Saturday, February 21, 2015

Student Engagement 101: Beyond Substitution

Since we've been off for Snowmageddon 2015, we've had a lot of time to talk about things that are important to us.  One of those topics is student engagement.  

While this is a blog about technology in the classroom, our number one passion is student engagement.

Really, student engagement can occur whether you have devices or not.  

It is our responsibility to engage our students in their learning.  Gone are the days when students could thrive in a skill and drill environment.  Gone are the days where students could sit for long periods of time without movement.  

We're not saying we need to be doing cartwheels all day to keep our students entertained, but it is our responsibility to make sure that our instruction is as effective as possible.

We know there is a need for students to practice key skills learned to show mastery.

But let us pose this challenge:  Instead of having students practice key skills by using a worksheet- what if we have our students create to show mastery.

Since our students have been 1:1, they might come home with 2-3 papers at the most.  We have made a shift to student creation to demonstrate mastery, and we think everyone is learning effectively.

In this series of posts, we will highlight some of our favorite student creation apps and how we use them in our classrooms to enhance our curriculum.

 Book Creator
The Best of the Rest!

We are looking forward to highlighting our favorite apps with you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Creativity Isn't Extinct

One of the most common complaints I hear about technology is that it has hampered student creativity to the point where it has almost gone the way of the dinosaur.

Let me offer a few reasons why I think this kind of thinking just needs some tweaking.

1) It's a Different Medium

When I was in elementary school in the late 80s and early 90s (that sounds incredibly old), completing a project meant a serious amount of glue, glitter, and poster board.  I also happen to remember my dad having more than his fair share of involvement in my sister's projects.  (I was far too controlling and perfectionistic even then to let him do my projects.)

Today's kids still love glue and glitter.  Trust classroom floor proves it.  We use it all the time for our craftivities that hang proudly in the hallway.  What has changed most dramatically, is the canvas.  No longer are kids limited to a neat and pristine 30 x 60 sheet of poster board.  Apps/programs like MyCreate, iMovie, Toontastic allow them to make their blank canvas come to life.

For example.  I used to do a great mini-project (as part of a larger PBL umbrella) involving paper plates, brass brads, and markers to show the life cycle of a plant in third grade.  The kids liked them ok, and I basically tolerated them as I have a definitive love/hate relationship with brass brads.  Last year though, we bumped the project using technology.  Using MyCreate, students worked in teams to create the life cycle of a plant using stop motion animation.  Here's the great thing.  Students STILL had to use their hands to build sets and create their play-doh figures for their shoot.  It was a perfect and harmonious blend of technology and old-school.  The BEST part was the take-away.  I had a student who was willing to use his iTunes gift card he got for his birthday to download MyCreate.  He made a lego stop motion movie on his own time at home.  I don't know about you, but that's pretty creative to me. (This project was highlighted in an earlier blog post.)

Technology doesn't always have to replace the old ways, but it can certainly enhance them.

2.) It's All in How You Use It

There are a million and one annotation apps out there, and undoubtedly there is a place in this world for them.  However, if all a student does with their technology in or out of the classroom is annotate worksheets, there for sure isn't much creativity flowing.  After all, I could make cutting and gluing pretty boring, too, if all I had them do was cut out words and put them in ABC order.

Rather, allowing a student to have voice and choice in their project path or learning modality using their iPad or device, can fuel creativity.  I used to do "Choice Boards" for projects, but now I lean more toward the PBL mentality which focuses on student-driven learning.  I may have components of a project where I say what I would like to see, but I try very hard to allow students to express themselves using the method they desire.  Of course, as a first grade teacher I spend a great deal of time at the beginning of the year teaching them different apps/programs so that by the year's end, they have the knowledge and expertise they need to choose their route of learning.

For example, I had one of those "tough kids" last year.  Learning was a struggle for him, and he often found himself in trouble during transitional periods throughout the day.  We had been working on a creative writing piece of some kind and he just wasn't interested.  The creative juices were not only not flowing, but it was like there was a 100 year drought in progress.  I remember holding him back for a few moments when the bell rang for recess to see what I could do to help.  I quickly realized that what I could do to help, was to get out of his way.  After that conversation, he took to his MacBook and created an amazing creative writing piece using a Google presentation format complete with illustrations.  That was a wake up call for me.  Creative writing is only creative if it inspires imagination.

3.) Creativity CAN Be Taught (and Technology is a Beautiful Teacher)

Yes, I wrote that.  Yes, I believe that.  Stop for a moment and think about the most "creative" person you know.  Maybe you thought about yourself.  That's ok!  If you were to make a list of creative-types, I think you would start to see a pattern.  What "creative" people have in common, is the ability to ask the appropriate questions.  Last summer I had the awesome opportunity to hear a keynote from Dave Burgess who introduced me to this idea.  This was probably one of the single most important concepts I learned last year.  Creativity is merely a process of asking the right questions.

When I am evaluating the validity of an app, I don't just look at its face value.  I ask myself a million questions.  What would a student do with this without any guidance?  How could I use this app to teach reading/math/writing?  What other app might pair well with this one?  Then, I test it out.  I have some cute little app testers that happen to live right down the hall.  I will hand them my iPad and say, "Play with this."  I observe.  I ask them questions.  I listen to them...PLAY.  Children don't have to force questions because they happen intuitively.  They just need the opportunity to play.  Some of my greatest ideas for projects have been born through this process.

Lately, my kids' favorite app is ChatterPix Kids.  This is a silly little app that we've highlighted before on this blog (go check it out).  Now teachers across our district are using it in a myriad of amazing ways.  Our music teacher had the students record themselves singing a song for our eLearning "Snow" Day.  My teaching partner across the hall is going to use it in her Black History Month projects.  My class is going to do a series entitled, "If Walls Could Talk."  My son is a second grader, and he recently created a series of puns using this app.  Ex:  He took a photo of our staircase and recorded the words, "Stairing Contest."  I won't even share what he made the toilet say.

So you see, creativity will only go away if we allow it, and technology can be a remarkable medium to fuel a child's imagination and creative juices.  Kids are inherently creative and imaginative creatures.

We just need to get out of their way.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Snow Days are sNOw Problem

When you live in Southern Indiana, you never know what kind of winter you are going to get.  Some years we may scrape by with a few school delays, and then there are years such as last where we get absolutely pummeled with constant snow and ice.  In total, we lost 17 days of instruction through the 2013-2014 winter.  We made up all of these snow days by extending our days by one hour for weeks on end.  

As much fun as THAT was, this year we were very excited with the prospect of Virtual Days when snow came a calling.  Except, well, the snow has decided to snub its nose at us and instead bury our northern neighbors this winter.  We’ve had a whopping ONE snow day, and that was way back in November.  

Quite honestly it’s been a blessing for many reasons. Not only has our instruction been consistent this winter, but we’ve been able to truly prepare for Virtual Days the way we need to.  There were many questions to consider for our school system concerning Virtual Learning Days.  Everything from student connectivity to providing on-call services has been questioned and subsequently answered.  For our 3rd-12th graders, this was to be a bit easier as they take their devices home daily.  The biggest questions remained for our littlest students.  How would they fare taking their devices home? What would their instruction look like?  

When asked to share with our school board an example lesson plan for primary students for Virtual Learning Days, our wheels started spinning.  Since technology is infused into our curriculum daily, it wasn’t hard to think of lessons the kids could complete using their iPads.  We also had to consider the fact that a good portion of our students don’t have internet access at home.  While this doesn’t pose a problem, it does show the importance of making sure kids are CREATING, not just engaged in a program.  (Amen!)

After presenting at the school board meeting, along with some wonderful intermediate grade counterparts, the board approved our Virtual Learning Day trial for February 16.  We are excited that this possibility is now a reality.  We are confident that this option for our wack Southern Indiana weather will help save summer.  

First and foremost, the app that will be the thread that holds these assignments together is the Book Creator app.  Whatever you do, get this app.  It is versatile, engaging, and so incredibly useful.  My students use it daily for our reading response notebooks (formerly done in spiral bound notebooks) and our math journals (formerly a cut-and-paste mess in a composition notebook).  For our VLD, we created a book that is the one-stop-shop for our student assignments.  A fantastic feature of this app is that you can record sound to each page.  The issue of parents not being off work on Monday, with students left to complete assignments at daycare?  No problem!  Just record yourself saying the directions, and students can complete this independently!

To create a book such as this one in Book Creator, simply create slides in Keynote (or PowerPoint, if that's how you roll), and save them as images. Then, I loaded the images into Google Drive, and inserted them into the Book Creator app as a new book. To push the book out to students, I loaded the completed book into eBackpack (Showbie would be a great alternative to this task as well.) and pushed it out to my students. Before leaving school on Friday, students downloaded the books to their devices. They were ready to roll!

Here is a peek into what Brittany's kiddos will be engaged in from home on that day.

Brittany's Lesson Plans

Tiffany's Lesson Plans (original plans)  I need to give credit to my teaching partner, Kala Cudjoe for the Book Creator work.  It was her fantastic idea to put everything into one space.  Since I am out on maternity leave, she really took the lead on creating our Book Creator eLearning Day book! 

Sample Page from our Book Creator eLearning Day book.
Students will add photos to the above mat.

Here are the original plans we created for this day.  They were later modified.

Later we added thumbnail photos of the apps and tweaked a few activities 
to work for our entire first grade team.  

This first grader is learning from the comfort of her own couch! Priceless!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hour of Code Unlocked

I'm sure by now you've heard of coding in the classroom, or maybe even heard of dedicating to an "Hour of Code."  For those of you who haven't, in a nutshell coding is the language that computers and the like speak.

Why is it so important for kids to learn this skill?  For one, in an increasingly digital age it will be important for students to not only understand technology, but control it as well.  Students also gain valuable logic and reasoning skills as they work to overcome obstacles or create tasks for the computer/machine to do.

Deeper than that, providing students with the experience of learning a computer's language will perhaps plant a seed that will someday blossom into a career.  For many students who have deficits in literacy, coding may provide them a level of confidence that they lack in that area of their academic life.

I've shared before that I am the sponsor of my school's tech club for 4th and 5th grade students...Go Tech Ninjas!  I was very excited to bring the world of coding to their fingertips in our most recent meetings.

Here is how we unlocked the world of coding in the classroom.

1. Provide a Purpose

My husband is a tech guru.  He's an Apple certified, degree-holding computer engineer.  He understands things in ways that I simply do not, but I like to think that is vice-versa!  Let's just say we make a great team.  So since he's had plenty of experience in the real-life coding world, I asked him to come and speak with my Ninjas.  Why?  To show them that there is an actual, real-world purpose for what we were about to do.  He shared with them some of the programming that we use in the district to track student information.  I wanted to show kids that this is something that someday, they could make a career of.

2. Give them a Starting Point

Coding can seem daunting at first.  At a glance, at best it looks like a bunch of random letters, numbers, and symbols.  However, once you are able to "crack the code" it's actually fairly simple.  We used Crunczilla's Code Monster to get a taste for coding language. (Link in photo.)

The great thing about this website, is that it's suitable for a wide range of users.  Code Monster is geared toward pre-teens or younger with help.  In our case, it was younger.  In this free program, students are given tasks to complete.  As they are prompted to change various pieces of code, they are able to see an instant visual of what their code is doing.  For example, if they change a certain number, it will increase or decrease the size of a box.  As they work through the tasks, it gets gradually harder.

This was a great way to start because it allowed students to a) see actual coding language and b) see instant visuals of their work.

3. Bump It Up via Gaming

After I felt students had a sense of what coding is and what it is capable of, we moved to another great website, Tynker.  What I love about Tynker, is that it presents the world of coding in gaming format.  This is INSTANT engagement.  While my students enjoyed Code Monster, they LOVED the games they found on Tynker.

Another great thing about this site, is that it provides teachers with a section just for Hour of Code initiatives providing a free place to check it out.  They have varying levels of software for purchase if you so desire to further explore.  The photo below will link you to the Hour of Code section for teachers.

Each game provides the student with a task.  They may have to make a monster go so many steps to eat a jellybean.  The code is provided in the form of "building blocks" that they must string together to make their character move, jump, etc.  As each game progresses, the tasks become more and more difficult.

The gaming is extremely audio-visual with its bright colors and sound effects.  Students are also able to build their own avatars (and you know they love that).  The format Tynker provides gives even the most weary teacher and student the feeling that they CAN do it.

4. Make it Tangible

I come from a land of plenty when it comes to technology.  Our science department is fortunate to have a robotics program.  What's REALLY fortunate for me...I graduated with the teacher of this robotics program, and she was willing to share.  My Tech Ninjas had the incredible opportunity to take what they learned in Hour of Code and translate it into something tangible in their hands.

Follow the photo link to our Tech Ninja Facebook page to watch a video created by one of my students.  He does a great job of explaining! Go ahead and "like" our page while you're there!

So here's the thing.  You don't have to make it all the way to Step 4.  I know how lucky we are to have such resources at our hands.  If you are interested, check into other programs such as Lego Mindstorm. At the very least, take an hour out of your day to inspire your students with the world of code.