Sunday, December 3, 2017

Google's Technology Curriculum

It's not often that you get a robocall and act immediately on it. A couple of weeks ago, I got a robocall from DonorsChoose.org about a partnership they had with Google. They were trying to entice teachers to try some of the Google Applied Digital Skills curriculum, and if teachers tried it, they would receive a gift code to use on a DonorsChoose.org grant. Well, I took a look at the materials and found that Google has an extensive curriculum that allows kids to learn, through video tutorial and guided practice, many technology skills that they will need later in life. I was sold (as if that was even going to be a question). The next day, we embarked on our journey into Digital Adventure Stories.

The kids wrote adventure stories using Google Slides. They were able to import photos and videos in to enhance their text. They also learned how to link slides so that the reader could choose the pathway of the story. For example, if given two characters to follow, a reader could click on a character's link and just follow that character through the story. Kids learned how to create pathways of slides so that various story lines were possible. It was interesting to watch the kids try to map out the different avenues the stories could take while matching up the link to the appropriate slide. While all of this complex planning and thinking was occurring, the kids still had to create good stories.

On the instruction page of the Google curriculum, it said that this learning should take 2-3 hours. Well, our kids took longer. My kiddos averaged four hours in this activity partly because they were learning some new skills and also because they had to think through all of the possibilities. Some experienced paralysis by analysis.

When kids filled out the accompanying survey, they overwhelmingly said that they liked the unit. They liked using Google Slides and many thought of other uses for the app. Anytime I use technology in class, the kids are overwhelmingly positive about it because they don't get much exposure to technology in school and they value the new skills that they are learning. I constantly stress to them the value of digital literacy. They are learning and I think they are gaining new appreciation for what we are trying to do in class. Not only do they learn to read, write, speak, and think better, but also to do all of those things in a digital environment.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Using Scratch and Google

Once in a while we get a good opportunity to infuse a tech project into our class. We always take that opportunity. When I talk to the kids about it, I tell them that digital literacy is going to be as important to their future as language literacy. Unfortunately, our kiddos get too few opportunities to learn digital literacy, coding, and technology in general. I feel responsible for teaching them as much as I can and giving them opportunities to learn from others as well.

This week, we had an Hour of Code opportunity to use Scratch to design new Google Doodle logos. Kids were given a login to begin the project and they learned how Scratch works. They used the blocks of code to construct components of their logo. I enjoyed watching them struggle a bit with figuring out how it all works and seeing their creativity as they made decisions about how they wanted their logos to look.

Jonas teaching his classmates how to manipulate blocks of code.

So many of our kids want to learn because for them, it's something different and they like technology. We often think of kids as digital natives because their lives revolve around their phones. That is partly true. The kids are comfortable in a digital environment but expecting them to know how something works by looking at it is unfair to the kids. They don't know everything about tech. They are experts at using Snap Chat and posting to Instagram, but I have found that kids are not comfortable using many of the apps and technology that we use in class.

The advantage that kids have over adults is that they are fearless. When I taught computer classes to adults, they were so afraid of pushing buttons because "something might go wrong". Kids will push buttons until something goes right. That is the difference. Kids are comfortable with trial and error. Adults are not. When I put technology in front of kids, I have the fearless early adopters who are very comfortable plucking away and figuring it out themselves. I also have kids who want a step-by-step instruction sheet explaining everything they will do. I try to get them to experiment and discover the technology. When kids are rushing around the room sharing with others something they just learned, I am a happy guy. 

JP showing his classmates how to create a logo on devices.

Why is this type of learning going on in an ELA classroom? It's good for the kids. The more pressing question is why isn't this kind of learning happening in EVERY classroom? Digital literacy is something kids are going to deal with a lot in their future. They have to know how technology works and be able to choose the best tool for each task they will have. We have to prepare kids for their future, not our past. Even my district reading standards are covered in activities like this. Kids have to read carefully and execute the instructions that they read. Designing with code is a great learning experience on so many levels. As a bonus, the kids really like it. We will continue to take these opportunities as the year progresses. If we didn't, I would be doing these kiddos a disservice.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

DonorsChoose.org

A few years ago when I was at Hixson Middle School in Webster Groves, MO (before the move to Florida) my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I discovered donorschoose.org. It was a new entity that paired those who wanted to donate to public education classrooms with those classrooms in need. Individuals and businesses could donate to a specific classroom and support a particular teacher or classroom program. The benefactor could see exactly where their money was going. Businesses also could set up a funding source and give to classrooms that satisfied certain conditions (like STEM projects, art projects, etc.). During my last 3-4 years at Hixson, we wrote grants for a class set of Chromebooks, a dozen Kindles, a 3D printer, 3D doodle pens, and a trip for our entire school of 700 to see "He Named Me Malala". We wrote nine or ten successful grants. It was amazing.

Since moving to Florida and starting at East Naples Middle School, I have not written any grants through donorschoose.org. Our district has its own grant system and so I applied for three different grants through our district grant site. None have been funded. Oh well, there is only so much money to go around. But then a week ago, I received an email from donorschoose.org telling me that the Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation was fully funding grants for athletics programs in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. Those were the three states affected by hurricanes this fall and Dick's wanted to help schools in those states rebuild their athletics programs. Well, I don't have to be told twice to apply for a grant that will be fully funded.

I got in touch with our Phys Ed teachers and our after-school athletics program coordinator and they put together a list of our needs. Since I already had an up-and-running donorschoose.org account, I wrote the grant for our school needs based on their lists. Two days after posting our grant, it was funded. We were all blown away. Amazing! After the grant was funded, I got an email from a staff member at donorschoose.org telling me that if we needed more, I should submit another grant proposal. They also said to share the email so that other schools could benefit. I contacted my colleagues and we put together another grant proposal. It's funny, all of my colleagues were worried about "asking for too much". Teachers are trained to ask for nothing and feel guilty when they ask for anything. It's in our DNA. After overcoming our reservations, we submitted another grant for more equipment, things that we need but were too afraid to ask for in the first grant. I just submitted that grant two days ago and we're waiting to hear if it gets approved. We are crossing our fingers. Update: We got the second grant too!

Donorschoose.org is an amazing organization that gives businesses that want to donate to public education a chance to do so the way they want to. Companies don't have to throw money out there hoping that schools will use it for its intended purposes. They can put criteria on the grant and make sure that it is going exactly where they want it to go. When these funding opportunities come up, donorschoose.org is great about getting the word out. Savvy teachers all over the country know to act as soon as they are notified. Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation put up 1.5 million dollars to help schools recover from hurricanes (in our case, Irma). That money will positively affect the lives of millions and millions of kiddos. Donorschoose.org made it all happen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Experimenting with FlipGrid

Our district is pushing FlipGrid as a tool for kids to use to demonstrate their learning. A few weeks ago, I went to a technology workshop and the app was featured. I saw a lot of potential there. It is something that kids would like, I thought. When I got back to class, I had two of my students, Brandon and CJ, play around with the app and record a "How-To" video showing the other kids how to use the app. It took a couple of days but they became familiar enough with the app that they could make a pretty good video.

On Monday, I introduced the app to the rest of the kiddos. We saw the website, took a look at how it worked, and watched the video that Brandon and CJ made. The kids were hooked. After forming small groups, making sure that each group had a device, I gave the class twenty minutes to play around with the app. I wanted them to make some sort of video even if it was just introducing themselves. For the next twenty minutes, chaos ensued. Kids were experimenting, asking questions, sharing information, discovering tricks and hacks, and having a good time learning. While some kids stuck to the basics, some groups got a little creative. It is that space where kids have some freedom to make learning choices that we often see them shine.


What will we do with FlipGrid? Well, I can see a lot of uses for it in our current classroom configuration. I have also put the word out to the kids that if they see a use for FlipGrid that we can incorporate into our class work, I want to know about it. After all, 24 heads are better than one. The first thing they will do with FlipGrid is create a 60-90 second "How-To" video like the one Brandon and CJ created. The video will be an instructional video demonstrating how to do something at which each student excels. This assignment is a chance for the kids to show some of their expertise and also is a precursor to our Genius Hour program that we will launch in January.

The idea that our class values each child's talent and genius is beginning to sink in for them. They have more choice and voice than they have ever been given before. I know from the past that when kids embrace the idea that they are an active learner, they will initiate learning and problem solving on their own. That is what we want to see. I want kids to find problems to solve and work on the solution. I want kids to make their own reading choices according to what they love. I want kids to see school as a way for their own personal learning goals to be met. After all, what else should our schools be doing if not that?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Instruction Through Digital Innovation

This week I participated in a professional development program called Instruction Through Digital Innovation. It is a technology program recognizing the good work that teachers were doing with technology in the district while helping teachers learn more, network and brainstorm with other like-minded teachers. The day included the presenters showing some benefits of technology in the classroom, the group of teachers identifying how technology could be integrated effectively in classrooms, classroom visits, and lesson development.

I love workshops like this one. I love learning about new tech. Many times I see immediate applications of the tools in my class but I am always surprised by the ideas of others. I don't know how many times a teacher suggested something and I thought to myself, "Why didn't I think of that?" When you get some creative, tech-savvy teachers in a room, they will astound you with what they know. While we received many handouts, it was the suggestions of teachers during conversation times that I noted. Now, I will go back to my classroom and investigate the ideas of these creative teachers and see how they apply to my own situation. Like any good ideas, I'll tweak them to make them work for me, but the ideas are the important currency.


One of the tools that we used was the TIM chart. It helped the teachers in the room come to agreement on where tech integration fell on the spectrum. For the most part, teachers agreed on more effective and less effective uses of technology. In our own lessons, we are trying to seamlessly use technology to further learning, not just substitute one tool for another. The key to technology is that is should do something that other tools cannot do to enhance learning. 

When it came time to create my lesson for reflection, I chose to have kids make "How-to" videos using FlipGrid. FlipGrid is an app that our district is pushing. It is a short video app with which kids can create video responses. It looks really cool and I can find dozens of uses for it in my room. The problem is that I don't know how to use it. I subscribed to the teacher kit, read enough to get me going, and pulled two kids from class, and had them download the app to their phone. They will be responsible for learning how to use it. They will make an introductory "How-to" video about using FlipGrid which I will show my classes. They will then be the experts in the room. To say that they are excited is an understatement. I am happy because I can leverage the interest of these kids in order to get all of the students using FlipGrid. We are a community of teachers and learners. 

I am really looking forward to what comes next during our time in the IDI program. I feel that I have a lot of growing to do this year. Last year, I integrated some tech into my classroom but not nearly as much as years previous. Part of that problem was because I was in a new situation (new state, district, and school) and part of it was getting a handle on what resources our school had. Now that I am one year in, I feel that I can make better decisions and get these kids up to speed in their use of technology. They need to learn and I need to give them the room, time, and resources so that they can learn.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Hurricane Irma

On September 10, Naples, FL took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. During the week prior, we saw the weather models that showed how Irma may skirt up the east coast of Florida and avoid the west coast altogether. Three days before Irma hit, those models shifted. Irma was headed directly toward Naples. Our superintendent wisely cancelled school for the two days before the hurricane made landfall. That gave our students and staff a chance to evacuate to safety if they chose. Many of my kiddos' families evacuated. Since Irma was going to tear up the entire state, many of the kids' families fled to Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Alabama. Our school district used 29 schools as shelters and thousands and thousands of Naples residents used those shelters. It was going to be ugly.

When Irma hit, she hit hard. Irma made landfall in Naples as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 142 miles per hour. The storm lasted for hours with the most intense part of the storm, the eye wall, lasting for 2-3 hours. Since the eye of the storm was passing directly over Naples, many took the opportunity to go outside in the eye of the hurricane. I know I did. How many people can say that they have experienced the eye of a hurricane? Winds and rain pummeled us through the night as Irma made her way up the Florida peninsula.

On the morning of September 11, we woke to see the devastation that Irma left behind. Much of Naples was flooded, streets were impassable, trees and power lines were down, buildings were destroyed, there was no power or cell service and the water system was tainted. People who had prepared to live off the grid for awhile would be fine. Those who did not prepare were in trouble. I learned that the two most important commodities after a hurricane are water and gas. Since no stores or gas stations would open for a few days, the lines for those items, when they became available, were tremendous. Some waited up to seven hours in line for gas.

Now we were ready for recovery. People tried as best they could to check on their loved ones. Orders from the County Sheriff's Department stated that people should not drive the roads until officials could check them out to make sure they were safe. Most people were stranded in their homes with no power or communications. I myself was without power for eleven days. Slowly, over the next couple of weeks, things would get back to normal. School in Collier County was cancelled for the two weeks following Hurricane Irma. There was no way that the schools could open. Most were without power, 29 had been used as shelters, and many of our kids were not even in the state. No, we would have to wait for Naples to recover more before schools could open.

During the two weeks of recovery before schools opened, we all worked on restoring our properties. Residents placed as much debris as possible by the streets so that FEMA trucks could take it away in the next few months. Driving around, there were two sounds that we heard constantly: the hum of generators and the roar of chainsaws. These two things are essential in any disaster. Our power company promised that nearly all power would be restored to residents by September 22, nearly two weeks after the hurricane. On that day, teachers would return to schools. It took a herculean effort to make the schools whole again, but they were.

When we returned, we learned about the massive amount of resources that our school district, in partnership with the business community, had assembled to help the kids and their families. Our school communities are indeed communities. When kids returned to school on Monday, September 25, we were ready. Our counselors gathered information about what kids' families needed and the all-call went out to get those items. All kids would have free breakfast and lunch through the month of October. For some of our kiddos, these are the only meals that they get daily. Kids who needed clothes got clothes. Bags of food went home to families in need. When a community pitches in, there is nothing it can't accomplish.

In class, we debriefed. Kids told their stories about leaving or staying. They talked about the fear of the storm and the difficulty of recovery. Kids who evacuated talked about what they returned to. It will take months for Naples to get back to normal. We see evidence, debris piles, everyday that remind us of Hurricane Irma. These kids are resilient. They returned a bit battered but ready to get back into the routine. The normalcy that school provides is something that they latched onto immediately. There were brighter days ahead.

Irma will be with us all year long. It is a shared experience that will bond many of us. In a few months, we will look back and realize that we got through it together. Irma brought out the best of Naples residents. For a few weeks, people checked in on each other, lent a hand, donated, were kinder, visited, and solidified the community that is Naples. In the couple of weeks that we have been back to school, I see the same thing happening among our kids. They are kinder and a bit more empathetic, maybe because they know that we're all in this together.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Vote With Your Feet Vocabulary

Everyone loves KaHoot! It is an awesome game that helps kids learn and have fun in class. We use KaHoot a lot in class and the kids always want more. The only downside of KaHoot is that kids don't move much during the game. Sometimes, we try to take the principles of KaHoot and use them in a different way so that kids can move around the room more. So this week, we did Vote With Your Feet Vocabulary.


The idea is the same as KaHoot. We review vocabulary (in this case, prefixes) using a question and four answers. Instead of pushing a button to record their answers, the kiddos walked (or ran) to the corner of the room that had the number corresponding to the correct answer. We covered twenty prefixes in about fifteen minutes.

Prep for this activity was easy. I used Google Slides to create a card with a prefix, a couple of sample words, and four answer possibilities. The answer possibilities were numbered 1-4. Before class, I hung numbered signs in each corner and we were ready to go.

As we were playing, I noticed a lot of the kiddos discussing with their neighbors what the prefixes meant. Some kids didn't know the answers so they went back and forth with a friend, trying to figure it out. I like that kind of discourse. I like to see the kids relying on their peers to solve the problem. Most of the kids got most of the answers correct. Sometimes they were confused. That's okay. There is a good chance that they will remember better because they were more involved in solving the problems. That kind of experience sticks.