your first name.  This will help people connect to you.

So if you haven’t already figured it out, this is another push in support of joining and using social networks as spaces that foster collaboration with colleagues.  That’s what many educators are using blogs like this one for, as well as Twitter, Facebook, and G+ as well.

Please let me know what you think!


in the pipeline

photograph by Nathan Smith
photograph by Nathan Smith

As the end of the school year approaches, teachers start to panic about whether it will be possible to cover all the required material.  Students worry if they will be ready for final exams.  Parents hope that everything turns out ok and seek confirmation wherever they can find it.

I wanted to write a brief update to let parents know what we’re up to and how they can help.

My juniors are finishing reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and will be writing diligently in the weeks to come.  The writing is personal, reflective writing and the forum is public. They are writing from the heart for a wider audience about finding oneself through solitude, reading, and reflective writing.

You can help by checking out our project blog, reading through the requirements, clicking through the student blogs, and trying to find your student’s blog.  Then you can initiate a dialogue with your student about their ideal trip and what they hope to learn about themselves on this virtual journey.

Junior SAM students are finishing Into the Wild this week and starting on their blog project next week, when I will set them up with their own blogs.  You can talk to your student about his/her journal and ideas for the trip.  Please let me know if he/she reports that he/she might need some extra support.

Sophomores have been reading some great books:  Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, & The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  Here’s a link to our group page on Goodreads.  Students wrote an in-class synthesis essay, one of the capstone skills of sophomore year, that uses evidence from two or three texts to support an original insight.

As we head toward our final Globalization Project, students will be intensely reviewing grammar while reading short stories by Bharati Mukerjee, Jhumpa Lahiri & Salman Rushdie.

If you would like to read about the interdisciplinary Globalization Project, click here to visit our MGC edublog.

You can support your student by asking him/her to explain the project and his/her role in the group.  He/she should also be able to show your the group blog and what they’ve done this year on their group “watch” blogs.

I apologize for not keeping in better contact!  I’ve found it a challenge to keep this blog updated while also getting the other class blogs up and running smoothly.  I hope you bookmark those sites, visit often, and please leave comments!

Thanks, as always, for your wonderful support!

Sophomore Global Students Launch Blogs

I’ve been insanely busy in the week since my last post.  I never got around to sending a link to the new post to parents on my email list, so if you’ve been out of touch with me for a couple of weeks, get ready for a lot of information!

I am proud to announce that my sophomore students have worked diligently over the past few days to put up blogs that focus on human rights issues in five geographic areas of the globe.  We have a class blog that is like the central hub for the student blogs, but  as of now, there’s only one post on it explaining the project on which the students collaborated.  I decided to host the blogs on because its focus on educational users and also because it is associated with WordPress.  I figured I would be able to leverage my knowledge of the WordPress platform since I’ve been learning it by trial and error here on teachingcontext.  Looking back over the past three days supporting students as they composed their group blogs, I realize that they are now more skilled at it than I!  I look forward to one day inviting a few of my students to post reflections on their blogging experiences here on this blog.

Our class blog is called  When you click on the previous link, a new tab should open and you will see a banner across the top of the page with links to the five student-produced blogs:  Sub-Saharan Africa Watch, Americas & Oceania Watch, Asia Watch, Europe Watch,  & Middle East & North Africa Watch.

Please take some time to look through these blogs.  Please feel welcome to leave a comment.  Our students would love some feedback, especially if you have a question, find a fact-error, or have an issue with something they wrote about.  These are the kinds of comments that they will learn from.

We have taken strides to keep personal information off the blogs, as they are open to the web and indexed by search engines.  Each student was given a unique username that we could all identify each student by, but would not reveal last names to visitors.  I’ve asked students to make sure that photographs taken by students are anonymized as much as possible.

Some sophomore students have taken the initiative to create Twitter accounts for the purpose of marketing their blogs and getting readers to visit their pages.  Some of my sophomore and junior students already have Twitter accounts and some of them use their full names in their profiles. I encourage parents to visit their kid’s Twitter page and to talk to them about internet safety.  Everything on Twitter is open and users should be aware that their profiles are open to all Twitter users, unless the account is set up as “protected.”

I have reminded all of my students lately of our schools internet policy, most importantly to come forward if they receive a message that makes them uncomfortable.  Please help me in reiterating the importance of being careful about what one posts, vigilant about deleting inappropriate comments or followers who are not known, and proactive in standing up to protect the safety and integrity of the community.

Coming next week, an update on how some of my junior students are using web tools for presentations in class…

As always, I appreciate your support and look forward to hearing from you either by email or in the comments that you can post here.

Educational Technology Inventory

Good evening, readers!  

I wanted to make an annotated list of the tools we are currently using in English class so that you:

1. are kept up-to-date with what’s going on in class

2. can explore these tools for yourself

3. can offer to help your student if/when a problem arises

Before I get into the list, I wanted to acknowledge a concern raised by a couple of different parents via email regarding my previous post.  I encourage students to use the mobile apps for the tools listed below, but I don’t mean to imply that having a smartphone is required.  All of these  tools are web-based so all students can have access with an internet connection. I understand and respect that some families have decided against smartphones for their own reasons.  I’m still an English teacher with full curricula for each of my courses. I am merely looking for ways to bring technology into our practice to help with efficiency, communication and collaboration.

That said, I’m really excited to report on our uses of the following web tools:

1.  Edmodo  This is our class social network.  As a parent, you can get access to this by asking your student for his/her “parent access code.”  Or you can just ask your kid to show you what it looks like.  I post assignments, notes, and links that the whole class can view.  I update grades so that each student can view his/her grades as they are entered.  In Global class last Friday, we did a fishbowl discussion with 44 students.  There were 10 or so students sitting at a table in the center of a large circle having a discussion about the rights and responsibilities that go along with citizenship.  The 34 students on the outside circle used their smartphones to post their “notes” on the discussion.  At the end of the discussion, we had a very good transcript of the discussion on edmodo so students are able to return to it and reference it for further study. This has a handy iPhone app that allows students to get notifications, communicate with me directly and see their grades.

2.  Goodreads  All of my students from all four of my classes have created accounts, added books, begun reading, and posted comments on their reading.  My Juniors selected books on their own, so there’s a wide range of books being read.  I did notice that in both junior classes, there were small groups of students who decided to read the same book.  This is encouraging to me as it shows that (some) students like being able to talk about a book with others who are reading the same book.  My sophomore global students were asked to select one or two books from a list of 8-10 books that Dr. Russell and I came up with.  These books are thematically relevant to our first term study of the rights and responsibilities of global citizenship.  This too has a decent app that allows students to make progress updates right from their phone after they finish reading.

3.  Newton Public Schools has purchased a subscription for all English classes at South to use this site.  This site helps us teach students to maintain academic integrity, while also providing us with an efficient interface to grade and comment on student writing.  So far my junior SAM class and my soph global classes have written and submitted papers here and my junior 1s will be doing so shortly.  Even with this nifty tool, it still takes me on average about 20-30 minutes per paper to read, comment and grade.

4.  Diigo  This tool helps me share links to online readings with students.  Students log on to the site and enter our group page, which is closed only to members of the class.  Students can use a diigo toolbar to highlight, annotate, and engage in discussion with their classmates on the reading.  When ever you return to that page, you see the notes of all your classmates, which will make studying for exams a little easier.  Students also can return to see their highlighted quotations so that they can include them in papers and projects.

Diigo is a great way to save and organize bookmarks of all the reading you may do on the web.  I have linked my Diigo account with my Twitter account.  Whenever I favorite or retweet something that I read on Twitter, it gets saved and tagged automatically to my Diigo account.  This is extremely helpful to those of us who use the web for professional purposes.  I encourage students to use it to keep track of their research and  annotated readings for all classes.  If they start now, they will be able to use Diigo throughout college as a way to track everything they have read on the web!

So far that has been it.  It hasn’t been easy getting everyone connected, but it has been a thrill seeing students run with these tools.

I’ve been communicating with parents on my school email: as well as my gmail:  I’ve added students and parents into separate “circles” on google+, but I still haven’t quite figure out what G+ is all about yet.  If you use it and see the benefit, please comment and share!

For those of you who have been reading this blog steadily, thanks for your supportive comments!

And to those who might be here for the first time, I invite you to get in touch with me and keep me updated about how your student is getting along with these tools so far.  

I can’t be an effective teacher without supportive and engaged parents, so thanks for all you are doing!


I got an email today from the father of one of my sophomores in which he confessed that he doesn’t have the need to connect to me in more ways than the good old fashioned telephone or email.  I genuinely appreciate this kind of candor, and I intend to meet that parent where he is on the technology continuum.  If email and telephone calls work for him, they work for me too!

I just want to offer the parents of all my students options so communicating with me is easy. If communicating is easy, then I can become aware of issues as they arise.  Some parents might be using social media like Twitter or Google+ at work or on their mobile devices; therefore it might be a quick way to get a heads up.  Some parents might have their own WordPress blogs and so commenting might be very easy.  I have the blog and Twitter so parents don’t have to contact me if they are merely curious about what their kid is doing in English class.  They can browse this blog weekly or once in a while, without having to feel like they are bothering anyone.  I dutifully write this blog weekly and so far I am thrilled when I get a response with a supportive comment or a question.  So please, feel free to contact me however you feel most comfortable.

This week, I wanted to briefly detail how we use Edmodo.  Edmodo is a free web-based piece of software that is similar to Blackboard used at some area universities. It allows me to communicate with my students about assignments, to post assignments and quizzes, to keep track of grades, and also to directly message students in a closed, safe online environment. Kids generally feel comfortable with it because it looks and feels a lot like Facebook.  I don’t use Facebook, mostly because I am not of the generation that came of age with it.  I know there is a debate among educators to use Facebook for school activities, but I am not among these educators.  Right now, having used it for two weeks with 75 students, I can report that most students are comfortable with it.  There are still a few who are having trouble with it and that’s why I’m enlisting parents to help verify that their student is able to connect and navigate on edmodo easily.  If they are not, please contact me immediately and I will sit down one-on-one with those students.

I invite you to take a look!  I do ask, however, that you talk to your student about whether or not he/she feels comfortable with you setting up a parent account.  Parent accounts allow parents to view all the course content (assignments, grades, comments, etc) without the students really ever seeing you there. I don’t think students have anything to fear from their parents having accounts, but some students might want to “do it on their own” and so I encourage you to have this discussion with your son or daughter.  If your son/daughter is comfortable with it, he/she can give you the personalized “parent access code” that appears on their edmodo homepage.  Here are some instructions on how to activate parent accounts.

What I like so far about Edmodo is that I can post assignments there with due dates and students can submit directly there.  This cuts down on the shuffling of papers coming in and going out during class.  I like that.  It also allows me to grade work immediately and students can see their grades immediately.  This of course puts the onus on me to keep up with it, but with access even from my smartphone, I find that I can work from remote locations, like when I’m at the playground with my kids and I have a few minutes on the park bench to read a couple papers.

While this will help keep better track of nightly homework, I don’t expect it to make my job of reading, responding to, and grading student essays any easier.  The school has been using a subscription-based service called Turnitin for the past two or three years now and I’ve been pleased with the grading interface, even though students still complain that it takes forever to get back their essays.

Even with the aid of all these new technologies, I expect that it will still take me two to three weeks to finish grading a class set of essays.  The only benefit of using the online system is that students can get results as I grade, whereas when I grade by hand, I don’t hand back papers until I’ve finished grading all of them.

Getting back to Edmodo, I am not very impressed with the gradebook functions.  I am not able to calculate weighted grades on Edmodo.  I’ve been doing weighted grades for about ten years now so I have to get comfortable with the point system again.  Right now, I’m telling myself that I’ll see how the gradebook works on Edmodo for term 1 and if I’m unsatisfied with it, I will switch to Engrade, which many of my colleagues use.

One other feature that Edmodo has is access to a support community of educators who use it.  I will post a few questions to that community to see if there is a way to get more out of the seemingly simplistic grade book.  I’ll keep you posted on that one.  You don’t have to worry that any of this means that student grades might suffer. I always keep a paper back up and this discussion is about which platform I use to do all the calculations.  So far, Edmodo is working because it allows students immediate access to their grades so they know how they’re doing at all times, as long as their teacher keeps up with the grading.

Keeping up with the posting of grades has been the biggest challenge with my junior SAM and my MGC classes, mostly because I have given students the choice to hand hw in on edmodo or on paper in class.  Because I then have to sift through stacks of paper and then scroll and click through pages of turned in assignments on Edmodo, I have been slower to post grades.

But I”m working on it!  I’m confident that once I’m certain that students are comfortable using Edmodo and know how to reach me for help, it will make us more productive with our class time.

And so far, I have enjoyed every minute in class with your wonderful kids!