NoodleTools & Connected Educator Month 2016

Working in a large school district has many advantages and disadvantages. One frustrating disadvantage is the slow response to educational technology requests. Let me begin by saying I am very proud of my current district’s educational technology team. Together they have come a long way to address teacher concerns since I began with my current district in 2005. But, educational technology requests are problematic. A teacher’s individual concern might be high priority to him or her, but the individual concern might be low priority for the entire district. This mismatch of perceived concern then creates a different perception on the speed of resolution; the teacher wants a quick response while the district will prioritize it differently. I urge teachers to try a third option this month, Twitter.

This school year my district began using NoodleTools research and citation software (which I love), but I was unable to sign into the iOS app. When I inquired about signing into the NoodleTools app, I received no response. Today, three weeks after the initial request, I received a half-response, a work around really. The district answer directed me to use the mobile website version of NoodleTools, not the iOS app. Again, I’m not blaming my district or personnel for not addressing my individual issue. In our district, I bet less than 1% of the teachers have the same concern about NoodleTools as I. I am suggesting other teachers in my position follow my next course of action.

Frustrated, I took my request to Twitter. October begins Connected Educator Month, and I cannot believe I forgot the power of asking my ed tech questions on Twitter. I received a response in 14 minutes!

Amazing, right? Kudos to NoodleTools for their lightning fast response, but their quick response makes sense. The incentive for NoodleTools to respond to my specific, individual request was much greater than the incentive for my district to respond to my request. NoodleTools can leverage my request to highlight their product and improve all customer performance. My district works tirelessly to resolve requests, and finding an answer to my individual request does not have the same immediacy or benefit to other teachers.

Lesson confirmed; when you cannot receive a quick ed tech response from your district personnel, ask your question via Twitter. You will likely be amazed how quickly you get a response.

Specifically, how do you log in to NoodleTools iOS app with a GAFE sign-in?

  1. Log in to NoodleTools on your web browser.
  2. Click the “My Account” button in the top right corner and select the “My Profile” option from your drop down menu.
  3. Once the “My Profile” page loads, on the right half of the screen you should see a “Companion Key” alpha-code. Mine is six characters. This key serves as your password for your iOS app.
  4. Open your iOS app and use your common username for NoodleTools, but use this companion key as your password.
  5. When you first load the iOS NoodleTools app, you will be prompted to set up a device password. So, you won’t need your companion key again, but you will need this device-specific password.

Thanks to the NoodleTools Twitter team who so quickly helped me with my request.

Summer Reading 2016

During the school year I pine for time to read books thoroughly. So, I make up for it during the summer. Below are the books I have read this summer, and a brief comment about the book.

Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Hire, Keep and Nurture Creative Talent by Nolan Bushnell (@NolanBushnell)- A very fun and insightful read about creativity and innovation in the tech industry from a video game and industry giant. His 52 “pongs” are easy to read but are very deep when considering how to encourage creativity in an organization.

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About by Paul Collier- I teach IB Economics, and I chose this as my second book to read this summer so I could better understand and relate Development Economics to my students. Dr. Collier not only outlines the “traps” of the countries of the bottom billion, but he also identifies why G8 countries should care. He also offers very insightful recommendations to improve the situation. More aid is not usually the answer, but that is the only tool most policy-makers use. An easy book to digest, even if you do not understand economics. The implications of his work are astounding for international policy-makers now and for the future.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (@StevenBJohnson)- I finally got to the end of this book. It took me more time not because it was not a good read, but because my summer got more involved than I had planned. This book is different than a typical “innovate-in-your-business-now” book. It instead highlights trends that have spurred innovation from the printing press through Twitter. Especially if you enjoy the history and record of scientific breakthroughs, this book will complement your knowledge of innovation well.

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary- My boys and I read books together in the summer. I like to encourage longer chapter-book reading, and I picked this up having thought I read it in elementary school. If I did, I long forgot the story and the style it was written in. The ending is quite mature in how the main character deals with the divorce of his parents.

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt- One of my students picked up a free copy of this book at a school conference and handed it to me. It is certainly a good read for those interested in Economics and those with a desire to read through some mucky detail. Written in 1946, it also provides a nice post-WWII view of classical economics. More modern economists will find reason to dispute some of his claims, but reading this book will prove insightful into economic though and the implication on all stakeholders.

Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary- Another book my boys are urging me to read with them.

Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell- In progress.


EasyBib vs. NoodleTools

For the last five years, students at my high school have organized and prepared their rigorous research in the online tool EasyBib. However, our school is now evaluating a switch to a new online service, NoodleTools. Below I hope to provide a first-glance comparison of both these services. I would love to know experience from NoodleTools users (teachers and students) as our school evaluates this program as a possible EasyBib replacement.


NoodleTools is a complete research companion. Its premium features allow citations in three major citation formats (MLA, APA, and Chicago). It generates footnote or in-text citations too. These citations are all saved by project type, but that is only where the fun begins. Each project can have a research question and thesis stated clearly at the top of the Project Dashboard. Also on the dashboard are features to share the project with student collaborators and a teacher drop box. While these features are not as user-friendly as one might expect in 2016, they are not difficult to learn either. Another feature on the dashboard I love is the “To Do” list. Students can add upcoming items they (or their team) needs to complete. Additionally, a comments section allows team members and teachers to add comments about the research in progress.

NoodleTools also offers a research note-taking and outline page which allows students an easy way to take digital notes, connected to a specific source, and then organize the notes into sections for an outline. Teaching research skills in the digital age, this is a key feature digital learners need to organize research in the cloud. I like Zotero for similar features, but unfortunately it is less glamorous than even NoodleTools.

EasyBib has been my go-to citation tool for five years. I’ve both written papers with it and helped students learn the system. Its main feature is a collaborative bibliography organizer. Students can share bibliographies with multiple users. Most importantly (and missing from NoodleTools), students can easily cite from many database and news sources without manually typing in the fields required for the source. For instance, when researching from JSTOR, EBSCOHost, ProQuest, or Gale databases, students can simply click a “send to EasyBib” button and the citation is generated automatically, with a high degree of accuracy. NoodleTools lacks this function. In fact, you cannot even import .ris files into NoodleTools, again shocking considering the other digital progress NoodleTools offers for online research.

A final assessment. In short, EasyBib is easier to use, but only as a bibliographic generator. NoodleTools offers all the same services and much more, albeit more difficult to use. Ignoring pricing differences, which you would need to investigate for your individual or organizational purposes, NoodleTools offers a far-reaching range of tools compared to EasyBib.

Incentives Matter

Individuals’ actions are driven almost entirely by the reward, either immediate or long term, that is received from his or her action. Many studies in many different fields demonstrate this seemingly simple maxim. Sociologists and psychologists study its effect on human behavior; economists study its effect on markets and resource use. That incentives matter is nearly unquestionable. From an economic perspective, removing incentives decreases efficiency of business and society and discourages hard work. Again, many examples abound in the Soviet economies of the twentieth century and the state-run economies today. Incentives matter.

Recently while reading Charles Wheelan’s (@CharlesWheelan) book, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, Wheelan reinforced the importance of incentives in a very important way for me as a teacher:

“Meanwhile, American public education operates a lot more like North Korea than Silicon Valley… The pay of teachers is not liked in any way to performance; teachers’ unions have consistently opposed any kind of merit pay. Instead, salaries in nearly every public school district in the country are determined by a rigid formula based on experience and years of schooling, factors that researchers have shown to be generally unrelated to performance in the classroom. This uniform pay scale creates a set of incentives that economists refer to as adverse selection. Since the most talented teachers are also likely to be good at other professions, they have a strong incentive to leave education for jobs in which pay is more closely linked to productivity. For the least talented, the incentives are just the opposite… Any system that pays all teachers the same provides a strong incentive for the most talented among them to look for work elsewhere.”

Wheelan has written about teacher pay and incentives in more detail in his 2000 article for The Economist.

Problem #1– Teacher pay rewards all teachers in similar ways, not at all related to how well teachers do their job. What metrics, other than test scores, could be used to measure and incentivize good teaching?

Another particular incentives-related problem also bothers me. Students receive a fully-subsidized public education K-12, but a free education alone is not enough to bring students to school. States compel students to attend, or else families are fined. Clearly student incentives are not working well either, or else students would attend willingly every day.

Problem #2- What incentivizes a student to come to school consistently and try his or her best? The long-term incentives are great, related to better college and career opportunities, but what keeps students performing their best every day?

A lack of teacher incentives (as producers) means a lower quality product is produced for the market. No choice among services means student (as consumers) must consume a lower quality product with no short-term incentives. Both issues, among many others, produce less than perfect options all while society generally agrees with the importance of public education and spends millions every year to fund this system.

What incentives could reasonably improve the system, from either a producer or consumer experience? I pose this question to my high school IB Economics students. Their thoughts, in relative anonymity, will be posted as part of this blog. I would love to read your comments below, too. I am certain they will provide an engaging start conversation for my students to follow.

Learning Student Names

Yearbook1As a classroom teacher now in my 12th year, I know learning student names is difficult for me. I also know I get very nervous speaking in front of groups, unless I know the audience. So, the quicker I learn the names of students each year, the more comfortable I feel. I suspect the students feel the same way; the quicker I learn their names, the more comfortable they feel.

Some teachers are fabulous at learning student names. I am not!!! I realized I learn names best from repetition, usually from passing back papers. For me sometimes, this does not occur until the second week of school. Until then, I am sunk. To practice repetition, I am trying something different this year. My online gradebook has photographs of most of my incoming students. Why not use this to study… but how? As a student, I practiced mindless repetition through studying index cards (i.e., large amounts of Latin vocabulary or Geometry theorems). I could do the same with student names, since I have the photographs.

I have decided to use an iOS app for flipcards and make a study game out of my students’ names and faces. I reviewed Quizlet, StudyBlue, and Flashcards+ by Chegg against three criteria. It had to be free; it had to allow me to add pictures to cards; and it must allow me to “hide” cards I knew and only practice those I did not know. I found Flashcards+ by Chegg to do all three.

In the Chegg app, you can create your own deck(s) or import common study criteria (great for other classroom applications). I put all of my students into one deck, not a separate deck for each class period. I wanted to make my memorization more challenging, but I also wanted a way to keep the students separated by class. So, I put student pictures on one side of the card and student names + period number on the other side. The Flashcard+ app allows me to sort and practice cards with “period 5” on them (though I just typed “5”). So, I can still practice all the names or just those of a certain class.

The process of using the Flashcard+ app (or any of the others really) does have drawbacks.

Mobile-only setup. In all three cases, I could only set up pictures on cards on the iOS app. This meant I had to save the student pictures to my camera roll, then upload them into the app. This was very tedious. I wanted to create a database in Google Sheets then import (or copy) the data into the app. None of the apps I reviewed let me do this with pictures (text only? yes.). The mobile-only set up is a drawback as I am quicker with this sort of work on a computer rather than a tablet or phone.

Laborious. The setup was not smooth. I have four classes of new students (the fifth class is a returning class of seniors who I already know). Setting up four classes of students took me about two hours on my phone. If not for my extreme handicap learning names, this might have been too long.

Missing faces. Yes, if students move into the district or were for some reason were absent from picture day, their faces will not appear. I have six such cases in my entire roster of students.

Errors. I am sure there are database errors for names of faces or typing errors on my end (hopefully nothing more than a misspelled name). This issue is problematic in any system and should not keep you from setting up electronic flash cards.

So, what do I hope to gain from two hours of set-up labor? I should know all my students’ names on the first day of school. Measure that however you will, but I think it will be awesome. So far, after an hour of “studying”, I know 85% of the names! I was going to struggle for a week (or two) to know some names; now I will be better prepared. What an impression to make! Greet your students at the door with a smile, a handshake, and a correct greeting! For me, the setup was very long, but I will reap huge rewards from this work. Good luck and enjoy your new school year.

The Journey, not the Destination

“If you start doing things for the sake of selling up front, for rewards, then it’s going to catch up with you. The other guys not chasing money are going to outdo you in the end, because real innovation and grit come from loving the process.”

Today my cousin’s son, Jacob, finds out the results of a summer’s worth of soccer practices; does he make the junior varsity team? He has been told by his team mates he was not good enough. He was told he wouldn’t make it. He practiced, suffered, endured, and improved in spite of their discouraging words. Jacob will make the team or not today, and in some cases it is not because he is the best on the field. Other factors, unfortunately, play into the decision. Not to disparage the coaches, but choosing the right players for a team must not be an easy feat. I do not envy the power to make a player’s year while crushing the spirits of another. Jacob, your work on the field is not about the reward of making the team. What you have learned about yourself and your family this summer as you struggled for something difficult- that process, that grit, that determination is your true reward. Regardless of the result, you are not truly measured by outward measured but by those inside.

Rodney Mullen’s quote above comes from a Wired Magazine article on Mullen by Brenden Koerner (@brendan-koerner). Brenden highlights Mullen’s innovation and grit in his desire to make himself better. Mullen noted that much of his truest lessons in life come from his failures, not from his success. Check out his Pop! Tech talk, Getting Back Up.

I recently have started taking students on international travel trips. When travelling with a group of thirty students something is bound to go wrong. You will make wrong turns; get pickpocketed; get nabbed 33 euro a head on the Paris subway (yup); get a terrible bus driver in Munich. But, in all these lesson, the final destination is not the goal. While frustrated beyond belief about some of the wrong turns and diversions on our most recent trip, I remembered to keep my cool. The journey was more important than the destination. If I was a sulky, mad, brooding tour leader, our trip would been miserable though all the destinations would have been the same.

Life is not about the destination but about the journey. Love the journey.

Life is wonderful when the journey leads you where you want to go. Often the unexpected twists and turns bring you to new valleys of opportunity not on you map. Remain open to all these new opportunities. Your life will be better because of them.

Best of luck, Jacob, and all those competing for a spot on a fall sports team. You will not be defined by the results this week; you are defined by how you handle the grit and determination on your journey.

Dweck, Dorfman, and Moyer: Achieving Personal Success

Effort. Grit. Determination. Tenacity. Work Ethic. Competitive spirit.

These qualities, above others, contribute to success in one’s lifetime. Having read Mindset by Carol Dweck as a book study the the inaugural year of the Downingtown STEM Academy (2010-11), I have thought a lot about how these characteristics determine success. I have enjoyed encouraging the growth of my students and my three boys using a growth mindset approach; I never say they are talented or gifted but rather that their success comes through hard work. Their daily practice and constant performance builds success, not sheer luck, “giftedness”, or inherent talent. No book has changed my life quite like Dweck’s book. It is an easy summer read and very important for educators, parents, and athletes alike.

A few years ago, I heard All-Star and World Series pitcher Jamie Moyer speak on NPR about his then-new book, Just Tell Me I Can’t. I was amazed how well his message of determination and hard work meshed with Dweck’s growth mindset, but I am also a bit biased. Moyer played for the Baltimore Orioles in the mid 1990s, when I was a teen enjoying the burgeoning successes of my favorite baseball team. In the late 1990s when Moyer pitched for the Seattle Mariners, I saw him again when the Mariners played the Orioles at Camden Yards. Moyer did not pitch that day, but he did help shag fly balls in the outfield during batting practice. I remember distinctly, standing in the right-center field seats at Camden Yards, and the fans were cheering loudly for Moyer. He turned, smiled, and acknowledged the fans, giving thanks for their support. He tossed many batting practice balls into the stands that evening before the game, a move not common for visiting baseball players. In 2005 I moved closer to Philadelphia, and soon Moyer followed when he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. I again enjoyed watching his dominating success as part of the Phillies success and World Series team in the mid 2000s. Perhaps I am biased because of my love of baseball and his contribution to two of my favorite teams, but I really enjoyed his book.

Now, I teach an hour outside of Philadelphia, at a school well-known for its continuing success. A school which encourages academic struggles and determination that leads to personal and school-wide success. Our motto, “Effort Creates Intelligence,” is a snapshot of our school culture. Reading Moyer’s book provided a real-world example of a growth mindset, or as my school distills, how effort leads to success. Moyer’s book is peppered with sports psychology and gems of advice both from Moyer and his mentor Harry Dorfman, who wrote many books about sports psychology, including The Mental Game of Baseball. Below are a brief overview of some of these gems.

“Failure is wanting without work.” -Harry Dorfman

“Believe it and you become it.” -Harry Dorfman

“Learn one thing a day, and learn it well. That gives you a chance to get better, because any problem can be solved. Any setback is temporary, and you can learn from it if you do the work.” -Jamie Moyer

“You can only control what you can control.” -Jamie Moyer (and surely Dorfman)

“Experience isn’t what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” -Aldous Huxley

“When we fail to learn, we’ve learned to fail.” – Harry Dorfman 

Moyer’s book marks a practical example of Dweck’s growth mindset, Dorfman’s mental game of baseball, and precisely how to achieve success in your life, through hard work, dedicated practice, and constant, incremental improvement. Moyer’s example is a refreshing reminder that hard work pays off, and you can control your own destiny when others count you out.