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How Joe Marquez helps students find their voices

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Joe Marquez wasn't always a fan of technology in the classroom. But once he started seeing these devices as tools for learning, he realized that technology could give his students a different way to express themselves. And now, he helps his colleagues at Clovis Unified School District find the right tools for their classrooms.


You went to Clovis Unified before you became a teacher in the district. What was it like growing up in Clovis?

I moved to Clovis when I was about 10. It’s a suburb of Fresno County, and the area was pretty rural when we got here—not a lot of shops or anything else. There were just three high schools back then, and everybody knew everybody else. Even though the town’s really exploded and we’ve added two more high schools, you still get that small-town feel. When I walk down Old Town Clovis, it feels like I’m back in the 1950s, and I love that.

Clovis Unified helped me become the person I am today. Sports has a huge role here, and that means encouraging every single kid to participate in something. It wasn’t until I became a Clovis student that I realized the importance of being part of a team. The feeling that you’re part of something, that you’re loved by your teachers, that you’re embraced by the community—it was a fantastic way of growing up.

A place where students can feel like they belong: Technology gives Joe’s students different ways to show their knowledge. “I had a student who was so quiet I don’t think she spoke a word in class all year. But whenever she could participate online, she was phenomenal,” he says. “She wrote me a letter at the end of the year that said, ‘Your class showed me that I can have a voice at school.’ That really inspired me.”

How did you come to be an educator here at Alta Sierra?

Well, I never pictured myself as being a teacher. In fact, I didn’t want to become a teacher. One of my favorite classes in high school was ceramics, and my teacher offered to write me a letter of recommendation for the art program at Cal Poly. I told her, “I don’t want to go to Cal Poly and major in art, because the only thing I can be is a teacher.” I wanted to do something bigger. I wanted to be something better.

When I was in college at Fresno State, my buddy asked me to replace him as the football line coach at Alta Sierra. I started coaching in 2001, one year out of high school, and I just loved the vibe—but I still never thought of becoming a teacher. Instead, I coached all the way through college, got my degree in biology, and went to work at a research lab at Cornell. We were looking at the genome of the tomato to find a better-producing tomato, and it was just so boring. After six months, I thought, “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?”

I came back to coach at Alta Sierra and got my substitute credential, and that’s when I realized I wanted to be in the classroom. All those thoughts about being something better, more important? Being a teacher is the better job. It is the most important job. We’re on the front line of raising good citizens and good human beings, and transitioning to education was the best decision I ever made in my life. It was serendipitous that I got to take over the spot of one of our science teachers as soon as I got my teaching credential, and I’ve just been rolling ever since. Working with the staff here has truly been the greatest experience. We’re a family.

All those thoughts about being something better, more important? Being a teacher is the better job. It is the most important job.

What you said about being reluctant to get into teaching, wanting to do something bigger and better—I’ve thought that before, and I’ve heard that from other teachers as well. Where do you think that tension come from?

We always hear that teachers are underappreciated, that teachers don’t get paid enough, that most teachers quit before the five-year mark. I thought, I don’t want to go into this field if there’s really that much work and that much turnover. But I came to realize that you don’t become an educator for the money or the recognition—what matters is the chance to be a leader of our next generation of leaders. Like Jill Biden says, being a teacher isn’t a job, it’s a calling. We’re called to help change the world, 40 students at a time, and I really take that to heart.

That small-town feel: Alta Vista is one of 5 intermediate schools in Clovis Unified School District, which includes 43 schools. For Joe, building a a tight-knit community requires collaboration and communication—and that means making sure students know their teachers are willing to meet them where they are.

You were a science teacher before you became a full-time TOSA, and now you train teachers in new tools and apps. Were you always interested in using technology in the classroom?

I’ve always been big into technology, but when I became a teacher, everybody told me that technology in the classroom caused too many distractions. So I didn’t use anything in my first year—nothing. In fact, I bought a cell phone jammer that I’d turn on every day to block the signal in my classroom. But it got harder and harder to prevent kids from using their devices in class, and I asked myself, “Why am I fighting this? They have an $800 device in their pocket. Why can’t I leverage that power?”

Our district had a no-phones policy, so I quietly started using Remind and gathering data. When I sent a message asking kids to turn in their textbooks, 35 out of 38 brought their books to class the next day. What came out of my mouth might go in one ear and out the other, but if students saw it on their device, they remembered it. When I showed this data to my principal at the end of the year, he said, “Well, maybe we can ask the district to change the policy.” And that’s what we have now: Teacher discretion on cell phone use in the classroom for educational purposes.

And then you took the next step and became a technology specialist.

After I started doing all these things in my class, somebody said, “Why don’t you get a master’s degree in educational technology?” So that’s what I did, and that’s when I realized I wasn’t alone—my world changed when I got on Twitter and saw how many people had this mindset of trying new things. Outside the classroom, kids use their phones for communication, creativity, and collaboration, but the moment they walk into a classroom, they hear, “Put all that away.” We should be able to leverage these tools for their benefit, even if we couldn’t imagine them ten years ago.

Teachers don’t have to do everything I do, but we have to start understanding that life is different for our students. When we were growing up, if we wanted to watch a movie, we’d bike down to Blockbuster, look for the videocassette, and hope someone rewound it. Now if kids want to watch something, they go to Netflix or Hulu or wherever and watch it instantly. That’s the way they’re receiving information now, and that’s the way we have to start teaching.

Closing the gap: When Joe works with teachers who aren’t as comfortable with technology, he emphasizes that his suggestions don’t reflect negatively on their teaching. “They’re amazing teachers,” he says. “It’s not about changing the way they teach; it’s about changing the way they reach. We need to be using the tools inside the classroom that kids use outside the classroom.”

How does this perspective on technology shape your approach to education?

Every student deserves to have a voice, and every student is different. So why are we teaching them all the same way? If you want a kid to raise their hand to show they know something, great. But they should also have a backchannel so they can participate if they don’t want to raise their hand. When we allow creativity in our classrooms, students can draw on their own passions and strengths to deliver what they know. We have to be able to let our kids take that chance.

When you sign a contract to become a teacher, you’re signing a contract to be a lifelong learner. Every year, you should be learning something that makes you a better teacher. We ask our students all the time to get better at this or better at that, but if we don’t better ourselves, how are we modeling that for our kids? A lot of teachers get comfortable doing the same thing year after year, but monotony is the destroyer of growth and innovation. It doesn’t matter if a kid is your 5000th student. This is the first time they get to see you, and they deserve the best you can possibly be.

It doesn’t matter if a kid is your 5000th student. This is the first time they get to see you, and they deserve the best you can possibly be.

What about parent engagement? Do you reach out to them the same way you do with your kids?

I used to put it on the parents to keep up with their kids—if they wanted to know more about what was happening in class, they had the online system and my website, or they could ask their kids. But I was getting message after message asking why grades were low, about this issue or that, and I realized that it was really on me to reach out. When a parent has four kids going through school at the same time, it’s hard to look up every single one of their grades and stay on top of all of their teachers’ websites. The more I can keep parents in the loop and get them involved when something needs to be confronted, the better it is for everyone.

Big Boy for life: Joe’s nickname in college was “Big Boy,” and his room is full of Big Boy memorabilia from his students. One of his favorites is a drawing from a student who learned how to channel her artistic skills into visual note-taking in his class. “I asked her to sign it so I could frame it and keep it forever,” Joe says. “It just reminds me of the impact you can make—how the little side conversations you have with students can really resonate with them.”

You mentioned that Remind was one of the first tools you used in your classroom. How did you learn about Remind, and why did you decide to use it?

It’s actually pretty funny. I was trying out Google Voice in my classroom, giving students and parents my number and thinking, “This is going to be great!” No. It was not great. It was kid after kid going, “Hey, how you doing, Mr. Marquez”—nonsensical things. I needed a better way to communicate with my students on my own terms, and Remind was the first thing that came up when I searched online for “school text messaging service.” I signed up that day, had my class sign up the next day, and it was magical. I loved it so much that I actually presented at our district technology bootcamp. That was the first training session I ever gave.

And the way you use Remind has evolved since then.

I used to think that apps had a single purpose, but I really saw the power of Remind when I started using it in different ways—not just to message my students, but to engage them. I asked them to send me pictures of their favorite spots in town so I could share them out, and the kids would see all these places in the community that they didn’t know existed. Over the summer, I got them to send me pictures of their vacations so they were still thinking about school. And when I send out scavenger hunt questions at lunch, I’ll have five or six kids running through the door to be the first person to write the answer on the board. That’s always hilarious, and it creates these great, spontaneous moments of collaboration.

That’s what transformed my usage of Remind—hacking it. Saying, as an educator, “Hey, you can’t tell me how to use your app. I’m going to show you how I can use your app.”

I really saw the power of Remind when I started using it in different ways—not just to message my students, but to engage them.

That’s what really stood out to me in your blog post. While Remind is a great tool for homework updates and schedule changes, you also demonstrated how to move up the scale to ask higher-order questions and fit it into your pedagogy. What’s the biggest thing that using Remind has allowed you do at your school?

Remind has allowed me to introduce technology to teachers who normally wouldn’t use technology. At our school, that’s the coaches. We’re mandated by the district to update our websites every week, but the Remind widget lets them do that from their phones while they’re out on the practice field. They never have to touch a website again. And the best part is that when you send a message, it goes everywhere it needs to—your students, your parents, your website. It eliminates redundancy so you can focus on what you need to focus on. For them, learning that was a big, awe-inspiring moment.

And then you have my buddy Pete Chilpigian, another teacher on campus. Five years ago, he wouldn’t touch technology. Never saw a reason to use it. But I showed him Remind, and Kahoot!, and the ease of use combined with the amount of functionality really opened his eyes to the possibilities of technology. He actually won the Crystal Award, our district’s highest honor, for his innovative use of technology in teaching. I like to say that Remind is the skeleton key—it opens any door for any teacher.

Make it happen: For Joe, it’s crucial to get kids equitable access to tech devices. Since the district limited computers to English and history classrooms, he collected old and disused computers from his colleagues and reformatted them with new operating systems. When his principal saw the results, the school got new Chromebooks for math and science as well.

How do you decide which tools to share with your colleagues?

I only recommend tools that have worked for my kids. Whenever I find a new tool, it has to fit a model I call “inspect, redirect, make correct.” I have to be able to inspect my students’ work individually and as a whole. Are my students getting it? If not, redirect them in the moment. And then, finally, give them time to make the corrections. Otherwise, kids will turn in an assignment that won’t get graded until the weekend, and by Monday, it’s too late to address any issues. In the kids’ minds, they’ve turned it in and gotten the grade; they’re not going to redo it. But if you catch it in the moment, before the assignment’s “done,” you can change that mindset and really impact the growth of your classroom.

The idea isn’t for teachers to use all the tools I recommend every day. It’s more like building an educational toolbox. You don’t go to Lowe’s and buy a hammer and say, “What can I hit today?” You find out what needs to be done, and then you go to your toolbox and pick the right tool for that moment. Some you’ll use every day, and some you’ll use sparingly. Some you may use only once. But at least they’re there for you to use.

Whenever I find a new tool, it has to fit a model I call “inspect, redirect, make correct.”

What tools do you use at Alta Sierra? Both the ones required by the school and the ones you’re really liking right now.

We’re required to use Zangle for attendance, but everything else is basically up to the teachers. Sometimes, we’ll make a specific push, like we did with Google Classroom two years ago. We wanted the kids to have a common routine in all of their classes: Come in, log in to their computer, log in to Google Classroom, and see their agenda. We’re about 99% of the way there—there are a few teachers using Edmodo, but I’m not going to go in and tell them to stop. As long as they’re using some kind of connection tool in their classroom, that’s perfectly fine with me.

Most of the tools I recommend to my teachers have to do with student voice. One of my favorites is Formative, which is a fantastic digital blank slate that lets you create worksheets, labs, anything at all. I also like Flipgrid, which is a great way to kick off a new year or term. I give the kids a real quick question, like “What’s your favorite sports team?” or “What’s your favorite book?” and ask them to respond to as many other students as they can. In a matter of 20 minutes, all the kids get to know each other in a way they’re familiar with—using their phones and taking selfies. That’s great for student voice.

I also love augmented reality apps like Quiver and DAQRI, because whenever the kids see the unexpected, it creates a bookmark in their brains of something fantastic. I try to utilize these tools in the classroom to elevate the lesson, not replace it. Technology has to be student-centered: Instead of starting with the tool and trying to fit it in, start with your students and see what they need—and then look for a tool that can fit that need.

Causing a ruckus: Joe started Sons of Technology to deliver professional development that helps teachers take more risks with technology. Inspired by the TV show Sons of Anarchy, it’s not a “bike” club—it’s a “byte” club.

Have there been times when you’ve thought, “This is not for me,” whether in the classroom or as a TOSA?

I love a challenge; for me, a challenge is an opportunity to figure something out. But when I first became a TOSA, it took a while to get teachers to see me as a resource and an expert in my field, not just as Joe down the hall. I would say, “Hey, let’s start using Google Classroom so the kids have a routine at the beginning of every class,” and teachers would go, “Well, it’s just Joe. We don’t have to use it.” I hear from TOSAs all the time that they feel like they can’t be a prophet in their own land—they don’t feel well-utilized until they leave their district and train elsewhere. I love Clovis Unified and would never leave my district, but sometimes I do feel that way.

We talked a lot about what you enjoyed as a teacher. Since you’ve transitioned to becoming a TOSA, what do you enjoy most about your role as a teacher coach now?

What I enjoy is almost exactly the same. When you’re in the classroom and your kids realize that what they’re learning actually has meaning in their lives, you see that spark appear. Their eyes just light up. For me, technology makes that possible, especially for kids who have never liked being in the classroom. Seeing them finally discover the joy in learning is the most amazing feeling an educator can have.

That same feeling comes over me when I’m training a teacher, and they say, “Wait, you mean I can use this in my classroom to get information or enhance learning? Wait, you mean it’s really that easy?” The moment teachers realize that technology can benefit them and their students, that they can use it to find that spark—that’s just amazing.


Interview by Eric Reichenbacher, who previously taught 11th and 12th grade English in San Francisco Unified School District. Photography by Patrick Michael Chin.