Category Archives: Collaborative Tools

Mystery Number Skype Makes Learning Stick

One of the best parts of my day is when I get to see kids apply what they learn to a real problem. It’s even better when I can see the wheels turning in their brains- which is just what happened this afternoon in Ashley Lawrence’s class.

Ashley’s class did a Mystery Number Skype with a class outside of the United States (we can’t say where because they have a geography Skype in the works!) In a Mystery Number Skype each class chooses a number and keeps it secret. Students in each class ask yes/no questions to try to narrow down the choices until they hone in on the correct number.


There’s a lot more to it than just guessing numbers. Students come up with problem solving strategies while forming questions. Because one strategy is to guess which number is in each place, place value is one skill that is strengthened. From here, students need to remember what it means to be odd or even. They show understanding of the concepts of less than and more than. In some cases step counting is a skill that is necessary to solve the puzzle.

This fourth grade class decided to up their game and use their understanding of factoring by asking if the other class’s number was divisible by 5 (it wasn’t)- so they could eliminate both 0 and 5 in the ones place.

Imagine how you could expand this with students who can use multiplication and division skills, decimals, and fractions. The possibilities are endless.

The whole experience, start to finish, was about 15 minutes. Compare this experience with 15 minutes of worksheet practice. Which one do you think sticks better?

To find classes to connect with via Skype, see the Mystery Skype site or join Connected Classrooms Workshop  on Google +.


Phone It In: 5th Grade Blogging

Last month I went fishing for elementary school teachers willing to try blogging in their classrooms. Second year teacher Ryan Burk shut his eyes and grabbed the bait- his class is glad he did!

Blogging is a great way to get kids thinking and writing. There is something about knowing you’ll be published that increases the care students take in writing. They are make a point to know facts,  write in a grammatically correct structure, and to sound as if they know what they are talking about.

We started the blog with a field trip to the Maine State Museum. The goal was to capture moments of interest from the museum tour so students could look back and remember what they saw and learned. We used EasyBlogger Jr, an app that allows students to take videos or photos and easily narrate over top. One tap of a button publishes their post to the classroom blog.

The setup was easy. I had the app on my phone but could just as easily have used an iPad. Ryan identified photographers and videographers ahead of time and we met with the class to go over guidelines:

  • The purpose of this project was to record learning, not to take selfies
  • Students had the choice of what they chose to blog about, but they needed to know facts about the items they showcased. They also needed to speak about them in their own words- no reading off the exhibit placards.
  • Fluency is important- students were encouraged to practice before posting.
  • Real people would be reading and listening to their work.

After a reminder in the museum lobby I gave them the phone and then we let go.

The kids roamed the museum in chaperoned groups. Our bloggers collaborated with their peers to determine what should be covered. They learned about the items they were looking at, took photos and videos, and became roving reporters. They posted their reports on the fly. Once back in the classroom they were eager to review what was published.

Ryan followed up in the classroom with a session on expanding the blog. What else, he asked, should they be reporting? His students chose eight categories that fit their needs with the understanding that these could be increased as needed.


As an aside, we set the blog up a little differently than the app intends. Normally students each have an account identified with their name and photo within the app. For compliance with our digital citizenship curriculum we decided to create “content accounts” based on the categories the students chose. 

Students choose the category that best fits their post and stay within our internet safety rules by remaining anonymous.

The result? Students are excited about writing. They WANT to write and post to the blog. They plan their posts carefully for content and grammatical correctness. They look for feedback in the form of comments and use these comments to improve their work. Most importantly they are viewing content through a newer, worldwide lens. Families can follow the blog and get a birds-eye view of what’s going on in the classroom. Take a look at Mr. Burk’s Classroom Blog and send some feedback their way.

Branding Your Classroom: What’s Your Story?

twtMy colleagues are probably getting a little tired of me touting the power of Twitter as a tool for developing a personal learning network. I won’t be swayed, of course, but I may be shushed just a bit…but only because I’ve come across an even better idea for how to leverage social media in the classroom.

I’m a bit of a podcast freak and I’ve just discovered Talks with Teachers, produced by Brian Sztabnik. Brian publishes regular interviews with some of the most interesting educators in the country. The podcast promotes itself as a resource for K-12 ELA teachers but truthfully it has something to offer everyone.

I chose two podcasts this week. The Power of Branding with Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo told the story of two administrators who used student interest in Twitter to build a visible digital “brand” that gave insight into what their schools were like and what they had to offer from a student perspective. Over time their tweets gave the community a public view of their school from the student stakeholders themselves. My thought was that this could provide great advertisements for schools as we move into situations where we may be vying for pools of students with expanded school choice options.

I followed that podcast with an episode by one of my favorite bloggers and presenters, Vicki “Cool Cat Teacher” Davis. She talked about using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to record those aha moments in the classroom- connections students make- or just documentation of what happens on a regular basis.

She took it a step further and suggested the use of Storify to create a weekly newsletter for parents and community members based on the week’s tweets and social media entries. I tried it- it’s easy! Here’s a sample of a quick one (10 minutes, I promise) based on our Hour of Code in early December:

There are several take-aways here:

  • Using social media in this way gives students an introduction to blogging… and blogging enables students to connect with content on a personal and authentic level.
  • It’s the epitome of student voice.
  • Learning becomes transparent.
  • Allowing students to create the newsletter adds choice to their voice.
  • Your classroom suddenly has a story that’s being actively told.

Like it or not, your classroom is already “branded.” Is it the one you want? If not, how can you change your practice to change the story that can be told?

Edmodo: 12 weeks later

In the infancy of this blog, I wrote a post about Edmodo. I was looking for a platform upon which to build my 7th and 8th grade class sites. The post describes the pros and the cons of using Edmodo and is still a good place to start learning about it.

I didn’t ultimately use Edmodo. I had just discovered GoogleDocs and decided to put my efforts into learning how to use Sites. Not a bad tool…but this year my needs changed and I gave Edmodo a try. The rest of this post is a synopsis of my trimester.

ImageIn a nutshell, Edmodo is a self contained classroom that looks like Facebook. There really is no learning curve for students- they get it right away. It’s easy to introduce and the workflow for students is simple- log in, check the progress pane to see where you are, and get to work.

From a teacher’s viewpoint, the advantages to Edmodo are many:

1. Notifications: Students and parents (yes, there is a parent login) can receive updates from you via text message or email. The text option has proven to be quite popular with both parents and students. I even have my notifications set so I get a text whenever someone posts something. This helps kids stay within the classroom rules that we set about what the Edmodo wall is for.

2. The Library/Backpack/Activity Stream: I often find extra resources that I’d like students to have access to outside of class. The Backpack allows me to share folders in my library that show up in the student’s backpack. The activity stream shows me who is accessing them so I can tell which ones are most readily used.

3. Differentiation Tools: You can easily create small groups within Edmodo. Have kids that need remediation? Create a group, add members, and assign work to just these students. Need more complex assignments for your students who are ahead? The same process works for them as well.

4. Progress Page: Students and parents can easily see progess. The progress page has visuals as well as links to assignments and the status of each. No more wondering if a teacher has graded an assignment and not put it into the grading software. Teachers can grade work as they review it, comment on it, link to resources etc., cutting down on the time it takes for feedback to reach students. Students can also ask questions about the assignments without having to wait to see the teacher or hoping he or she gets an email.

5. Connections to other communities: As teachers living with non-existent budgets, professional development can be hard to come by. Edmodo has subscriptions to communitites to help you bridge the gaps that budgets create. I subscribe to a smartboard group (Teq). By following a community, you get updates on YOUR page without having it show on your students’ pages. Of course, they could follow the community as well if it enhances what you do in your class. Communities and resources are well categorized which is a good thing because there are SO many of them!

6. Badges: Think of badges like virtual stickers. Even 8th graders like to collect them! They can be customized as you wish and assigned for anything- academics, work ethic, or anything else you celebrate in your classroom. Just be prepared to stay on top of it once you start doling them out!

7. Tech support: This probably should be in the number one place. Edmodo’s tech support is unsurpassed. First of all it’s done by live people in real time. I almost always get an answer to my questions within an hour of asking them- and frequently its much quicker.

Bloom’s Mashup

Blooms Taxonomy Tools and TutorialsI’m always interested in how we can promote higher order thinking among teachers. Andrew Churches started us off with his Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy chart which describes what technology activities might be done at each level.  My PLN member Kelly Tenkley has done a great job of illustrating technology tools that can be used with this digital taxonomy chart (she has many- search her site for Bloom’s taxonomy). I’ve added a bit to the mix by combining the two into a tutorial library for use with the different levels of Bloom’s. It wasn’t altogther altruistic- I needed to create a resource for an online class I’m taking and this seemed like something useful beyond the parameters of this semester. It’s a work in progress- share as you see fit.

Blooms Taxonomy Tools and Tutorials

Prezi. Just Plain Good for Content

Prezi samples

The Prezi sample window

I’ve been messing around with Prezi for the better part of a year now, and I like what I see. If you aren’t familiar with Prezi, it’s that very popular presentation software that allows the presenter to easily zoom in, flip things around, and play videos with relative ease.  I like it for a whole host of other reasons.

First and foremost, I’m not a big fan of student created powerpoints. Far too often the bulk of their efforts are put into the animations and transitions with little thought to the way these detract from the content. Students read from slides without having a good grasp of the information they are trying to present, and the audience is numbed into silence when it comes time to ask questions. They are just glad it’s over.

Here are the advantages of Prezi as I see them:

Formatting: Prezi limits “glitz” options significantly. It has about 8 backgrounds to choose from, and each has pre-programmed fonts and colors that can’t be changed. No more getting lost in the color picker or the font window.

Text: It’s easy to put in small amounts of text and more difficult to enlarge the boxes to add “too much” text. This encourages students to use bullets rather than paragraphs.

Images: Images can be added and users can use frames to zoom in to a particular portion of a photo. For example, you can have the program zoom to a portion of the photo- ask prediction questions- then have the program zoom out to show the entire scene. You can also easily focus in on a detail that might be lost when viewed as part of the whole photo.

Video: Embedding video doesn’t get much easier than Prezi, especially if you are taking it from YouTube. Prezi also lets you upload a wide variety of file formats for images and videos, but limits the file size to 50 MB for the free version.

Sharing: This is a new feature in Prezi, and a pretty significant one. You can share presentations with up to 10 viewers and allow them to edit-making collaborative work a breeze. Users can sign up for accounts easily.

Prezis embed easily into most webpages and can be used as standalone teaching aids with some creativity in the design of the presentation. Links to public prezis can be posted or emailed- making student work easy to share with family and the world.

Differentiation: The biggest difference between Prezi and traditional slideshow programs is the layout. Picture a large, flat pallette upon which you lay the different elements of your presentation. They can be in any arrangement you choose, unlike the linear display of a PowerPoint. Creators use a path to connect the elements, and this path allows users to move easily from one element to another and back again. This layout is great for kids who need to brainstorm, move things around, figure out the order, move it again, and have flexibility in their design.

Wheel Reinvention: It just may be that the presentation you are wanting to create for your class already exists, at least in a semi-useable form. Many users post their prezis and allow others to copy them, edit them, and use them for their own purposes. What a great time saver!

Dream Big: Week 3

I just love it when lessons have unintended consequences. Dream Big has moved into its third week, and the kids are polishing their plans and analyzing the skills they need for success. We used the Remember the Name Michael Jordan Remix by Fort Minor as our transition song- the lyrics talk about “10% luck, 20% skill, 15% concentrated power of will” which gives a great lead in to the importance of determination and hard work. They all know Michael Jordan and the story of how he was cut from his high school basketball team. We talk about the choices he had- he could quit, he could blame outside issues, or he could get to work on improving. We had a great discussion about coaches and teachers who “don’t like me” and what the options for the kids are in those situations. I hadn’t planned this part- it just sort of appeared as a teachable moment-so I expanded and suggested that teachers that are “mean” by pushing them to do better probably see a spark of promise in them. This surprised a bunch of the kids- you could see the lights go on.

The other unintended gift of this project has been having the seniors come visit. At first, the seniors were a bit reluctant, thinking they had little to offer. Now, the word appears to have spread. I have kids stopping me in the hall asking if they can talk to my classes. They come and talk about handling setbacks, about making choices to be successful and how they stay on track. It’s great to see them recognize the value of the strength and dedication to their own dreams. One young woman pursuing a career in art said, “When you get up in the morning, you will be with yourself all day. If you can put yourself in a place where you are happy, it will be a good day. Don’t let others define where that will be.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.