Mastering Merlyn: Tips and stories from teachers maximizing their AI assistant
Levi Belnap: This is Supervised Learning, a podcast where the Merlyn Mind team learns from experts in artificial intelligence, technology, and education. We hope you enjoy learning with us through these conversations with those who know. Time to learn.
Jess Williams: All right, Dana, Brian, Wendy, thank you for joining us today. My name is Jess Williams. I am actually a former eighth grade teacher and a strategy analyst at Merlyn Mind. Wendy is going to be on this episode with me. Wendy?
Wendy Pearson: Hi, Jess. It's great to be here. Like Jess said, my name is Wendy Pearson, and I am the Teacher Training and Learning Programs Manager here at Merlyn Mind. I'm really excited to be here, thanks for having me.
Jess Williams: Yeah! Today we're going to have a fun and interesting conversation on our podcast, Supervised Learning, where we talk to experts, and educators, and innovators in education, technology, and AI to learn about the work they're doing and why it matters. Speaking of experts, we have a superstar panel of the real experts in education, our teachers. In this episode, we're going to ask a couple of Merlyn teachers about what it's like to introduce a digital assistant to their classroom, and how their feelings have evolved as they've gotten more and more comfortable using it. Our two teachers who are in the classroom using Merlyn today, the digital assistant for education, are Dana and Brian, and I would love if you guys could introduce yourselves. Just tell us the district you work for, the school you work in, grades, subject levels you teach, and maybe how long you've been a teacher. Dana, do you want to start?
Dana McJunkin-Smith: Sure. My name is Dana McJunkin- Smith, and this is actually my 15th year of teaching. I currently teach fourth grade at Avalon Elementary School in the Val Verde Unified School District. I'm super excited to be here and I really enjoy using Merlyn in my classroom.
Brian Fish: I'm Brian Fish. I work at Rancho Verde High School for the Val Verde School District, and this is my 13th year, they all blend together, and I started teaching in continuation school and then moved to the comprehensive. I teach AP literature to seniors, and our expository reading and writing curriculum as well.
Jess Williams: Amazing. We have a wide range of teaching backgrounds here, and lucky to get two teachers from Val Verde, a district that we work really closely with, and we're just so excited to talk to you guys about how you faced integrating innovative technology in your classroom. I'd love to just start broadly and ask what does it mean to be successful in your job right now? And on the flip side of that, what are some of challenges that get in the way of achieving that?
Dana McJunkin-Smith: Well, some things that would make me feel successful as a teacher and just in education would be just seeing my scholars take on a project, or an assignment, or just out in the world, out on campus and really feel like they can problem- solve themselves through whatever's going on, and have that confidence. And really be able to communicate with each other. Because we're in such a collaborative world and a communication heavy environment, it would just really be great for me to see that they can communicate their needs, communicate what they want, and also just communicate with they're learning. I think that's one of our important things as a teacher is, okay, what did you learn, and how are you going to show that to me? Some of the challenges, just time. We don't have as much time with our kiddos as we would like, and just ensuring that they have everything that they need all around them, everywhere that they're at. At home, in the community, here at school. Other challenges sometimes is just being ready with whatever comes at their way.
Brian Fish: I have to agree. Even with the 12th graders, it's really about communication, but it's just a little different. It's can you write that business email? Can you write that memo? Can you communicate at a professional level? It's bittersweet being a senior teacher because you get them and you come to love them, and then you turn around and nine months later, they're gone. They're out of your hands and they're out in the big world. One of the things that I think is a sign of success is I will have seniors, former seniors, find my social media, "Is this Mr. Fish," blah, blah, blah, "Can we communicate?" That, and when they come back to campus, it's always interesting. I think any teacher would agree that when your babies come back and they're all grown up, it's just one of the best things ever. My success is I have nobody to pass them onto but the big bad world, so a lot of times I leave them with my fingers crossed going, "I know you can do this, you've got this. We worked really hard in this district to make sure you're going to be okay." That's one of the great things about just the job in general. The challenges right now I would say, as a senior teacher, is whoever created ChatGPT, I'd like to find you in a dark alley and hurt you. Actually, it's not that bad, although the fears are there. We've seen a little bit of it. But I think one of the big challenges is right now, we're looking at AI that can write the papers for the kids. We're looking at AI that can be an end around for the experience of reading a novel, or experiencing news, or digesting rhetorical content. I think that's huge for kids because we are so bombarded now with rhetorical content, with politics, with news, who's telling what? I knew we were doomed when I heard somebody say "alternative facts" one day, and I was like, "Oh, wow, we're there. That is going to be hard to teach through." Because once somebody says, "Well, your facts aren't my facts," then... Education is based on a meeting of the minds and if you doubt that meeting, then you don't have the academic trust to go on and expand that. So that's a challenge right now. I think that's a challenge everywhere in education, and I think the challenge was only exacerbated by having 18 months in lockdown, especially here in California. So that was... And we're still fighting that too.
Wendy Pearson: Well, I think it changed students ability to interact socially. I'm noticing that students are exceptionally comfortable on FaceTime. It's almost like they learned to be social in a virtual environment and so now we're back in the classroom and things are getting back to normal, we're having to reteach some of those lost social and emotional skillsets that help students interact and help students engage in an educational setting. So I've seen the same thing.
Jess Williams: Absolutely, and what I'm hearing from you guys is that the success of the teacher is the relationships that you build with your students and seeing that unfold throughout their year with you, and even beyond after they have you. That's the real value that teachers bring that no piece of technology can replace. ChatGPT is not going to wrap their arms around you and give you a hug when you're having a bad day as a student. I think that's one thing at Merlyn Mind that we've really tried to integrate into our mission is that having a piece of technology that's there to assist teachers and not replace them, and recognize the real value and success that teachers bring to the education sphere. The challenges I'm hearing from you guys, I mean, we could talk all day about the challenges that teachers face, but that time aspect I have definitely heard come up again and again, and trust. At least my own experience when I was teaching during the pandemic, there was a lot of solutions I think that get thrown at teachers. Technology solutions, new apps, new things to try. I see wide eyes here among the panel. I'm just wondering from your guys' perspective, thinking about a time when you're trying to find a solution, a technological solution in particular, to help with your teaching and make you a more successful teacher, what has worked really well in implementing that piece of technology? And if not, maybe you have an example of a time when it went really poorly.
Wendy Pearson: From what I've seen as an instructional coach, some of the things that are really difficult for teachers are having the time to learn a new EdTech product because it's thrown at you, "Hey, we have all this functionality, you've got all this reporting, you have all these things that you can look at to really base your instruction on data." But if you don't know how to use the tool or you don't have the time to professionally develop yourself using that tool, a lot of that functionality just kind of goes to waste and teachers use very basics or don't even use it at all. It's simply because when are you going to take the time to be trained, and when are you going to get used to the functions? How are you going to utilize the reporting features and the data? When are you going to analyze the data? That's a lot of what the EdTech products are giving us is the ability to monitor, and track, and report data. I think a lot of it is just teachers understanding how to use the tech that they have and managing what they're given.
Dana McJunkin-Smith: I think as teachers, we get so overwhelmed with you need to use this, you need to use that, and try this, try that. You go to a conference and you walk into the room that's got all of the vendors and you're just thinking, "Okay, what am I going to do here?" Really for me, it's been finding as much information as I can, but finding what I am looking for is really important. What is this tool that I'm going to use going to help my students do, or how is it going to facilitate the learning in a different way? What I personally look for is what can I use that my scholars are going to participate with and get engaged in. I want their feedback. As the teacher, I don't want to stand there and use something that they're bored with or try to get something out of a tool that isn't really what it's meant for, and it just slows things down and doesn't give us that freedom to learn, to do what we need to do. Sometimes it's a matter of all right, I'm going to try this. Let's give this a try, guys. We do it, and then we take a few minutes after, even though our day is so packed, just to reflect and talk about what we liked and what we didn't. As a group, sometimes it becomes well, do we want to give this a try again, or when might this tool be useful? Because really, I'm a facilitator of learning. I'm not standing at the front of the room and just talking to them. I want them to take charge of their own learning, and I want them to really use whatever tools are available. The companies and the EdTech tools that come forth and say, "This is what you can use," and are really good to also take our feedback too, like Merlyn is, and we have several EdTech tools that we have in our district that are really well used and we give so much feedback and we get so much out of it when we give that feedback. That's what we want. We're in a world where you don't like that app, delete it, next. And we really want it to be big bang for your buck type of technology for us.
Wendy Pearson: I saw Brian, he was cheering while you were speaking. I'd love to hear what was going through your head, Brian, while she was speaking.
Brian Fish: Well, it comes down to it's... We're in a unique district. Our EdTech people, there's a level of professionalism with these people that is rare, and a level of knowledge. But just like Dana said, it's show me the data. Is this going to work? The other thing too is the day of the sage on the stage is over. Kids are not learning that way anymore. It's because we have these great EdTech tools. They can do the learning on their own. You can become a sculptor nowadays watching YouTube videos. You can pay for classes online, and learn to watercolor, whatever. Kids aren't... They're smart, they know that the stuff is out there. So as a facilitator, that's the word that I was really cheering is teaching is more facilitating knowledge and finding that knowledge that the student needs. When it comes to technology, I'll admit years back at one point, the iPad was brand new and our district was like, "We're going to get all the teachers iPads." I remember thinking, "That's really cool, I'd love to have an iPad. How am I going to use this in the classroom?" We didn't have the Wi- Fi infrastructure for mobile, we didn't have anything. It seemed to me like the district at that moment went, "We're not doing this again. We're really going to get serious about what we're doing and be work within in intent and reason." I've got to say, from the day we got our Chromebook carts all the way to going one to one, there's been no time where there hasn't been somebody, an IT, an EdTech person, somebody that I could call and say, "Something broke. I need help." Because we have to admit, technology is the Achilles heel of any classroom. If you plan a lesson with the technology and it goes bye- bye, you're having a rough day. You're really using those teacher chops at that point. But I think-
Wendy Pearson: But technology... I loved how you said it's the Achilles heel, but it's also the best arrow in your quiver. It's like two at the same time. If it's working for you, and you're managing it, and everything is pulling up the way it's supposed to, you can teach such amazing lessons. Like you said, be this facilitator and empower your students to search and find, and interact with 21st century technology. And if it doesn't work, what do you do? You go outside and nature walk.
Brian Fish: I liken it to when all the technology's working, you are a conductor, everybody and everything is working fine. But when the technology doesn't work, you're at the wrong venue. Your band is somewhere else. You know what I mean? Your whole symphony is somewhere else. It's so amazing to be able to be a teacher at this point. This is what I want to tell people that are afraid of getting into teaching, and I understand your fears, but it's such an awesome time at the same time. The level of technology, the things we get to do with the kids. My son is 16. When he was in fourth grade, he had to do the California Missions Project. He built his mission in Minecraft.
Jess Williams: Brian, can you explain a little bit about what the Mission Project is just for our listeners who aren't familiar with it?
Brian Fish: Okay, Dana, you need to unmute.
Dana McJunkin-Smith: Okay, so in California, one of our standards in fourth grade is learning about the explorers. You need to learn about the missions and why we have the missions. Part of the project, depending on where you want to go with it, is you research a mission and then the project typically has been okay, you're going to recreate the mission. Whether you do it with Legos, or Minecraft in that case, or sugar cubes at your... That's not going to work so well. I learned that, cause in fourth grade I tried to make it with sugar cubes, and I tried three times and finally gave up and took my Legos, and then made it out of Legos. But I digress. The point is inaudible.
Jess Williams: Trying and failing.
Dana McJunkin-Smith: Yes, I was so working on that steam stuff right there. Making sure I failed and tried again, that was excellent. It did take me many times. But the purpose of it is really just to kind of demonstrate your understanding and learning about what was important about having the missions in California, because that was how we got things going, and just taking that time to literally build a mission. Back in the day, you could go to Michael's and you could buy a kit and put the kits together, and then it's not really the same as you trying to actually create it more organically. So now we do it very differently. Brian, I'm so excited that your son got to do it in Minecraft because when I've done the Mission Projects, I tell them, "You can do it anyway you want. Yes, Minecraft's an option," but it definitely really ups the game when you have all these EdTech tools that can take it to another level.
Brian Fish: Exactly, and the way that it was turned in is that it was a fly through video. You literally fly through the front doors of the mission and he had to narrate what all the rooms were. I remember helping them with it because we're working on the computer and stuff at home, and I don't know that I've ever seen a fourth grader so excited about something that they had done. I remember my mission project, I was not that excited. I was not that excited. It was one of those, "I know it's 8: 30 at night Mom, but I'm supposed to build a mission by tomorrow, so sorry."
Wendy Pearson: I think I'm hearing you say that I really am enjoying is this idea that in a classroom, when you're learning something that's really impactful, the classroom time spent making mistakes, and rebuilding, and resolving a problem is really what's exciting about education. It's not the direct instruction lesson, it's not the teacher up there showing you how to do a problem. The instruction can happen virtually, you can watch a YouTube video anytime you want. It's that interaction with a human who understands what mistakes look like, how to work through mistakes, how to reteach that inner voice, that inner monologue that helps a person think out loud, "What am I doing to solve this problem? What's not working, and how do I move through it to the next stage?" That's really special about a human teacher, learn a lesson on YouTube, come to class and practice. I think that's really what we're starting to see is educators are realizing I don't have to do the lesson plan, I can have a video teach the lesson, come to class, and let's practice, let's work, let's make mistakes together. That's what I heard both of you say is this whole idea of trying, and failing, and succeeding, that's really the magic that happens in the classroom. So thank you for sharing that.
Jess Williams: Yeah, I appreciate just hearing how you both are models for your students in trying and failing in technology, in front of them as well. That was a concept in math, model mistakes. Admit when you made a math mistake, and that shows students that it's okay for them to make mistakes as well. Another thing that I was hearing when you guys were talking about integrating new technologies, like red flags are there's always a new shiny piece of technology. Maybe it's an iPad, something else, but it really seems like what you guys look at as teachers is how does this help my students? How does this give me the freedom to teach? I feel like that's what we try to do with our Merlyn assistant is for people who are not familiar with it, who are listening to the podcast, it's a voice assistant for teachers where you can give commands such as, "Pull up my slides for today," "Switch back to the video." Those are just a couple examples and it allows you to do that without running back to your computer to make those commands happen. But that's my definition or my very quick summary. I would love to hear from you two, how do you explain what Merlyn is to a completely new teacher? If a brand- new student teacher walked into your classroom and said, "What is that thing?" What do you tell them?
Brian Fish: I've had two student teachers now with the Merlyn in my classroom. First, they think it's some kind of DHH device for our deaf and hard of hearing students, they think it's some kind of a microphone or speaker for them. And then I say, "Oh no, it's your artificial intelligence, it's your assistant. You can ask it to do things for you," and they look at me like I've grown a third eye on my forehead. And then I grab the magic remote and I give it a couple of commands, "Open tab three, go to this, search my Google Drive for," which is the best thing for any teacher because all of our Google Drives are a mess, so being able to search for a document without having to run back to your desk is just, it's amazing. Introducing the things that we take for granted at home, but geared toward a teacher. Finding a document is no different for a teacher than somebody that turns on a light switch at home. You do it 50 times a day and it's part of your dexterity as a teacher, as an educator. So when you can do that from 20 feet across the classroom and you don't have to be stuck in a corner because where do they put all the teacher's desks? You're stuck in a corner where they can get you to your Wi- Fi, and your this, and your that. Yeah, me too. Cabinets behind me. So really, my thing with Merlyn is that I feel free. I don't have to be... I can sit at a student's chair who's absent that day and teach the whole class from there. Does it throw the students off a little bit? Yeah, but they're 18. They can be thrown off a little bit, they're going to be fine.
Wendy Pearson: Brian, you said something that really kind of touched my teacher heart. I was a teacher for 16 years and this whole idea that yeah, we do have to have our stuff in the corner. We do need to be near a wall to plug in. What has that done to teaching? It's made teachers standing in one place, bending over and pushing the forward button to use their technology. It's actually hindering this authentically engaging instruction that we're hoping to accomplish by adding in the ability to present slides, graphics, or videos. The teacher is now tethered to the corner of their classroom, whether it's in the back or the front. That's why we need Merlyn because we've got to move teachers out of the corner of their room. Teachers need to be flowing between desks, and round tables, and in the back, and in the front. They need to be able to jump around, and dance, and move. These are things we cannot do if we are tethered to our computers. So thank you for saying that, that really touched my teacher heart. Let's get these teachers away from the corner and let's start moving around and interacting with the kids. Dana, did you have any thoughts?
Dana McJunkin-Smith: Yeah, I am really grateful for our district because as it is, we have such great technology to be able to be around the room and not stuck at our desk. We can use our YDI devices, so I can walk across the room with my laptop and be across the room and set something down, just like Brian said. A kid wants to present something, "All right, here's my hover cam and here's my laptop. There you go. You can share your writing and let's edit it together." There's a lot of things we can do with it. With Merlyn, I feel like it kind of took that to the next level. It takes some time to learn because you just have to have that practice, and if you're lucky enough to have Wendy come in and remind your entire class of when to wait before you give your command, it really gave that level of freedom, a big boost. We still have to catch ourselves as teachers. I sometimes walk back to my computer because I need to do something. I'm like wait a minute, I have the remote in my hand right here. Let me try that again. But just having that opportunity too to just give the kids an opportunity to use it. I am all about having my scholars use Merlyn. Yes, sometimes I use the remote because it's a little bit easier, but also just giving them that empowerment to ask a question or to keep me on track because one of the things I use the most right now is the timer because we're so focused on making sure we get through the things we need to. In an elementary classroom, you got a lot to go through and very little time to do it. My kids laugh every single time I say, "Hey, Merlyn, can you please set that timer?" It is something that just is really incorporated very well into the scholars using it, and me as well.
Wendy Pearson: I wanted to say a teacher that's having his or her students actually interacting with the artificial intelligence in the classroom is really doing some pretty amazing work because this is a 21st century skill that students are using, and it is a skill that we will be taken into the workplace, into their homes, and into future engagement. The fact that your fourth graders and your high school students are getting exposure to this level of technology is absolutely brilliant and it's wonderful to see. I'd love to hear more about how you're having your students engage with Merlyn.
Brian Fish: One of the things that I will do is we'll do Jeopardy days, everybody knows the Jeopardy thing, but I'll do Merlyn Lifelines. If you don't know specifically the answer, maybe Merlyn might.
Wendy Pearson: You mean like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Brian Fish: Yeah.
Wendy Pearson: Are you serious? I love that so much. I am going to steal that, I am stealing that from you. I'll give you credit.
Brian Fish: It works because you can only ask Merlyn for one question. Is this the question that you're going to burn your one research on? I use it in that way, I definitely use it for timers. You wouldn't think it, but so much of a high school day is... Because at this point, the only difference between a fourth grader and a 12th grader, they both love to color, they will always love crayons, they'll always try and steal your markers because they just do. But the biggest thing is they just have more training. It's nice with Merlyn, but you still have to have that timer to get them from transition to transition, from thing to thing. What's going to be interesting is seeing that... Merlyn's not going anywhere, I see it becoming more incorporated than anything else, is students that are going to come into my class at some point that know more Merlyn commands than I do. I can be that guy that's like, "I don't remember how to make Merlyn do this. Can you help me?" And they're going to be, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, I learned that in Ms. McJunkin's class," and I'm looking forward to that day. I think that's going to be so much fun. It gives me more of a way to be the guide on the side. I want to usher people into a better life. That's what we get into education for. And being able to do coded language, command language, being able to switch from regular talking to whatever, I mean, we're going to have these AI devices on assembly lines. We're going to have AI devices wherever we work. You're going to look at your AI device and say, "Charlie, I need you to find me this wrench, this wrench, and this wrench. Bring it back immediately." These students are already going to have experience with that, and I think that's Star Wars level awesome. Because Charlie's going to be a droid someday.
Jess Williams: I love your enthusiasm, Brian.
Wendy Pearson: I love it so much. Dana, what's in your mind?
Dana McJunkin-Smith: My kids right now, they still really enjoy find my remote. Wendy came in and showed my class how to do that, and we take brain breaks here and there. Sometimes it's a physical, we get out and go do something, and sometimes it's just doing something in the classroom. I cannot tell you how big my smile is when I hear, "Can we play find my remote?" "Yes, we can. All right, who's going to be the seeker? Who's going to be the hider? Let's go." And then it just runs itself because at this point, they know I hand the remote over and they're literally, they could go all day if I'd let them. We learned something recently that I think is really going to change it for our class. Asking Merlyn to show the tabs on a website. So if we Google search something, and then we ask Merlyn to show the tabs, because sometimes it's like I don't remember what command it is to show the first video, or I don't remember what I need to do to make Merlyn scroll down, things like that. Showing the tabs and all of a sudden, you get, "Okay, which number do you want?" At that point they're just like, "Oh, number three, number three," and boom, there we go. And we take a lot of bird walks. We are falcons, but we take bird walks because I like to take a moment and just enrich whenever we possibly can, and that's a lot of times how we'll use Merlyn as well.
Wendy Pearson: Bird walk?
Dana McJunkin-Smith: When we're on a topic and something is tangential, it's just over here like, "Okay, well that's on topic, but not really. And we can't go very long, we're just going to go take a little tiny... Okay, let's ask Merlyn this. Let's look at this. Okay, now come back." It could be inaudible.
Wendy Pearson: What you're telling me is that these bird walks are actually authentic engagement, student led inquiry that's being facilitated by Merlyn. That's what's so exciting about including your students in this journey of embracing artificial intelligence as an assistant in the classroom. Brilliant to watch. I wanted to speak really quickly to something that Brian was talking about. Brian keeps sparking all these ideas in my head as he's speaking. I wanted to say this idea of bringing conscious awareness to the time that things are taking within your classroom may seem like a very small part of what Merlyn offers, however, it's one of the most used tools. What does that tell you about teachers and how they need help? It tells me that teachers are working with an extremely limited amount of time, and that time needs to be closely monitored. The reason being is we have a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time. So that conscious awareness that a timer or an alarm brings to your classroom is really brilliant, and I'm really glad to hear that you're incorporating that into your classroom. Jess, what else do you have for us?
Jess Williams: Yeah, just listening to you guys list off all the things that Merlyn can do from setting timers to asking it live questions in terms of who was George Washington, or what does this person do? Merlyn can surf the web too, to finding your remote, which for listeners who don't know what that is, if you've ever lost your iPhone and had to do Find My iPhone to have the little beep go off, we have a very similar feature for our Merlyn remote that you can speak into, and kids love using it like Dana explained. You already seem so masterful of this technology and bringing students in with you, and I'd love to actually back it up a few steps and start from the beginning because I think a lot of teachers hear that and they're like, "How can I ever reach that point?" So I'd love to hear from both of you, maybe you could tell me a little bit, what was the first day when you first met Merlyn, and what did you try at the very beginning? I see lots of laughs.
Wendy Pearson: Yeah, Dana, do you want to start?
Jess Williams: Lots of laughs, lots of red faces.
Brian Fish: It's like anything else. You trip on your own shoestrings. They tell you the command word is "Hey, Merlyn," and in 30 seconds you're like, "Merlyn, Merlyn, Merlyn. Nothing's happening. It's broken, I broke it." It's like no, no, no, no, no. You actually have to have that single syllable word in front of it, otherwise it's not going to hear you. All of these little things, but I remember the first day I was looking at Phil and I was like, "I don't know man. How am I going to use this piece of equipment?" I remember they gave me the little laminated note card with, I think there were eight or nine commands it could do at the time. I looked at them and I was like, "Well, these are cool," because you could go to a tab, search, that kind of thing. I remember one day I said the keyword and it beeped, and a student asked me, "What's that?" And I said, "Oh, that's Merlyn," and they said, "What does it do?" And it wasn't until I was with the students that we sat back and were like, "Yeah, let's put it through its paces. Let's see what it can figure out." Some kids asked at riddles and of course, it just like inaudible "I can't answer that," that kind of thing. But kids were asking about... In my AP class, I had some kids in calculus, they're like, "Hey, Merlyn, how do you do such and such in calculus?" I can't remember what they asked, and it brought up the Google search and they were like, "Can you open that for me, Mr. Fish?" And right there, I was like, "Oh, this is fine. This is going to be great." We do use it in literature of all things. It's like, I forgot what year this book was written or what edition this was or that. We use it, like I said, in the study review area. But the first day, you just trip over your own shoestrings a little bit and it's okay because at least for us, Phil was like, "Break it. Break it. Do your best to make this thing just melt down." We did, and it just kept getting better. It kept adding new commands and could do different things, so if there's anybody wondering like, "Oh, how do I start?" You start just like anything else. It's like the first time you put an Alexa in your house. After a while you're like maybe I will hook the lights up to it, maybe I will do this, maybe I will do that. It's baby steps. It starts out-
Wendy Pearson: Brian, I love that. I had the same exact experience with my Alexa. I was like, "Okay, I can ask it to play some music for me. I'm just going to do one thing, just find one thing you could do. I'm not going to worry about anything else. And then once I'm master that, maybe I'll try something else." I had it find my phone for me, and you just find little things here and there to make your life easier, and then if it's not online, you're like oh no, I really didn't realize how I got so used to this functionality and it's gone now. Dana, how was your first day with Merlyn? Thank you, Brian.
Dana McJunkin-Smith: Well, I pride myself in being pretty techy, but I also know that when you use something new, you got to learn it. You got to be humbled to the device for a little bit until you have a better understanding. I remember when we got it was, "Hey, do you want an AI device in your classroom?" I was like, "I don't know about that. Okay." I was a little nervous. And then they said, "Well, we're going to do a training. Come on, we're going to show you what it can do." And I said okay, and so the first comment is, " How are you doing today?" You ask Merlyn how it's doing, and Merlyn responded and I was like, "That's so cool." And then we just learned some of the basics. But then when I had my class the next day, I said, "Okay guys, are you ready? We're going to play." At that point, I was thinking... I have a Google Home at home, I don't have an Alexa. I have a seven- year- old who loves to ask Google to tell a joke or just silly questions and things like that, so that's what I had in my mind. I was like, "Sweet, I'm going to tell Merlyn to tell us a joke." Not so much. We had to learn that by just asking the questions. I remember my kids were like, "Can we ask it a would you rather question?" Because we do a lot of would you rathers in class as a passing okay, let's do this, do that and of course, Merlyn doesn't really answer those questions, although I've put in a good word that please, let's do something because it would be very cool to have Merlyn tell something, a fact, about each would you rather, and then just randomly pick one for something silly. That's the kind of stuff, the kids just eat that up. They use what they know at home. The first day was rough. Actually, I grabbed a little notebook and I put Merlyn across the top and a pencil next to it and I stuck it underneath the Merlyn and I told one of my kiddos, I said, "Okay, listen, when we have an issue or a question, you're going to go write it down." Because we knew that with our district, we are so blessed to have Merlyn come down and work with us and show us things, and when I have an issue, I call Mr. Harding and say, "Okay, look, this isn't working." And next thing you know, he's at my door and he got someone on the phone trying to figure it out. That's actually when I learned the most because then I get the little tips and tricks. inaudible-
Wendy Pearson: I heard both of you say, in different ways, that the first day you really relied on your kids.
Dana McJunkin-Smith: Yes. Oh, yes. inaudible
Wendy Pearson: Both of you relied on those kids. The kids are what brought the excitement, the kids are what made you feel empowered and emboldened to try, and kids are used to failing and making mistakes, and falling down and picking themselves up. They're not afraid of that. We adults, we're afraid. We're afraid to fail. We've had people terrify us, we have trauma about failure. And so we put something new in our room and we really don't want to mess it up. But then we have this amazing career where we've got kids in the room with us and the kids want to play. That's what's so exciting. This is the first time I'm making this connection. As a teacher, if you're nervous to start using it, incorporate your children into it. They want to play with Merlyn. That's really exciting. Thank you guys for sharing that.
Jess Williams: Yeah, thank you guys. It also is so interesting to hear how both of you were skeptical in the beginning, I think as all teachers are, when someone puts a new piece of technology into their classroom, into their routine. I'd love to hear when was the turning point for you when you went from skeptic to okay, I feel like I have more of a handle on this. I'm thinking about... We think about students learning journeys and there's an exploration phase where you're just seeing what's going on, and then you start to get a little bit more like okay, I'm structuring this.
Wendy Pearson: Yeah, was there a moment where you were like, all of a sudden, "I've got this, I'm proficient," and you can start planning your lessons around Merlyn. Was there a moment when you started to realize that your lesson planning began to change because of your AI device?
Brian Fish: I think what changed the most for me that I noticed was having that freedom to go sit somewhere else and go sit with the students and just experience... Because that's what I really wanted to see is I wanted to experience it from their point of view. I can't experience Merlyn the way they do sitting over here. The other thing I realized was that what Merlyn was allowing me to do by not sitting at the emperor's throne, they were asking me questions. They were asking me questions. They didn't have to really raise their hand, they could lean over and say, "Hey, Mr. Fish, how do I... What about this character? What about that? I don't understand in the plot line? Is this the climax or is this the...," and I realized that this desk is intimidating and Merlyn lets me go somewhere else, and I don't have to be this guy that you have to walk up... Because I remember that in high school, I don't know if you guys remember that, but there was nothing worse than having to walk up to your teacher's desk in front of everybody to ask a question. You really wanted them to be walking by and say, "Hey, I have a question," so you didn't stand out. Merlyn gives me that in a way that I don't think any other products really do, or that any other technology does. I've tried chat clients, everything. I think that's one of the best things... And that's where it didn't change so much my plan for the day or the lesson, but it definitely changed how much information I could get to kids who needed it, and I could meet those individual learning goals that I know that students have a little bit easier. It was just another tool in toolbox.
Wendy Pearson: Love that so much, and I've seen it... Dana, I'll get to you in just one second'cause I... Don't forget what you had to say. I wanted to say all of a sudden, as an educator, you don't have to have all the answers and you don't have to prep like you used to because if you don't know the answer, you say, let's ask Merlyn. It just inaudible pressure off of you as an educator. The lesson planning can be a little bit more organic. Maybe you have less outside of class prep time because you know that you can trust yourself to find a video on the fly. You're like, "Oh, let's find a video about fractions and watch that. Let's find a brain break, and let's get the kids up and moving." You that you don't have to put as much outside of class time work because Merlyn's there to support those questions that maybe you might not have the answer to, and you can quickly Google that without having to pull out your phone or go to your laptop, you can just ask right there in the moment and have your question answered. Dana, what were you going to say?
Dana McJunkin-Smith: My wow, oh man, this is going to be an awesome experience moment was the first time one of my kids said, "Ask Merlyn, can we ask Merlyn?" I think it was... It's no secret in my classroom, I don't know all the answers. I tell them, "I don't know. Let's go ask a first grade teacher. I'm not sure." They know I'm not going to act like I know everything because I don't. Sometimes I make mistakes on purpose, and sometimes it's an accident and I tell them it was on purpose because that's more fun when they see the look on my face. The first time one of my kids said, "Can we ask Merlyn that question?" And I was just like, "Why, yes we can. Go right ahead." It really didn't change how the plans go because I mean, we're just so go, go, go and we have our routines and our processes, the way we do things so set, but it really enhanced a lot of the lessons innately because I could stop and say, "Okay, let's look at that." Real talk, as a teacher, we have to be mindful and careful too because if I have my computer projecting, I need to be mindful of what might come up. So I do feel like that's where sometimes if I think that question might have something that may not be something that they should see because my filters are different than their filters, then I will blank my screen for that moment and just check it. But for the most part, it's usually pretty innocent stuff that they're just like, "Oh, that's a good question. Can we ask Merlyn?" Why, yes we can. Let's do it.
Jess Williams: That's such a great tip too, for teachers. Just hearing all of your strategies, it doesn't even sound like engaging students is the last step in this journey toward mastering Merlyn. Engaging students is the first bit in your learning journey, and critical to that. I'd actually love to turn it toward Wendy because Wendy, you train a ton of teachers. I'm wondering what do you give as the baby steps, the first things for teachers to try, and what do you see teachers try as they get more and more comfortable with it?
Wendy Pearson: The first thing people want to try is a timer. Everyone is using a timer and that's all on their phone, or they have a little egg timer or something. I had one, everyone's timing, so that's the first thing I have them try. If that's the only thing you ever use Merlyn for, it's fine because it will improve transitions, it will improve instructional time, it will improve your behavior management. Just simply having a timer on while students are working gives you opportunity to just understand that your class is moving at a good flow, at a good pace and if that's the only tool you need, then that's fine. It's when teachers start to feel comfortable and confident with that timer that I'm like, "Hey, you know you can access your Google Drive. Let's pull that up. Do you ever teach with Google Science presentations?" They're like, "Oh yeah, all the time." I'm like, "Well did you know you can access that with your voice?" You find what they're already using what's going to excite them? So if they're using Google Classroom, you can say, "Did you know that you can send any link, any webpage to your Google Classroom feed? All you have to do is say, 'send to Google Classroom.' Did you know that?" 'Cause it's a really lengthy process to actually post a link in your Google Classroom and you can do it with your voice. It means that the learning becomes more organic because students can ask a question, you can search for it, you can say, "We don't have time to go through that right now, but I'm going to send it to your Google Classroom and you can look at it at home." And all of a sudden, all of this authentic engagement where kids are asking questions, and kids are finding things, and kids are experiencing things, and they're having access to these videos and webpages that they might not otherwise have, it really starts to increase. So what I like to do is find what they're already using and say, "Did you know we can make that a little easier for you?" And it's going to be different for every teacher, but certainly that first thing, show that timer, they get really excited about that. Brian, I saw you having something to say.
Brian Fish: One of the things that Merlyn did teach me to do that I thought really streamlined just my lesson planning and everything is Merlyn taught me to line up all my tabs. If I'm going to have different things to do, and Dana's laughing at me right now, but once you figure out you can get Merlyn to do tab one, tab two, tab three, so on and so forth, all of a sudden, your lessons are rolling because you're not running around trying to do something. You're just in there in the mix with the kiddos doing what you need to do. If there's one thing that change about my lesson planning is that I have my tabs lined up and I know my first three tabs are always stuff for attendance, and then all the other tabs are lined up throughout the day or throughout the lesson, and I teach my student teachers to do the same thing, just to make it easier on them. So it's like, "Hey, you're going to have five tabs open, tabs four and five are the two you're going to be using today. So you can switch back and forth," which is so nice just to be able to move tabs even without a voice command, just with the magic remote. Oh my goodness, that was a game changer.
Jess Williams: Right? And you have like-
Wendy Pearson: You have moving tabs. Just being able to move across tabs from across the room. It sounds so simple, but it's saving you having to walk and leave a student. What if you're in a behavior situation with a student and you need to have proximity control next to that student? You need to stay by that student's side. You can stay there, you can do what you need to do with this student and still have your lesson progressing at a pretty optimal pace. Dana, did you have something to say?
Jess Williams: I'm hearing that you guys are... Learning. Merlyn is exploration, like you were talking about, but it can also be structured learning too. You don't even know what you don't know sometimes. And sometimes having a trainer or taking the time to go through the Merlyn resources and be like what else can this do? Or having somebody tell you, "Hey, do you know that it can do this too?" Also is helpful for weaving into your own learning process in any piece of technology or tool. I'm wondering, just to hear quickly from both of you, what were some things you did when you felt stuck with Merlyn? I know Dana, you mentioned having a notebook with kids to write down, that's an amazing idea. Would love to know if there was anything else that... Any resources or tips that you would have for if a teacher felt stuck.
Dana McJunkin-Smith: I think just kind of being patient, first of all, because it could just be one word is not... You've flipped something or you're using what you think and not really taking a moment and just, we're in the thick of things and you're trying to move through. Also being graceful with the kiddos because they're seeing how we're interacting. There have been days of frustration, for sure, where I needed to keep pairing or something was going on. At that point, I'm kind of the joker in my class, I'm the class clown, so sometimes just my humor is what cuts that a little bit. But just giving an opportunity too, for the kiddos to come up with some things. Because sometimes I might be thinking I'm trying to be on the right track with a command or something, and then I hear across the room, "What about asking this?" Oh, I didn't think about that. Let's try it. It kind of goes back to the scholar experience and allowing them to help to problem- solve because that's what we want. We want them to keep trying and not just say, "Forget it," unplug it and not use it again. And when I'm in that moment of I really want this to work, I really, really want to be able to do something, I do have someone to call and just say, "Hey, what can I do?" Sometimes I get that help right away, and sometimes I just need to take a deep breath and try something else.
Jess Williams: Teachers are amazing troubleshooters, I've found. Brian, do you have something to add?
Brian Fish: Oh, I was just going to say, everything that Dana said is absolutely on point. I think the key to learning anything, but especially with Merlyn, is have the IT people tell the teacher try and break it. It's words, you're not going to break anything. It's just going to go bong until you know. Second, let those students have that agency. It's totally fine. They're not going to break it either. When Dana said earlier, there are some searches I worry about from time to time. I'm in high school, so I just tell Merlyn to go to a dead HDMI that it has. Instead of three, go to one. And it blanks the screen and then I go back to three and go like, "Okay, that worked out." It's all about you're going to learn more if you learn it with the kids. That's I think the point.
Wendy Pearson: Any teacher will be able to explain how important it is for any learning process to make mistakes. In fact, you learn more when you make a mistake than when you do it right. It's actually exceptionally important to learning process to make mistakes. So I love that you guys are comfortable and courageous in that space where you're saying, "We're going to make mistakes today and we're going to learn from them, and that's okay." I think anytime you're learning a new skill, seeing examples of it working correctly, but also seeing non- examples, is both very, very effective and it helps you hone in. One little tip I wanted to give as you are troubleshooting and maybe Merlyn's hearing something wrong, there's a setting in the teacher portal, teacher. merlyn. org, in the settings that's called transcription. I recommend that you turn transcription on because it gives you a banner at the top of your screen that shows what Merlyn heard you say. A lot of times, simple just adjusting your annunciation of certain words will improve your search and make it work better for you. A lot of times it'll hear something that sounds very similar and you'll just like, "Oh, I kind of slurred that word. I need to try again." That's one of my biggest tips I give to new users is turn on that transcription setting so you can really get comfortable and familiar with what Merlyn is hearing, and how it really interacts with your voice and your accent, and all of that. The other thing that transcription's really, really good for is students that are English language learners, students that have disabilities, younger students that are learning to read. It's just a really great feature that I recommend turning on, especially if you're a new user.
Jess Williams: Thank you, Wendy. I feel like Wendy is full of tips and tricks too. Not only teachers listening to this podcast should you reference other teachers in your school and learn from other teachers who are using Merlyn, but obviously we have resources as well, like Wendy and so many of our other teammates here at Merlyn to help you in that journey. I'd love to just say to both Dana and Brian that we are so happy that you were able to join us and share your experiences with us. It has just been amazing to learn from you. I've picked up new things to tell other teachers. I feel like that's the best part of talking to teachers, and just love both of you being so vulnerable about your own journey through Merlyn, your failures. Congratulations on being a teacher at the cutting edge of technology because it's not easy, but you're really making a difference in your students' lives. So thank you guys so much for joining us.
Wendy Pearson: Thank you. You guys were absolutely wonderful. What a great group. Thank you.
Brian Fish: Thanks for having us. I really appreciate it.
Dana McJunkin-Smith: That was a blast.
Levi Belnap: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Supervised Learning. Until next time, keep learning.
This episode of Supervised Learning is for our Merlyn teachers out there. Whether you are getting a Merlyn unit for the first time, or you've had one and need some support and community, this episode has you covered. Learn tips, secrets, and stories for integrating Merlyn into the classroom.