Connecting with students

An earlier updated post for Defined Learning,

The start of each new school year is such an exciting time for educators and students. After the summer break, educators head back into their classrooms and schools, hopefully feeling recharged, excited for the new school year, and ready with a list of new teaching ideas. Planning for the first day and first week back to school are so important, we want to set up our classrooms but also need to focus on the environment and culture we are creating. Of course, there are classroom expectations and class details that we need to share with our students, but we need to do something first. In starting to plan instruction and methods, we first should focus on learning about our students and showing that we are invested in their success. By starting here, we begin to develop our classroom culture and set up a welcoming environment for learning.

Welcoming students in and learning together

At the start of the school year, and every day thereafter, we should be intentional about being present. We need to spend time greeting all students and welcoming them back to school. Beyond the students on our rosters, It is important to acknowledge all students as we see them in the halls and throughout the building.  The power behind creating a positive and supportive climate in the building and in each classroom starts with teachers. When we are visible and show students that we are excited about school, we will start making connections that will help in fostering a positive classroom culture.

It can be challenging to start a daily routine of school after a summer break, or any extended break during the year. We must set a good example by engaging our students in conversations, showing an interest in who they are, encouraging and providing opportunities for peer connections. These intentional strategies to get to know our students will positively impact the learning environment

There are many ways to learn about our students. There are icebreakers and other games that can be used as a way to learn about one another. As educators, this is our opportunity to take time to encourage students to share their thoughts and interests with peers, and also what and how they hope to learn in your class.

Making those connections

There are many tools available to set up methods of communication and collaboration and to help students develop these critical skills for their future. For learning, we have to determine how to make ourselves available to students when they have questions or need additional support or resources. The questions do not stop when the school day ends, or over the weekend break. Without a way to ask questions during these times, students can become frustrated and the potential for learning diminishes. In our increasingly digital world, we have access to so many resources, but we also need to know how to find the right tools. First, I recommend that educators find a tool that enables students to connect, to ask questions, and to access classroom resources. Among the digital options available today, it still can be challenging to select the right one. A few examples are setting up a classroom website, a messaging app or using an LMS.

A classroom website is great for having a centralized location for students to access resources, post questions, review content and more. Websites and using LMS platforms can easily be set up using EdmodoSchoologyGoogle ClassroomWeebly a Google Site, or even Padlet.  Communication is also easier with a messaging tool that enables the sending of reminders, links to resources, or that integrates with other digital tools for learning. A few options are Bloomz (for parent-teacher communication) and Remind. There are several other options available, depending on your needs and the level you teach. I have used Voxer with several of my classes, especially for talking about Project Based Learning and sharing ideas and reflections.  One thing to keep in mind is to find out about the kind of technology and internet access available to the students.

Learning about each student

Even the slightest interactions can provide so much information about a student. It happens through those quick conversations as students enter the room, or by including fun activities in the lesson, and creating a supportive, welcoming environment where students feel valued. Engaging in some of these practices will help to build and foster positive relationships. The beginning of the year is the perfect time to start creating connections with one other.

Some quick ways to get started are by having students create a collaborative Google Slides Presentation, or use another digital tool, like Buncee or even Padlet perhaps,  for students to create one slide or add some information. Encourage each student to contribute by adding in fun facts, share how they spent the summer, or the weekend,  to help each member of the class to learn about one another. I did this with my Spanish III and IV students and it was fun to learn more about each student and their summer experiences and we had some fun in the process.

A personal goal at the start of each school year is to learn about my students and help everyone start to feel comfortable in our classroom. We used some icebreaker games, a great game of Bingo, shared stories, and it definitely helps students to learn about each other and for me to learn about them.  Our classroom culture continues to develop each and with it brings new learning opportunities.

Another great way that I have found to learn about each student is through the use of project-based learning. When students have the choice to determine what it is that they want to study and can drive their own learning, we can connect more with each student and understand who they are and what their passions are for learning.  The students can learn about their peers as well as become more globally aware of what it is like to be a student in different parts of the world and to just really explore whatever it is that they want. For us as educators, it creates a way to extend our own learning and we can continue to improve and learn and grow with and from our students,  starting from the beginning of the year. 

About the Author:

Rachelle Dené is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. Rachelle is an ISTE Certified Educator and serves as the past president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. She was recently named one of 30 K-12 IT Influencers to follow in 2021.

She is the author of five books including ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking,” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU” “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” “Chart A New Course: A Guide to Teaching Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s World and her newest book “True Story: Lessons That One Kid Taught Us” is now available. All books available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or directly from Rachelle.

Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915. Rachelle has a podcast, ThriveinEDU available at

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here. Looking for a new book to read? Find these available at

************ Also check out my THRIVEinEDU Podcast Here!

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Back to School-Building values and expectations

Guest post by Sanam Edwards @ReviewMirrorEdu 

In countries such as India, the pandemic rages on while mass vaccination camps safeguard a giant populace that would not be able to access lifesaving amenities. In other parts of the world, individuals are ditching masks and experiencing the joy of human interaction again. Schools across the globe are altering paradigms and thought processes as the new session in 2021 beckons.

In lockdown or out, it cannot be refuted that this year brings with it certain challenges and opportunities. Facilitators have imbibed the strength that came from teaching during an immensely challenging year. Likewise, school leadership has had cause to reflect on practices during the pandemic and how they must transform going forward.

The three primary stakeholders who need to get on board with managing values and expectations are the students, parents, teachers, along with management.

When we speak of values considered essential, they may now differ from person to person. For example, an individual who has gone through immense loss inflicted by Covid 19 could be grounded in resilience and fortitude of strength. Students who battled with virtual classes and emerged victorious exemplify the value of perseverance. It is up to educators to make sure that each child reflects on and develops values that they deem critical. We have always fostered inquiry and experiential-based learning in our classrooms, and we need to do the same for reflection regarding values we prefer to work on.

These values impact our outlooks of schools and relationships fostered by the stakeholders. When we look at the expectations of a school, the ensuing statements may be raised-

While all the above have been encompassed within curriculum for most schools in the past year, the fundamental way we function has altered. While co-curricular subjects have been on offer, teachers did not execute them on a field or in grand halls within a school. The teaching staff has been more involved with their students this year than possibly ever before, even though we never met our students in person. Institutions have ensured that learners have a platform to collaborate, learn and gain from schooling even though brick and mortar structures no longer brought us together. The way that young ones are being prepared for life ahead is through developing survive-and-thrive skills.

The stakeholders in education are obliged to recognize that the need of the hour is to focus on building values. Social and Emotional Learning has played a crucial role in urging students to persevere through hard times of loss and adjustment. The values that we want to infuse in our children have transcended the four walls of homes and need to be taught explicitly in every facet of life. Traditional values such as duty, working hard, and following authority without question have been replaced by resilience, self-care, and cultivating an inquiry spirit. Whenever I introspect on what we are teaching our students, there is a glaring disparity in what we used to emphasize in a pre-pandemic era.

We need to modify our expectations of what we require from parents, students, and teachers. Parents have lifted a heavy load while supporting their children during virtual classes, which has bolstered my belief that they are vital cogs in the education system. If parents can be encouraged to participate in the daily learning process, the children can explicitly see the benefits. Students have worked hard to alter the fabric of the way they learn and need continual inspiration to build inner skills that will help them power through adversity. These skills are modelled by teachers who are in the same boat, facing challenges and overcoming them through perseverance. 

While each stakeholder in the education sector deals with unique challenges, stress produces cracks in the system. While it seems counterintuitive to lower expectations, it may generate happier states of mind and unexpected joy when things work out. In a broken system rebuilt again during a dangerous pandemic, there are learning curves at every crossroads. Nobody proclaims themselves to be perfect, and the trajectory of improvement is on the rise.

Even when we go back to school buildings, the experiences of the ‘Covid Generation’ will not be forgotten. They will need care and a sense of nurturing even though they display the traits of strength and resilience. Our expectations of classrooms going back to normal are based on a fallacy. It is up to all stakeholders to embrace the new normal and encourage our students to prosper. We cannot go back to alienating parents from the learning process or separate curriculum from SEL. Teachers and parents must work together for the well being of the students. Relationships forged from need are now based on mutual trust and understanding, and we must not lose the base we have established for the well being of everyone involved in the schooling process.

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

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Changing the variable

Guest post by Jillian DuBois, @JillDuBois22

i’d love to say that life is easy. that the path is always clear + you can see the direction in which you need to travel for miles and miles.

and i wish i could tell you that there are more victories than defeats.

but i cannot give that validation. and i am ok with that.

it has taken me quite the messy road to get here. to that place where i can fully embrace life + all the goodness and joy it has to offer.

tricky little thing about life’s journey is that the destination is a changing variable. it’s position, order, value, and degree of expression are not coordinated simply.

this reminds me way too much of the haunting struggles i had with algebra as a teenager.

calculating changes + solving equations often left me frustrated. i felt like the time + effort i put into understanding problems with numbers + letters had to be more promising.

i found the numerical challenges to be infinitely great during that season of life.

so, i cheated.

i cheated my way through algebra, batting my eyelashes at unsuspecting boys who shared answers in exchange for assistance with writing excellent essays to prompts from romeo + juliet in mrs. stark’s literature class.

not my proudest moment. but a good one to reflect upon + share with a bit of vulnerability.

i’d like to say that i repented + changed my cheating ways in math to become a high-achieving arithmetic genius.

obviously, that did not happen. i am laughing right now because when i homeschooled my son, guess what i got to relearn all over again?

algebra. one + two. and geometry.

sufficient atonement.

all of this to say that – life, like algebra, is complex. when we try hard to calculate the outcomes of the changing variables, it leaves us overwhelmed and unsuccessful.

this has left me to believe that if we just take one step…one step at a time to find the position, value, order, and degree of expression in life – well, won’t we come to the factual realization that we are not meant to stay constant + unchanging?

the problems we are left to solve will be discouraging, leaving us tempted to cheat + find the easy way out. there is always an answer, but it could take several different paths to get there.

i want to encourage you today.

take those changing variables. take those things that you have to face every day and refocus your intentions on how you will solve them.

they may be big and obtrusive.

hey, i am no stranger to massive challenges. a child of divorce, an adult with infertility, a woman who lost her dad + sister to a rare genetic cancer…i could go on. we all have considerable backgrounds that have brought us right…here.

three things i have learned.

i shared these in a recent session i presented + i believe they all apply to fixing our eyes on the path that is before us.

number one.

refocus your intentions. step forward, choose your direction wisely with determination + strength. listen, listen, and listen.

number two.

remodel your boundaries. check your heart + know your limits. if it is not a ‘heck, yes!’ then it’s a no in my book. this is not a drive for perfection, but for growth, even by a small measure.

number three.

reframe misunderstandings with purpose. not everyone will ‘get’ you or like you. woah. that’s a tough one. we all desire to be loved + accepted. expect misunderstanding to occur + let it change your heart.

allow these simple approaches to restore your joy.

to be the reason you don’t cheat in life (or algebra).

to take the hard road when necessary + learn from every twist and turn along the way.

that’s how we grow. stretch. amplify. connect.

i am here to report that there will be more defeats than victories. more losses than wins.

the glory will come in the way you handle those changing variables.

with joy.


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AI in the world and education

We are seeing AI used in all areas of life and work. Because of the continued growth in and demand for skills in AI, we need to provide opportunities for all students to learn about and understand how AI works. Dave Touretzky, the founder of AI4K12 had stated: “It’s important that children be given accurate information about AI so they can understand the technology that is reshaping our lives.” Artificial intelligence is increasing in all areas of our world and a recent Forbes article shared five industries that are seeing increased benefits from artificial intelligence.

Automotive industry. There is a prediction that there will be 33 million self-driving cars on the road by 2040. To learn more about self-driving cars, I recommend checking out the virtual driverless course from AI World School, which I had been using with my STEAM class.  

Ecommerce. Algorithms track our use of certain websites such as Amazon, which then leads to more personalized experiences. Although it can be a bit unsettling at times to see ads pop up on other sites. Have you looked at a shopping site or searched something on Google, to then find similar products popping up on the other websites that you interact with?  Algorithms make this possible. 

Finance. AI processes large amounts of data and can instantly complete tasks and transactions that in the past took hours or days and multiple people to complete. There are “Robo advisors” which are capable of building personalized portfolios and profiles for investors and can do so without any human interaction.

Healthcare. For example, to diagnose pathology by analyzing tissue samples using machine learning and algorithms which can help doctors identify problems more quickly and provide care for patients.

Transportation and travel. More than 80% of people regularly use their phone to search local restaurants and landmarks. Algorithms scan the roads and adapt and provide information in real time. Think about how often you rely on Google to search a location or information about local landmarks.

These are just five of the industries seeing an increase but AI is used in many sectors of life and work.

What this means for our students 

As we consider how to best prepare students for the future, there is one thing that I believe is clear. Regardless of what our students decide to do in the future, it will involve technology. Students will also need a variety of skill sets to be prepared for whatever changes the future brings. An article from the World Economic Forum referred to a “reckoning for skills” and how certain skills will be essential as 1 billion jobs will be transformed by technology in the next 10 years. The Jobs of Tomorrow report stated that there will be an influx of jobs in the areas of artificial intelligence, data analytics and cloud computing. 

Beyond the statistics showing growth in these areas and with the emerging technologies and smart machines that are being developed, we have to recognize the likelihood that many jobs which are currently done by humans will be done with machines. 

So what does that mean for us as educators and for our students? What types of opportunities do we need to provide for them and how can we prepare ourselves enough to get them started? First, help students to understand what artificial intelligence is, where we see it being used in our daily lives, what are some areas of the work or in the world that it is making an impact, and what are the concerns that we should have when it comes to AI.

We need to create a space for students to explore, to develop their own understanding and to interact with it and then create their own AI. Regardless of what grade level or content area we teach, there are resources available for students even as young as pre-K to learn about AI. When it comes to artificial intelligence, giving students the chance to learn and a more hands-on or self-directed manner will make a difference. We need to give students the chance to try something, to fail at it, to adapt and then to set new goals. 

Here are seven resources to explore to find courses, curriculum outlines and helpful materials for getting started with AI. 

Getting Smart Town Hall. A recent discussion presented by Getting Smart on AI and the impact in our lives. Panelists discussed the implications of AI and how to prepare our students, with many resources shared. 

AI World School offers three flagship AI courses for different age groups and also, several micro courses. AIWS also has the virtual driverless car course and is offering summer camp courses. Also available this summer is the AI Covid Warrior contest.

DAILy from MIT  Offers a curriculum for students to explore AI as well as other activities and a mini-course. 

ISTE’s AI and STEM Explorations Network has created four free hands-on AI projects for the classroom guides which are available for download from ISTE and GM. I helped to create a lesson on the use of AI in language classrooms. The guides are available in English, Spanish and Arabic.

Microsoft AI for Good, offers many resources for educators or anybody to look at how artificial intelligence is being used and to also better prepare teachers

Microsoft Educator Center where educators can take some courses on learning about machine learning and other AI technologies.

Rex Academy offers many different courses to explore and has an AI and machine learning pathway. You can sign up for a 30 day trial.

It is important for our students to understand these emerging technologies, especially ones that will continue to grow and impact us in the future. We must make sure that we best prepare our students by providing access to resources that provide them with the right information, opportunities to work at their own pace and explore based on their specific interests and needs. It is important that we all bring these topics into our classes so that our students can have exposure to learning about them on a consistent basis so that they are better prepared for the future.

Kick Off the Year with Book Creator

In collaboration with Book Creator

When I head back to my classroom for the new school year, I always look for new ideas and tools that will help me get to know my students and provide more authentic and meaningful learning experiences for them. Over the past school year, educators focused on finding methods and tools to help promote the development of SEL, increase student engagement, especially in hybrid or virtual learning, and fostering creativity in learning. Finding tools that enable us to provide authentic and meaningful ways for students to not only apply the content, but to develop essential skills like SEL is important. With Book Creator, we can address all of these using one very versatile and interactive platform.

Just in time for back to school, Book Creator has released some awesome features that make it an even better choice for educators looking to have students focus on SEL skills, in particular self and social awareness. Students can connect with other classrooms, get to know about their own classmates, focus on relationship building, just to name a few of the benefits.

Creating with digital tools like Book Creator is also great for helping students to build digital citizenship skills. In a recent partnership with Common Sense Education, Book Creator has three new books focused on digital citizenship activities. The books are part of the digital citizenship curriculum on the Common Sense Education website and can be added for free right to your library within Book Creator.

Check out these titles!

New features!

There are some new features that promote collaboration and creativity.

Let’s Remix! Books are remixable so when you find a book that you like, depending on the settings, you may have the option to download and edit the book.This is a great option for teachers or students who want to try Book Creator but may not have a lot of time to get started or need some inspiration to spark their own creativity.

Analytics! You can check out the analytics for the books. Ever wonder who is reading your work and where they are from? It’s great to learn about your global audience and exciting for students to create something authentic, meaningful and purposeful for their own learning and for sharing with others.

Voice search Adding images to Book Creator is easier through voice search. With a feature like voice search, students who are building their language skills or may be worried about proper spelling, can simply click on the microphone and complete a search. There are 120 languages available within Book Creator.

Image attribution When looking at digital citizenship and helping students to become digitally literate, it is important that they understand how to properly cite resources that they are using. With the image attribution now available, you only need to click on the “Inspector” and the attribution will be added to the page.

Safe search is important as we want students to interact in a safe environment and so images that you search through Book Creator are provided by Pixabay which has more than two million professional images. Each has been reviewed, is free to use and you always get the image attribution included. There are precautions in place that block unsafe images and image attribution is applied to everything that has been added to Book Creator.If an image shows up that is questionable, teachers can block it and flag it to the Book Creator team.


When it comes to starting with new digital tools, it’s always a plus if you have templates available to choose from or resources that you can bring in to use as teachable materials in your classroom. Now Book Creator has SEL template books, which are activity books that help you to give students a chance to focus on self-awareness through an about me journal or well-being. It helps students to reflect on their learning and build essential digital skills.

Check out the two new templates just in time for the new school year. For younger students, the About Me template will be a great way to share stories and build relationships in the classroom. For older students, the “Empower the Learner Profile” template is a great option to help students to focus on self-awareness by ​​building a one page profile where they can share their talents, hopes, challenges, strengths and more with teachers and classmates.

8 ideas to try with Book Creator

  • Have students introduce themselves and share the books in a classroom library.
  • Have students collaborate on a classroom book. Be sure to include your own page for students to get to know you.
  • As a school, teachers contribute to a faculty book so that students and families can learn about each other.
  • Have students create a book to use as a digital portfolio or a journal that they can go through and evaluate their progress throughout the year.
  • Have students create a book to explain something through project-based learning or genius hour
  • Challenge students to retell a story in their own words with an alternate ending.
  • Prompt students to write a book based on a theme being learned in one of their classes like English or history.
  • Write a comic book

Want to try out Book Creator? The app is free and to check out the collaboration feature, sign up for a 90-day free trial.

Want to learn more? Join in the upcoming webinars here.

About the author

Rachelle Dené is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. Rachelle is an ISTE Certified Educator and serves as the past president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. She was recently named one of 30 K-12 IT Influencers to follow in 2021.

She is the author of five books including ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking,” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU” “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” “Chart A New Course: A Guide to Teaching Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s World and her newest book “True Story: Lessons That One Kid Taught Us” is now available. All books available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or directly from Rachelle.

Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915. Rachelle has a podcast, ThriveinEDU available at

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here. Looking for a new book to read? Find these available at

************ Also check out my THRIVEinEDU Podcast Here!

Join my weekly show on Mondays and Fridays at 5pm EST THRIVEinEDU on Facebook. Join the group here

Staying safe online

Staying safe online, whether learning in school or at home…

Guest post by Al Kingsley, @AlKingsley_Edu Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

With the future of education shaping up to be blended – whether in-school, remote or both – being safe online is key. But although teaching and learning is increasingly technology-based, the greatest contributor to online safety is great digital citizenship education, backed by the promotion and modeling of a positive digital culture – and then technology plays a role to support those elements.

I’ve worked with many schools across the country, so thought I would share some tips for online safety that I’ve encountered along the way…

Whole-school approach

A whole-school approach to staying safe online is essential. Every member of staff in every department – and teachers and students alike – all need to be fully engaged in the drive to keep themselves and others safe online. Understanding the ‘why’ behind the actions goes a long way to helping students (and other members of staff!) build their digital citizenship skills, know their online rights and develop their online responsibilities.

Modeling is also important and that’s where both teachers and parents can help. We all know that young students’ behaviors are shaped by the adults in their lives, so in addition to teachers’ actions in the classroom, it’s important to try to engage parents, get them on board with the school’s objectives, and encourage them to model good digital citizenship at home. This reinforces to students that it’s not just a ‘school’ thing; it’s about digital skills for real life.

Boosting teachers’ knowledge

The important thing with technology is to remember that teachers don’t have to be the expert in the room; it’s perfectly okay to learn from the students themselves. For example, students can often provide the teacher with insights into their online worlds that they can learn from and perhaps even incorporate into their digital citizenship practice to benefit others in the school.

Another amazing forum for teachers to discuss approaches with colleagues and to gain their feedback is Twitter. Sharing online safety tips, providing fresh ideas and valuable information on why certain things perhaps don’t work, as well as why they do, helps every educator to expand their knowledge.

Being safe… and remote

Being at home in isolation can give all of us (not only students) a false sense of security and protection when online. Sometimes, being online alone means it’s easy to react to posts on social media and throw out comments without thinking them through – completely forgetting that there’s a huge audience out there in the process! It’s easily done, especially when students are cocooned at home and there are no real repercussions.

So it’s really worth repeating and reinforcing the digital citizenship basics (e.g. “Don’t post anything on social media you wouldn’t want your grandma to see” and so on), to remind students that it’s not just an audience of their peers out there; it’s also their family, people they don’t know, and (for older students) maybe even potential employers that will see (or look back through their social media to review) how they act online.

Get parents on board with tech

Schools can play a really valuable role in ensuring parents are providing a safe online environment in a technological sense for their children at home. The reason why many don’t, is that they simply don’t know how to. So, engaging with them and empowering them to be able to apply parental controls or filters, for example, can be really effective. Schools can do this in various ways: via online Teams sessions, ‘tips’ emails, video exemplars, and so on.

And finally… the supporting technology Of course, schools and districts must also ensure they have online filtering and context-based keyword monitoring in place. And if they have a mechanism for students to be able to ask for help or report any issues or worries, from wherever they are to a teacher who they trust, that’s a great method of additional online support.

The online environment is always changing; that’s why equipping students with the knowledge and skills to be in control of their own online safety is so important. Digital citizenship can’t be done in an hour’s class once a week. It really needs to be infused throughout every subject, just like reading and writing. The aim is for these skills to become second nature, so regular reinforcement and repetition are essential to help students incorporate them into their digital skill sets as they move through their school careers and on into their adult lives.

Al Kingsley is Chair of two multi-academy trusts in the UK, appears regularly as a guest or host of EdTech podcasts, is author of “My Secret #EdTech Diary,” and CEO of NetSupport.

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at