The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

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Jennifer Gonzalez: This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 22 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, I’m going to share three hacks that solve big school problems.

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Gonzalez: Hey, it’s great to be back. I took a little time off this summer just to kind of plan things and get some new episodes into the pipeline. And I’m back with what we’re going to go ahead and call Season 2. And so, really happy to be here. I’ll just give you a little bit of information before I start onto today’s topic.

I have got some new icebreakers available for you. If you’re a teacher, especially if you’re a six through twelve teacher, and you want to start the year off with some great icebreakers, to kind of get, help the kids get to know each other. I have created a set of three really good ones. I’ve got them in PowerPoint. So all you do is just load that PowerPoint up, you put it in slideshow mode and it’s like a conversation starter. So one of them is called This or That, where you basically put up a question and if the student disagrees with the statement, they move all the way to one side of the room. If they agree with the statement they move all the way to the other and they have to kind of argue about what, you know, what their opinion is on that. There’s another one where students have sort of to line up, like they have to line up in birthday order or they have to line up by order of their shoe size. Or they’ll have to gather up together with other students who share something in common with them, students who all have the same favorite season of the year, something like that. And so what’s nice about these games is that they don’t really require the students to like embarrass themselves or do anything really corny. They’re just really genuine ways to get students to discover things that they have in common and just start talking, but without it being, you know, they don’t have to come up with the topics themselves.

I was going to originally create a list of icebreakers that I found online. I was just going to find them and link to them. But a lot of them that I found, it just kind of reminded me that so many icebreakers out there are just really kind of corny and don’t really help students get to know each other that well. So I figured, what did I do with my students? So I pulled these together. I created some nice PowerPoints and those are available and you can find them by going to If you click on Resources and then go to Products for Your Classroom, you will find a section that is on icebreakers. You can take a look at those and see if any of them interest you.

Okay so let’s get to today’s topic. We’re going to be talking about three hacks that can solve big teacher problems. Earlier this year, and this is 2015 that I’m talking in, I started having a lot of conversations with another education writer. His name is Mark Barnes and he runs another education website called Brilliant or Insane. And we started talking about some of the creative things that we were aware of that some educators were doing to solve problems. One of the things that we were starting to notice about some of these things was that they were sort of hacky. They were not things that were expensive. The solutions that people were implementing were just creative ideas where they were putting together things that were already available to them in creative and different ways.

So after talking about a couple of these, we started to kind of put together the idea that maybe we should put them all together into a book. And so at that point in time we had about four or five of them and then we did some more research and some more thinking. And what we ended up with is our book, which is now available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. The title of the book is Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. And so basically the book is ten different ideas that solve some of the biggest problems that educators face. And you know the idea of something being a quick fix is off-putting to some people because they say, you know, the problems that we face are too complicated for quick fixes and there are no silver bullets. And I would definitely agree and I know Mark would definitely agree with that. That there are a lot of systemic issues that don’t, that wouldn’t respond to a quick fix. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be creative and try to solve some things in innovative ways.

So in this book what we do is we take ten different problems and for each one we explain what the problem is. Then we describe a hack that can sort of solve it. We show you how you can put that hack into action tomorrow, right away you can start implementing this. Then we give you a fuller blueprint for really doing a long-term, full implementation of the hack. Then we talk a little bit about pushback, what to say or what to do when you get objections to this idea. Because with every new idea for change, there will always be people who will be skeptical about it. They will say this isn’t going to work because of that. Or we can’t try this because of this. Or I don’t want to do this because of that. And so we’ve tried to sort of think through those objections and sort of provide some really good responses. Not necessarily to shut down anybody but to sort of help people see the logic of why the hack could work. And so after the pushback section, the very last part for each hack is we show the hack in action. We give you an example of a real teacher or a real school actually using this solution and how it’s working for them.

So what I thought I would like to do for this podcast episode is share with you three of the hacks from our book so that you have some idea of what the book is about. And also so that you can start taking these ideas into your school right now and trying them.

Hack 1: Cloud Meetings

So the first hack I’m going to talk about is something I’m calling cloud meetings. And here is basically the idea of a cloud meeting: Well first of all, the problem that cloud meetings solve is the problem of meetings taking too much of our time as teachers. We have very limited time during the school day, and for a lot of teachers, a good part of that time is taken up with meetings, department meetings, PLC meetings, faculty meetings after school, meetings even with parents, special ed meetings…there’s just tons and tons of meetings that eat up a lot of our time during the day. Well this was the very first hack that we sort of came up with, that gave us the idea of this book. If you can start moving some of your meetings to the cloud, you can save yourselves a lot of time.

And this is what I mean by moving meetings to the cloud: Right now we have the technology available to us to almost eliminate face to face meetings. So this is what I mean by technology. And by the way, the ten hacks in this book are not technology heavy. There are a few that kind of rely on technology, all the others are really low tech or no tech. And you’ll see what I mean when I talk about the other two.

So here’s what I mean by cloud meetings. Instead of everybody gathering together in the library after school for a faculty meeting, what you could do instead is you could set up an online cloud system like Google Drive or Dropbox. I’m going to call this a “bin,” a place to basically drop documents. So for example, instead of having your meeting agenda, having that distributed at the meeting, suppose at the meeting you want to distribute an agenda, and then two other sort of handouts. One of them is maybe a schedule for something and maybe another is like an article you want everybody to read. So instead of having to distribute these face to face at a meeting, an administrator could put all of these into a Dropbox folder and send everyone in the school a link to that saying “For this week’s meeting, you need to go to this week’s Dropbox folder and read them and then do whatever it is you want them to do with those documents.” So that takes care of the need to hand out documents face to face.

Okay, then there’s the discussion piece. So we’ve got our bin for the distribution of stuff. But in a meeting you need to talk. You need to talk about things. The person running the meeting needs to say a lot of stuff and then they need to get people talking back to them so that decisions can be made. That’s when you need a backchannel. A backchannel is basically any form of communicating with people where you’re not really doing it face to face. And it could be lots and lots of people, so one way that this can be done is through the smartphone app Voxer, which is a really simple thing you can add to your smartphone. It’s sort of like voice mail, but you’re not digging into a phone number where you have to punch a bunch of buttons and listen to the message and then play it back. It’s all kind of visual. It’s almost like an inbox with buttons you can press to play messages. You play one and then you play the next one, you play the next one, and these are all people having a conversation. And in a Voxer chat you can have lots and lots of people talking back and forth in a long thread, almost like a comment thread on a blog post, except it’s all voice.

So the way that you would have a meeting in the cloud is you can say “Okay this week’s meeting is going to start on Monday and it’s going to end on Wednesday. Your deadline to get everything done is on Wednesday.” On Monday, everybody here are the links to the documents. Grab them when you can. Read them. And then by Wednesday you need to have gone into Voxer and answered these few questions. So everybody goes into the same Voxer chat room. You discuss things back and forth. By the end of the day Wednesday, everybody has made a decision about this that and the other. And the “meeting” is done.

The nice thing about this is that nobody had to be in the same place at the same time. You were able to have this meeting without actually having to all show up and be in the same place. And you only participate to the extent that is relevant to you. So if there is a conversation going on about a certain department and a decision they have to make, you don’t have to be involved in that. That could be a side backchannel conversation. You also don’t have to sit around and wait for people to have those conversations the way you would in a traditional meeting where there are side conversations going on and you just have to sit and listen to them. None of that in a back channel conversation because there can be several going on and then everyone can meet back up again in the same main backchannel conversation. The decision is done and everybody kind of goes home. Except that you’re in your car, or you’re washing dishes, listening on your headphones. And so the meeting can actually take place right on this app. And everyone can go about their day in the way that they need to at that time. Teacher time is so precious and this is a way of really conserving it.

Now one of the pushbacks of this is how are we ever going to build rapport in our staff if we never meet face to face? Well that’s the thing: You can take care of your practical matters and your, you know, sort of administrative stuff through these cloud meetings and then you can just plan social gatherings for everybody to get together and just like hang out and have bagels before school in the morning. Or celebrate somebody’s wedding shower after school or something like that. You can only get together for social occasions, instead of always having to hammer out administrative details which could be done some other time in some other private conversation. So that is the first hack, meetings in the cloud, and the problem that is solves is that it gives teachers a lot more time, free time so that they do other things that they need to get done for their teaching.

Hack 2: Pineapple Charts

The second hack is what we are calling Pineapple Charts. Pineapple has traditionally been a symbol of welcome. You see pineapples on welcome mats and welcome signs on doors. I’m not sure exactly why it is, but it is. So that’s the connection to pineapple charts is the symbol of welcome. Here’s what a pineapple chart is: A pineapple chart is a whiteboard or any kind of a large board that is kept in a place where a lot of teachers go. So it could be in the faculty lounge. It could be right near the teachers’ mailboxes. It could be above the copy machine. Wherever is a place where a lot of teachers go. It’s a calendar of the week. So if you imagine across the top you would have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. And across the left hand column, you’d have all the different class periods of the day. Okay, and what happens on this chart is that teachers will write down something interesting that they’re doing in their classes that week. So for example if a teacher is going to try a new instructional technique. They can write Wednesday, third period, I am trying this technique. If a teacher’s going to be doing a fun activity with students that they think other people are going to like to see, they could put Monday morning, fifth period, I’m going to be doing that. If there’s going to be a new technology that’s going to be–somebody’s going to try it out, or maybe they’re not trying it out, but they’ve gotten really good at it. Other people have said “Oh I’d like to do that, when are you doing that?” They can put that on the calendar. What this becomes is a big advertisement to all of the other teachers of open-door lessons that are happening in the building that they can go visit. The teacher who has written their lesson on there is basically saying “You can come and see this. I’m inviting anybody who wants to come to come and watch.”

And the problem that this solves–and this one isn’t really like a serious problem–but so much of our professional development is stuff that is not customized to our needs as teachers. Also, schools are always short on budget for helping teachers grow in their skills. But in our buildings, we have got such rich sources of professional development all over the place. All of the teachers that we work with know something that we can benefit from. But we rarely go into each other’s classrooms to observe. There are a lot of reasons for this. One is time. You know, we all need to use our planning periods and our free times for doing our own stuff. Another is that we don’t know if we’re welcome. We don’t know if it would be okay to just, you know, sometimes I’ve walked past another teacher’s classroom and heard something interesting, but I didn’t know if I could just walk in and sit down. Depends on the relationship I have with that teacher. Unless I’m explicitly told, yeah, I can come in on this day at this time, I’m not going to walk into their room and start watching. I might lurk outside the classroom and listen for a few minutes, but that’s probably about the extent. So not knowing that you’re welcome is a problem. Another thing is you know, even if I’m invited to observe, I might not know if I’m going to enjoy the lesson or get anything out of it. I don’t want to walk in, hang out in the back and realize that it’s not for me. I don’t know what to do. And so if you create a pineapple chart and encourage teachers to use it, you’re changing the culture of your school into something that is a little bit more fluid and open. I think part of implementing this is saying to the staff this advertisement, or this invitation is you can come in for five minutes or you can come in for the full hour. You don’t necessarily have to stay because this is not a formal observation. This is not one of those times where you’re sitting down filling out paperwork and recording everything you see, this is trying to learn from each other. And so having something like a pineapple chart really, really facilitates this.

One of the questions that I got when we were working on this idea was about overcrowding. You know, how are you going to prevent twenty people from showing up in somebody’s room all at once? One thing that solves that is that we don’t have our planning periods at the same time. You’re just not going to have fifty to sixty percent of the building on planning at the same time. And that’s when we actually will get to visit each other’s rooms is when we have a free period. You know the other thing is you can always just set a limit. You set a limit on the chart that says limit of three visitors. So if somebody comes in and the room is already crowded, they go away, come back some other time. The idea of this is that it’s informal and it’s flexible and it’s casual. This is the opposite of formal observations. So that is a pineapple chart. That’s the second of the three hacks.

You’ve got the cloud meetings, pineapple charts. The third one is called Teacher Quiet Zones.

Hack 3: Teacher Quiet Zones

The problem that Teacher Quiet Zones solves is the problem of frequent interruptions during planning. So we all get some sort of designated planning period or planning time during the day, some free time to get things done. Unfortunately, that time of the day is eaten away by other things. One of them is meetings, which if you start implementing more cloud meetings, you’re going to get more of that time back. But a lot of those interruptions are just sort of by chance. We are in our room with our door open and somebody just sort of sticks their head in and asks a question and before we know it fifteen minutes have gone by because we’re having a conversation. This is actually not a bad thing because it’s important to build relationships with our colleagues, you know, continue to build our school culture and have a friendly environment. However sometimes the timing is just not good and some of us, we know ourselves,, we can get roped into different conversations and before we know it our planning time is over. Or we’ll be in our room doing something and a student will stop by and they’ll have a question or they’ll need something. And there can be all kinds of different interruptions when you just need to be able to concentrate and get your work done.

So what some schools have done is they’ve created quiet zones that are designated for teachers to do their work, and they have been sort of marked off as “Do Not Disturb” areas. And so the school has set up an agreement with everybody that this is the area, if a teacher is here they’re not to be disturbed. They are here because they are trying to get work done. So the teachers will bring papers to grade or a laptop to work on. Or something that’s obviously not very noisy. This is not going to be like cutting and assembling large things, but quiet work that needs to be done. So what schools who are doing this are using is, they’re getting creative. Again, they’re getting hacky. Some are realizing there’s this one underutilized conference room and so let’s just designate that as a teacher quiet zone by putting a sign on the outside of it and posting some rules about what can and can’t happen in this room in terms of cell phone conversations, none of that. And it’s working. Teachers are getting some work done. They’re able to sort of have peace and quiet for twenty minutes, or however long they are able to get in there and use it. And you know, because it’s already been discussed ahead of time, there’s not that sort of social risk because you’re telling someone look, you’ve got to leave me alone. I’ve got to get some work done. It’s sort of understood that we’re going to respect this person’s time. It’s a clearer message basically than even shutting your door in your own classroom because sometimes people take that to mean “Well, they need quiet, but it’s okay for me to come in and talk to them.” So designating these areas as teacher quiet zones, it allows us to maximize our planning time.

One of the pushbacks to this is that we just have no space. And this is where hackiness and creativity come into play. One school there was just a kind of a back supply room, like a back room of the library. But it was big enough to fit a couple of desks in and so this school just used that. They just said this is going to be it. They moved a few things around and made some space. I mean these are basically places for us to hide during the school day. But you kind of need that sometimes. You need that break from the noise and the craziness and the interruptions so that you can actually get some stuff done. So teacher quiet zones is the third of the three hacks that I wanted to share with you in this podcast.

Other Hacks Are Waiting…

The book has ten and I love every single idea. It was really, really fun to put these together because a couple of them come from my own experience or Mark’s own experience in the classroom. A whole lot more come from people that we just talked to and we heard about certain things. What was neat was when we were writing the book is that we had a pretty solid, you know, seven or eight in place. And then we were looking around to see…we wanted it to have ten strong ones. What was great was while we were working on the book was we would come across an article or a comment in a, you know, after a blog post and all of a sudden we’d see this idea and we’d call each other and say this is it. Oh my gosh this is our hack number nine or whatever it was. We reorganized things quite a bit as we were writing. But we would sort of discover another hack, another teacher or school using something that was just so creative and innovative and affordable and simple that we knew that it really fit the profile of a hack.

So to find this book you just would go onto Amazon and look for Hacking Education, Ten Quick Fixes for Every School. This is by myself, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Mark Barnes. You can also learn more about the book by going to and that is actually the website because Mark is going to be publishing a series of these books. This is the first one. But he is going to be hacking other school problems. One is going to be Hacking Assessment. Another is going to be Hacking the Common Core. So there’s going to be a whole long series of these that he’s going to be writing with other authors and having other authors take on these big topics and come up with fast solutions. So if you go to , you’ll find information on all of those other books.

So that is all for Episode 22. A couple of reminders before I let you go. One is if you are enjoying the Cult of Pedagogy podcast, I would so appreciate you going over to iTunes and leaving the podcast a rating and a review if you have time. Doing this really helps sort of pull us up in the rankings and allows other people to find this podcast, basically. In iTunes, you can’t really be found if you don’t have ratings and reviews. So that would be wonderful.

Also, if you are sort of just finding me through this podcast, I want you to know that I have a whole website called Cult of Pedagogy and I basically make it my mission every day to provide things for teachers to make them, help them do their jobs better. So if you go over to, you will find book reviews, and discussions of instructional strategies and learning research and technology, and also just some of the emotional and social stuff that impacts the work that we do. There’s tons and tons of stuff on there. I’ve got videos. I’ve got products that you can use in your classroom. So visit me at, and you can find me on Twitter at @cultofpedagogy and I think that’s it for now. Thank you so much for listening and have a great day.


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