#Edtech Goes Back-to-School

“Tell me about your biggest problems, I’d like to fix them for you.” As well-intentioned as this sounds, it is a common request from tech entrepreneurs that often frustrates educators and school leaders. And unfortunately it is still how many edtech solutions are designed and distributed.

TeacherSquare wants to flip that model by creating opportunities that bring educators together as the influencers and creators of edtech solutions. This past Saturday, in partnership with Castilleja, we co-sponsored “Edtech Goes Back-to-School,” an invite-only event targeting educators and edtech enthusiasts to stimulate conversations around how to foster better innovation from within schools. The optimist in me hopes that the top-down policies and district-level decisions will be balanced by a grassroots, bottoms-up movement and meet in a productive middle that improves learning outcomes for all.

 The activities of the day were framed around several ‘how might we…’ questions that we collectively wrote based on participants’ responses to a pre-event survey. Questions like how might we:

…make EdTech more student-driven, student-led, and student-centric?

…give developers and EdTech entrepreneurs a better opportunity to observe, interact with, and serve students and teachers?

…build a community of EdTech learners, educators, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts?

We started the event with a mini design-thinking exercise (that participants shared was ‘inspiring and productive’) lead by the brilliant minds at d.cipher. Zanette Johnson and Marilyn Cornelius met while completing their PhDs at Stanford and upon graduating launched d.cipher to ‘transform complex challenges into innovative solutions’ with a focus on climate change, education and wellness. Their passion for this work was energizing and I was so pleased to hear that several schools are going to invite them to jumpstart future PD sessions.

Throughout the day many educators expressed common opinions about their experience with edtech and these were a few questions/comments that I heard over and over:

  • How can we take the focus off the tech? (The tech is great but it’s just one aspect of teaching/learning.)
  • How can we avoid tech implementation that is just for tech’s sake? (Investing in devices without any guidance on how that will impact teaching and learning.)
  • How can we be innovative while working in highly constrained systems, specifically with standardized test, grades, A-G requirements (It is not impossible but requires a certain mindset.)
  • Extracting meaning from the data is the biggest challenge and opportunity

This event would not have taken place without the energy and leadership of Gabe Lucas, Director of Technology at Castilleja and while it was hosted at an affluent private school, the audience and conversations spanned all levels of preK-12 and school types (district, charter, private, parochial.)

We often hear complaints about teachers being behind the times or not open to trying new approaches in their classrooms. This is not always true and I’m constantly inspired by the educators I meet who are leaning in to their PLNs and experimenting with different approaches. Events like this bring PLNs to life and are necessary steps in the right direction.

My hope is that one or more of the attendees will take a new idea and experiment with implementing that in their school and I’d gladly showcase those efforts here in a future post. If you’re interested in fostering a conversation like this in your school community, please join the TeacherSquare Community on Google+ or reach out on twitter @TeacherSquare.

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Ryan Kinser: From TV Production to Teacherpreneur

In the first of my ongoing Teacherpreneur Spotlight series with EdSurge on innovative educators who take initiative to experiment with new teaching practices and tech tools, we look at Ryan Kinser, 8th grade English teacher at Walker Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL.

Ryan Kinser bio pic

Ryan Kinser stumbled upon his passion for education the second time around. After an extensive career in the TV production world he found himself recruited into the DC Teaching Fellows Program. After an incredibly challenging first year, leaving school each day exhausted and emotionally spent, Ryan considered that maybe teaching wasn’t the right fit. But, for some reason that did not sit well with him. “I loved the few moments that I was teaching and not just trying to tread water.”

After moving to Tampa, FL, like any good student he decided to give it another try. He found a Walker Middle Magnet School, a school with strong leadership that recognized the value of his business background, and this time was different. Through strong mentorship Ryan realized “I started to find out what kind of teacher I could be and I loved it. A big piece of that was mentorship, which is SO critical to attracting and retaining the best teaching talent.”

Ryan’s teacher turnaround story doesn’t end there. In 2010 he was a finalist for Hillsborough Teacher of the Year which helped him catch the attention of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Ryan joined CTQ as one of their handful of teacherpreneurs in a hybrid role where he maintains his role in the classroom during morning hours and spends his afternoons focusing on his areas of interest: advancing teacher leadership, developing PLNs/VLCs and supporting the edtech ecosystem. The truly liberating piece is that CTQ works with the district and school to negotiate Ryan’s release for the 2nd half of the day, over which he has full autonomy to define his contribution as a teacherpreneur. Those afternoon hours are often focused on blogging, research as well as various speaking engagements and advising local, state and national stakeholders on the importance of empowering more teacherpreneurs.



Sounds pretty amazing, huh? Of course my immediate question was how do we create more opportunities like this for teachers across the country. CTQ has been looking at various ways to scale their efforts through their virtual community which current engages 1500 teacher leaders nationwide. In his teacherpreneur role, one of Ryan’s tasks is to think about working with other districts and next year Tampa will be rolling out 15 new spots supported with Title 1 funds.

Edtech Insights

You may find it surprising that a middle school English teacher’s favorite edtech tool is Code HS, a platform for teaching high school students how to code, which he became deeply familiar with after mentoring the Imagine K12 startup last fall. “We are rethinking literacy- what does it mean to write and create in an online world and coding is a big aspect of that shift.” In 2012 Ryan received one of 10 Magnet School of America grants nationwide, which he used to conduct a mobile app-building project with his students. This game is an example of one what student created during that project. Creating this opportunity for his students illustrates how teachers can (and must) fill in their own tech gaps rather than waiting for instruction or professional development to find them.

Beyond the tech, connecting in the offline world is equally important to supporting the teacherpreneur process. Having the chance to speak and travel to various education conferences (which could be it’s own full time gig) I asked Ryan which ones he found most beneficial. “I found the scope and number of teachers at ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching) really impressive.” Another one that stood out for him was FETC (Florida Education Tech Conference.) Both of these have already passed for 2013, but looking to the rest of year Ryan will definitely be at ISTE in San Antonio in June, and of course, EdSurge will be there, too. While these events can be effective what is really needed is for “more teachers to publicize what they are doing. There is such a silo of education, we don’t step outside our classroom doors.”

Now let’s hear a bit from Ryan directly:

With the explosion of social media tools no one has to wait to attend a conference to learn about a new tool or share their favorite trick. What are your favorite social communication tools?

I love Twitter and that’s how I get most of my information. I lurked around for 9 months before I sent my first tweet and often share that with teachers that are new to Twitter. It’s easy to be a lurker, which is low-risk and potentially high-reward. With my VLC work I am a big YouTube and Google+/HangoutsOnAir fan. Honorable mention to Edmodo, SlideShare and LiveScribe.

What advice do you have to new teachers and/or aspiring teacherpreneurs?

They have to be their own advocate. Do the work and make sure it’s needed by someone else. Be a self-advocate. Get connected with other teachers, with social media it’s impossible not to connect someone that knows someone else. Once you’re doing the work you’re passionate about, find the people who can advocate with and on your behalf.

Also, teachers need to be vulnerable and learn alongside their students. If you’re not adaptable, then there is no use for you in the classroom.

What efforts would you like to see that would truly advance the role of teacherpreneurs?

Meetups are important in regional pockets but what I’d love to see is a widespread exchange program– teachers rotate through an edtech program which also allows entrepreneurs to spend time in the classroom. I’ve been working closely with CodeHS to connect them with my educator network and would love to see this type of edtech-educator exchange on a grander scale.

One program I created at my school to help teachers get more comfortable with tech is small group office hours. I get 10-15 people together and we have a casual and customized conversation about Google Hangouts, Dropbox, etc… They are optional but I invite specific groups of teachers based on their needs and discuss how certain tools can make their teaching lives easier. I hook them by asking questions like “Have you thought about expanding the walls of your classroom? Stop by for 20 min and I’ll show you how.”

(Ryan Kinser can be reached at rkinser@teachingquality.org and followed on Twitter @RyanKinser. He also blogs for CTQ’s TransformEd and Impatient Optimists.)