I'm too busy to go to the doctor, and other teacher avoidance-techniques

Nose and finger (Stockholm)

I've been building a Professional Learning Network (PLN) for about half a year now, and while the people I am meeting are great, one segment of the profession is noticeably absent: High school ensemble directors. There are a few of us online, to be sure, but nowhere near the participation we are seeing from general music, middle school music teachers, private teachers, and college music majors. So, while I am thrilled to be interacting with those folks, we're usually not able to converse much about the classroom, which is of course the biggest reason to build a PLN.

So where are these directors? I generally find that they are "too busy" to try one more thing. This is something that I have heard regularly over my 20 year career. Too busy to run small ensembles, too busy to travel, too busy to switch kids to bassoon, too busy to go to the doctor even though I feel terrible... you get the idea. I am guilty of these statements at various times (especially the last one, which resulted in pneumonia, very dumb), but I think that overall I was fortunate to learn early on that the investment of time into pedagogy, tools, and philosophy pays dividends, and the dividends ultimately result in working smarter, not harder. 

"I'm too busy to have successful students" is of course a crazy statement. But our actions demonstrate our beliefs, and most of us work extremely hard doing the same things we've always done, hoping for better results. 

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

~Albert Einstein

Our music department has six concert bands, five choirs, three orchestras, five big bands, three vocal jazz groups, and AP Theory all within the school day in a school of about 2,000. We're pretty busy. I feel I have no choice but to work smarter at this point, and my guess is that you need to work smarter as well.

So back to my PLN. My focus has been simply to (a) share what I find and (b) share what I'm thinking about. By doing so I've met many people who are also sharing, and as a result we quickly reached a tipping point: we now receive far more ideas than we give. It's simple math. If everyone in your PLN shares one idea, you are going to get a LOT more in return than you give, and you don't need to feel guilty about it either!

Many of the ideas I've received via my PLN are now being used in my daily planning and teaching, and this is resulting in students that are more engaged and learning faster. It is leading to better record keeping, project management, assessment, and being able to look further down the road to see if where we are headed is in agreement with where we expect to go. I am able to get more done in the same amount of time....working smarter not harder.

With my workflow in pretty good shape, I'm wanting more dialogue about repertoire, instrumentation, equipment, curriculum, and so forth at the high school level. If you feel like your nose is just above the water line I encourage you to take a deep breath, join Twitter (make an account specifically for PLN building) and http://musicpln.org and start by sharing one idea per week. Pretty soon you are going to find your head above water, and eventually maybe you'll even be standing on the shore again. See you there.

Why Twitter Just Became Indispensable For Music Programs

OK, many of you have been in the following scenarios. What do you do when:

  • You are at Disney with your group, and suddenly there has been a mistake discovered in the itinerary. You need to leave...NOW... but your kids are all over the park. You have a phone tree set up, but it is going to take Who Knows How Long to get the word out, not to mention what will happen to the details during the inevitable telephone tag.
  • Practice starts in 30 minutes, and thunderstorm watch turns in to a tornado warning for your vicinity. People are en route, now what?
  • Snow is accumulating too fast this afternoon, and the principal tells you you need to reschedule the Holiday Concert, and you tell all the students during school. But how do you alert the public?

Now, obviously these are issues that have come up over the years, and we've all figured out ways to deal with them. But yesterday Twitter made a very important upgrade that is going to radically change the speed and efficiency of our communications. People can now use Twitter's Fast Follow feature to get text messages from your Twitter account without themselves having an account. Yep, they simply send a text to 40404. That's it, done, and free.

Fast Follow. Anyone in the US can receive Tweets on their phone even if they haven’t signed up for Twitter. This is a simple way for people to get information they care about in real-time. For example, let’s say you want to get Tweets from New York City’s office of emergency management (@). Just text ‘follow NotifyNYC’to 40404 in the US.

This alleviates alot of the concerns out there about whether or not students can be required to have a Twitter account, or share they mobile number with you, or whether they should have your mobile number. No longer an issue. Just have them Fast Follow your program's Twitter ID. Did I mention this is FREE??

Your excuses for not implementing a music program Twitter account just ran out friends.

Reading Music: The Real-Time Magazine for Music Educators

Ever feel overwhelmed by all the music ed. content flying around on Twitter? Great stuff, but we need to organize it. Here is an effort to do so in a way that is highly flexible, meaning the content will come to you in whatever way is most convenient. More details and tips soon, but for now, check out the trailer, visit the website, and be sure to add @reading_music to a fresh Twitter list!

Video: Zero to Sixty with Google Reader in Five Minutes

Here is a screen cast I put together to show you just how easy it is for music educators to start using Google Reader. It literally just takes a few minutes to be up and running with rich content. The key (as you will see) is getting two bookmarklets into your bookmarks bar.

Now just continue to hit the "Subscribe" button when you discover new sites. Next steps include creating your sharing settings, organizing your feeds with tags and folders, and connecting with other Google Reader educators. Find me here: http://www.google.com/reader/shared/scnmusic

Teacher Workflow Part 2: Ubiquity

message for you sir

(This is part 2 in a teacher workflow series. See part one here.)

Camping Out

Teachers are infamous for being in one of two tech camps: (1) Sticking with what works, or (2) never sticking with anything. Both are troublesome. As a hopeless early adopter I naturally find myself in camp (2), busily trying everything under the sun. But slowly I have been solidifying a productive workflow for myself based on the concept of ubiquity. I hope that my ideas will help you no matter which camp you tend to frequent.

The idea behind a ubiquitous workflow is to maximize your actions by making the results readily available in a variety of ways, from a variety of locations, through a variety of tools. It may sound complex, but the beauty of today's technology is that it can be complex to create but simple to use.  As users we don't have to worry about the way things work under the hood. That era has fortunately ended.

Here are some suggestions for increasing your productivity through ubiquity:

Start Using Gmail

Let's just cut to the chase: Google makes too many free tools available to be ignore if you want to be productive. But even beyond that, many teachers are still using isp-provided email addresses that are not only non-extensible, but can create a real hassle if/when you decide to switch to a new provider. Make the move to Gmail! You don't even have to cancel your current email address. Simply open a gmail account and it will happily continue to check your other address(es) so you will never miss a thing during your transition. Include an automatic signature in your response that makes note of your new address and asked people to update. You'll be switched over in no time. And it's free.

Gmail is very flexible, meaning you can tap into it in a variety of ways:

  • It is easily added to your smartphone
  • It has a good browser interface that can be accessed from any computer
  • It can be added to Outlook
  • It has a very powerful search capability

While your isp (or work!) mailbox may be telling you it is full and encouraging you to toss old emails, gmail keeps it all and is lightning quick in its searching ability. I never have to worry about what to save, I save everything. When I can't recall exactly what was said or decided, I can always find the conversation.

As I said initially, you get easy access to many other tools once you have your gmail account, including Google Calendars, Google Voice, and Google Docs. I have written previously on some of these (see link) so I won't go into them now, but each of them has the ability to increase productivity through ubiquity.

Start Using Dropbox

I have been using Dropbox for a little more than a year, and it is a major time saving and productivity-enhancing technology. The power of dropbox is in its simplicity. Once you install it on your computer you don't have to think about it. By storing your documents in the "Dropbox" folder (instead of your traditional docs folder) all of your documents are:

  • backed up to the cloud
  • available from any web browser
  • easily shared with anyone you choose
  • accessible from your smartphone or other mobile device

And it's free.1 Gone are the days of "I'll email that file to you when I get back to my computer." Now I simply take out my iPhone, open the Dropbox app, and send the person the link to obtain the file. Done. When my colleague and I are working on a project, we simply use a shared folder. All updates and changes are immediately reflected wherever we are accessing the folder thanks to Dropbox's background sync. And no more emailing files to yourself so you can work from home. No more flash drives for toting documents. When you get home, the files in your Dropbox folder are identical to what you left at work. Brilliant.

Start Using Toodledo.com

Honestly, I have never found the perfect task manager, and I've tried many. Toodledo.com is the best at the moment because:

  • You can get to your tasks from any computer web-browser
  • You can assign/receive tasks to/from others
  • It is compatible with third party apps that sync with your smart phone (I use Appigo's Todo on the iPhone and iPad, but there are several others)

The most important factor in using task managers is easy access. You have to be able to get to your tasks from any device at any time, or you probably won't stick with it. Toodledo, because it is web-based and provides a third party API is currently the best option in my opinion.

There are many other technologies that I use but will easily overwhelm the spirit of this article. The point is to make your technology decisions using the principal of ubiquity in order to maximize your workflow. The guiding principals:

  • Ease of use
  • Ease of access through many devices
  • Ease of collaboration

Like exercise, the best technologies are the ones you will actually use routinely. Complex or proprietary tools are like owning the health club membership but never working out.


1. Link is to my dropbox referral code. Dropbox spreads the news by awarding extra storage space from referral links, up to 8 gigs max under the free plan. Amazing.

Teacher Workflow Part 1: Beware the Retweet

The little blue wheel keeps following me

(This is the first in a multi-part series on maximizing your online productivity, especially before school gets going this fall)


Let's face it, we all love getting them. They help to broaden our reach/connections/circle of influence. But here is the problem:

After you retweet someone else's great blog post or site, how do you get back to it weeks or months down the road? Will you dig backwards through your Twitter account (do you have that kind of time during the school year)? Retweets alone can be penny wise buy pound foolish. They are great in the moment (especially for real time news) but very inefficient in the future. If you are going to spend time online, you want your activity to be beneficial both now and in the future. That is what workflow is all about.

While I am not going to suggest that we stop using retweets (perish the thought!), I am hopefully going to persuade you to take things a little further for the sake of your own workflow. This is definitely a process you flesh out during the summer months so you are in the routine come fall.

Suggestions for actions to take after you retweet.

"Favorite" the tweet

You (and your followers) can access your favorite tweets at any time. It is a mostly underused feature of Twitter, but it is simple and better than letting important information just float away with an RT. If you do nothing else, at least "favorite" tweets that you may want to refer back to in the future.

Use Instapaper for articles

Instapaper is a great way to save articles for later reading or recall. Instapaper includes a "bookmarklet" that you can drag to your menubar. Anytime you browse to a good article that is worth saving, simply click the bookmarklet (most of the better iPhone and iPad apps have Instapaper support as well). This way, with just one more click, you are creating a valuable library of knowledge instead of merely retweeting to help spread the word.

Use Evernote for saving articles

Evernote is an extremely popular and ubiquitous service for keeping track of articles, sites, tasks, voice memos, and more. Apps are available for most smartphones, OS X, and within web browsers. When you stumble upon an article you like, simply clip it to your Evernote account in addition to retweeting.

Add blog to Google Reader

Great articles are usually a sign of thoughtful bloggers. Whenever I land on a blog with a great article, I add the blog to my Google Reader account. Like Instapaper, there is a bookmarklet that you can click that will instantly add the blog to your Reader. If you value your time, you really need to start using an rss aggregator like Google Reader. Once you get proficient at using it you can begin to easily tweet articles you are finding. This is an important step in becoming a "giver" on Twitter. Now you too will receive retweets!

See the Retweet as the first of two clicks

Teachers continue to flock to Twitter, especially in the summer, and retweeting is a fun and valuable PLN activity. Just remember to make one more click after you retweet in order to maximize your productivity. Think of it like a squirrel storing acorns for winter. You will thank me in February!

Oh, and thanks in advance for the retweet ;-)

If birds couldn't sing, all we'd have is a bunch of tweets

Feed Me!

Like most tools, Twitter is really great for its core purpose, yet 140 characters can make it woefully inadequate for other uses. Anyone who uses Twitter knows this very well, and as the teaching profession continues to "flock" to Twitter we are at the same time witnessing a desire for something that has been largely absent since the coming of "Web 2.0."

The missing "something" is organized conversation.

Twitter works OK for small talk, but when you want to go deep on a subject and include as many thinkers as possible, it just doesn't work well. Not to mention that Twitter is extremely "in the moment." Miss a little, miss a lot, with Twitter. Twitter was made for "here is what I think" and what is needed right now (especially in education) is "how can we put our minds together to improve?"

All this to say that if you are a teacher who is new to the Professional Learning Network (PLN) movement, you need more than tweets. For music teachers, Joe Pisano has just given the profession an incredible opportunity by launching musicpln.org, a site that has conversation at its foundation. This is an incredible opportunity for our us, and we need everyone on board in order to have the type of critical mass that a discussion board needs at launch. Sign up and say hello. Read, but more importantly, post your thoughts. For other teachers, check out the educator's ning at http://edupln.ning.com/.

The default behavior on the web these days is to take, not to give. We need more givers. We all have something to contribute. Give us a song or two in the midst of your tweets, the profession will be stronger for it.