Monday, February 25, 2013

Gamestar Mechanic

I just don't like the exhibits at a conference.  I used to really like them a lot -- see the latest and greatest, get free stuff, and buy new books or whatnot.  Over the years, I've come to realize that I don't have any buying power or I don't have any buying capital or that I'd rather spend my free time between sessions sipping coffee or hanging out with friends.  I've also realized that wandering up and down the aisles can be scary.  Don't look too long at any one booth or you'll be sucked in for a two hour demo.  

No, sir.  When I went to the eTech conference earlier this month I avoided the exhibit hall like the plague and did a good job of it till I started texting a colleague who was subbing for my middle school class.  "Anything I can find for you while I'm here?"  "I would love a math app for Algebra 2."  Ugh!  I had to delve into the exhibit hall after all.  I literally walked the entire hall and came up empty for her (though Twitter came through for me, and someone suggested something profitable -- can't remember what).  However, I struck pay dirt for myself.

If you've been hanging around this blog for long, you know that I push technology for creation's sake, not consumption.  If a student is going to play a game, there has to be critical thinking involved, but I would much rather use our resources to write, draw, blog, create stories, something where we can end with a product the student made.  

When I saw Gamestar Mechanic's booth, I did something extremely out of character for myself.  I walked right up to the rep and started asking questions.  "Sell me!"  I could tell from their display that it was what I've been looking for, and so far I'm not disappointed.

My 6th and 7th graders are playing the game now, and they love it.  The game sinks you into a story about an up and coming game developer who is learning the trade.  Gamers take on the role of Addison (boy or girl) and learn the aspects of a good game board, eventually learning how to edit, then build their own games.  As the sessions go on, they can share their games with peers and can even be used to reinforce other disciplines.  (An example is given of a game board that represents the water cycle.) 

Regardless of their gaming background, all students were engaged and into it.  At times the volume got a loud, but I tried to ignore it, especially when I realized a lot of it was collaboration. Kids were getting up and showing other kids tips and tricks and asking advice.  I'm told that there are allusions to other, more famous games, in the opening rounds. (I wouldn't know.  I recently realized that I can't pass the first round of Mario Bros on my Wii.)  

Gamestar Mechanic is purely drag and drop and is geared toward 4th through 9th graders.  While they do have hopes of publishing a code-writing version in the future, for now they recommend programs to help students learn to code once they have reached the end of Gamestar Mechanic.  My school is currently using the free version.  There is an option to upgrade, but I'm not sure what that gets you.  (I do know that the upgrade costs $2 per student, and they have an account for life.) 

Let me warn you.  It's addicting.  As soon as I publish this post, I'm going back to try to finalize my first game board.  Maybe I'll see you there sometime.  My username is cncdky. 

I sure am glad I wandered into the exhibit hall...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Apps, Sites, and Software Guidebook

I'm compiling a list of tech tools that our teachers can use in their classrooms.  It's a big task of sorting through my memory of things I've done and the numerous articles I've put on hold to read later.  Feel free to see the tools I have so far and (please) make suggestions for other tools I could add to the lists.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How I Learn Best

On a whim, I gave my middle school students this survey about how they learn best.  While I'm sure this wasn't exactly scientific, the results were a bit eye-opening.

Top results:

  • Games: 58% of students put it in the top 1 or 2 answers.
  • Doing: 29%
  • Experiments: 24%
  • Watching: 24%
Lowest results:
  • Reading online: 0% of students put it in the top 1 or 2 answers.
  • Reading a book: 5%
  • Lecture: 5%
  • Practice: 10%
Which of these learning activities best fits how you teach in your class? How will these results affect how you'll teach next week?

Feel free to copy the link and give the survey to your class.  


I was away at a conference for two days, so I needed something the kids could do in the presence of a sub. Researching for Kindergarten, I found a site that I thought my middle schoolers could replicate.  I wrote up crystal clear instructions. The project was just hard enough they would need to struggle a bit, but  not so much they would lose sleep.

Or so I thought...

  • On Monday I got an email from a student begging to have a new partner.  
  • Somehow, students missed that they needed two words per letter.
  • They didn't realize that it had to be posted online, not on a PowerPoint or Keynote.
  • I saw kids taking pictures off of Google Images, which not only was against the instructions but also violate the creative commons talks we've recently had.
  • Throughout the week, I had a few more instances of partners not working well together.
  • I gave the kids three due date extensions to give them time to finish without penalty.

What went wrong? I have to be honest and admit that I wrote up a bigger project than I thought it was.  Sometimes you just don't know till you see it in real life.  My frustration is that numerous students did not read the directions closely enough.  I've watched this group of kids push through smaller obstacles than this, but there seemed to be no motivation from the students to learn something new. I kept hearing things like...
  • Wait! It can't be on PowerPoint?
  • I put the Keynote in your Dropbox.
  • We need two words per letter?
  • Oh, I couldn't figure out how to put the pictures on the document, so I didn't.
  • What kind of grade will this be? 
  • What's the point of this assignment? It doesn't have anything to do with what we're doing in class.
I was hoping to have nine really good web sites for you to look at.  I was excited!  Now, I have fodder for the "How Could It Have Been Better?" File.  

In the meantime, what do you think of my revised version

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

eTech: The Cloud #oetc13

Unless the unforeseeable happens, my school will be going Google starting next school year.  This meant that I attended a couple sessions about using the Cloud in general and Google apps specifically.  Here are a few takeaways.
  • Microsoft Mesh once was and is no longer. Alvin Trusty, leader of one of my sessions, claimed to have loved Mesh once.  The problem is that Microsoft closed the Mesh doors last week. The obvious conclusion to this is that anything you have saved in the Cloud ought to be backed up somewhere.  It may be the latest rage today and discontinued tomorrow.  (That kinda reminds me of Flash Forward, that really cool TV series my wife and I loved till it died during its first season.)  
  • Wikipedia is the world's largest collaborative cloud site with 18 million contributors. 
  • Wikis are great reporting tools for school.  I've done a number of wikis over the years, and they are great for collaboration and paperless projects.  What I didn't know is that wikis can be saved to your school server, so as to not be reliant upon the Internet. 
  • Protopage is another cloud-based site.
  • Code Academy is an online tool to help you learn code...something I'm very interested in doing. I'll be returning to this site soon. 
  • OurMedia is a podcast creation and storage site which may also come in handy in the future. The home page also gives links to Creative Commons sites, which I'm realizing more and more are important to be using rather than Google Images.
  • Flickr allows up to 300 mb of photo uploads each month for free. 

Here are some Google Apps thoughts.
  • Google Voice gives you a free online phone number. I've had a Google Voice number for years but have done nothing with it.  It was originally suggested to me as a way to give a valid phone number without giving out your real phone number. 
  • Google has a power search academy to help you learn how to use their flagship product most effectively. 
  • Google Music allows you to store and play up to 20,000 mp3 files.  That's a lot of music.  For free.
  • If you ever want to get your stuff back (see Microsoft Mesh above) Google has a method for data liberation, which means they are committed to my content staying my content. 
You can find a lot more interesting information at Alvin Trusty's session notes page

I also attended a session with Eric Courts about security and safety using Gmail. In order to be a Google Apps user, you must have a Gmail account.  that makes sense, but it also means that you'll be assigning email addresses to your students. In high school and even middle school, this isn't a huge concern, but should elementary students have an email address? I've known for a while that email can be turned off for younger kids, but I didn't know how.

I like sitting in on an Eric Courts session because he shows you how it's done.  Many session speakers are like the car salesman who will take the thing for a spin with you and show you what it can do.  That's nice, but Eric is the mechanic who throws open the hood and shows you how to do it. He took us into the inner workings of settings to show us all sorts of goodies.

Students can be put in groups and given many rights and privileges with those groups. (Helpful hint: Put the graduation year in the student's email address. It helps with organization later.) Want to block an entire grade from using email completely? No problem.  Want them to have the ability to only email teachers? We can do that. Want to give them only freedom to email within the school system? Yup.  What about the student newspaper group? Can they have access to email out to touch base with people outside the school system?  Of course.  There are a number of other things you can do, and it would be helpful to read through his notes linked above.

As a parent of a preschooler who may one day be at a Google school... I'm glad to know that these restrictions are possible and easy.  

Before signing off, can you do me two favors related to the Cloud?

Friday, February 15, 2013

eTech: Collaboration #oetc13

I'm much more extroverted online than I am in real person, as I hinted in my digital footprint post.  I found that one of the best aspects of being at a conference is being involved in Twitter during the conference.  I used the hashtag #oetc13 and tried to use the unconference hashtag #oetcx once or twice (but realized I spelled it wrong).  I'm still trying to get a grasp on what an unconference is, but that's a different thought for another time.

This was beneficial to me for a few reasons.

  1. It gave me a whole new group of people to follow.  If I liked what you said, I clicked the FOLLOW button.  That way I can keep track of your thoughts, ideas, and lessons in the future.
  2. Multitasking is not necessarily efficient, but helpful.  While I was sitting in a session and tweeting about it, I was reading other people's thoughts.  It was as if I was sitting in two or three rooms at once.  In fact, here is a whole list of things I picked up on from other people
  3. It made those boring and useless sessions less of a waste of time. When I felt that I wasn't learning anything in a session, I could tune out the speaker and pay attention to Twitter.
  4. I could ask a question and get an answer from someone who was in a session about that.  I was able to get answers about Minecraft in schools and math apps for high school this way. 
These connections took me further than the people at the conference.  I am now connected with the teachers from the real classroom session through Twitter, and sharing ideas through blogs.  I also blew off one session (I was super late due to slow breakfast service) because I got an email from a Kindergarten teacher who is helping me forge my way through the primary classes. I read her email on the escalator and knew that the ideas she just fed me would help me succeed as a Kindergarten teacher and I needed to work on that idea.

What I'm driving at is this.  Teachers can become better by expanding their network. We no longer have to resort to reading a text book to get great ideas.  They are all around us.  By joining in the Twitter and blog conversation, I have more access to information, support, and encouragement than ever before.  

So, the next time you go to a conference, join in the conversation on Twitter and see how much more you can learn!

eTech: Twitter #oetc13

This is an unedited list of things I learned from other people via Twitter.

Stuff I picked up through twitter  Spelling and grammar check.  Virtual Math Manipulatives Publish and animate your story. easy dictionary for ESL  

App Smackdown:

Don't let the pigeon 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

eTech: Digital Footprint #oetc13

I am a social media junkie. There. I said it. I feel better already.  My digital footprint is significant, though not overpowering.  I am on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.  I maintain a professional blog on Blogger and a personal blog on WordPress. I am the Facebook administrator for my school's page. While I was teaching in the regular classroom last semester, I got my math classes writing on KidBlog and would like to get my current computer classes doing the same.

And then, I went to the digital footprint session run by the Digital Innocence Recovery Group. I've always thought I was careful about my digital footprint, but I learned quite a bit about being smarter online.

Like it or not, as professionals, we are held to a higher standard than other members of our friends list may be. Our students are their parents' most precious possessions, and we need to project a high degree of professionalism.

  • If you don't like your job, you should probably find another one.  At the very least, you shouldn't complain about it on Facebook.
  • If you don't like the kids you work with, you really should find another job.  However, you would be silly to complain about it on Facebook.
  • Be careful of the pictures you post of yourself online.  In fact, be careful of the pictures you allow to be taken of yourself if you think they may go online.  We were shown two examples of teachers who were fired over pictures they posted of themselves.  One was of teacher on her second job -- first mate on a boat -- wearing a bikini.  The other teacher was holding two beers while on vacation in Europe.  
  • When in doubt, don't do it. 
  • At first, I thought these were no-brainers, but it dawned on me that I'm somewhat guilty here. I am an upper elementary teacher at heart -- 18 1/2 years in 4th-6th grade (the bulk of it in 6th).  I also volunteered with a middle school youth group for 6 years. I am all about the tweens. Kindergarten is the biggest struggle of my new role of computer teacher. As a joke, I've posted about Kindergarten on Facebook.  Nothing nasty.  Nothing degrading.  Anyone who knows me personally knows that I'm not a K guy. But... If a parent of one of those precious children read my comment, it could be taken the wrong way.
In Ohio, potential employers can ask for your Facebook account information.  One bad photo (doing something stupid, not looking ugly) can keep you from getting that job or that promotion or that college scholarship. 

We live in a dual reality world. The real world is one in which I can use all five of my senses.  The digital world is primarily visual and auditory.  Both are really happening, and both are important.  However, there is a level of anonymity when we're online.  

Let me give you an example from the conference.  During a session, I wandered into a room that was packed.  I looked across the way and saw a chair... next to one of my favorite presenters. I played it cool as I sat next to him and just did my thing. Set up the iPad, started taking notes, no big deal.  At one point, we had to turn and talk about our passions outside of education.  Mine is easy -- adoption. As it turns out, this guy (we'll call him Mark) is thinking about adoption and had a ton of questions for me. Time was up, and we never got to his passion.  The session ended with us sharing little more than a grunt.  Not long after that session was over, I tweeted him that I'd love to keep talking adoption if he was interested.  Strangely enough, he never responded. Why didn't I talk to him directly while he was right next to me? Less risk while on Twitter. 

This anonymity helps us feel freedom to do things like bullying, complain about our jobs, post pictures of ourselves that should make us blush, or rant about politics every four years.  While each of these are a problem, it also opens a door to some scary people wandering into our lives.

  • They showed us how easy it is (there's an app for that) to take a photo of a person and have it search social media to get all sorts of information about you and your family. 
  • In fact there is an app to show you information on all the girls around you and their information.
  • They showed us about metadata, which is information attached to your digital photos.  Apparently the photo itself is only a small portion of the file that is saved.  Metadata includes the date, location, and device the photo came from. They showed us how easy it is take a regular photo of something in your house and within minutes find your home's location.  Gulp!
How can we protect ourselves, our families, and our students?
  • The number one easiest answer is to get offline. Now. (I'm not going to do that, but it's an option.)
  • Be smart about what you post. If you don't want your grandmother to see it, don't post it. 
  • While it's possible to undo your negative footprint, it's more important to overwhelm the negative with a positive footprint from here on out.  Think twice about your comments, pictures, and videos.
  • Strip your pictures of metadata before you post them online or email them out. (That includes selling something on eBay or Craig's List.)
  • Check settings on your social media frequently and shut down who can see things. 
  • Trim down your friends list. (How did I get 863 Facebook friends?!?!)
  • Read the book Digital Danger by Dan Stanko and Tim Conrad, which is no published. 
  • Educate your students about this.  If you live in Ohio, these guys will come to your school and talk with the kids. There is a lot of weight behind a grown man saying, "Hi, I'm Tracy. I'm 14." You come to realize that there is a lot about the digital world we just don't know.  

I hope this helps you, your family, and your students.  Stay safe out there. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

eTech -- Real Classrooms #oetc13

Perhaps the most useful session I participated in was called "The Real Classrooms of Technology," in which we videoconferenced with three teachers and their students to see how technology is being used in actual classrooms. 

I don't mind talking educational theory with people.  That's an important step in innovation.  I don't mind the occasional "preach to the choir" moments when we all nod our heads and agree with what the speaker or tweeter just said.  However, I want -- nay, I thrive on -- is to see what's really happening and working in the real world. That's what this session was all about.

The three teachers we visited we of different grade levels and curricular disciplines, and we covered a lot of ground in those classrooms.  Here are some takeaways.
  • I'm a project-based kind of teacher, so it was great to see Leah LaCrosse (@llacrosse) using her iPads for PBL. When she first got the iPads, she asked, "What apps do the same thing I've always done?" That's a great place to start. 
  • A good app will have multiple ways to share work.
  • Write grants.  Mrs. LaCrosse and I have started tweeting (I think I sent her my first tweet while she was sharing with us in Columbus) and she told me she writes 5-7 grants a year and wins 1-3.  However, with all that work, she has gotten her hands on a class set of iPads and Lego Mindstorm software, among other things. 
  • Students love using Minecraft to learn. Mike Pennington (@professormike1) is using Minecraft as a way for students to build a Medieval world -- learning about the Middle Ages.  Get this... Minecraft is blocked at their school.  Students are voluntarily doing this at home.  That's awesome!
  • Mr. Pennington works closely with two other teachers (one across the hall, the other in another district).  They Skype just about every evening, create flipped classrooms together, and even have their students collaborate together.  It's common for kids to communicate with students in the other school just like they are collaborating with a group member sitting next to them.
  • Students use Weebly to create their own sites and keep information there.
  • "I can't possibly be an expert on it all." More and more, I see that the teacher can't pretend to be the source of knowledge.  We have to point students to other sources when we don't know it. 
  • Jim Harmon (@jimharmon) simulates Twitter so students can tweet Shakespeare. This puts students in the character and causes them to digest what the characters are thinking and feeling. 
  • "Subtext is an eReader on steroids." Mr. Harmon uses Subtext with students in small, flexible groups as they read. 
  • All three classes were highly collaborative.  Cooperative learning was a major theme in the session.  Teachers may have used some direct instruction, but there was a lot of student interaction.

Here are other apps/software referenced during the session that I may not have mentioned above:
Thanks to each of these teachers for sharing their work with us and contributing to helping us be excellent.

eTech 13 - Overview #oetc13

I had the privilege of spending two days this week attending the Ohio Educational Technology Conference in Columbus, OH. For two days, I was totally immersed in educational nerdom, both live and on Twitter, and loved it!  Over the course of the next few days, I'll debrief myself via Blogger and hopefully share some great insights with you as well.  For now, I have some quick hits before I go prep myself for classes today.

  • Innovate or become an afterthought. Like it or not, technology is changing the way education is being done. Schools, administrators, and teachers need to learn how to innovate with the times to stay on top of the technology.  The way we did school is obsolete.  How can use technology to be relevant?
  • You have to meet students where they are to reach them. I'm slowly starting to see that I can reach students better through gaming than I can through text. I'll get into this more later, but teachers have students building Mine Craft games, I am piloting a word game to teach Tier 2 Vocabulary, and I'm going to look into a game building software for my middle schoolers. No longer can I expect them to meet me in my world and my vocabulary; I at least need to appear to meet them half way.
  • Sometimes the best way to learn is to connect to others. I'm happy to say that I walked away from this conference having started conversations with other educators, and I hope that this networking will lead to learning on both sides of the email or tweets.  I even got a bit geeked out when I got to sit next to one of my favorite presenters and tweeters.  It's about connecting with each other and sharing what works and doesn't work.
  • Be very very careful what you post online. I'll get more into this later, but I saw first hand how dangerous it is to be online. In this age when nothing is private, we have to be careful to protect our privacy... and to teach our students to do the same.
  • I really like sushi.  I've never had sushi before, but one of our school's vendors sprung for a huge sushi dinner for a few of his clients.  I. could. not. stop. eating. sushi.  Wow! 

That's it for now.  I have to prep for my classes.  Maybe I'll write more later today.  

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Have you tried Subtext yet?  I got an email from a colleague on Sunday about it, which was the first time I've heard of this eReader app.  I'm already in love.

Subtext is an eReader made for the classroom.  Books are purchased (or received free, if public domain) through Google Books and distributed to the class via iPad.  Through the app, teachers have the opportunity not just to track student progress, but to embed discussion questions, quizzes, and even pictures and videos related to the text.  As students read, they can also highlight sections and add their notes.

While teachers are able to view other teachers' notes, all student activity is restricted within the class set up on Subtext.

Are there downsides?  Of course.  No app is perfect.  Personally, all my books are in my Kindle app.  To the best of my knowledge, they would have to be repurchased to use in Subtext.  Likewise, using Subtext on a regular basis would involve purchasing digital versions, which may be a hindrance if you have a beautiful stack of physical books on your shelf.  The good news is that they do offer volume purchasing through Google Books.  Another downside in our elementary school is that iPads cannot go home, so all reading and discussing would have to happen at school.  However, I think the interactivity of the app and the ability to track student understanding makes this a great tool

The most obvious use of this app is in the Language Arts class. Since I'm now teaching technology courses, I sat in on the demo yesterday with an eye for how this can work for our Language Arts Department.  I left with two ideas.

Documents and web sites can be added to your class shelf as well.  That means that if I find a good article relating to what we're learning about in my middle school technology course, I can use Subtext to distribute that and discuss it.  

One of my jobs as Tech Lead is to find a storehouse for great articles and blog posts that can help us mentor our peers.  I've started meeting with a small group of teachers, and I would love for us all to contribute to and read from this storehouse.  Subtext is the perfect place to do this!  

So, I suggest you download Subtext today, explore the website and app to figure some things out, watch Natalie's recorded webinar, and ask her for a live demo if possible.  I think it will help revolutionize the way you teach reading regardless of genre.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Projects Begin

Today was the first day my middle school students began their 20 Percent Time projects. I was excited to see them settle into work researching, creating, building, and learning.  Some things they got done today.

  • Downloading GarageBand to start building his own soundboard web site.
  • Listening to tutorials about programming a robot.
  • Drawing pictures to post on a web site about art.
  • Researching how to create an app.
  • Writing a book on an iPad, hoping to learn an inexpensive way to publish it online.
  • Writing the lyrics to a song.
  • Writing a blog.
It was a wonderful thing to see them into their school work, and I am looking forward to the final products!