We Need Easier EdTech Integrations

I won’t spend my time here griping about the overuse of technology for standardized testing and other “necessary” tests. That fight is for another day.

Today, let’s talk about how frustrating it is to use many testing services. I’ve spent most of the past two weeks getting two grade levels into two different online testing systems.

One system required an SFTP upload of a CSV file. I kept getting errors even using the company’s template and data tool. After trying a few dozen times, I gave up and sent the file to the company. The next day, the data was uploaded and corrected. I still have no clue what was wrong.

The second company uses Clever to sync students and teachers. But not to log students in for the test. No, no, they require a lockdown browser for their exam. Conveniently, they autogenerate usernames and passwords for the students.

Did I mention these elements are 11 characters or so each? And the students using them are in kindergarten?

Yep. Smiles all around.

Mind you, I have a decent amount of experience with all the tools I used to make these data uploads happen. I would venture to say that the person at most schools responsible for this process is NOT as experienced. Just a hunch.

There has to be a better way.

Enter the Zettelkasten: Note Taking, Making, and Organizing

This week, while I’m on a bit of a break between doctoral classes, I’m taking some time to better organize my personal knowledge management system. It’s what I and others refer to as a “second brain.”

Why do I need this second brain? There are several answers to that question, but let’s start with this one: the human brain was not designed to be a storage container. It was designed to make connections between concepts and draw conclusions. In other words, our brains were made to think, not to be an all-powerful, Trivial Pursuit winning, treasure trove of information.

To be sure, I play a mean game of Trivial Pursuit, but not because I’m trying to learn random facts. That happens to me with no focus. It’s a sickness I and many others have that, at the end of the day, isn’t useful for much. Although my wife refuses to play against me in any trivia game…

For me to get the most out of what I read, watch, or listen to, I need a way to make notes and organize them. But perhaps most importantly, I need a way to connect those notes and ideas to create something new.

As lifelong learners, we constantly search for ways to optimize our learning experiences and retain valuable information. In the world of personal knowledge management, there are numerous techniques designed to help us do just that. One such method is the Zettelkasten method, a unique and powerful approach that has gained considerable traction in recent years. My first encounter with the Zettelkasten method—albeit a revised version—was learning how Ryan Holiday writes his books using index cards. A commonplace book also works as a sort of Zettelkasten but with a severe lack of organization.

Let’s dive into the core principles and benefits of the Zettelkasten method, and explore how you can use it to unlock your full learning potential.

What is the Zettelkasten Method?

The Zettelkasten method is a personal knowledge management system that German sociologist Niklas Luhmann created with the intention of improving how we process, store, and connect information. Luhmann used this method to produce an astonishing 70 books and over 400 articles throughout his career. The word “Zettelkasten” translates to “slip box” or “note box,” which refers to the physical or digital space where notes are stored and organized.

Core Principles of the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Atomic Notes: Each note should focus on a single idea or concept, making it easier to digest and connect with other notes. This principle encourages clarity and brevity, preventing information overload.
  2. Unique Identifiers: Assign a unique identifier to each note, typically a combination of numbers or letters. This allows you to quickly locate specific notes and create meaningful connections between them.
  3. Linking Notes: Establish connections between related notes by linking them together using their unique identifiers. This forms a web of interconnected ideas, fostering creative thinking and deep understanding.
  4. Continual Expansion: Continuously add new notes and connections to your Zettelkasten, allowing it to grow and evolve over time. This ongoing process promotes active learning and reflection.

Benefits of the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Enhanced Knowledge Retention: By focusing on single ideas and forging connections between them, the Zettelkasten method encourages deeper understanding and long-term retention of information.
  2. Improved Creativity: The process of linking related notes stimulates creative thinking and helps you discover novel connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.
  3. Efficient Organization: The unique identifiers and linking system make it easy to navigate through your notes, reducing the time spent searching for information.
  4. Personalized Learning: The Zettelkasten method adapts to your individual needs and interests, allowing you to develop a customized knowledge base that reflects your unique learning journey.

How to Get Started with the Zettelkasten Method

  1. Choose a platform: Decide whether you prefer a physical or digital Zettelkasten. Physical options include index cards and notebooks, while digital platforms such as Evernote, Notion (my preferred platform, more to come on that topic soon), or specialized Zettelkasten software like Zettlr or Obsidian offers more advanced features.
  2. Create your first note: Write a brief, focused note on a topic of interest. Remember to assign it a unique identifier.
  3. Expand your Zettelkasten: As you continue to learn, add new notes to your collection, ensuring they follow the atomic note principle.
  4. Link all related notes: Use the unique identifiers to create connections between relevant notes, promoting a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Conclusion

Of course, this isn’t a complete look at the Zettelkasten method. The more you learn and implement the system yourself, the more you’ll develop your own “style” that works for you. The beauty of the system is its simplicity and adaptability.

The Zettelkasten method offers a powerful approach to personal knowledge management, fostering creativity, deep understanding, and efficient organization. By implementing this method in your learning journey, you can unlock your full potential and become a more effective, lifelong learner.

Recommended Reading

The Power of Commonplace Books: A Timeless Tool for Educators

As educators, we are constantly bombarded with new ideas, insightful quotes, and pieces of information that can inspire and improve our teaching practices. The challenge is finding a way to capture and organize these gems so that they can be easily accessed and applied when needed. Enter the commonplace book, a time-honored tool for doing just that.

Saving the minutiae of everyday life isn’t a new thought. People have been doing it for thousands of years and continue to do it even today (Pinterest, anyone?).

As Seneca said,

“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”

What is a Commonplace Book?

A commonplace book is a personal repository where individuals collect and organize quotes, ideas, anecdotes, and other pieces of knowledge they come across in their daily lives. It’s not just a diary or journal, it’s something you can refer to over and over again. It is a space for reflection, inspiration, and creativity.

Commonplace books take many shapes and forms, both physical and digital. Whether you keep a journal, binder, scrapbook, or even a Tumblr blog (yep, it’s still around!), the commonplace book can be an essential part of your life. Heck, even this blog is a form of commonplace book.

By keeping a commonplace book, educators can harness the power of the thoughts and ideas they encounter, making it an invaluable resource for personal growth and professional development.

Enhance Memory and Recall

Educators are lifelong learners who are constantly processing new information. Writing down ideas, quotes, and insights in a commonplace book allows us to engage with the material on a deeper level, enhancing memory and recall. This practice can be particularly beneficial for educators who want to remember important concepts and strategies they can use in their classrooms.

Foster Creativity and Innovation

Commonplace books are a breeding ground for creativity and innovation. As you collect and organize ideas, you naturally begin to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, sparking new insights and approaches. Educators can use these connections to develop innovative teaching strategies, create engaging lesson plans, or solve problems they face in their daily work.

Encourage Reflection and Personal Growth

By curating a collection of thoughts and ideas that resonate with us, we can create a personalized roadmap for reflection and growth. Educators can use their commonplace books to explore their own philosophies, values, and beliefs about teaching and learning. This practice can lead to greater self-awareness and help educators grow both personally and professionally.

Facilitate Collaboration and Networking

A well-maintained commonplace book can serve as a conversation starter and a networking tool. Educators can share their collections with colleagues, fostering collaboration and camaraderie. A shared passion for learning and growth can create strong professional bonds, leading to more productive and enjoyable working relationships.

Cultivate a Culture of Learning

By keeping a commonplace book, educators model a commitment to learning and growth for their students. This practice can help create a culture of curiosity and intellectual exploration within the classroom, fostering a love of learning in students that can last a lifetime.

Famous Keepers of Commonplace Books

  1. Leonardo da Vinci: The renowned artist, scientist, and inventor kept a series of notebooks that can be considered his version of a commonplace book. He filled these notebooks with sketches, observations, ideas, and notes on various subjects, from anatomy and engineering to art and philosophy. These notebooks were instrumental in shaping da Vinci’s genius and groundbreaking work.
  2. Isaac Newton: The famed mathematician and physicist maintained a commonplace book where he recorded his thoughts and ideas, including early notes on calculus and the laws of motion. Newton’s commonplace book was an essential tool in his intellectual development, allowing him to process and explore complex concepts that would later become the foundation of modern physics.
  3. Thomas Jefferson: The third President of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence kept a commonplace book for much of his life. Jefferson’s book contained literary passages, political thoughts, and philosophical ideas that influenced his beliefs and actions as a statesman.
  4. John Locke: The influential philosopher and “Father of Liberalism” not only kept a commonplace book himself but also wrote a detailed guide on maintaining one. He believed that commonplace books were essential for organizing and retaining knowledge, and his own book featured a wide range of subjects, including politics, religion, and science.
  5. Virginia Woolf: The renowned author and essayist used a commonplace book to record quotes, passages, and ideas from her reading. This practice allowed her to engage with the works of other writers more deeply and inspired her own writing. Woolf’s commonplace book was an essential tool for her creative process and intellectual growth.

How to Get Started with a Commonplace Book

Creating and maintaining a commonplace book is a simple yet powerful practice. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  1. Choose a format: Decide whether you prefer a physical notebook, a digital tool, or a combination of both. Choose a method that works best for you and your lifestyle.
  2. Develop a system: Create a system for organizing your entries, such as by topic, date, or source. This will make it easier to locate and revisit specific ideas.
  3. Make it a habit: Set aside time each day or week to review your notes, add new entries, and reflect on your collected ideas.
  4. Share your insights: Don’t keep your commonplace book a secret. Share your favorite entries with colleagues, friends, or students, and encourage them to start their own.

In conclusion, a commonplace book is an invaluable tool for educators, offering numerous benefits that can enrich their professional lives. By capturing, organizing, and reflecting on the ideas and insights they encounter, educators can cultivate a more creative, innovative, and self-aware approach to their work. So why wait? Start your own commonplace book today!



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Breaking Rules That Were Already Broken

Hey gang. It’s been a bit, but life has been… crazy. However, I’m rounding the bend on a number of projects and have breathing room again.

I did manage to find about an hour each week to watch the final season of Picard—by far the best season—and a quote from Captain Shaw in the final episode really struck me. His recorded review of his first officer, Seven of Nine, described how she was reckless and a rule breaker. But, very often, the rules she was breaking were probably already broken anyway.

My message to you, keep breaking the rules that are already broken. Trust me, there are plenty of them out there.

And now, for this week’s 10 Things…

10 Things Worth Sharing



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Students need freedom to develop critical skills with edtech

My first question when working with teachers and the technology they have available in their classrooms is, “what do you want the kids to create?”

And when we look at the 4 Shifts protocol, this question from the technology infusion section is also essential:

Does technology add value so that students can do their work in better or different ways than are possible without technology?

– 4 shifts protocol

When students can use technology to create, I hope they have been equipped with the necessary training to use that technology effectively. Otherwise, there’s trouble.

I’ve come to the realization that technology will have its greatest impact in the classroom when educators allow learners to use digital technology as a self-directed learning tool. This means not just providing students with laptops and online resources, but ensuring they have the necessary skills to find, validate, apply, and curate the vast amount of information now available to them.

Rick Cave, eSchool News

Just for the Sake of Being Creative

Sometimes, you just have to do things to flex that creative muscle.

“Do things that light your soul on fire and that help you fall in love with your life every single day. I had no clue when I started making content that I was going to be met with so much love in a place that is notorious for being unloving: the internet. do not filter yourself do not make yourself a version of you that you think is more palatable, digestible, lovable… don’t filter the humanity and the personality out of yourself. we already have that version of you. it’s everywhere.   it is everywhere. we don’t want that version of you. we want you to make content that makes you happy, that fills a creative void in your life. Do things for creative sake just because you love doing them. Don’t try and monetize everything. Don’t make every hobby a side hustle, don’t make every hobby a job, just do things because you love them and watch your life just like change. you  are suddenly doing things because they make you  happy, and that’s a really, really powerful thing.”

Elyse Meyers



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All your base are belong to us

Hey, y’all. We’re nearing the end of March, and for many public schools, that means Spring Break is near (or maybe already arrived). It’s a very busy time for educators as one school year ends, and plans for the next are already taking shape.

My hope for you as we approach the end of another school year is that you take the time to take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup, and it’s easy to get caught up in all the things at the end of the school year.

atomic habits by james clear

Take a beat, catch a deep breath, and center yourself. Rediscover what is really important to you and what you can control.

“We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on.” – Austin Kleon

Anyways, here are ten things I thought were worth sharing with you this week:

10 Things Worth Sharing

  1. I worked with a senior English class this week, showing them some AI tools. They might write a book.
  2. Here’s a curated list of prompts, tools, and resources regarding the GPT-4 language model.
  3. Wanna learn financial literacy? This 300-page book was written completely with ChatGPT.
  4. The TikTok trial is a mess and is only proving that the US government is targeting this specific company over other social media platforms. Any issues with TikTok are the same with Facebook, Instagram, Snap, and many others.
  5. What is the right amount of agency to give to learners during their interactions with EdTech? Blog post and paper
  6. Are you a Wordle fan? I’m totally not, but I’ve also never liked Scrabble. Not that you care. Here’s Every Possible Wordle Solution Visualized
  7. An AI course creator – according to the page: “Start with a description and let AI-Assistant offer title and outline suggestions.”
  8. You might be violating copyright in your classroom. Maybe.
  9. Bill Gates explains why AI is as revolutionary as personal computers, mobile phones, and the Internet, and he gives three principles for how to think about it. Also, he recommends this book, this book, and this book as helpful in shaping his own thinking about AI.
  10. An Introvert’s Field Guide to Friendship: Thoreau on the Challenges and Rewards of the Art of Connection
rocking the boat
Rocking the Boat by Debra Meyerson

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Rethinking & Reviewing

Happy Tuesday, folks. More appropriately (I guess), Happy Fat Tuesday.

Full disclaimer: I’m not Catholic, and Mardi Gras has no personal meaning for me. But many of you may join in the festivities and Lenten practices for the next 40 days. If you do, awesome. If you don’t, you’re welcome to hang with the rest of us heretics.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I sent out a newsletter on Tuesday. Life happens, deadlines loom, and if you’re me, there’s the ever-present anxiety beast that hangs back in the shadows, ready to rear its ugly head when you least expect it.

So, it’s been a minute. But we press on through whatever life throws our way and embrace what comes. In these times, I remember the words of Epictetus,

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

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You and I can only control what we can control. Trying to exercise influence over anything else is fruitless and will only cause us distress. For me, that means managing my schedule a little better and giving myself grace for getting all the things that I have to get done. That’s not easy for me, and it likely isn’t easy for you, o fearless type A perfectionist overachiever that you are.

Not that I have any experience speaking about such things…

So, today’s newsletter is a little different. I’m just going to call it “Rethinking & Reviewing” because you’re about to go on a journey through Mike’s stream of consciousness, and we’ll both find out the destination when we get there.

Here we go…

What I’m Thinking

The first year of my year-long teacher fellowship is coming to a close. We’ve met over the course of this school year to chat and help each other redesign lesson plans for deeper learning opportunities using the 4 Shifts protocol as a reference. To say the program has gone well would be a tremendous understatement. The feedback I’m receiving from the fellows is great and full of deep reflection. Most are well on their way to completing their lessons with students, and I’ll share more soon. For me, this first year will inform my work with other teachers and future cohorts but will likely also lead to part of the work for my dissertation in the coming years.

Speaking of deeper learning, I listened to episode 2 of the “Redesigning for Deeper Learning” podcast and was challenged by one particular thought: what does “student choice” really mean? Depending on the context of the lesson, giving the students options to choose from may or may not truly be “student choice.” With several lessons from my fellows fresh in my mind, I’m rolling this around in my head quite a bit this morning.

What I’m Reading

One of my goals this year for reading is to finish up all the published Cosmere works from Brandon Sanderson. I’ve gotten through most of Arcanum Unbounded, which features several previously published short stories and novellas based in the connected Cosmere. I also finished Warbreaker in January, and it might have become one of my favorite Sanderson novels. My current pick of the bunch from Arcanum is “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” a short story originally published in a collection, Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin. It’s a different tale from the standard Sanderson fare, leaning a bit more toward the horror genre. It was a fantastic read.

I’m also re-reading How to Write a Lot because I need a swift kick in the pants to get my writing practice back in order. There’s no better motivation to do that than when you hear the words “your dissertation starts NOW” during a Saturday morning class. Yikes.

On the academic reading side of the world, I’ve been using Speechify for a ridiculous amount of time to process articles. For my attention-span deficient brain – no formal diagnosis, just my own experiences – having the audio version of a text playing while I am reading is a brilliant focus tool. I read faster, retain more, and am able to focus far better than when I try to read text only. This is especially true for reading journal articles, papers, and so on. Speechify gives me an audio version of just about any text on my laptop or in my web browser. I now consider it an invaluable part of my productivity toolkit, right alongside Notion and Readwise.

What I’m Watching

In my random voyage of self-care, I ran across several seasons of the 90s revival of “The Outer Limits” on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s an anthology series of separate sci-fi stories and features some surprising guest star appearances from some popular stars of the day (heck, even Leonard Nimoy shows up). In some episodes, they do make an attempt to connect some of the stories, which makes for interesting situations. Overall, a great way to spend 45 minutes.

Oh, and Picard Season 3 just started, so there’s that, too 😉

What’s in My Ears

Two recent episodes of The Daily from the NY Times caught my interest, mostly because they deal with the recent explosion of AI tools. “The Online Search Wars” and “The Online Search Wars Got Scary Fast” are well worth the listen.

Also, I continue to update my 2023 playlist of songs I discover, or remember, throughout the year. I’ve compiled playlists like this for 20222021, and 2020.

Wrapping Up

Well, I think I’ve rambled enough. Thanks again for reading and coming along for the ride. Have a great week!


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Every Day is Groundhog Day

Hey, y’all. It’s Friday, the day after Groundhog Day here in the US. And here’s this week’s “10 Things”

10 Things Worth Sharing

  1. I say “Every Day is Groundhog Day” because of the intro to Austin Kleon’s “Keep Going”. The book is the final installment of his series on creativity. Here’s Austin reading the first chapter. Also, full credit to Austin for the format of this newsletter, as I blatantly stole it from him 😉
  2. I’ve been spending a lot of time with several of the teachers in my Future Shift Fellowship as they are working through the lessons they redesigned this year. I shared a little about one of them on Twitter this week.
  3. George Couros has 4 questions to consider about using ChatGPT in education.
  4. Speaking of ChatGPT (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it and every other AI platform), here are some ideas for how to put the tool to work for academics.
  5. Learning loss: a topic I’ve heard far too much about and believe that it only exists because we measure the wrong things in education. I wholeheartedly agree with Jo Boaler’s thoughts on this one.
  6. Let’s face it: most self-help books are bad and are just generalizations put into print. Here are 8 that are actually worth reading.
  7. I read 12 books in January 2023. Here’s a recap of all of them, along with my thoughts.
  8. If you’ve never caught an episode of “Live from Daryl’s House” featuring Daryl Hall performing with some incredible (and huge) stars of the music industry, you should check it out. Here’s an episode featuring Tommy Shaw (whom I may have performed for once upon a time when he came to my church) that’s brilliant.
  9. Speaking of Groundhog Day, the almost-perfect movie turns 30 this year.
  10. Finally, here’s a documentary from 1981 featuring behind-the-scenes footage from The Muppet Show. The documentary features a “table read” for one of the episodes that confirms why I believe The Muppets are the gateway to good comedy.

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Leading the Way

This is a preview of my Friday “10 Things” newsletter. Friday editions are free for everyone.

power up blended learning

Greetings, friends. It’s the second Friday of 2023. I hope you’re off to a great year. It’s also Friday the 13th, so be careful out there and watch out for hockey masks…

Here are 10 things I thought were worth sharing this week, focusing on the theme of leadership:

10 Cool Things Worth Sharing

  • Monday here in the US, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Here are 4 lessons from his leadership that apply in every organization I can think of but doubly so in education.
  • If there was ever a time for leadership amidst whirlwinds of change in the world of education, it’s now…

To read the rest, subscribe to my Friday “10 Things” newsletter.