Moving Engaging Work Forward With Trailblazers

This blog is for school administrators and teacher leaders who are passionate about creating engaging work for students. It is intended to share ideas about how to advance the capacity of educators to provide engaging work to students in this twenty-first-century digital world.

To begin, this post of the Engagement Connection blog assumes that readers understand the foundations of engaging work, including the following:

  • The definition of engagement: According to Phil Schlechty, students are engaged when they are attentive, persistent, and committed, and when they find meaning and value in the work.
  • The 10 Design Qualities of engaging schoolwork
  • The process of designing engaging schoolwork

But suppose you get all this and you want to see it move forward, catch on, and become a norm. What can you do? How can you lead this work?

A very easy next step is to use the power of Dr. Phil Schlechty’s “Trailblazer Saga” and some commonsense sharing activities.

Dr. Schlechty believed that in any successful change process, there would be trailblazers who would take great risks to lead the work forward, pioneers who would follow the trailblazers, and settlers who would move forward when they felt safe because the pioneers had shown it was safe. Yes, there would be “stay-at-homes” and even saboteurs who would never change, but once the trailblazers, pioneers, and settlers were up and running, these naysayers would be minimized and unable to stop forward progress.

What does trailblazing look like in a school? It is not that hard to identify. Most often, it is YOU! You are the one who has studied engagement. You are implementing the frameworks in your classroom or in your school. You are the principal who is modeling design by using the Design Qualities in your school professional development sessions. You are the teacher who is thinking about engagement and taking the risk of creating work that leverages the Design Qualities. So now it’s time to attract some pioneers and settlers!

If you’re a principal or other leader, you can continue to model, but it is also time to showcase your teacher trailblazers. Here are some ways:

Identify your trailblazers through observation or, better yet, invitation. Encourage them to invite you to observe on those occasions when they have made the effort to design engaging work. Take pictures and video for them as you observe. Talk to students and ask why they are working so hard. Record them! Then take 20 minutes in faculty meetings to allow those (willing) trailblazing teachers to share an activity, overview of a unit, or lesson that you saw. Coach them to use photos, video, and engagement terminology when they present. Be part of the presentation yourself by sharing your reflections and your artifacts (pics and video). Be affirming! Repeat this process as often as you can. As the pioneers and settlers join in, you may need to add time on your professional development days for multiple teachers to present.

If you are a teacher leader, invite your fellow teachers to come to your room and observe those times when you have designed engaging work. Take pictures and video of the work. Then meet with your colleagues later and ask for feedback. Have a conversation about the work. The next thing you know, teachers all around the building will be inviting you to observe and give feedback! The result of this good work is that sooner or later your building leaders will hear about it. When they ask, offer to share in faculty meetings and on PD days.

Simply put, a school that is not sharing the good, engaging work going on in classrooms will find it very difficult to build success schoolwide. So think about it. Identify your trailblazers. Provide opportunities for sharing. Watch the pioneers and settlers move in. Watch engagement grow!

Good luck on the trail!


The Engagement People

P.S. The Trailblazer Saga appears in Phil Schlechty’s Inventing Better Schools, pages 210–219.

Lucidchart: Graphic Organizing

Digital graphic organizers are powerful tools for use in the classroom. Graphic organizers can address Clear and Compelling Product Standards. They can bring a sense of Product Focus to organizing ideas and data. In the initial stages of use, they will lead to a certain amount of Noveltylucid-chart

Lucidchart is an excellent tool for graphic organizing and can be a powerful tool in the designer’s toolbox. Here are two reasons why:

  1. You get lots of options in the free version. Specifically, there are templates you can use. Plus, there are a variety of shapes that can be placed on the workspace. This is in contrast to some platforms that limit shapes to a rectangle, at least in their free versions.
  2. Lucidchart works seamlessly with your Google Drive. In fact, the easiest way to get it is to open your Google Drive, select “NEW,” scroll down and choose “Connect more apps,” and then search for and add Lucidchart. When you save your creations, they go directly to your Google Drive.

Here are a few tips to remember:

  1. The more you add to your Google Drive, the more space you will use. Eventually, you will get prompted to buy more space.
  2. We have been able to operate in the free domain in Lucidchart without issue. This is in contrast to the very nice Lucidpress which only comes with a seven-day free trial.
  3. You will need to stay within the three-document limit to use the platform for free. Do this by deleting old documents.

Enjoy this short video tutorial:

If you like Lucidchart, you might also try MindMeister. MindMeister works the same way and just has a different look and a few unique features. It can be accessed through your Google Drive just like Lucidchart, or directly at the MindMeister website. It has the same three-doc limit for the free package.

We hope you enjoy trying Lucidchart!


The Engagement People



Coding. The very word can strike fear in the heart of a classroom teacher: Isn’t coding that funny-looking machine language I see right beside the sharing link of any YouTube video when I click “embed”? Well, yes, it is. So, on top of everything else I have to do, now I am supposed to teach computer coding?

First off, let’s back up and take a deep breath. Coding presents a wonderful opportunity to engage students. And no, we are not talking about HTML coding. We are talking about the world of block coding. Block coding gives students an opportunity to grasp coding concepts well before they go into the formal world of Fortran, C++, or HTML coding. It is really a simple and elegant process that allows even the youngest elementary student a chance to learn the concepts of coding.

In block coding, the heavy-duty machine language is converted into blocks that are simple to organize and attach to one another in order to create programs.

But writing code, even block code, needs a purpose—one that a student can relate to.

Enter Dash, a robot.

For around $150, any classroom teacher can purchase Dash the robot from Wonder Workshop. Dash is a fully programmable and quite adorable robot that responds to block coding. Meet Dash!

To program Dash, all you need is the free app named Blockly. Blockly allows you to control Dash with block coding. Look at the picture below. Each of the color blocks represents a command.  For example, the green blocks tell Dash to move forward a certain amount of centimeters. The blue blocks tell Dash to look around.IMG_5387

When students assemble the blocks in a logical order, it looks like this:IMG_0582

And it will make Dash do this:

Here is what it can look like in a first-grade math classroom:

Block coding can be used in any classroom. All it takes is some imagination. In a language arts classroom, students might program Dash to complete a task, and then they might write an expository paragraph explaining what they did. In social studies, students might research the role of robots in economics and then demonstrate with Dash how a robot is used in a retail environment.

In the initial stages of use, the Design Quality of Novelty and Variety is going to drive engagement with this tool. However, over time, the novelty will wear off. When that happens, don’t be surprised if Authenticity, Clear and Compelling Product Standards, or Organization of Knowledge take over!

Block coding is approachable by any age group. The example above is from a first-grade classroom. And this sixty-three-year-old writer is still coding with his Dash! Take a chance and dive into block coding. You won’t regret it!

The Engagement People

Newsela: A Reading Tool with Engagement Possibilities

Newsela is an important tool for classroom teachers. On the surface, it is a newspaper with current events articles written to be read by school students. But Newsela has some very important tools to go along with it:

  • Teachers control reading levels. A class can read the same content, but reading lexiles can be set to accommodate different levels of reading.
  • There are filters to organize articles by subject area or standards.
  • Each article comes with a thoughtful reading prompt and an optional quiz.
  • Students do not have to divulge any personal information to access assigned articles.
  • The site is free. Additional features can be purchased. We like the amount of free content provided.

When used in conjunction with the 10 Design Qualities of Schoolwork, Newsela can be an important tool that can address Authenticity and Organization of Knowledge.

The following video is a demonstration of how to access and use Newsela.
A Newsela Tutorial from Ron Wright on Vimeo

We hope you enjoy interacting with Newsela!

The Engagement People

Math Snacks: Stunning Math Games

Every now and then a piece of technology comes along that really grabs our attention. Such is the case with Math Snacks, a math gaming site from New Mexico State University. There are a variety of games to choose from.

Right away we were taken in by the ethics of this site. First, it is totally free. There is NO paid option that we could find. Second, there is NO REQUIRED LOG-IN. Students simply go to the website and play. Third, the site remembers players by device. If a student returns to a game on the same device he or she used earlier, Math Snacks will pick up where the student left off! In other words, NMSU has provided a quality game site free for students, and it is clear that the university’s only motivation is to improve the educational experience for students.

We’re gonna pause while you soak that in, clap, scream “Bravo,” etc.!


Currently, there are five games: Gate, Game Over Gopher, Monster School Bus, Pearl Diver, and Ratio Rumble. These games can be played on any laptop or Chromebook. Pearl Diver and Ratio Rumble are also available as iOS apps. The games utilize excellent gaming components. They are based on stories that draw in the learner. They have superb graphics. They will come across as authentic games to students. They may initially grab the learner with Novelty. Like many digital games, they leverage Affirmation and Clear and Compelling Product Standards.

In this example, we are playing Gate. This is an entry-level example. The math gets harder quickly and the time constraints tighten.

We really like that these games have teacher guides. The guides contain shortcut keys that enable teachers to focus students on specific content.

Thanks to Tammy Poplin from Dalton Public Schools for introducing us to this excellent digital tool.

It’s free. The games are cool. The content is rich. The possibilities for engagement are strong. What more could you ask for? Math Snacks!


The Engagement People

Augmented Reality with Aurasma

The world of augmented reality is exploding right before our very eyes. As this platform expands its capabilities, teachers are asking a number of great questions:

  • Is this going to be expensive to bring to my classroom?
  • Are there lessons I can draw from, to incorporate into my own classroom designs?
  • Can I create my own augmented reality designs for my students?

As usual, in the technology world, the answers are a resounding…maybe.

When it comes to augmented reality, we are in luck—thanks to the good folks at Aurasma. With Aurasma, teachers can create augmented reality experiences FOR FREE. Auras can be shared with others. And yes, teachers can most definitely create their own experiences for students. We can’t write a better preview of Aurasma than the one created by a team of educators from Hillsboro ISD, Texas, at one of our ENG2: Engaging the Next Generation conferences. Check it out below.

Aurasma gives teachers a world of possibilities for creating engaging classroom resources using augmented reality. See below an example of how augmented reality can be used to solve a math problem.

The possibilities really are endless. Imagine a teacher creates a picture wall in a classroom. Using Aruasma, every picture can come alive with a video story, web links, etc. Another teacher visits a local state park that commemorates a historical event. The teacher takes pictures of all the descriptive plaques and associates vivid video with each. The following week, as students visit the park, every plaque comes alive with a descriptive video courtesy of an iPad and Aurasma. A third teacher has students research each plaque in the park and use their iPads to create their own videos at each station. This teacher uses those videos to create an augmented reality experience for future trips.

How does a teacher create augmented reality experiences? To help, we have linked a series of videos from Aurasma. But these videos don’t always give the detail needed when you are new to creating augmented reality experiences. So we are also providing a very detailed step-by-step guide that will help. Remember to use the 10 Design Qualities of Student Work when designing resources for students. Addressing student needs, motives, and values will create the best possibility for student engagement.

Video tutorials explained:

Create an Aura in under one minute. This video shows the three basic steps to create an Aura. It assumes you can take pictures and video and transfer these to your laptop. It does not show you how to share and view an Aura.

How to create an Aura. This video is just like the first video but it has spoken instructions. It assumes you can take pictures and video and transfer these to your laptop. It does not show you how to share and view an Aura.

Share an Aura. If you want students to see your Auras on a mobile device like a smartphone or iPad, you have to share. This video shows you how. Note: In our user guide, we suggest you complete this step as you finalize your Aura.

Again, our detailed user guide walks you through every step.

Good luck, and enjoy the world of augmented reality.

The Engagement People

Free Digital Tools That Don’t Require a Log-In

The truth about digital tools is that there aren’t many that are really free. Most “free” tools have some catch. The best tools give you a liberal amount of usage for free and then you can elect to buy more features. The animation program Plotagon is a good example of this. When a teacher or student joins the site, Plotagon gives to him or her a lot of scenes and characters to use for free. Anyone can use Plotagon for free for a long time. There are no time limits or expiration dates for free use. Go to the Plotagon store to add characters and scenes, and you will see that many are still free. However, some are for sale; this is where Plotagon makes its money. It’s a nice arrangement.

Most free digital tools have one seemingly insurmountable roadblock for educators: They require the user to establish a log-in and password. While many school systems permit users to do this, some do not…especially when it comes to younger students. What follows here is a review of five excellent, free, digital tools that can be used online without a log-in or password or the divulging of any personal information.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 2.51.05 PMA Schlechty Center favorite is Padlet. Padlet gives students an online canvas that can be used to brainstorm ideas and create projects. To create a canvas, or wall as it is called, students or teachers need only go to and click “Create a padlet.” The screen will transform into a creation canvas, and creativity can begin. While many free programs require a log-in to save work, Padlet allows users to bookmark a page and return to it at any time. In other words, Padlet will save the work at the established address forever! In addition, the student or teacher who creates the canvas can control many options for free. Finally, the canvas can be shared and edited by anyone with whom the teacher or student shares the URL. Depending on how it is used, Padlet can leverage the Design Qualities of Organization of Knowledge, Product Focus, and Novelty and Variety.  Here is a short video that shows all the wonders of Padlet.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 2.52.36 PMAnother digital tool that can be used without sharing personal information is TodaysMeet. TodaysMeet is a text-sharing tool that allows users to post short text statements. Teachers can require that students use their actual names or create an anonymous nickname. It can be used for brainstorming, checking for understanding, and even sharing links. TodaysMeet can be used in the Organization of Knowledge Design Quality. Here is a short tutorial.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 2.53.35 PMMy Storybook is a great tool for letting young writers create e-books. Participants who go to the website can create books for free without creating a log-in or password. The trick with My Storybook comes with saving and sharing the book. To stay in the free, no-log-in mode, participants will need to take screenshots of their work. That’s easy enough, though. My Storybook can be a great way to build Novelty and Variety into schoolwork or create a Product Focus. Here is a short tutorial.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 2.54.44 PMAnother tool, very popular with middle grade students, is Marvel’s Create Your Own Comic. In this program, students can practice their writing skills by creating actual comics using Marvel characters. With Marvel Comics, students can actually download their work in PDF format without logging in. Create Your Own Comic will be a hit with some students who seek Authenticity, Novelty and Variety, and Product Focus. Here is a short tutorial.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 2.55.50 PMOur fifth and final tool is a video conferencing tool. can be used to create video conferences without any log-in or password. Video conferencing can be a powerful tool in the classroom and can be used to leverage Organization of Knowledge, Affirmation, Authenticity, and other Design Qualities. Here is a short tutorial.

If finding digital tools that can be used without divulging personal information is a challenge you face in your classroom, perhaps these five tools will help. All of them are listed on the SC Web Resources for Schoolwork site.


The Engagement People


Easily Create Stunning Graphics in Seconds with Adobe Post

Today’s blog comes to us from Roland Rios at Fort Sam Houston ISD in San Antonio, Texas. It was initially published in his CyberCafe blog.  Adobe has created several new tools for the classroom. Adobe Slate (storytelling with text and pictures) and Adobe Voice (storytelling with voice and pictures) are wonderful programs that can leverage the Product Focus Design Quality. Adobe Post is another entry into that area.  — The Engagement People.

I recently learned about a slew of Adobe mobile apps and one of my new favorite tools is Adobe Post. It’s an iPhone app (that works just as well on the iPad) that allows you to very easily create beautiful image and text graphics.

You simply choose a photo as a backdrop, then add text. Sound too easy? And, here is the really cool part …. after you select your image, the app analyzes the image and chooses a font color palette for your text. And who knows more about creative design than Adobe? Certainly not me!

If you don’t like the suggested font and color, you can choose a different design or adjust the color palette, but I have found that for the most part, Adobe Post makes great suggestions! After you’re done you can share on social media, save to your camera roll, export to Google Drive, and more.

Here are a few of my own creations using Adobe Post …




Convert Video Online

A problematic scenario. Frustrated TeacherYou shoot some video with your iPhone and e-mail it to your Windows laptop to edit with Windows Movie Maker. You open Movie Maker and import your video when suddenly you crash! Windows Movie Maker won’t recognize an iPhone video. Grrrrrrr … Or maybe you have the reverse situation. You shoot some great video with your Android phone and e-mail it to your Mac. You open iMovie and upload the video only to find iMovie won’t recognize your Android video file. Grrrrrrr … Here’s another one. Working at home, you find a great video on YouTube to play in class, but your district blocks YouTube at school or you don’t trust your school Internet to stream the video in class. You want to download the video to your desktop at home so you can play it in class the next day. You check your permissions and determine it is OK to download and bring the video in to your desktop. Excited, you click “play” to preview your work but instead you get that message no one wants to see, “Unsupported file format.” Grrrrrrr …

What to do? Fret no more. Help is here. Enter Convert-Video-Online to the rescue. It offers a simple three-step process that converts your video (or audio) to a format you can use.

We like that CVO does not require any registration or e-mail disclosure like other conversion platforms we have seen. If you use this tool, you will want to avoid the ads at the top and along the side.

Here is a quick tutorial about how to use the site:


We hope this post helps you “Grrrrrrr” a lot less!


The Engagement People

A Serious Misconception

As we travel around the country visiting schools, as we research and stay atop the latest trends in digital learning, we offer this blog to discuss the biggest misconception we see in the use of digital technology and learning.

To begin this discussion, let’s review the definition of engagement as given to us by Phil Schlechty in this one-minute video.

The biggest misconception we see in the use of digital technology is this:  Students love technology and will engage in learning if technology is used.

We live in the twenty-first century. For our students, technology is a way of life. There is simply no consideration of life without it. Students use technology in everything they do. It is not viewed as an engagement device. It is embedded in their everyday lifestyle. Students do not engage with an iPad or a laptop. They may engage with the applications available on those devices. Or they may not.

For students to engage with digital tools, they need to be given the same consideration they require for engagement with all their schoolwork: Educators need to address their needs, motives, and values.

A good example to make this point comes from the gaming industry. Plain and simple, the games that engaged young people 10 years ago are now extinct—save for a few nostalgic collectors. (Let me know the next time you find your young person playing PAC-MAN or Super Mario.) Truthfully, to stay afloat in the gaming industry, games must either evolve into new generations on an annual basis, or companies must continually create new experiences to engage their customers.

The same holds true with ed tech applications.

Three years ago a teacher in South Carolina was very excited about implementing Edmodo into his classroom. His students loved it and engaged—for about six weeks. That is because they engaged with the novelty and variety of a new platform; once that initial novelty and variety wore thin, they were no longer engaged. They had not engaged because of the technology. They were engaged with the novelty and variety of a new digital tool—for a while.

This very big misconception often leads to disastrous mistakes in the use of technology.

At the classroom level, teachers may take old work and simply convert it to digital work. What was once a lecture and worksheet is now a video and PDF worksheet. It can be time-saving. Imagine that all a teacher might have to do to prepare for a class is link a video and PDF from his or her cloud drive into a work design platform (what you may call a learning management system, including Google Classroom, Edmodo, Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, Schoology, etc.). In the world of SAMR, we call this “living at the substitution level.” Nothing has really changed except the technology.

At the district and school level, this misconception often manifests itself into one-size-fits-all technology purchases and required use. For example, a district may purchase instructional software and rotate every student in a school through the software on a weekly basis— whether that learning style meets a student’s needs, motives, and values or not. In the initial start-up, students engage because of novelty and variety, but sooner rather than later they become bored to tears with repetitive work. A district may purchase a math app and require its use by all students. But by far the most common practice we see is the purchase of a single work design platform and the requirement that it be used by all teachers for multiple years. Some districts even provide templates and mandate their use in the name of “quality and consistency.”

Another current popular movement in the American education scene is the adoption of personalized learning platforms. They promise to adapt to students’ needs and interests and allow every child to progress through a body of content at his or her own pace. It sounds like the silver bullet that education continues to relentlessly pursue. These platforms are purchased and implemented for large numbers of students. There are even schools built around the platforms. And the complaints of boredom are already beginning to surface.

To provide engaging work and get the profound learning that comes with it, the silver bullet is here and has been for a long time: It is called design. When teachers design work for students that is rich in content and that addresses their needs, motives, and values, engagement and profound learning will follow. To do that, teachers need to know and use a wide variety of digital and non-digital tools. They need to stay on the cutting edge of the latest tools available (see our blog on digital collaboration). All the tools we seemingly criticize in this blog can come into play. We are not criticizing the tool. We are critcizing the standardized use of digital tools without regard for a student’s needs, motives, and values because of a misguided belief students will engage with technology because it is technology.

Districts need to provide the capacity to support engagement through design primarily by finding creative ways to give teachers the time, tools, and technical support to design engaging schoolwork. This can and does happen in schools around the country. We hope it begins happening in more and more of them.

The Engagement People