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Episode 56: Back-to-School with EdTech: Tips and Tricks from Brittany Gaffney, Instructional Technology Specialist

Please Note: This blog post is a transcription of a recent episode of the EdTech Classroom Podcast. I am a full-time teacher who creates and produces this podcast for free! There may be some errors in the transcription below.

Maddie (01:19): Brittany Gaffney is currently an instructional technology specialist from upstate New York, about four hours Northwest of New York city. She lives there with her husband, two Australian shepherds and a cat before her shift to an instructional tech coach. She was a classroom teacher for six years. Most of her classroom experience is an upper elementary, fifth grade to be exact. Brittany has always been a lover of technology and always dreamed she would be in the teaching field. It wasn’t until she earned the privilege to do both, when she realized she had found her niche.

Brittany has a passion for all things, Google, blended learning, digital productivity, and anything that promotes more student-centered learning. Those are some of the core principles she uses to develop professional development for school districts in her region. One of Brittany’s favorite parts of her job is the collaboration and learning that takes place alongside teachers and students without the passion and dedication of teachers and students, ed tech coaches wouldn’t have much of a role. It is truly a collaborative process. Will all parties get to learn from each other? And that as Brittany says, is the best part. Brittany, thank you so much for joining me on the show today.

Brittany Gaffney (02:33): Thanks for having me. I’m super excited.

Maddie (02:35): Like I said, I have loved connecting with you on Instagram. You share so many great tips for teachers. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your background and your role. I think we have similar, we seem to have similar jobs, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about your path to becoming an instructional technology specialist.

Brittany Gaffney (02:54): Yeah, so I think it all kind of started because in the district that I, most of my years, teaching in, we have the privilege to have one-to-one technology. Basically all of the years that I was there. So we either had iPads and then slowly transitioned to Chromebooks. So using tech consistently with my students and, you know, problem solving with some of my colleagues really got me more practice.

And I really got that practical hands on knowledge that I think is so important when you do start, you know, working with teachers more full-time I’m most concepts. So I don’t have any like degree as far as it comes to like tech specialists. And that’s not required for the job, but it was really an added perk and there’s become more of us on my team that have that teaching background, because I think just the practicality of it, you know, whenever a teacher is listening or reading something, they want it coming from a fellow teacher’s perspective. So I think that has really guided my path to where I am now.

Maddie (03:56): Absolutely. And I love that you have that classroom teaching experience. The majority of our listeners are classroom teachers. And I think that they’ll really love hearing that you are a coach who has that classroom experience. I would love to talk about your time in the classroom. So thinking back to that experience, did you have some sort of, you know, aha moment or some specific instance that really sparked your interest in ed tech?

Brittany Gaffney (04:23): Yeah, so really what most of my teacher teaching experience, I was teaching, reading and writing, which I think that really just sticks out in my mind because it was also one of the most like difficult things I think to teach you know, out of the other subjects that I have taught, just because there’s such a range of, you know, interest and obviously levels of readers, you know, that you get in your classroom. So I think one of my driving factors when it came to ed tech and those aha moments was when I started using it in reading and writing. And I remember one kind of specific activity that I tried Book Snaps. And that’s basically when, you know, students are taking a picture of like the cover of their book, or I used to ask them to take a picture of certain pages and things and actually annotate on it.

Brittany Gaffney (05:09): So pointing out things that they loved or making an inference, and we would share those together in like a collaborative Google slide and students would comment and write on each other’s posts. And at first I thought, like I thought of doing this activity just as a change, like seeing if it would work. And then once I saw what students were pointing out, as far as reading skills, right. And then the collaboration and just the writing that was taking place, it was kind of that sneaky teaching that I was like, oh boy, I think this might actually, you know, work. So then I, you know, expanded from there. And I think their writing portion, like all of the drafts and we would have papers upon papers and then kids would lose their draft. And it was all of their hard work like, oh gosh, I don’t know.

Brittany Gaffney (05:57): I left it at home. My dog ate it. It’s in my locker and like a big ball. So that was another aha moment. Just having students work in Google docs with their drafts. And I was able to see, you know, their changes and give that live time feedback that they appreciated even more than I ever knew… Like I don’t, I didn’t notice any feedback. Like, did you read mine yet? Did you read my, like, it’s coming? I promise. You know, so those were some of my aha moments when I saw the kids light up and just kind of a change in their work too.

Maddie (06:33): Yeah. I love that. I love the, the first example of Book Snaps because it’s such a great way to help students who maybe are resistant to learning or to reading, excuse me, who maybe feel like they don’t love reading. It’s a really great way to engage them with “sneaky teaching,” like you were saying. And then I also love the second example that you provided about digital organization. I think that those are two really great examples for how you can be a really effective teacher using technology. So I really love both of those examples with Book Snaps specifically something that I’ve never incorporated in my classroom before, but it’s something that I would really love to try. It seems like a really fun and engaging idea. Did you do that using Google slides or what tool were you using for that?

Brittany Gaffney (07:20): Yeah, so at first I was actually using like a free like pic collage app when we were using iPads. Cause it was easy enough, but when I wanted that collaboration piece, that’s when I started using Google slides. So they either took their picture using the iPad or once we got the Chromebooks, they took a picture of their page that way and then embedded it right into a Google slide where they could kind of share and like leave comments on the side, things like that.

Maddie (07:48): That’s a really great idea. That’s something that I’m definitely going to borrow. This year as a teacher, my classroom, as a side note is I’m actually located in the library. So there’s going to be a space for me within the library this year. I used to have my own separate classroom, but now we’re kind of bridging library and technology together a little bit more. So I love the idea of doing something like BookSnaps for me this school year, since I’m going to be doing a lot more with reading than I have previously. So thanks for sharing that idea.

Brittany Gaffney (08:14): Yeah. And I think even as I’m talking about it now, jam board, I didn’t totally use it as when I was in the classroom. I didn’t even really know about it honestly, until I became like a tech coach and you know, that took over, so yeah. Right. Yeah. It’s newer. Yeah. So I thinking about that, I think jam board would be even better for a book snap because it’s so much easier to annotate. Like the kids don’t have to monkey with text box. Like they can actually draw right on it. And then the multiple slides who sold that collaboration feature. But yeah, I think it’s just a different way to show their voice and their learning.

Maddie (08:50): I love that. So I want to talk about your role now. Obviously we just talked about role in the classroom, but now you’ve shifted and you’re supporting teachers and students. So I would imagine a good amount of listeners are probably familiar with ed tech coaches or instructional technology specialists, but could you talk a little bit more about your role and what you do day to day?

Brittany Gaffney (09:10): Yeah, yeah. So I am a part of a team that is really ever-growing and as a team, we support the 50 over 50 districts in our region. So we’ll do regional development, more overarching, you know, on really any kind of tech tool learning management systems, different types of technology, instructional strategies, all that good stuff. But some of those districts can choose to have us in our buildings in their buildings more consistently. So in the case of myself, I am in a specific district three days a week. So I get to really work super closely with the teachers and admin there on their goals, professional development, similar things that I do for the region, but really more customized to that district. So I kind of get the best of both worlds of working more generally and then really like to the granular, still pushing in and working with kids too. So as much as I do miss the classroom experience and having the students all the time, I kind of really get the best of both worlds of still being able to see the kids and hopefully more this year.

Maddie (10:21): Yeah. That’s really neat that you get to work with students too. And that you get to still have that classroom teaching experience along side, the experience of teaching teachers. So that’s, that’s pretty neat. You support a lot of students or a lot of teachers, excuse me, that’s a lot of, a lot of districts, a lot of schools.

Brittany Gaffney (10:38): Yes. And that’s why our team is ever-growing, especially now, you know, right in this climate. I think a lot of districts are really seeing the need for some kind of ad tech coach or instructional technology specialist. Of course they have their tech district leaders, right. But more focusing on the teachers and instruction. So that’s kind of where we come in and really get to work, work together.

Maddie (11:06): Awesome. Is there a specific, like a favorite PD topic that you have maybe done with teachers? Anything that immediately comes to mind?

Brittany Gaffney (11:15): I’m trying to think. I mean, we’ve really done a lot of, you know, Google’s taking over the world, right. So we’ve done a lot of that. But I think kind of moving forward to, and something that we’ve consistently done is really that engagement piece. And we’ve always kind of geared our PD towards that. So no matter what learning management system you’re using, no matter what ad tech tools you have, what are those kind of commonalities use to engage students? So those of those have been really kind of popular.

And then I, now that teachers are starting to get a little bit more comfortable with that tech tools, we provide a lot of PD, kind of like the behind the scenes. So how do you build something right? That you might see on teacher pay teacher, or you might see like there’s really awesome blogger that you follow. How could you maybe start to create some of those tools? Because we found a lot of teachers are starting to really love tech and wanting to do those cool things too. So we try to give a little behind the scenes PD too.

Maddie (12:22): Oh, that’s neat. I really liked that idea of giving teachers who are more comfortable with technology are starting to become more comfortable with it, giving them the tools to be able to create some of these resources on their own. That’s a really a really neat idea. Another idea from you that I might have to borrow with teachers at my school.

Brittany Gaffney (12:40): Yeah. Just to give them the autonomy. And you know, I just remember as a teacher too, I would always see something that looked like perfect. Like, oh my gosh, I could, I could just take that and use it. And then once I got it in my hands, I’m like, oh, I wish I had, you know, this and that. And I found myself not always having the tools of knowing how to do that. So I was trying to explore that on my own. So I think just giving the teachers the power of customization and knowing how to make things their own is what I personally really try to do in my professional developments as well.

Maddie (13:13): Awesome. I really love that. So obviously a lot of our listeners of this podcast are fans of ed tech, right? It’s called the ed tech classroom podcast. So for the most part, people who listen are pretty passionate about ed tech. Now we have people on both ends of the spectrum though, right? We have people who maybe really love the idea of teaching with ed tech, but it’s something that’s not super comfortable with it for them. And then we also have people who are ed tech coaches just like us. But I’d love to hear just more, more broadly, what type of advice or recommendations you have for teachers who are looking to implement ed tech into their back to school plans. So that could be really helpful for the ed tech coaches who might bring these ideas to teachers at their schools or their districts. So just more broadly back to school ideas for teachers.

Brittany Gaffney (14:00): Yeah. I think my mantra and advice for myself going into this year and that I would pass along is a little bit goes a long way. And like you said, at this point, whether you are an ed tech expert or just kind of starting to get your feet wet in ed tech, because you kind of had two last year, right? Like whether you want it or not we buy, now we know what, what works and doesn’t work for our kids for ourselves, for our classrooms. Right. And I think that goes beyond tech tools too, like, and just basic lesson plan, you know, from year to year, we know what lessons were awesome. We know what lessons tanked. So I think just starting the year with that idea of deciding what really worked and using it and continue to build on it and not feeling bad to maybe just ditch what didn’t and then worry about filling that gap, you know, after the fact you know, and as far as a little goes a long way, right?

Brittany Gaffney (15:03): There’s 1,000,001 amazing ad tech tools out there. But when we try to introduce so many of them and get to know them ourselves as teachers, right, it becomes really overwhelming because if we don’t know the tools sometimes like the back of our hand and we just pitch it to students and start working in it, I find nine times out of 10, you’re spending most of your instructional time troubleshooting versus teaching the content. So I think just trying to pick really one, two, maybe three tools like outside of like maybe your learning management system that you really want to use that you knew worked last year, or you’ve seen in practice with over the summer, that you really think will work and getting to know those and teaching your students, those routines.

Maddie (15:51): I love both of those pieces of advice. When people ask me this question, I give a very, very, very similar response. I always think it’s so important to keep it simple with tech. You don’t have to do all of the things just because you see teachers on the internet doing all of the things. I think that’s sometimes a little, like you said, goes a really long way and less can be more trying out, you know, just two or three ed tech tools besides your learning management system, like you said, can be a really effective strategy for students. It’s also not going to overwhelm students, right? I mean, depending on what grade level you teach, sometimes it’s not age appropriate to introduce 10 different ed tech tools to students. Sometimes it’s better for them to only experience a couple of them and get to know those tools really well.

Maddie (16:40): So I really liked that piece of advice that you gave. I also think I like, I, you met, you alluded to this, I think with your, with your second piece of advice, but this idea of, you know, yourself and your classroom, the best, I think that a lot of people have advice myself included, but at the end of the day, you guys in the classroom, you know, your students, you know, your classroom, you know, your teaching style the best. So really taking, taking these tools and customizing them and really making it the best for your classroom is the way to go. So thanks for sharing those, those pieces of it advice.

Brittany Gaffney (17:17): Yeah. And I was actually listening to one of Brene Brown’s podcast episodes about being like an “advice monster” and that we all are sometimes advice, monsters, right? Like giving our unsolicited advice. And I really tried to take that into like, even my PD sessions, right? Like here, here’s my thoughts. Right. Because I guess I am here to share with you thoughts, but I more so want to like debate those and, or tweak them to what you really need and make it more of that discussion, you know? And just like we teach our students and you know, those routines and procedures, tech routines have those same kind of pieces. So we want to make sure that we’re kind of keeping everybody on the same page and that, you know, your thoughts really hold that, that same value, you know, as you say,

Maddie (18:10): Yeah, I love that. That is a mindset that you have with professional development, because you have all these amazing, great ideas to share with teachers and you can shape them to what they actually need. So I think that that’s a really great approach to professional development. It sounds like you’re a, really a really great at tech specialist,

Brittany Gaffney (18:29): It’s definitely easier said than done, but there are so many options out there, you know what I mean? And it’s like, Pandora’s box has open. So, you know, who am I to come in and be like, this is the best way this is the only way. Or like, you know, I think it’s, it’s good to lay out some really great things that we’ve seen and have experienced and then really let teachers, you know, take the reigns from there.

Maddie (18:52): Yeah. I love that. Well, you’ve just obviously shared some really great advice for teachers. Some recommendations in general. I’d love to also talk a little bit about some back to school activities that incorporate ed tech you know, back to school obviously is right around the corner. We have our teacher work week starting next week. This week is like training for new teachers. And then next week is teacher work week. And then we have kids the next week, but I know some schools have already started. So I’d love to hear some back to school activities that you have in mind.

Brittany Gaffney (19:26): Yeah. So I think I mentioned this earlier about sneaky teaching. So anything that you can kind of incorporate, I think that involves that Siki teaching. So if we’re talking about a new ed tech tool or something that, you know, that you’re going to be using, maybe try to incorporate that in some kind of back to school activity. So I know that sounds kind of general and maybe a little bit obvious, but I think it’s cool when you can integrate it in like a more fun non-threatening way. So that way, when it is used, you know, with content and things that you really want students remembering, they have at least got the process and procedure down. So one way I like to do that is maybe with a scavenger hunt. So whether it’s based on curriculum or classroom procedures the layout of your learning management system, right, having students find things a scavenger hunt is a really cool way to go.

Brittany Gaffney (20:19): Whether students are taking pictures with their devices or, you know, even just collaboratively talking and working together. I think that that’s a really cool idea. Digital escape rooms have really gotten huge especially the digital version of them, right. Versus just the, you know, the lock boxes and things like that. So whether you using, you know, breakout EDU, the actual you know, company, or you can make them yourself using Google forms and it makes a Google drawings and slides and all those fun things. So I think that’s a really good way to get students collaborating and working together. And I also think just any way you can get your students getting to know them, I guess, as quickly as possible. So whether they’re, you know, reflecting on some of their summer plans or maybe like an inventory of what they like to read and watch and things like that, anytime you can get that feedback from students is really key too.

Maddie (21:23): Definitely. I really love that. All of the ideas that you just shared are all tied to what I like to call low stakes activities. So it’s not assessment, right? It’s not academics necessarily, but there are things that are still really important for back to school, like, you know, building classroom, community, creating these routines predictability expectations for our students. So all of that I think is a really great time to incorporate ed tech because students, it’s hard to set aside time. I think for students to learn how to use ed tech tools once you’ve are farther along into the year. So back to school is a really great time, like you said, to have a scavenger hunt where students explore their learning management system or to do something like a, you know, digital escape room that maybe might be about your classroom community instead of about some sort of academic subject. So that then when they do use Google forms, for example, for assessment, they already have that skill. And they’ve practiced that in a more low stakes environment then with something like assessment, for example. So I really love that you took that in mind when you were thinking about some of these back to school activity ideas for teachers.

Brittany Gaffney (22:31): Yeah, exactly. And I like too, that, you know, when we talk about back to school and students getting to know each other too, you know, a lot of those options aren’t independent activities, right? Like you can do them and students can be talking and conversing well still using technology. So it’s not like they’re stuck in front of a screen independently and you know, isolated, it still can be like a collaborative, you know, activity.

Maddie (22:58): Oh, absolutely. I love screen time in the classroom when it’s built around students, creating something, actually content like content creation or getting them to collaborate rather than it being something for them to consume. So you’re totally right. That’s a, that’s a great a great idea for back to school. So you are Google queen, you love Google, just like me. I’m ups, Google products are just really easy, like Google is taking over and there are tons of really awesome tools out there, but their tools are really great and really user friendly for teachers and students. So I also really love Google. What are some of your other favorite ed tech products or tools?

Brittany Gaffney (23:37): Yeah. Yeah. So I am a huge fan of Nearpod because it’s kind of that one-stop shop at tech tool. I feel like and again, it also provides that differentiation. So if you are a Google school, right. And feeling like, oh my gosh, if I hear Google slides one more time. Like, you know what I mean? Like if you’re looking for a little bit of that break, I think Nearpod is not only a substitute, but can really then kick it up a notch. Right. So it’s interactive. There’s, built-in, you know, gamified quizzes, there’s a digital whiteboard. There’s I love their accessibility features, so everything can really be read aloud to students. They can record their own audio. You, as the teacher can record audio directions, like there’s so many, so many great things inside of there, and they also have their own lesson library. So teachers and people that work at Nearpod have created so many lessons whether it be SEL or, you know, actual grade level content. So I like that it’s kind of that one-stop shop.

Maddie (24:41): Totally. I also love tools that are one-stop shops, like you’re saying and about teachers and Nearpod people, people that work at Nearpod, creating lessons. I really love recommending to teachers who have never used one of these tools before, or aren’t super familiar or comfortable with it to use one of those pre-made lessons. First. I think it’s so amazing that so many ed tech tools have started to add those libraries and stuff with content, because you can still experiment with playing around with the tool. And then when you feel more comfortable, you can start to create your own. So I really recommend that people always check out some of those pre-made lessons, those exist in Seesaw paradox. There’s tons of different examples of that, but yeah, it,

Brittany Gaffney (25:24): Yeah, 100%. Another thing that I really love is Screencastify especially for teacher use, right? So the ability to create really quick videos I kind of like the free version of it because it forces you to keep your talking under five minutes. So when we talk about like direct instruction is like, the timer is ticking down, right. Because we know students kind of check out, but I dunno, I think it’s just so amazing to be able to quickly share your screen with students model a quick problem. How did that there all the time for students to be able to reference? So I think that’s one of my favorite tools as well.

Maddie (26:02): Awesome. I’ll be sure to have a Nearpod and Screencastify linked in the show notes for listeners to check out in case they haven’t used those tools before. I’ll also link Google since I know it’s one of your favorites, but that one’s probably a little more well-known

Brittany Gaffney (26:16): Well, when we talk, you know, and I, I feel so silly saying like, Google is one of my favorite tools, right. Because I’ve seen so obvious because I think it’s become everyone’s well, maybe not favorite. Right? Like some teachers are like, get me out of here. Right. But I think, I think it’s become so widespread again because of its accessibility and all of the different ways that we can use it. Right. Like at first we used to think about no PowerPoint equals Google slide. Like it’s just for presentations, but holy cow, great. It’s expanded into drag and drops and like a hyper slide with links. And there’s just so many, so many ways that you can go with the Google products that I think is what I like keeps you on your toes, different ways to use that. Huh.

Maddie (26:59): A hundred percent. Google slides has so many really cool capabilities to it other than just being a slide show. So I agree. These tools can be really interactive and they’re tools that a lot of teachers are using too. So if you can figure out how to use them in creative ways, that can just kind of amplify learning that much more. Right. So you obviously are incredibly in the know with all things, ed tech, I’d love to hear what some of your go-to resources are to stay up to date on ed tech news, best practices products.

Brittany Gaffney (27:32): Yeah. So Twitter is one of my favorites and it’s so weird because I do not tweet at all. Like I don’t think I’ve, I don’t think I’ve done that since, like, I dunno probably high school. I probably like tweeted twice, but so I’m pretty quiet on marrow, like things where like retweet things to remind myself that they were ideas that I wanted to share, like go back to, but I really liked Twitter only because word travels so fast. So if you missed someone’s blog posts, like in an email five seconds later, it’ll be on your Twitter feed. So it just, I like that it’s pretty all inclusive. And there are so many different people that will share ideas. So let’s say, you know, Alice Keeler puts up this awesome idea, right. A Google guru and then teachers, right. Will comment underneath with more ideas or questions.

Brittany Gaffney (28:22): And I just love that it’s kind of that constant stream of, you know, ideas and questions. Another one of my favorites is Jennifer Gonzalez, her blog Cult of Pedagogy. She is one of my favorites when it comes to best practices, just because she kind of forces myself to really think outside of the box. So I would hope that teachers would read that too, and be able to pull like one or two ideas that would you know, kind of challenge their own thinking. And then of course I’d utopia that org. I really loved them because almost all of their writers are educators. So when we talk about practical ideas, what better place to vote to be able to read ideas and best practices that are happening in, you know, an actual classroom.

Maddie (29:09): Yeah. It’s really nice that Edutopia, you actually get that real classroom example. I really liked that about Edutopia. I am also the biggest Jennifer Gonzalez super fan. I am so obsessed with her, with her blog, with her podcasts, everything she does is just so, so interesting to me. She’s really just such a great resource. I am a huge fan of her. I truly could go on and on.

Maddie (29:37):
And then Twitter, I actually don’t spend very much time on Twitter, but everybody keeps telling me that all of the great ideas are on Twitter. So I think I probably need to get on there. I have an ed tech class, Twitter, but I think I’ve tweeted like five times and don’t really know how to use it. So maybe that’s something I should spend the rest of my day exploring so I can get some good ideas.

Brittany Gaffney (29:59): No, well, I was the same way. You know, all of my colleagues would be like, you don’t go to Twitter or if I’m just really going to do in Twitter, I’m like, oh my gosh, I feel like I’m missing out. Right. That guilt kicks in that I’m sure, you know, everybody starts to feel when they start to feel like out of the loop. You know? So I really do. I mean, I don’t plan, you know, time out of my day to scroll Twitter, but you know, like in the morning while I’m drinking my coffee, I’ll scroll through and those are where really a lot of the best ideas, you know, come from so awesome.

Maddie (30:29): Well, you are also an incredible resource online for teachers. You have an amazing Instagram. So could you tell us where listeners can find you online? Yeah.

Brittany Gaffney (30:38): So my Instagram handle is @cnyedtech_gaffney. I am still really working to grow that Instagram. It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard. So I’m new to the game, but I do really, I do really like it. And just the people that I’ve been able to connect with, right. Like, like Maddie, right. We found each other there. And I think this is so, it’s so cool. All the connections that I’ve made there so far, so hoping to keep growing some cool ideas on there and hopefully more to come.

Maddie (31:12): Yeah. Be sure to follow Brittany. Like I said, she shares really great tips. She’s one of my favorite Instagram follows. So thank you so much for joining me on the show today. You are an incredible resource for teachers. I really loved our conversation. I really loved your back to school activity ideas, specifically. Some of them, like I said, I’m definitely going to have to borrow. So thank you so much for joining me.

Brittany Gaffney (31:34): Thanks for having me. I’m super excited.




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