"Every year, I say I'm too busy to learn something new. But I'm not busy right now. What techie stuff can I do now that will help this year?"
The enemy of innovation and growth is routine. These auspicious weeks before the school year commences are the perfect time to create a new routine that will ensure innovation in your instruction and growth as an instructor. Here's my advice to colleagues who want to take advantage of these next few weeks to guarantee the best year they've ever had.
1. Move beyond the textbook
Textbooks are by nature restrictive. The chapter order is an imposition; the information within the book is only as current as the publication date. If you can, liberate yourself from the book! If you don't have the luxury of foregoing textbooks altogether, you can still supplement them.
The first step is to choose a destination for the resources. If your school doesn't already use a Learning Management System like Moodle or Blackboard, there are some excellent, free resources. Edmodo looks and feels a bit like Facebook but with education-friendly features like assignment postings, quizzes, due dates, and more. If you'd prefer more customizability and care less about the aesthetics of your destination you could build a wiki with your students on Wikispaces.
Once you set up your destination, you can begin to aggregate content and resources. I like to put a few resources up for the beginning of the year, but then I typically invite students to contribute much of the material thereafter--an excellent strategy for enriching students' learning. For instance, you might have students find interesting websites that relate to the themes of each chapter of the text. Students can then guide the class with their discoveries. You could have students rewrite sections of the textbook based on these resources and collect the best submissions in a wiki that becomes a sort of "living" textbook for your particular class. You can even invite students to discuss subject-related Youtube videos in an Edmodo discussion board, then pick up the discussion in class the next morning as a warm-up. Now is the best time to work out the kinks in these platforms (of which there are only a very few) and develop unit plans that make full use of them. You'll thank yourself later (as will the students)!
2. Become an expert in one tool
There are at least half a dozen apps and software for every job. Should I use Diigo, Delicious, eduClipper, Pinterest, or BagTheWeb to collect my links? Is Photoshop, GIMP, Pixlr, or FotoFlexer the right photo-editing software for me? It's overwhelming, and there really is no single right answer. (For the record, though, I like Diigo because of its iOS app and GIMP because it's both free and powerful.) So pick one class of tools and become a ninja in how to use one of the leading tools in that class. Skills from one platform are transferable to the others. You will benefit from learning everything about whatever tool you choose.
3. Read about all things education!
In the middle of the school year, a good novel sounds much more compelling than a book on education. But books on pedagogical theory can influence your instruction in meaningful and enduring ways even if they are short on immediate, practical advice. Reading books about math pedagogy have helped me teach more linear, logical concepts like cause and effect analysis using timelines or even Roman battle strategies. Here are my favorite books from my summer reading list:
4. Revisit your homework strategy
Flipping is not just for math. The essential justification for flipping – that is, utilizing technology to redistribute tasks between homework and classwork to make both more meaningful – can benefit any class. Are there individual activities that you could turn into homework in order to devote more attention to students in class? Is there a tangential class discussion that you want to continue but can't justify doing during precious class time?
To flip your lectures, you will need some kind of software. Camtasia is the crème de la crème of flipping software, but it's expensive. An alternative is to film your lecture with your phone, edit it with Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie, and post it to Youtube as an unlisted video, and use the discussion board to allow your students to ask and answer questions.
But you don't necessarily need to post a lecture on-line to flip your class. Any aspect of your class can be flipped. I had one colleague who taught English who asked her students to conduct discussions of each reading assignment on her Edmodo page. Some students were responsible for posting a discussion question, others for being first responders, and others for posting follow-ups. Then, every student had to respond to another discussion thread also. The roles rotated and were staggered over a few days so that timing issues were minimized. We found that the students retained the reading better when they had to engage with their classmates immediately. In class, they would apply their understanding of the reading in some creative endeavor like a skit and discuss the essential meaning of the text at the very end of class. The extra time afforded to the students by the meaningful work they did the night before allowed them to access the core of the text much more effectively.
5. Make a professional development schedule
My former principal used to tell the kids: "Ask for it and you just might get it!" The same sentiment applies to teachers. Funds are limited in every school and they become increasingly scarce as the school year progresses. Get your requests in now. Look for major conferences in your nearest city and peruse the blogs, Twitter, and EdSurge for other educators' assessments of previous year's events. To demonstrate your genuine commitment to regular PD, also "attend" some free webinars such as these from ASCD or these from EdWeek. Watch TED talks about education and peruse Teaching Channel for lesson plan inspiration. Your administrators will be more inclined to encourage your continued learning, and you will get that much-needed "shot in the arm" on a regular basis.
Your teaching is only as good as your learning. During the madness of a school year, it is very difficult to begin any new endeavor that doesn't relate directly to your class. So use these final dog days of summer to set yourself up to be a learner for the rest of the year.
Ben Stern writes the "Because You Asked" column for EdSurge. He is also the Technology Integrationist for a middle school in New York City. Earlier in his career, he revamped his curriculum using computers and the Internet, replacing textbooks with scholarly sources and leveraging the connectivity afforded by the Internet to contextualize content. Since then, Ben has found a passion in the evolution of education through technology and works to help teachers enhance their curriculum wherever possible. You can follow him on Twitter at @EdTechBSt