Tools Are Just That – Tools

In my last post, I filled in everyone on my inauspicious start in BBQing and cooking. I spend much of the weekend working on the floor in my upstairs bathroom, making mistake after mistake because nobody had showed my how to use some of the tools I needed to use.

I’m fortunate to have some fantastic tradespeople I call friends at out campground. Under their instruction, I have learned to use a small set of tools well while building our deck and three season room and can complete most tasks I need. What was the difference between the bathroom debacle and the deck/room success? Instruction. That got me reflecting about my last post and the way we far too often roll out technology in education.

That shiny Weber Kettle I received as a gift became nearly useless because BBQing experts had not taught me about direct vs. indirect cooking or even small-scale smoking. Somebody gave me a tool, but no instruction came with the tool.

Left to my own devices, I stumbled along, and came to believe that I just wasn’t meant to be good at BBQing because everything came out overdone, undercooked – or worse – a combination of both. Only after I built my first smoker with my own hands and discovered two sites where I could ask questions and learn, did I start succeeding as a cook and BBQer.

The first site – the BBQ-Brethren Q-talk forum – will scare non-techies. It’s a discussion forum site and doesn’t look all that user-friendly, but the people using that site couldn’t be more friendly. These folks walked me through my first pork but quote, asked questions, requested pictures to troubleshoot, and helped me cook a serviceable pulled pork for our family Christmas.

To me, this illustrates what needs to happen when we roll out technology to teachers. Yes, some folks will know what to do and run with it, but others need to ask questions, fail, and receive patient feedback and assistance until they feel comfortable enough top move forward. How often does this happen in a technology rollout? Too often, folks disconnected from the classroom decide on the technology, purchase the technology and then had it to teachers with an implied “Good luck!”

Another site that helped move me forward by leaps and bounds was Meathead Goldwyn’s Amazingribs site, referred to by some as the Rosetta Stone of BBQing. This site interested me for reasons that will surprise my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Wray. I like the science behind what Meathead does on his site. I hated science in high school, but I can’t get enough of the science of cooking. I especially like when the resident physicist, Dr. Greg Blonder, dispels long-held beliefs about cooking – this one aspect, alone, makes me want to learn more every day.

Again, what if we used this approach when rolling out technology to teachers? To me, the science of BBQing meat – and cooking in general – is the “hook” that Dave Burgess talks about in Teach Like A Pirate. How can we use a pirate hook to roll out technology to teachers? Instead of just another thing they have to learn, how do we make it something they want to learn about and improve their skill set? In the case of Meathead Goldwyn above, meathead knew if he could bust myths that made BBQing seem difficult, he could get more people interested. HIs website can prove challenging to navigate at times, so you may want to check out his book: Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.

So, what hook should we use to roll out technology? For me, it is about helping teachers buy back time. When I first learned Google Apps, I discovered the wonderful Doctopus add-on and now I could help teachers free up hours from their weekly workload while still allowing them to provide feedback on student writing. Once teachers had that time, they always came back, wanting to free up more time. I think the “hook” answer lies somewhere in that type of thinking.

A tool is just a tool without training. My Weber Kettle, alone, did not make me a better cook. Technology, alone, did not make me a better teacher. We need to make sure we help people learn what they need to know in order to use those tools well.

Reflection: For this reflection, I want to have a question for both weekend chefs and educators.

  • Weekend chefs, what’s one new BBQ or cooking skill you could share with someone new to barbecue and grilling?
  • Educators, what pirate “hook” could you use to make technology more relevant for reluctant staff members and create that need for them to learn?



Meeting The Important Needs

Last week, a student in real need brought back memories of a time when I needed real help or my wife and I would not have made it. In a day and age where we have become so focused on standardized test scores, I sometimes hear colleagues say, “I feel bad that students might not have had breakfast, but taking the test is what’s important right now.”


When my wife was pregnant with our first child, Kaitlyn, I received a layoff notice from my employer. At the time, Jenny was finishing classes for her dental hygiene license, and we were just barely able to get by with her working limited hours. Then came the layoff notice, and our life was turned upside down. Thankfully, programs existed that allowed us to eat well, so the baby could grow healthy. My union also stepped up and provided us with additional groceries and a few dollars to help pay for gas and rent. And the Wisconsin Medical Assistance program ensured that well baby visits could continue. Without a helping hand from a variety of sources, I do not know what would have happened, and I cannot guarantee I would have started college that fall. Once at school, I got a job on campus and Jenny started as a full-time hygienist, so we survived the storm and could move forward.

But what about our students who come to school every day having not eaten breakfast? What about those who have had little sleep for a variety of reasons? That they come to school every day amazes me. That many come to school every day and thrive inspires me. That some come to school only some of the time or struggle once here surprises me not one bit.

I know first-hand how difficult not having the bare necessities can make challenges seem insurmountable. And I only had to get through six months of uncertainty. Some of my students have experienced years of turbulence and uncertainty. And so they come every morning to the one place that provides a level of certainty for them. A level of security.

So when we want to “hold schools accountable” and base every measure off of a test score, let’s remember that we cannot measure all variables. I don’t know what device measures the impact of hunger on test scores. I don’t know what device measures the impact of watching your mother suffer abuse at the hands of a boyfriend on test scores. I don’t know what device measures the impact of sleeping in a freezing car on test scores. I don’t know what device measures the impact of __________________________________________ on test scores.

But I do know that children feel safe and secure and loved when we find a way to provide for their essential needs. Where is Maslow’s research in all of the testing gibberish? So, last week, when I had an opportunity to help meet the essential needs of a student at my school, I called out loudly and often. And people near and far responded with compassion, filling a void. To some folks a simple pair of shoes and some clothes might not seem like a big deal or even a necessity. To this student, however, they meant everything.

I saw her in the hallway today, laughing and smiling with friends. I will make sure to keep that memory with me throughout this year and the rest of my life.

In The Interest Of Full Disclosure


My last post reviewed the 11″ and 14″ HP Chromebooks. I wanted to give a classroom teacher’s perspective about these devices and asked my students for their feedback, as well. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I have a lot of experience with technology, not only as a user, but as a technician and support specialist. In fact, if I didn’t love teaching so much, I might have become an IT guy.

In my very first grown up job, I worked for the Management Information Office at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I started as a Residence Hall Information Specialist at UWO, helping students learn to use the residence hall-provided hardware and software. I moved on to technician, learning to take apart, upgrade, and repair a variety of desktop computers and servers. I hand-coded the very first website for the Department of Residence Life, learning to write HTML in the age before WYSIWYG. I have worked on Macs, PCs, and Linux boxes. I have used Apple’s Newton and various Palm devices. I dialed into AOL with everyone else. I had a profitable sideline fixing the “blue screen of death” and multiple malware scares many of my teaching peers experienced on their home PCs.  I have installed 184-pin DIMMs RAM in parallel and lived to tell about it.


Why Does This Matter?

When people ask how I know about technology, I let them know that it has nothing to do with smarts and everything to do with repetition. Change the slave/master settings on enough hard drives while installing additional storage enough times, and computers just aren’t scary. Terminate the CAT5 cable for 60 data drops, and WiFi settings don’t seem so daunting. Install enough betas of iOS, and a little frozen home screen doesn’t make you blink.

I have spent over 22 years hacking and tinkering and learning about computers and technology. So, I get why the Toshiba Chromebook has only 2 GB of DDR3L memory. I get why it has only 720P video output in an era of 1080P. I get why it’s built-in “stereo” speakers don’t sound so great. I don’t agree with all of these choices, but I “get” them.

The problem is that many classroom teachers not only don’t get excited about specs like that – they don’t really care. They just want a device that powers on and lets them do what they need to do whether teaching or in support of teaching. They want to project their screen to their LCD projector. They want to know that a student’s device will work when they have a classroom activity planned.


When I look at a device like a Chromebook or an iPad, I look through all of these lenses. I’m not impressed by slick packaging, but I still get excited about opening a new device fresh out of the box. I’m not frightened by glitches or betas (I’m running iOS 7.1 on my iPhone right now). I want to know how well-built a device is, and I always evaluate ease-of-use for students and staff. My students raved at how “cool” the 11″ HP Chromebook looked, but they couldn’t see why the micro USB port for power AND video might be a problem. I know HP provides a dongle for that, but why not just provide an HDMI port?

So I come at these devices as both an end user and support specialist. Some of my complaints about the various Chromebooks may seem minor; however, I have seen students bang the hinge end of their Samsung Chromebook down on the metal of the Chrome Cart, cracking the cheap plastic on the spine. I have watched students press their finger to the screen to point out something to me. I have watched staff struggle to figure out how to project their Chromebook screen to their LCD.

I do not come to bury the Chromebook, I come to push it.

I want to give honest feedback so that one day we can look around and say, “Did we really accept that an inexpensive device for schools had to look, act and feel cheap?” I want the Chromebook manufaturers to make a profit, but I also want them to innovate – to demand better of their suppliers. I may look at RAM memory and display resolution and the type of USB reports when others do not, but I do not accept the statements, “It’s good enough for students” or “It’s good enough for teachers.” If we want to prepare our students for jobs that do not yet exist, lets give them the best, yet affordable, tools with which to prepare themselves. Let’s start saying, it’s the best tool for the job.

This Toshiba Chromebook I have in front of me weighs in at 3.3 pounds, pretty close to that “sweet spot” I suggested in my HP Chromebook review. Maybe they are on to something…

…check that. The faux-metal texture of the case will turn off many teachers (and it won’t fool any students).

There is so much potential in all of these Chromebook devices. Which manufacturer will take the best of all of the chromebooks and come up with “One Chrome to rule them all?” I’m excited to see what new devices reveal themselves in the coming months.