Archive for February, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Evernote

Evernote is one of those tools I really wanted to like and use when I first heard of it, but after playing with it for a while, I decided I really had no need for it.  I was teaching then, and I had all the files I needed organized neatly in folders and synced between my tablet and my home desktop.  Cool concept, right tool, wrong time.

Fast forward to September 2008: I’m now a school psychologist, responsible for a case management load of over 70 students.  I started using one of my first “Web 2.0” loves, Tiddlywiki, to help keep my notes on each student organized.  As much as I liked it for maintaining plain text notes, that’s really all it could do without further tinkering.  Linking to local files was too time-consuming, and God forbid I move a file – broken & useless link.

When I switched schools in January, I also switched note-keeping tools.  Looking for something a little more robust than Tiddlywiki, I dusted off my Evernote install, updated to the latest version, and began to play.  My trial period turned into a love affair.

How We Roll

Within a given account, Evernote allows you to create “notebooks”, and within each notebook, you have “notes” – think of them as a neverending stack of index cards.  Like Tiddlywiki, these notes can accommodate plain text, hyperlinks, bullets, number lists, etc., but Evernote also allows you to drag and drop files into your “index cards”.  Users with free accounts are restricted to dragging and dropping images, audio, ink, and PDF files, but if you are a paying user ($5/mo or $45/yr), you can drag any kind of file AND have Evernote synchronize so that your files are accessible from any computer with Evernote installed, the Evernote website, or your mobile phone (via either a mobile site, Windows Mobile app, or iPhone app).

In my quest to go as paperless as possible at work, I scan a lot of documents to PDF.  When I drag them into Evernote, I can view the document directly in Evernote via their baked-in PDF viewer (courtesy the good folks at Foxit, maker of my PDF viewer of choice).

Relevance to School Psychology

Ours is a profession that depends greatly on paper trails and written documentation.  Evernote is a convenient, paper-free method of storing information in just about any medium you may use.  From an organizational standpoint, here’s an example of how I’ve set up some notebooks on general topics:


This screenshot is from my home computer.  The notebooks with greyed-out icons are local-only; the green icons indicated synchronized folders (I access these from my computer at work, too). As you can see, I’ve set up separate notebooks for business cards, documentation regarding my certification status in both NJ and PA, information on doctoral programs, our local Polytech program, and even a repository of research articles I have encountered over the years.

Beneath these notebooks are individual notebooks for each student on my caseload.  Any time I need to record pertinent information for or about a student, it goes directly into Evernote.  I have a clipboard & pen that saves my written notes as PDFs, so even when I am without my computer (e.g., a classroom observation), I can still write down what I need to, save it to PDF, and drop it from the clipboard’s SD card right into Evernote.

I have even been able to digitally record important information, compress the wav file, and archive it here.  Who needs a stack of cassette tapes lying around when you can keep it all here?

Even if you don’t wish to set up several notebooks, you can use Evernote as a “brain dump” and use their search function to find what you need when you need it.  Their OCR technology even allows you to search the text in PDFs and photographs.

Of course, privacy and confidentiality are also important.  Evernote blogged about this here, and they also post their privacy policy online.  As an additional security precaution, information within notes is encryptable.


Evernote has been a great organizational tool for this psychologist over the two months I’ve been using it.  It’s essentially a digital file cabinet that I’ll never even get close to filling – I’m a paid member, and even after syncing a ton of PDFs and quite a few zipped .wav files, I still only used 160 MB of my 500 MB monthly limit this month (free members get 40 MB/mo).  Maybe a good analogy is to think of Evernote as an iTunes for your notes and documents – sure, you could open up separate folders and click on individual mp3s to listen to music, but isn’t it easier to manage them all in one central location?

Have You Thanked A Teacher Today?

I don’t mean your kids’ teacher, or your colleagues, although I’m sure that would be most appreciated.  I mean one of yours.

Whether we graduated 5 or 45 years ago, I imagine almost everyone who works in education has at least one teacher, coach, counselor, or some similar adult to thank for guiding them in this career direction.  You might have become a teacher because you were inspired by the way your 8th grade science teacher made difficult, abstract concepts easily accessible to you.  Conversely, you might have had such an awful educational experience growing up that you entered the profession to give other kids the kind of education you didn’t have. Whether or not you are a teacher, you’ve hopefully known at least one adult at school with whom you had a special bond, or who mentored you in a way that was above and beyond.

If reading this post has made you think about any of your old previous teachers, why not look them up and drop them a line?  Whether you send them an email or a regular old-timey letter, you know it will make their day (possibly even their year) to know that they had such a profound impact on at least one of their students.

I’ve done this with two of my teachers from high school so far.  Mrs. Clark was my Spanish teacher for three of my four years of high school, and senior year she tutored me after school in preparation for the AP Spanish test.  I was the only student in my school to take the test that year, so I really got 1:1 attention.  The morning of the exam, she brought me in a brown bag with snacks and goodies.  I was a good student, but could be a complete asshole somewhat inappropriate at times, and that Mrs. Clark did this, especially after how I had behaved in some of her classes, absolutely floored me.  I took for granted the after-school help, as many teenagers might, but this was a human gesture that, to my 17-year-old mind, was so incongruous with “school” that I was deeply touched (still am today), so much so that I was pretty wracked with guilt later that year when I learned that I scored a 1 on the AP test.

I also sent Mrs. Kencik, my AP English teacher, a letter.  I enjoyed her class and teaching style (one of the few teachers who encouraged us to write in our books and circle our desks up for conversation about literature), but one thing she said really stuck with me.  A bunch of us were making some snide remarks about “jocks” before class one day, and one of us brought up the point that actually, many of the kids on this team or that were in pretty high-level classes.  Mrs. Kencik turned to us and said, “And maybe that is the difference between a jock and an athlete.”  Again, just some run-of-the-mill stereotype addressing that teachers should do on a regular basis, but again, that phrase stuck with me, and I used it myself many times when I heard my students talking about “dumb jocks”.

A third teacher, Mrs. Porter, was absolutely instrumental in inspiring me to become a teacher, but I haven’t had to write her a letter because we stayed in touch after I graduated and she took a job at a different high school.  Three years after graduation, I student taught under her; a few years after that, I was her dialect coach on a drama club production of Drood, and we’ve kept in touch sporadically over the 14 years since I graduated high school.  In fact, she joined Facebook not too long ago, and, presumably inspired by the connections she was making with former students, hosted a get-together for a bunch of us at her house this past December.

By my count, I have at least one teacher left to write: Mrs. Burger, my fourth grade teacher and the teacher of the Gifted & Talented program in my school district, a pull-out program in which I spent much of  the following four years.  She helped make middle school bearable for me in a way that I don’t think I’ll be able to make her understand.

We have all sorts of wonderful tools for tracking down people from our past, folks.  How much time and effort would it take to Google that teacher, counselor, or coach who made a difference and send them a letter?

PA HB 363: If You Can’t Beat ’em, Ban ’em!

Folks were all a-Twitter today about the newly-proposed legislation in Pennsylvania, PA House Bill 363.  My colleagues & fellow Pennsyltuckians Dan Callahan and Jimbo Lamb have already written about the implications of this bill, but the SparkNotes version is that the bill mandates that

cellular telephones and portable electronic devices that record or play audio or video material shall be prohibited on school grounds, at school sponsored activities and on buses or other vehicles provided by the school district.

Read the full text of the bill.

I’ve written before about how I think mobile phones can be useful in educational settings, and feeling as I do, I decided to write my state representative, Hon. Marguerite Quinn.  Below is a copy of the letter I sent:

Dear Representative Quinn:

I don’t make a habit of writing to government officials, but this evening I feel I must reach out to you as my state representative.  I am a former high school English teacher and current school psychologist, and I am also a parent of soon-to-be school-age children.  As both a parent and educator, I am deeply disturbed by the introduction of PA House Bill No. 363, which, in effect, would place a state-wide ban on electronic devices in classrooms.  The wording of the bill (as I understand it) makes the following prohibited on school grounds: “cellular telephones and portable electronic devices that record or play audio or video material”.

While the bill does make allowances for students with potential family medical emergencies and students who are members of a volunteer fire or rescue squad, my primary concerns about this bill are as follow:

* Although I disagree in principle with banning these devices, I believe the decision to ban them, in part or in whole, should be made at the local level, with appropriate provisos relevant to the local school & community culture

* Banning “portable electronic devices that record or play audio or video material” will effectively outlaw the use of laptop, tablet, and netbook computers in schools.  These devices are often used by students to create multimedia content for class projects, and are capable of not only recording, but also post-production and publication of student-generated work.

* Banning these devices wastes a prime opportunity to teach children about the appropriate use of a tool that many of them use regularly outside of school, and will use regularly after graduation.

Today’s mobile phones are less “just phones” and more like miniature computers; generally speaking, many mobile phones are capable of recording and publishing to the Web audio, video, and text content, at a much lower cost than full-blown digital video or still cameras.  More specifically, they can be used as digital field journals in science class (taking pictures and recording text or audio notes), performance recorders in English or drama class, calculators in math class, and survey responders (via text messaging) in any class (and at a much lower cost than commercial responder “clicker” kits).

As an educator, I can attest to the fact that personal electronic devices, when used inappropriately, can undoubtedly serve as disruptions in the classroom; however, banning them wholesale is not the answer.  This bill implies that the problem is with the technology itself, rather than the inappropriate use of it.  Teaching safe, appropriate use and integrating technological tools into well-constructed lessons will ultimately serve our children better.

Mobile phone technology has great educational potential.  I invite you to peruse any of the following websites to learn more about what innovative educators are doing with mobile technology:

I strongly urge you to oppose this bill and prevent our children from being denied educational and personal growth opportunities like the ones described at the above websites.  I am also available to you at the phone number listed below if you would like to discuss the importance of defeating this bill.

Very truly yours,

Damian N. Bariexca, Ed.S., NCSP
(xxx) xxx-xxxx

Yes, there are much bigger problems facing our schools than this.  No, I don’t think this is the be-all end-all.  The responsible use of technology in education is, however, an issue about which I am passionate, and I just don’t see any good coming from a state-wide ban.  Hell, when I was in the eighth grade, I was stabbed in the back of the neck with a pencil; I didn’t see any legislation coming out banning pencils in schools, and that was much more detrimental to my physical, emotional, and educational well-being than anything a cell phone could ever do.  It’s not the tool, people; it’s how we use it.

Last thing: while I’ve never been one to believe in the power of online petitions and such, if you’re interested in discussing this issue or sharing resources with other PA educators, check out the Facebook group.

No Doctor in This House

It’s been a long-term goal of mine to earn a doctoral degree.  Until relatively recently, I thought that would be in education, but my grad school experience studying school psychology opened up another research interest for me.  As I was winding down my Ed.S. program over the last year or so, I began looking into doctoral programs in the PA/NJ area.  I was pretty disappointed by what I found.  With very few exceptions, my options seemed to be:

  • quit my job and go to school full-time for 5-7 years
  • forget about getting the doctorate

If I was single, I’d actually consider the first option, but the fact is I’ve got a wife, two kids, a mortgage, day care tuition, and a host of other financial responsibilities for which I have yet to receive my bailout check from the federal government.

Because I live over an hour away from the nearest university that could accommodate my professional schedule, I started looking into online psychology doctoral programs, such as those offered through Walden, Capella, and Argosy.  From what I could glean from the institution websites (as well as some discussion boards on this topic), the trade-off for convenience is huge: often higher tuition rates with little or no financial aid/tuition forgiveness, not to mention the seemingly widely-held attitudes that online graduate programs such as these are inferior to “brick & mortar” universities in terms of academic rigor and career preparation.

Of course, incidents like this, in which it was discovered that two teachers and three high-ranking administrators in the Freehold (NJ) Regional High School District purchased their doctoral degrees from diploma mills, do nothing to advance the cause of distance learning in the eyes of the public or other educators.

Let me make two things abundantly clear: #1: I don’t want to buy a doctoral degree, and #2: I recognize the benefits of face-to-face interaction. I don’t want to get my degree from a diploma mill; I want the opportunity to work hard to earn one.  I would just like to do that while still being able to pay my bills and see my kids.  Is it really necessary for me to drive an hour and a half each way twice a week to be lectured (with bulleted PowerPoints, as was a good part of my grad experience)?  Given the technology that is available to us today, can we not do that online, with maybe a monthly or bi-monthly f2f cohort meeting?

So I’m at a temporary impasse here, folks.  After 5 1/2 years of part-time grad study, I promised my long-suffering wife that I would wait on the doc degree until our oldest was in school full-time, so I’ve got another year or two before I can make a move, but some questions remain:

  • Administrators: Would you dismiss a resume out of hand that featured a degree earned from an online, yet accredited, program?
  • Higher Ed folks: Why must doctoral study and earning a living wage/supporting a family be mutually exclusive?  That’s the implied message I’ve gotten from 99% of the universities I’ve researched in my area.
  • All Concerned Educators: What can/must be done in order to raise distance learning to the same level of perceived credibility as traditional routes of study?  Is that even a possibility?  Or is it already there and I’m just listening to the wrong echo chamber?

Update! As if guided by Providence, this post from Open Education just came through my RSS reader.  While it certainly only addresses one small part of a larger issue, these two takeaways make my heart smile:

Critics have long held onto the fact that being there and hearing the lecture in person, face-to-face, trumps any taped offering. The work of McKinney, et al, certainly undercuts that assertion.

So we have not been able to discern what McKinney postulates as rationale for the students listening to a podcast to perform better than those students hearing the lecture in person.

But the abstract alone confirms that as education gives careful consideration as to how best to implement technology, things change when the focus is on steps to make education more affordable. Because, if lectures and the accompanying power point slides available on iTunes produce even similar academic outcomes as traditional face-to-face lecture formats, then the enormous potential cost savings from taped online versions would in fact render the current educational model obsolete.