Category Archives: Technology in Schools

Using BrainPOP with summarizing and notetaking

Think back to your K-12 years. Did someone actually teach you how to take notes? If so, in which grade were you?My earliest memory of actually being taught how to take useful notes (formal outlining aside) was in my biology class in high school. Our teacher had her trusty overhead projector and would stop during her lecture to capture key points of what she had just said. She didn’t use Roman numerals or capital letters, but rather a series of bullet points, arrows, stars, etc. She would ask us to jot down these items along with her and to draw small sketches out to the side to help us remember processes and concepts.

I remember her stating at the end of the lecture, “By the end of this unit, I don’t want your notes to look just as they do now. I want to see underlines, highlights, arrows…I want to know that you actually used them to help you study.”

Little did she realize that she was following the classroom recommendations that would eventually be published in Classroom Instruction that Works:

  1. Give students teacher-prepared notes.
  2. Teach students a variety of note-taking formats. (She demonstrated informal outlining, webbing, and using pictures, knowing that different students would prefer different styles of notetaking.)
  3. Use combination notes. (She combined linguistic and non-linguistic representation of what we were learning.)

Students even as young as kindergarten learn to draw pictures to help them remember what they’ve studied. By upper elementary, students can, and should, have opportunities to see what good notes look like, for example, how to indent to show subordinate details.

BrainPOP movies and features include great resources to teach notetaking. They provide introductions to a wide variety of subjects and explain key vocabulary terms for students (using images, animations, audio, and print). They can also serve to review a topic already covered. All of BrainPOP’s movies have closed captioning. This feature, with any student, is an excellent literacy and visual reinforcement. Pausing at a key concept during a movie and inviting students to put the concept in their own words, or drawing a quick sketch to represent the concept, gives students the support they need to successfully learn and remember concepts. Each of BrainPOP’s short, animated videos offers ample opportunities to pause for discussions and time for students to take notes.

For example, a teacher may wish for her students to watch the movie on Franklin D. Roosevelt as they begin their unit on the Great Depression. Before watching the movie, she provides her students with a skeletal outline (see below). She may also choose to model notetaking on the typeable BrainPOP Vocabulary page, or do some shared writing with the class before handing out copies. Teachers may pick and choose notetaking tools provided on BrainPOP (closed captioninggraphic organizersvocabulary) and use these to scaffold student learning during the movie.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

  • Which number president? _________
  • Served 19__ – 19__
  • served ______ terms
  • The Great __________ was happening when FDR took office
  • “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” What do you think this means?
  • Four key points of the New Deal in the movie
    • Unemployed ____________
    • Farmers _____________________
    • The stock market ________________
    • The banking system ____________
  • Vocabulary terms to know
    • Social Security ____________
    • fireside chats ____________
    • Eleanor Roosevelt ____________
    • isolationism ____________
    • United Nations ____________


By using a resource such as BrainPOP, students can watch a segment as often as they need in order to capture the main ideas. BrainPOP provides graphic organizers and activities that can serve to scaffold the process of summarizing, paraphrasing, and notetaking. Eventually, students will not need these scaffolding tools, but will be able to capture key ideas on their own. Instilling strong notetaking skills is a lifelong gift we can give to students.

Are you a BrainPOP Educator? Sign up today for BrainPOP Educators, our free professional community, where teachers can find and share innovative lesson plans, graphic organizers, video tutorials, and best classroom practices. You may contact Allisyn Levy at allisynl [at] brainpop [dot] com

by Elizabeth Hubbell, Educational Technology Consultant at McREL, and Allisyn Levy, Director of BrainPOP Educators
(*Note: this post is the second of a series of collaborative posts between BrainPOP Educators and McREL’s Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. These articles will be cross-posted on the McREL Blog and on BrainPOP Educators Blog.)


Creating demand for educational technology integration

In our work at McREL, we get a lot of inquires about creating demand for educational technology integration. Some school leaders struggle with how to get their teachers to utilize technology to its full potential. Often they are just missing a few pieces of the puzzle that if put in place, would change their schools into 21st century learning environments. Below are seven steps in creating demand for educational technology integration and the support needed to sustain it.

  1. Intellectual Stimulation – they have to be convinced over time that it is the right thing to do. For example, use research and articles from and other sources to discuss for 10 minutes each month. This can be done at a staff meeting or in an online environment such as moodle or an internal blog.
  2. Functionality – Technical assistance and support in using the equipment and software are often inadequate in many schools. If teachers feel that they cannot depend on the technology to work, they will not trust it. If they do not trust a pedagogical tool, they will not use it as part of regular instruction. Instructional Technology (IT) support needs to view their job from the eyes of the teacher. Therefore, filters should work, but not hinder real-time instruction. Computers and software should be kept up-to-date with all browser plug-ins for IE and Firefox including java, flash, and shockwave. Within reason, real-time and long-term technical support should be available and effective. IT should empower and instruct teachers in fixing the most common and harmless technical problems.
  3. Access – teachers need access to adequate electrical power and computers inside the regular classroom. Signing up to use computers (or laptop carts) should not be overly time consuming or burdensome. Teachers need a formalized and relatively fast way of requesting access to blocked websites, services, software, and hardware.
  4. Bandwidth – why buy a Lamborghini if you have no fast roads to drive it on? Some schools have bought lots of great hardware only to find that their internet bandwidth does not support robust use. This is a disaster. It creates lots of frustration and bad attitudes. Plan for twice as much bandwidth as you think you will need.
  5. Professional Development – Integrating educational technology is an ongoing learning curve that never ends. Teachers need help in learning how to use and integrate effective technology tools into the curriculum. A regular schedule of general and specific PD should be offered (and required) every school year. See our website for options.
  6. Monitor and Evaluate – Teachers will pay attention to what their leaders pay attention to. If the leaders keep a close eye on the types and frequencies of instructional techniques, than data driven decisions can be made that will focus the school, teams, and individuals on their strengths and weaknesses. This will make the use of PD and technology resources more efficient and create a desire for positive change.
  7. Manage Transitions – Some staff members will be overwhelmed with the changes educational technology integration brings. For instance, where they once felt that they were a pedagogical expert with clout, now they feel like a beginner. Furthermore, they may not be convinced that this is right thing to do or that it is worth the time and effort needed. Leaders must seek out these individuals and manage their transition to a new way of doing things. This requires a differentiated approach to instructional leadership and mentorship.

Technology makes differentiation practical

One would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who doesn’t espouse the virtues of differentiation. Yet finding good examples of differentiation actually occurring in the classroom can also be hard to find. When we do find it, we often see a teacher employing educational technology. The recent book Differentiating Instruction with Technology in Middle School Classrooms by Grace E. Smith & Stephanie Throne highlights the power of technology to make differentiation more possible than ever before.

Teachers differentiate using three criteria to decide the appropriate type of instruction as shown below.


For example, mathematics teachers can differentiate by content by using software that is diagnostic, prescriptive, interactive, and adaptive according to students’ readiness. One such software is Cognitive Tutor®. It diagnoses the holes in a student’s mathematical understanding. Then it prescribes interactive lessons to fill those “holes.” Using a sophisticated monitoring system, it adapts the sequence and difficulty of the lessons according to the student’s input and progress. The teacher’s role is to facilitate the use of the software, pose and answer questions, and to analyze the robust progress reports the software provides to continue to adjust the instruction for the students.

Technology can also lend a hand to differentiation in other subjects such as social studies. Students could be required to present their research and proposed solutions to one of the United Nations Priorities for Action. This already allows for differentiation by content. Process can also be differentiated by using a Google site to collect the student work in an online portfolio. Students create the work in the medium of their choice, such as SlideShare, Photo Story, Voice Thread, Windows Movie Maker, iMovie and others. All of which can be embedded on a Google site set up by the teacher or students.

Differentiation by product is possible by using different types of technology. For instance, student groups could be asked to do a science inquiry on photosynthesis. The presentation of the inquiry and results could be given in a variety of ways including movies simply made with a Flip Video™, presentations using PowerPoint, graphics made with Inspiration, reports using Comic Live, and others. Students can propose the medium in which to show what they know for teacher approval.

Most agree that technology makes learning more engaging for many of today’s students. Perhaps this is because by nature, educational technology allows for greater differentiation. Do you have some examples of how technology has increased your abilities to differentiate? If so, please share in a comment to this posting.

by Matt Kuhn – McREL Lead Consultant

What’s so different about Literacy 2.0?

Literacypic_smallThe “2.0” buzzword has gotten a lot of hype in recent years, and deservedly so. Whatever word we could have used to describe these new tools, the emergence of the term indicated a social, even anthropological, shift in how we use the web.

Defining what qualifies as “web 2.0” or “literacy 2.0,” has become more difficult as the term has become more ubiquitous and trendy. According to Knobel & Wilber (2009), “a Web 2.0 ethos values and promotes three interlocking functions or practices: participation, collaboration, and distribution.” In other words, you know a web 2.0 resource if it helps you collaborate with others and share what you have gathered, learned, or created. Examples are wikis (i.e. PBWorks), social bookmarking tools (i.e. Diigo), and sites for users to share pictures and video (such as Flickr and YouTube).

For educators, the emergence of these tools has led directly to discussions about what skills students need in order to manage and utilize such tools. Termed “Literacy 2.0,” many teachers have come to the understanding that past protocols for researching, reading, and writing are woefully outdated in a world where students and adults are not only encouraged, but expected to collaborate and contribute to group projects and where learners must efficiently and effectively sift through vast amounts of information.

Perhaps this latter point presents the biggest challenge of the shift that has happened in education. When schools as we know them were conceptualized, information was relatively scarce. We went to school because that was where the resources were that had information. School was staffed by someone (or multiple people) who could help us use those resources and learn (memorize) that information for later access.

Information, however, is no longer a scarcity. If anything, there is an overabundance of information that our students must learn to vet. They must learn to recognize bias, understand an author’s motivation and background, and add this to his/her ever-changing understanding of a concept (Richardson, 2009). As Knobel & Wilber (2009) affirmed in their article, “Let’s Talk 2.0,” this new literacy “doesn’t mesh well with such practices as book reports, comprehension questions, leveled reading tasks, and weekly spelling tests that students are asked to do in school.”

I vividly recall my own fledgling attempts to help students learn these new skills. I was working with sixth graders on a primary sources history project, when I realized one day that they had not yet been taught how to vet and scrutinize information they found on the web. The next week, I started their class by launching into a short lecture about the dire state of California’s velcro crop and how this plight of velcro shortage may affect us all. I showed a web site with information and data to illustrate my concern. I recall finishing my lesson, then a long silence following. I asked for reactions or questions about what they’d just learned. Finally, one student raised her hand with great uncertainty and asked, “Are we talking about velcro? Like… (pointing to someone’s velcro on their jacket sleeve) ….velcro?” When I affirmed, there was more silence before another student voiced, “I guess I didn’t know that velcro grew.” Laughter. Then realization.

This conversation led to an entire unit where students learned to compare many different sources, both online and off, to see if they agree or conflict, to look at who owns the site using a source such as, to consider the suffix of a web site (i.e. .k12, .gov, .com, .org) and what that might indicate, and finally (perhaps most importantly) to compare what you are reading with what you already knew or thought you knew. (Note: if I were to do this same activity today, I would consider using the Tree Octopus site as my teaching tool.)

Perhaps Will Richardson best captures the concept of Literacy 2.0 in the March 2009 issue of Educational Leadership, which focused entirely on this subject: “Students will need to build their own curriculums, create their own projects, and assess their own products and their contribution in creating them. In short, they must be self-directed, self-motivated, lifelong learners who are network-literate in their creation and participation in these spaces.”

Later, he states, “If we continue to simply pass paper back and forth in our classrooms, we are not preparing students for the world they are entering.”

Well said.

Do IWBs change instruction?

There seems to be a lot of controversy lately over the impact that Interactive Whiteboards have on instruction. Some say that they increase student engagement and achievement and help to create a 21st-century classroom. Others argue that they are simply a modern tool for an outdated method of learning and that they only promote teacher-directed lecture & instruction.

I left the classroom in 2004, several years before IWBs were common tools in school buildings, so I never experienced actually integrating one into my instruction. I wanted to find out for myself: Do Interactive Whiteboards change instruction? When Bud the Teacher Tweeted about his district’s upcoming Flipchartapalooza,  I knew this would be an ideal opportunity to see how teachers integrate both the hardware and the software into their instruction. Bud and his fellow teachers in St. Vrain were gracious enough to let me come and observe and ask questions. (And I thank all of you!)

What I saw were teachers learning simple, but vital, programming and scripting language as they created interactive activities for students. I saw teachers realizing that the ultimate goal was having students use these tools. One teacher even stated, “My goal this year is to have students at the board more. [My first year using it], I was the one at the board.” I saw professionals collaborating, teaching, and learning together. If technology and learning are going to morph the way I think they are (fingers crossed), teachers are going to have a plethora of tools that they can use to script & program to create individual games & learning modules for students. Having a basic understanding of this level of tech know-how now will be paramount if this comes to fruition.

What I hope to see in the future are students using interactive white tables (of which I’ve seen prototypes), manipulating and building interactive learning modules to increase their own understanding and to demonstrate learning. Where we are now with IWBs is simply a stepping stone to a more differentiated, authentic, interactive classroom.

In other words, it isn’t really about having a big interactive board up in front of the classroom to do your usual thing. It is about creating activities for students to increase their knowledge and understanding.

And, yes, having something that looks like it was invented sometime after the 1970s can’t hurt the engagement factor, either. 😉

Disrupting News: How social networking is changing how we get our news

Whenever I start talking about Twitter with any group of teachers or administrators, I can count on at least one person scoffing at the idea of answering the question, “What are you doing?” Many of us only know Twitter from celebrity-type tweets, which, while may be exciting for some, have little educational value for the rest of us.

To explain how I use Twitter in an educational sense, however, I often ask participants if they remember movies and shows from the 1970s such as Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit, or Dukes of Hazzard. During this particular era of American pop culture, there existed a very strong CB radio culture. People would use their “Citizens’ Band” radio to ask where the closest mechanic or gas station was located. Others would warn fellow listeners about traffic jams in an area. An entire virtual community helped and entertained each other using this technology.

My Twitter community serves a similar purpose. When I’m trying to figure out a new resource or troubleshoot an issue on a computer, I can send out a Tweet to my “Twitterverse” and will, more often than not, receive several suggestions for solving my problem. When I read an exceptionally good book, news article, or blog post, I’ll Tweet about it to spread the news. If it’s something that other Twitterers also find useful, they will even “ReTweet” it by putting “RT @erhubbell” before their post.

What’s even nicer is that Twitter allows you to use hash tags to denote a specific topic of interest. For example, when I and many fellow educators were in Copper Mountain for Colorado’s Technology in Education (TIE) conference, we used the hash tags #cotie09 and #tie09 with our Tweets so that folks could follow what was happening at the conference. Likewise, when I wasn’t able to attend ISTE’s NECC conference, I searched the hash tag #necc09 to follow events as they happened. Other teachers actually use Twitter in the classroom with their students to help foster conversations and collaboration.

Perhaps no event has brought more attention to “micro-blogging” sites such as Twitter lately than the recent Iran elections and the aftermath following. Suddenly, the world had much more limited access to news and events due to government constraints on internet activity in Iran. Instead, many of us communicated what news we could find by using the hash tag #iranelection. While incoming news was sometimes unclear or debatable, it was better than the complete isolation that Iranian citizens would have experienced prior to the invention of tools such as Twitter and cell phones. (See the Common Craft videos for a great explanation on how Twitter and TwitterSearch work.)

Which brings up an interesting point from Clay Christensen’s Disrupting Class: that a disruptive technology first is embraced, however imperfect, by current “non-consumers.” While very few, if any, of us would rely on Twitter for our daily local or world news, it was the perfect solution when suddenly there was no news coming out of Iran. In the meantime, according to Christensen, the technology continues to improve and evolve until it is, indeed, preferable over the status quo.

If this is true, and yet blogging, Tweeting, and other forms of social networking are very often blocked in schools, how can we possibly teach our students to access, broadcast, and vet information that is coming at a faster and faster rate? Perhaps a better question is this: are YOU using 21st century forms of accessing and broadcasting information? Are you preparing yourself for the future of communication?

To start, consider creating a Twitter account and simply following Twitters with common interests. You may wish to start by following me ( or Howard Pitler ( See who we are following, then follow and Tweet at will. I also suggest reading 25 Ways to Teach with Twitter from You will be amazed at how quickly Twitter can become a large part of your personal learning network. We hope to see you in the Twitterverse!

Written by Elizabeth Hubbell.

Going paperless

I’ve lately become intrigued with the idea of going paperless. I have certainly cut back in paper use over the years, mostly without really trying, as technology made printing less and less necessary. A few things have happened recently, though, that really have me thinking about the possibilities of a paperless office and (eventually) paperless schools.

I was recently working on two large projects that, just a few years ago, would have resulted in my printing reams of paper. One was a technology audit that we had conducted which included interview transcripts from dozens of teachers. My job was to go through and code their responses to look for patterns. On another project, we were conducting a literature review for effective pedagogy. Both of these required me to read hundreds of pages of documents and to annotate them with key findings. Instead of printing them out and grabbing the ol’ highlighter, I found an online resource that allows me to upload documents, highlight and tag key phrases, then sort by tags. I not only saved money and trees, but was actually able to get my work done much more efficiently.

More recently, I was packing my office in preparation for a move to another floor at McREL. As I began cleaning out my file cabinet, I was aghast at some of the documents that I’d saved. A meeting agenda from 2006…countless articles that are now saved on my Delicious site…a to-do list from last November. Most embarrassing for me personally was a folder labeled “Web 2.0.” (How very Web 1.0!) If I had wanted to access most of this material, the first thing I would do is search online or use my bookmarks – I certainly wouldn’t thumb through countless files in my file cabinet!

I think there are several reasons why both schools and businesses should start thinking about the possibility of a paperless (or at least paper-reduced) future:

1. If we don’t force ourselves to rethink how we read, write, and communicate, we are ill prepared to teach and work with a generation that already embraces technology as its primary tool for these tasks. At McREL, we are experimenting with new ways to support our professional development sessions. For example, our Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works workshop no longer has a Participant’s Manual, but instead uses a wiki to provide key points, graphics, and links.

2. Schools currently spend upwards of $20,000 per year on paper & printers, even more on textbooks.

3. Even with recycling efforts, less paper means fewer trees are cut down, fewer trucks are needed to transport trees to a pulp mill, less pollution is spewed into the air (I grew up near a pulp mill…lessening that smell for future generations would be a very kind thing to do), and less gas is needed to transport paper to stores & offices.

So here’s my challenge: throughout the next month, question yourself whenever you start to print something. Ask if you can access or provide the same information using email, wikis, your intranet site, Delicious, or other means. Try having a meeting where bringing a laptop is encouraged. Find other ways to get information across during workshops other than printing out your PowerPoint slides. I’d love to hear what efforts you made and the ideas you came up with for going paperless.

(For more information on this topic, see the Teach Paperless blog at or follow his Tweets @teachpaperless.)

Using Web 2.0 to counter the “pedagogy of poverty”

One of my favorite blogs to read is Brian Crosby’s Learning is Messy. Brian teaches in a school with a 90% free/reduced lunch rate. Over half of his students have parents who did not graduate from elementary school. Many of his students are English Language Learners. And yet, this class of 6th graders is well-versed in Skyping with learners around the world, blogging about their learning, and creating videos about their classroom. The rich learning experiences and critical thinking in which these students are engaged rival classrooms with exponentially more resources and funds.

Many researchers and educators, including Haberman, Waxman, Songer and others, have written about the “pedagogy of poverty;” that is, the tendency of classrooms in high-poverty areas to focus on teacher-directed instruction with drill-and-practice being the primary activity of the learners. This learner-passive environment all too often leads to student disinterest, high drop-out rates, and teacher burn-out.

According to Waxman et al. (1995), three instructional approaches have been found to be successful with students at risk of failure: 1) cognitively-guided instruction, 2) critical or responsive teaching, and 3) technology-enriched instruction. However, studies show that, even when technology is integrated into traditional, teacher-led classrooms, it is most often used for practice and review activities rather than with opportunities that require higher-order thinking and problem solving (Songer et al, 2002).

For schools and districts struggling with these issues, Web 2.0 tools offer the means for dynamic, collaborative learning experiences, provided that the teacher has been given sufficient professional development in using these tools. Unlike skills-based software and games that simply provide opportunities for students to practice getting the “right answer,” tools such as wikis, blogs, video conferencing, and social networking sites can be used to foster deep conversations, cooperative learning projects, and a higher understanding of concepts beyond the memorization level. McREL’s workshop on Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works can be one option to get teachers started in using the read/write Web to create higher-order learning experiences with their students.

For those of you who use technology in your classrooms or schools, how do you see it being used beyond “skill and practice” mode? How is it used to foster creative conversations and deep understanding?

Educational technology myth

Recently I participated in a Webinar titled “Opportunities and Challenges for Web 2.0 in Schools” given by Tech & Learning Magazine. One of the hosts was Alan November. He brought up a very intriguing myth about educational technology that really made me think. The myth is that educational technology broadens the perspectives of students by giving them greater access to a wide range of thoughts, ideas, and opinions online. Until recently, I believed in this myth. But after hearing Alan’s explanation, I realized I could be wrong. Essentially, he said that the myriad of choices on the internet make it possible for people to pigeonhole themselves into narrower and narrower points of view. While choices abound, students are selecting sources (blogs, social networks, list services, & news sites) that match their current outlook on the world. Rarely are they experiencing different points of view and incongruent perspectives. In the old days of three major news networks and town news papers, people were forced to see and hear about information that was foreign to their way of thinking and world view. Now, if you are so inclined, you can easily ignore most information other than the views you want to hear. As Alan November put it, some people are fans of the Huffington Post and some are fans of Fox News, rarely do they experience each others ideas.

Coincidentally, the next day I read about a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center called “Sharp Growth in Suburban Minority Enrollment Yields Modest Gains in School Diversity” ( It said while African Americans and Asians are becoming slightly less segregated, Latino students were becoming more segregated in U.S. suburban schools. One of the possible causes cited was the proliferation of schools of choice that offer customized programs, themes, and curricula around Latino culture and language. Many Latino families are self-selecting these unique schools for their children. Of course, this tends to concentrate and segregate them. Now I have always been a proponent of school choice. I believe that it results in more innovation, customer satisfaction, and accountability. However, choice, in educational technology or school enrollment, seems to have the unintended consequence of segregating some groups of students.

Diversity in our schools seems to be suffering from both self-selected incidents of segregation, and segregation of thought as students constrict their online experiences to just those ideas and opinions that affirm their current beliefs. So what can we do about it? One answer is simply good teaching. One of the best classroom strategies for opening student minds to the world is Identifying Similarities and Differences. Using this strategy, teachers can help students understand other points of view and encourage classroom dialogue and debate about ideas, cultures, and perspectives that cause students to think and revise their developing views.

History tells us that segregating ourselves is not good for society. Yet school and online choice have strong merits. How can we enjoy the benefits of choice without the pitfalls of segregation?

Written by Matt Kuhn.