Monday, June 22, 2015

Storytime with StoryKit

Sometimes the simplest apps can make the most powerful lessons.

A few weeks ago, I was brainstorming a lesson with a 7th grade Life Science teacher at my school. She had a unit on symbiosis coming up and she wanted to assess the students in a new way. We bounced around a lot of ideas: green screens, music videos, cartooning sites but what we landed on was StoryKit. StoryKit is a free app from the folks at the International Children's Digital Library (which is a great resource in itself if you aren't already familiar with it!).

StoryKit lets you create a digital book. For images, you can draw your own, import from the web or use your camera roll. You can simply add text with a text box. You can arrange and format the images and text as you like. A great feature of StoryKit is that you can add audio. Just click and record yourself reading the story out loud. You can even record word by word or sentence by sentence! This was just what we were looking for, a tool that let's the students' creativity shine without too many features or distractions in the creation. And... and.... what if we planned on reading the stories to an 2nd grade class at a nearby elementary school?

My job was to introduce the tool which was easy because StoryKit is so intuitive. I just walked the kids through the features and made a silly story as a sample. Students literally had no technical questions or problems. If there weren't sure how to do something, they quickly figured it out or asked a friend. It was seamless.

Their stories were fantastic. The teacher assigned a symbiotic relationship to each group of students. The task for the group was to write a children's story that told a story about that relationship. She made a model first to show them and reinforced Language Arts skills by using the same story graph that their Language Arts teacher had used with them earlier. Kids came up with adorable ideas and clever plot twists to demonstrate what they knew about symbiosis. And the best stories would go in person to an elementary school to read to a class. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Sloth and Algae Reunite
Lola and Charlie
Sandy and Randy's Adventure: Lost at Sea

I might have loved these stories, but the 2nd graders loved them even more. We had a great morning where the 7th graders first had to explain the four types of symbiotic relationships in 2nd grade terms (smiley faces did the trick) and then read their stories in small groups. The 2nd graders learned so much - they could identify the type of relationship in every story. And the 7th graders learned so much - how to explain what they know in a compelling, interesting and memorable way.

What I learned from this lesson:

  1. The simplest apps are often the best
  2. Having a real audience for school work results in better school work
  3. Asking students to explain what they know in simple terms demonstrates whether they know or understand an idea
  4. 7th graders are their best selves for 2nd graders
  5. Kids learn when we tell and share stories
And guess what app the 2nd graders asked to use next time they could use iPads?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

3D Printing in Social Studies

People who know me know I've been talking about 3D printing for years. I get giddy when I think about how accessible 3D printing has become and that my children are growing up in a world where they can print their own tools, toys and trinkets. Therefore I was over the moon when my director purchased a 3D printer for us to bring into the schools where we work.

I had one teacher who was interested right away. A sixth grade social studies teacher had been going through our technology professional development program, Teacher Leadership Program, and was looking for a project he could dig into. Together we developed an idea to have his students design a coin about one of the first five presidents (a topic directly from our state standards). Each class would vote on the best design and then we would print the best ones.

There was a serious buzz in the room when I brought the 3D printer in. We have a Makerbot Replicator Mini which is compact and light-weight, so I carried it into the room myself. Students were full of comments and questions:
  • "It's smaller than I thought it be."
  • "How much did it cost?"
  • "How long does it take to print?"
  • "I want one!"
First I reviewed some key aspects of the software we were going to use to design the coin. We decided to use 3D Tin by Lagoa. This software allows students to log in with a Google account and since our school has Google accounts, this was perfect. 3D Tin has some great starter tutorials as well so students were encouraged to watch several of these before getting started. Students took to the software well and taught each other many of the less intuitive aspects of the program. 

Designing in 3D is definitely easier for some students than others. Some got frustrated quickly while others drew complicated objects while I was still getting some students logged in. Showing students how to return to a home view or rotate objects were two key techniques.

What I loved about this lesson was that students got more creative due to some of the limits of the program. They drew images using small blocks (like one might in Minecraft). They got more symbolic than they might have been given other projects where they could copy and paste images or long passages of text. I also loved how they inspired each other. One students would figure out how to draw, say, the Washington Monument, and suddenly you'd see others working on a drawing of the Capitol. Our English Language Learners did fabulously with this lesson. Since most of the modeling is visual, they had no problem creating great images for their coins.

I also loved all the natural curiosity the 3D printer brought out. Students started showing up before school and during lunch to watch it print or to ask questions about how it worked. Some students that aren't your typical high achieving or tech-geeky students were the best at finding creative ways to make their 3D model or to help out with the printing process. My heart is always lifted by lessons that draw new students into the learning process.

Monday, March 2, 2015

5 reasons we are playing MinecraftEdu at our school

We are finally doing it! Playing MinecraftEdu in school! Like many things in my life, I can't remember when I first heard about Minecraft. I think I just began absorbing thoughts about it when reading game based learning articles or hearing educational technology gurus giving talks. I know I introduced my kids to it about three years ago when they were 5 and 8 and our home has never been the same. They quickly surpassed my skill with building, exploring and creating. I quickly learned that this was a powerful game that empowered kids and gave them a world to shape unlike any other. (I also quickly learned to set the timer when they were playing so that their little eyes didn't turn into grass blocks). And while I loved watching them play, I wasn't sure how to bring it into the classroom.

Just in case you haven't hear of Minecraft or seen it being played, it is a virtual world where students can use virtual blocks to build stuff. In many ways, it is like playing with building blocks, plastic animals, and dolls in your basement, except because it is digital, you have endless choices of blocks, plastic animals and dolls. And the animals and dolls move. And you can fly. And you can dig underground. And a hundred other things that you can't do in your basement with blocks, animals and dolls. (For a more detailed description, check our "What is Minecraft All About?" by MineMum)

While I was holding back from a school implementation and just watching my kids play, loads of other educators took the plunge. As Minecraft rose in popularity in the lives of my children and their friends, it also was embraced by innovative teachers that came up with brilliant ways to teach content using Minecraft. Therefore, when I signed up for a MOOC this fall on teaching with MinecraftEdu, I realized that there were tons of materials to support me and that teachers far more talented than I had already created wonderful lesson plans that the teachers and students at my school could try. For some great stuff check out: EduCrew YouTube Tutorial Series, Joel Levin's lesson plan on EduCade, and the MinecraftEDU Wiki.

But just because the resources are there and other teachers are doing it, isn't enough of a reason to start. So, why did I decide that our kids should be playing MinecraftEdu in school?

1. It is active. Sometimes when I am visiting classrooms, I realize that students are spending a lot of time listening or passively completing worksheets. When you see students playing Minecraft, they are busy. They are leaning forward, they are intent, they are engaged in the actions they are taking. Using a game like MinecraftEdu in the classroom takes students out of the" sit back and soak it in" mode and into a create, experiment and take risks mode.

2. Kids become the experts. In every classroom, there is a student who is a phenomenal Minecraft player who is not a phenomenal student. When you introduce Minecraft in these classrooms, this student comes alive. They are able to explain how to play to other students, they suggest new lesson plans to the teacher, they take on leadership roles in the classroom. I believe that when students are able to be experts in the classroom, they become better learners. They come into class believing they are valued there and are more open to learning.

3. Tinkering. In Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager's Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, they define tinkering as "a way of controlling the environment and a vehicle for intellectual development" and advocate that "children should engage in tinkering and making because they are powerful ways to learn." This becomes evident when watching students play MinecraftEDU. Instead of finding the only right answer to put in the blank, MinecraftEdu has lots of right answers. In the Genetics lesson I watched, there were hundreds of choices for students, from what color to dye your sheep to what shape your fence was to how you named your sheep and your ranch. When we can tinker, experiment and take risks, we learn by doing.

4. Content connections. I work in a school that has to meet state standards on testing. We can not afford to ignore our required curriculum or assume it will be taught another year, in another course. Minecraft is so open-ended that you can easily teach your content while letting the students play. Teachers and students can and should be able to tell what new content or skills they learned while using Minecraft in schools. The math, science, social students, world language, language arts standards can should be carefully considered and directly relate to the Minecraft activity the students do.

5. Simulated worlds. The lesson I watched gave students a way to apply what they were learning about genetics. They could certainly never actually breed sheep and complete Punnett squares, but in Minecraft, they could simulate this in a class period. Student generated questions arise during simulations that can lead to deeper understanding of the content being taught. For instance, in every class I observed, some student noticed that pink and purple sheep made pinkish-purplish sheep. This lead to a spontaneous lesson on partial dominance, which never came up during the direct instruction part of the lesson.

I would be interested to collect more quantitative data on Minecraft in the classroom and I wouldn't want to see students playing every day or all day, I do believe that Minecraft should be added to the learning toolbox as a innovative, creative way to get students to interact with content in a meaningful way.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

#STUTECH2015 Letting Students Take the Lead

STCLogoOn Saturday, January 31st, I got to watch as two of my students presented at an international, student-led virtual conference about technology in education. The Student Technology Conference 2015 included presentations and participants from around the world. I first learned about the conference from an update via The Learning Revolution and Steve Hargadon and knew that it would be a great opportunity for some of the students I get to work with.

I pitched the idea to a class of seventh-graders back in October. The two seventh-grade girls took me up on it, authored and presented a session called "Is Google Drive For You?" These seventh-grade students gave their presentation in both English and Spanish. Attendees from the Philippines, Ukraine, the Bahamas and many cities in the United States were very impressed with the girls' knowledge about Google Drive. Watch a recording of their presentation to see for yourself!

These sweet girls would meet with me during their lunch. Neither had access to a computer or the Internet outside of school. So, during lunch time, they selected a topic for the conference, wrote a proposal for a session and finally, prepared their presentation. They wanted to present about Google Drive because they feel that this technology has had the biggest impact on their learning in school. I am so lucky that in my school division, all secondary students have access to a school Google Drive account. Jenny and Mikaela created their presentation in Google Drive using the Google Slide feature. This allowed them to revise and edit in real time. It also gave them an example of the usefulness of Google Drive for their presentation!

Not many kids are willing to come to school on a cold, wintry Saturday morning, but these girls were excited to share what they know with the world. Jenny and Mikaela used a product called Blackboard Collaborate to web conference with attendees from around the world. The girls logged in, tested their video feed and microphone, uploaded their slides and began their presentation. It was exciting to watch students and teachers log in from around the world. Jenny and Mikaela were able to explain how Google Drive has impacted them as well as answer questions from participants about how Google Drive works. The session was very well received and and the girls are planning on presenting at the conference again next year!

Participation in this conference was one of the highlights of my year. It was so amazing to watch these girls develop their presentation, work on it diligently, argue over how to say "PowerPoint" in Spanish, and edit and revise their presentation. But the most rewarding part was seeing their response to the enthusiastic attendees of their presentation. Both girls were bursting with pride as they read through the comments in the chat of the presentation and saw that teachers and students around the world learned from them.

If you didn't get a chance to participate in #STUTECH2015, be sure to sign up for The Learning Revolution emails and watch for an opportunity to participate next year. Whether you have students that present or you just join the sessions to learn from the students, you won't regret it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Most powerful PD strategy? Let teachers share

I am so lucky to have a job where I get to shape professional learning experiences for teachers. One of the programs I get to work on is something our school division calls Teacher Leadership Program (TLP). I'll save the full details of TLP in another post but today I want to talk about one thing we do at every meeting that I think has the biggest impact on participants' teaching and learning.

We let teachers share.

It is pretty simple. We set aside 30-40 minutes of our session (whether two hours after-school or an all day workshop) and ask 4-5 teachers if they'd be willing to share something they've tried in their class since last time we've met. Usually one of the facilitators already knows something fabulous that has been going on, but sometimes we ask not knowing exactly what they'll end up sharing. Each of the sharing teachers then sits at one table in our meeting room and the other teachers gather around them. The sharing teacher talks about what they tried, how it went, why they did it, what worked, what didn't and what they'd like to try next. The other teachers get to ask lots of questions. This whole process takes about seven minutes. A timer goes off and the listening teachers rotate to another sharing teacher. The sharing teacher repeats his or her mini-talk to the next group of teachers. Repeat until all teachers have had a chance to meet with all sharing teachers.

This is always the most exciting part of any meeting.

It is unbelievable listening to teachers talk about how they planned a lesson: what they considered when planning (Special Education, English Language Learners, Honors students, time, resources, student interests), how they organized their classroom, what order they chose to do activities in. And then hearing them describe what the kids got out of it: Joey finally spoke up, Jose laughed out loud, Norhan showed leadership, Emily really knows how to add fractions now. And then reflecting on how it went: next time I want to add sound, next week we'll try again with headphones, next lesson I want to preteach the vocabulary. Teachers think about so much all day long and have such great insights about what is happening in their classroom. And it is wonderful hearing how real kids are impacted by the strategies teachers are trying.

Listening to teachers' share their reflections is precious.

I also love hearing the questions the listening teachers ask. Did any kids get lost? How long did it take you to make this? What did your principal say? You can learn a lot from what the teachers are asking as well. It is also great to hear the praise they give each other. This is such a good idea! Do you mind if I try the same thing? Could you share your graphic organizer? I'm so excited to see this lesson!

Giving teachers a chance to show leadership benefits all.

The name of this professional development series is called Teacher Leadership Program so we do try to keep the leadership component in the front of our mind when planning. These sharing sessions are often the first step for teachers to see themselves as leaders. They realize that they have something valuable to share. They experience that sharing with other teachers can be fun and rewarding. They are encouraged to keep trying new things in their classroom. These quick, informal sharing sessions become a stepping stones for sharing at grade level meetings, faculty meetings and the division-wide technology gallery walk we host every spring. Many teachers catch the presentation bug and begin a blog or apply to present at conferences.

And I get new ideas!!

One of my other favorite benefits of these sharing sessions is that I get new ideas about how technology can be used in the classroom. Yesterday, I saw a teacher use Aurasma to have a students' mom remind him to do his homework (Ha! I never would have thought of this). Another teacher used Symbaloo to share Spanish resources for dual-language teachers (Perfect! So useful!). Another teacher had students do a practice run of peer-editing in Google Drive (Brilliant!). These sessions also give me a wealth of ideas to share with other teachers and to try myself.

I never would have heard any of this if I spend the whole session talking.

It is tempting to spend professional development teaching new strategies or showing off new digital tools. There is so much to show! So many important ideas behind good technology integration! But I have learned that setting aside this teacher sharing time develops more in a teacher than listening to me. So I will keep doing this. I will make sure I put my teachers first and let them lead sessions, share what they are trying and encourage them to do so with larger and larger audiences.

I would love more ideas about how to incorporate teacher sharing in professional learning - if you have thoughts, please share!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Reading Along with the Global Read Aloud (Part I)

I was so excited this year when all four 6th grade Language Arts teachers agreed to give the Global Read Aloud a chance! It wasn't a hard sell since One for the Murphy's by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a fantastic text. But I was nervous. I hadn't ever participated in the Global Read Aloud before and now four classroom teachers were depending on me to lead them through this new experience.

Not heard of the Global Read Aloud? It is a great global project where Pernille Ripp (GRA creator) chooses a few books that would appeal to students K-8 (and even older) and teachers agree to read one of the books (or collection of books) over a set period of time. Then, teachers can connect with each other through Skype, Twitter, Edmodo, Padlet, Kidblog, or whatever tool seems best suited for the teacher and the learners. Part of the magic of the project is that teachers can decided how involved to get. They can just read the book or they can host Twitter slow chats while Skyping their Kidblog posts! Ok, that last example might be a little much.

As a newbie to the Global Read Aloud, I wasn't sure what techniques would be the most effective or which technologies would have the biggest impact. Here are a few things we tried and how they went.

Mystery Skype

We launched the Global Read Aloud with Mystery Skype sessions with four different schools (not familiar with Mystery Skype? Read more here: Who Doesn't Love a Mystery?). Students had already done some Mystery Skyping in their social studies class so they were excited to do it again and to meet other students that would be reading the book along with them.


Next we created Edmodo accounts for all of the students to post reflections about the text and to share their thoughts with schools in TX, OK, NC and LA. Edmodo was a struggle for us. Our students had trouble logging on and remembering their login information. And sometimes, they got a little too silly in Edmodo and forgot that it was a space for educational conversation and not just socializing. I think we'll try Edmodo again later in the year with some adjustments for our Special Education students and English Language Learners. I was proud of the students that took it seriously though and like the following activities that we tried:
  • Reading the "blurb" on the back of the book, do you think this book will have internal or external conflicts? Explain your answer.
  • After reading a few chapters, what kinds of conflicts have there been so far in the book, external or internal. Explain your answer.
  • List character traits of a character without saying which character you are describing. (Other students then guessed which character.)
Even though we struggled with the management aspect of Edmodo, I was thrilled that students had a chance to interact with each other, engage in meaningful writing and see the writing of their peers (especially important for our Special Education students and English Language Learners).


I know, PowerPoint? Yes, PowerPoint. The teachers and I made PowerPoints for each chapter that contained key images from the novel. The purpose of these PowerPoints were two-fold. (1) We chose images of vocabulary we weren't sure our students were familiar with. This might have been home-made lasagna, scenes from Wicked, or Elvis impersonators.  (2) By projecting these images during the read aloud, students began to anticipate and predict aspects of the text. Teachers shared that this led to more engaged and meaningful reading. So, yes, PowerPoint. *grin*


One of our highlights was when I tweeted drawings the students had done based on figurative language (by the way, if you are looking for an excellent text full of figurative language, One for the Murphy's is a great find). I would post the student's drawing along with the phrase it was based on and mentioned Lynda Mullaly Hunt. And she replied!!! Right away!!! I took a screenshot of the exchange and shared it with the students the next day. One of the boys' whose picture had gotten a reply could barely contain himself. He stood up, backed away from his chair and said "I need a minute." They were so excited that the ACTUAL AUTHOR had seen their work. This was a huge moment for these sixth graders.

Skype conclusion

The other most memorable moment of the Global Read Aloud for me was when we had concluding Skype calls with our partner classrooms. Students in both classes wrote letters as the main character or wrote epilogues or characters sketches. During the Skype call, students from each class went up to the microphone and camera and shared their work. Seeing our students who struggle to be successful in their own school, in a new-to-them language, proudly reading their writing to students in Texas and hearing compliments from the other class was momentous. I know that those students will remember that moment for a long time.

So, if you haven't joined the Global Read Aloud yet, please consider doing so for next year. It will move you beyond the walls of your classroom and school and give your students a multitude of opportunities to engage in authentic writing. If you aren't sure which technologies suit you, just try a few.

If you are an experienced Global Read Aloud participant, please share your own successes (and challenges). I'd love to learn more as I hope to get more classrooms engaged next year and beyond!