Sunday, December 6, 2015

Three Tech Things You Need to Try Right Now

Incorporating technology into a classroom is an involved process if done well. Simply seeing a sweet app or site is not enough to create an upheaval of curriculum to place said tech in the limelight of learning.  It's always, always, always about the learning.  What standard am I teaching? Is this the BEST way to teach this?  Those are a few of the key questions that must be uttered and effectively answered before ever putting plans to paper.  That being said, there are three tech-infused ideas that have generated excitement, learning, and mastery of standards that you really must today.
Students work to deduce the location of their Mystery Skype pals.
The first is Mystery Skype. It's like a magical game, using nothing more than yes/no questions, that tests geographical knowledge, mapping skills, directions, and good old fashioned deduction.  There is a spark in the air when kids are conversing with others and can see them, all the while trying to strategically guess the class's whereabouts.  All you need is a computer with a webcam and some sort of projection system so you don't end up with 25 kids huddled around a tiny computer screen. I've run Mystery Skypes that last anywhere from 30-60 minutes.  That's the beauty--the choice is yours (with the cooperation of the teacher with whom you are Skyping).  There are many ways to join this guild of awesomeness.  Formally, you can visit the Microsoft Skype site here.  Informally, Google it. Seriously. You'll get more tips, tricks, and contacts than you ever thought possible. I also recommend using Twitter as a shout out for participants.  Use the hashtag #MysterySkype to hone in further. I'd also love to assist you in matching up with classes.  As a K-12 tech integrationist, I have access to any grade level, and we are willing! (Twitter: @rlangenhorst)

Your second technological ultimatum is the use of QR codes.  While they look like mindless squares of the tv-after-midnight of yesteryears, they are brilliant ways to engage students.  Kids love the empowerment that comes with scanning a code and watching the beauty unfold.  Even if that beauty is a math problem that could have been delivered via worksheet, it now becomes exciting, enticing and something that drives students toward achievement.  There are many QR creation sites out there, but I find myself gravitating consistently to two heavy-hitters. The first, qrstuff, is a great place for making QRs that link to YouTube, websites, Instagram, Dropbox and so much more. We frequently use these in Rock Valley for linking to YouTube readings of stories for independent reading or Listen-to-Reading times as a part of our Daily 5. In the middle and high schools, QRs have become a valuable way to differentiate for our students who require tests be read aloud to them. By creating an oral version of the test via GarageBand or other audio recording method and uploading to Google Drive or Dropbox, one can link that file to a QR.  Voila...adapted tests without students having to leave the room! One of my favorite QR activities involves the second go-to site, this one from Classtools. This QR Treasure Hunt Generator allows users to very efficiently type in questions and answers to form a list of generated (and numbered) QR codes ready to use around your classroom or school. All you need is a few devices with free QR readers on them. At Rock Valley, we have found this to be a terrific way to build review lessons or just create school-wide fun! The site explains each step in layman's terms, and it does all of the hard work for you.  No excuses. Try it.

Students in 4th grade complete a QR code math review game with excitement.

The third thing you absolutely must try is Minecraft as an educational tool.  While a somewhat spendy app in terms of cost, simply putting the app on a handful of devices or allowing
Student devices were brought in to make it cost-effective
students to bring in their own devices or work on the project from home can still make this a very real possibility. One you need to jump on. Minecraft contains a plethora of built-in science, math, and architectural curricular possibilities for starters.  Couple that with some imagination, and you pretty much can tap into any subject area.  For example, our Talented and Gifted program used Minecraft to create historically accurate Jamestown colonies.  Our middle schoolers used Minecraft to create a Cell City, which had students creating various town buildings to represent structures of the cell. With nothing more than a rubric and content knowledge learned in class, students had the opportunity to take this activity anywhere they wanted. Students AirPlayed their work and took fellow students on a virtual tour of their city. Let me tell you, the results were truly outstanding and proved so much more mastery of standards than any test ever could.
Derek takes fellow classmates on a virtual tour of his Cell City.

As we near winter break, I encourage each and every one of you to take some of that time to dream up something new. Try one (or ALL) of these suggestions. You won't be disappointed. I'm always here to help.

Be better today than yesterday.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Back in the Saddle... How to Make this Rodeo the Best One Yet

It happens every year.  Summer winds down, and I find myself desperately longing for routine, adult conversation, and the ability to grab a meal that someone else cooks. A new school year comes with so much promise. Teachers busily prepare their rooms with all the skill of Pinterest royalty.  Fresh, clean floors.  Lockers devoid of the abomination of snow boot funk and gum residue. (Thanks to janitorial staff that deserves sainthood.) And what's more? We get this treat each and every August.  So why do we keep falling back into those same-old ruts like the thread-bare college t-shirt we swore we would throw out but never did?  Why?  Because it's comfortable.  But, I've got a lil news for ya....

Comfort isn't going to take us places, people.  It's time to dress up for the party and show up.  Really show up.

Do you find yourself hauling out the same lesson plans that you've taught for the last 5+ years? Have you set your cruise control down the "easy" road instead of designing a lesson that's truly effective? If so, stop!  Stop right there.  Put down the tattered planner and walk away.  It's time to really dig deep. 

Now before you tar and feather me like some sort of feudal colonist, we have to understand each other.  Just like any quest to get fit or learn a new skill, we have to ACT in order to change.  You see, no amount of dreaming is going to make me lose 10 pounds.  No amount of imagining is going to prepare me to run a marathon.  It seems so obvious, and yet I meet teachers from all over the country every year who really want to improve their students' learning but are unsure of how to get there. Answer step at a time. Like my ongoing New Year's resolution: Every day, a little better than yesterday.

So now what? Start with tomorrow's lesson. Pick just one. Find the flaws. Can you say, without doubt, that it's the BEST it can be?  Are you doing all you can from bell-to-bell to make sure your kids are learning?  Start there. Is there a technology site or app that could enhance this learning or help students share their learning with others? (If you are unfamiliar with the SAMR model, get familiar here).
credit: Kathy Schrock

Do you waste time getting down to business due to a lack of routine or bell-ringer activity that engages kids' minds?  Find some wondrous pearls inspired by master of classroom management, Harry Wong, here.  This particular Pinterest board (If you're too "manly" for Pinterest, get over it!) contains real examples of strategies being used in rooms everywhere. It's gold!  Is there an activity that would get your kids engaged en pointe like a skilled ballerina?  Try C-Span's list for the HS History/Government classroom or these stellar cross-curricular ideas from Todd Finley that work for any grade level.

Again, find what's broken about your lesson. You already know what works. It's time to fix what doesn't. If you are struggling to locate exactly what you could focus on, talk to an instructional coach, principal, or other trusted colleague. Now, sprinkle those new plans with an extra dose of positive thinking and a changed attitude.  One of my favorite sayings is posted in our Instructional Coach office:

It's really true.  If you have never read Mindset or The Energy Bus, I highly recommend them.  The thoughts and the energy you exude can make or break not only you, but your students.  We all slip up now and then. We all have days we'd rather forget. But tomorrow we try again and try harder. We owe it to them to be our very best.  Every. Day.

Starting now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Summer Slide is for Amateurs...Take MackinVIA on Vacation!

It's summer! The time of year when my body has developed an entirely new night-owl sleep cycle that would rival Dracula. The time of year when I have to ask the grocery store clerk what the date is. Summer, in all its grilled, sun-baked glory. And, while I adore this time of year, I don't love what sometimes accompanies it. The dreaded "summer slide". I see it every year. Data shows it, and it takes effort to avoid it.

A few of our DC results
There are so many wickedly sneaky ways to squeeze in learning throughout the summer! I used to be so obvious about it.  "Hey, let's buy this three-inch-thick workbook of [sucky] worksheets so you can practice your skills this summer!" You can see the look on my kids' faces, can't you?! Yeah, me too.  Summer learning doesn't have to be this way, and this is where MackinVIA and a little ingenuity can go a long way!

Heading across South Dakota with a BINGO board!
Our family is calling these three months our National Treasure Summer. We love the two Nicolas Cage movies that slide a decent amount of colonial and pre-colonial history in between slices of total fiction. A concoction of varying family members will be visiting Washington DC, Philadelphia and the Black Hills (aka Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse) in June and July. MackinVIA has added an element of fun and fairly friendly competition to our outings.

Within MackinVIA, you will find search filters that narrow your selections by topic, reading level, and more.  There are so many from which to choose. Don't worry! Your vacations don't need to be so rich in national history to be able to find great pieces of literature about your destination! Quite frankly, we usually don't venture too far from home.  Even in our "staycations", MackinVIA provides a wealth of knowledge about our surrounding area. No matter the location, the digital library has myriad resources, including terrific state books filled with pictures and fascinating details. However, simply lining up a giant list of reading material is, for some, just as bad as the horrifying workbook. This is where a little creativity comes in handy.

For my kids, games are key. Even as the tech integrationist, I take great effort to make sure my kids "unplug" often. There is a host of apps for national parks and destinations, though, and I would suggest tapping into the App Store for your particular device to take advantage of learning opportunities as you see fit. When unplugged, though,  BINGO boards, Jeopardy! boards and TIC-TAC-TOE boards are favorites of mine.  Click on the hyperlinks to find three of my favorite (free) printable boards.

BINGO- Challenge your kids to look through books and create their own modified BINGO board by placing interesting facts about the destination(s) on each space. When you're in the car, plane, train, boat, etc.... it's time to play! Instead of merely marking off a called square, kids can share the interesting fact located in that square before doing so.

Jeopardy!- Kids can look through various books and video clips all found within MackinVIA's digital library before leaving. They can develop questions for each dollar amount using the above-linked template. The harder the question, the more value the question should have. NOTE: I always print two sets for each child, as the second one will serve as their answer key. Mom gets those to store in a folder!  Keep track of running fake dollar totals amongst family members. You could even do a special souvenir prize if you so choose.

TIC-TAC-TOE- For this one, Mom and Dad are in charge of developing questions, but the kids need to know the answers in order to mark their X or O! We use MackinVIA books to make our questions, and we disclose the titles we used in order to make the information search a little more manageable. We often stick to common trivia style questions.

There ya go! Instant, incognito learning. Vacations are memory makers. Might as well make them learning makers, too. I know you won't be sorry.

'Til next time....


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Keeping Things Fresh in the Fourth Quarter

This time of the year is notorious for bad attitudes, slumping grades, and teachers at their wits end.  It takes a conscious and collective effort to work through this semi-sucky time of year.  Part of my job as an Instructional Coach/Tech Integrationist is to help make sure that teachers stay motivated to finish the year strong.  Just as students need encouragement and contagious energy, so do teachers.  I do this through the carefully planned introduction of some new tech tools to keep things hopping. Here are a few of my favorites:

1.  Elements 4D by DAQRI.  This augmented reality app is a gem for science teachers who want to expose their kids to the interactive world of elements and molecules.  There is a little setup required in that there are printable cubes that must be constructed ahead of time to fully utilize the AR portion of the app.  Several sets of these paper blocks were made and the kids were put into groups. This was done, in part, so they could work together to complete the assigned tasks created by the teacher and also to prevent the insanity of creating that many sets of blocks.  To begin, students point their device at the block using the connected camera.  Students can see "inside" the cube to witness what the element looks like in its natural state (ie; carbon looks like a pile of charcoal bits).  The exciting part comes when you introduce a second element.  By putting the blocks together, you will see these two elements join and the material "inside" the cube change to the new molecule (ie; hydrogen and oxygen, both gases on their own, become water).  Our superb chemistry teacher, Mrs. Hurst, used this in class with much success. Teenagers, the eternal skeptics, had to eat some crow as they oohed and aahed their way through the task.

2. ChatterPix by Duck Duck Moose.  Yet another app that not only helps kids learn but makes me shamelessly giggle as I watch the results.  The concept is simple.  You take a photo within the app and mark out the location of the mouth.  Then, you record up to 30 seconds of audio. Like a piece of twisted magic, the "mouth" will open and move to somewhat match the content of the audio recording.  A bit like the website, Blabberize, you can make anything say what you need it to. Now imagine, if you will, a room full of kindergartners practicing their sight word sentences into said app. Pure hysterics!  It served as the perfect medium for oral language practice that kids actually ASKED to do again and again. Too much adorable packed into that room, I tell you. Learning+Fun=Brilliant.

3.  This site claims to be a digital pinboard site, but I've got to tell you, it's so much more. I discovered this gem this week, and will be sharing the heck out of it!  Think of it like a one-stop-shop for classroom interaction.  With the grace and 70's swagger of Donny and Marie, it's a lil bit backchannel and a lil bit resource list.  Imagine having all of the links, videos, and discussion questions for a class all on one page.  I've found tools that do many of these functions independently, but this is the only one I have found worth a hoot that does it all in a neat, free interface that doesn't require an account.  Create lists, upload documents, link sites, connect to social media and watch a Twitter stream live within the Tozzl.  The options are pretty limitless. Simply share the URL and give to your students to join your Tozzl.  If you could see me now, you would see my childlike grin as I dream up all the ways this app could be used throughout our district!

Starting a Tozzl is as simple as filling out this quick form.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

How an Hour of Code Became So Much More

A year ago, I started this little venture into the blogging world.  I have always written.  I am an English teacher by nature.  However, I just didn't see how I would have the time, energy, or resources to be able to blog on a regular basis.  I set myself a New Year's resolution last year to be "a little better every day".  What an adventure this last year has been!  Happy Blogger Anniversary to me (I think I'll buy myself some chocolate for the occasion)  But-that's for another blog post.

December 8-14 marked Computer Science Education Week and once again our students were thrust whole heartedly into the world of the programmer. and others put together incredible resources for those of us guiding both young and "old" into this uncharted territory. After last year, I thought they would be hard pressed to find a way to improve what they made available, but alas, I was wrong.  This year there were more activities, more celebrities boasting of the benefits of learning code, and even encouragement and participation from President Obama himself.  With over 90,500,000 participants, I would gather that there are many more that feel the way I do.

Students in grades K-12 participated in the Hour of Code at Rock Valley Community Schools.  It was an incredible experience.  I was in lower elementary classrooms, middle school rooms, advanced math classes, special education classes, industrial tech classes and more! You know that joy you feel as a teacher when kids "get it"?  That spark of energy and excitement that gets you deep in your craw?  Well, imagine getting to see it with each class that I went in.  Another in a long list of perks of being a K-12 technology integrationist.

A Foster Grandpa (aka my dad)
What brought me more joy than anything was seeing the age gaps disappear.  Everyone was new to this endeavor.  Whether it was one of our Foster Grandparents, a classroom teacher, or a student, we all did code.  In one second grade classroom, I heard a giggle of joy and turned to see that it came from one of our wonderful Foster Grandmas who had just mastered another level of Angry Birds. Awesome.  Just awesome.

The "giggling grandma"
What I found myself teaching surprised me.  It was perseverance.  I think that it's a growing trend.  Things get hard, people quit.  We can't have that.  After a few classrooms, I found myself switching up my modus operandi. Writing code wasn't hard, but it required them to stick with it, even when the answer didn't come the first time.  That was, by far, the most difficult part for them.  We had to think, try, reassess, and try again.  It opened teachers' eyes, and mine, to the fact that these may be skills we have to work on a lot more.  When the going gets tough, try harder.  Learn the value of hard work.  Feel that glow that comes with success after effort.  This week taught us much more than when to capitalize and when to use semicolons in a line of code.
Even teachers learned code!

I have the glorious benefit of being an instructional coach in addition to being the technology integrationist.  I am constantly working with teachers to help them plan and develop lessons that help them reach the goals they have set out for their students and classrooms.  You can bet that the lessons learned through our week of code will make their way into many discussions on how to best prepare our kids for their futures.

Interested in trying code?  Don't want to be outwitted by our Foster Grandparents?  Good luck. Give it a shot.