Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Our Surprise Thanksgiving Feast

Every year, Melissa and I plan a huge surprise Thanksgiving breakfast buffet for the kids on the day before our break. We enlist the help of the kids' parents with a TOP SECRET e-mail at the beginning of November. Parents sign up for items they'll contribute and some make a commitment to come to school and help set up the event. There is a lot of coordination and planning in the few weeks before our feast but most of it is done through e-mail.

On the morning of our Thanksgiving feast, Melissa comes up with an excuse to be absent for the first couple of hours of classes. We get a substitute in her room while she is down in the library organizing parents, cooking and setting up the buffet. Soon, the smell of bacon wafts through the building. Kids are busily working like any other day, unbeknownst to the setup in the library. At the end of second hour, Melissa texts me that everything is ready. It's time for the big guns! Our principal, in a ruse, comes to our team and talks to them sternly about the improper use of cellphones and devices. She notes some statistics that make it clear that the kids are in trouble. She then tells them that we are going to do some emergency digital citizenship lessons in the library so everyone should line up to talk down to the LMC.

When the doors open and the kids wander in, they see many of their parents and tables of food, all prepared for them. They have no earthly clue what is happening. Even after the adults yell "Surprise!" the kids are befuddled. The looks on their faces are priceless. It is awesome! "Are we still in trouble?" "What's going on?" "Are our parents here to punish us about the cell phones?" the kids ask. When we make it clear to them that this is a holiday buffet and that the cell phone issue was just a way to get them to the library without them guessing the truth, they relax, start to laugh, and begin their celebration. "Wow! We really thought we were in trouble!" they say during conversation.

The parents are incredible. They pitch in and help make this an event that the kids will never forget. Year after year, we try our best to keep this event a secret and year after year, we succeed. This success is especially surprising because last year's team is in the eighth grade in our building. They keep mum, I think, because they want our current team to experience the surprise that they got to experience. Even the few kids whose siblings we had years before, keep quiet so that everyone else will be surprised. That is the climate of our team. We look out for each other, we take care of each other, we promote the accomplishments of each other and we always help each other. For that, we are so thankful.

EdCamp Harmony 2.0

Our first student edcamp was such a hit that we decided to do another one. Our kids are learning so many new things every week and edcamp provides a great platform to share that learning. Since our last edcamp, we have gotten a few new technology tools, kids have used new apps for their projects and all have polished skills that they wanted to share. What a great day of learning.

We used the same format as before. We scheduled three 25-minute sessions within the first two periods of our schedule. We were able to use five classrooms for our edcamp and things seemed to go off without a hitch. One thing that kids learned today is that because something is interesting to the presenters does not mean it will be interesting to other kiddos. We did have a few sessions that were unattended. We also think that a tweak for next time might be to shorten the sessions from 25 minutes to 20 minutes. We are always tweaking things to make for a better learning experience for the kids. All in all, today was another great student-led learning experience.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Adventure 15: A Global Connection

A couple of months ago, one of my tweeps, Jason Elsom (@TeacherLike @JasonElsom), tweeted about a day of global connections and cultural exchange called Adventure 15 (http://www.anadventure.org/). Adventure 15 is a one-day, global event where schools from different parts of the world connect through Google Hangouts, Skype, Twitter, or any other social media that fits their needs. I immediately signed up our team to participate. It sounded like a great opportunity to connect in real-time with a classroom in another country. After all, hundreds of thousands of school kids from around the world were going to participate in this day of learning.

Not knowing what to expect, I put this project on the back burner. Last week, I got an e-mail noting the classroom with which we had been paired. We were matched, because of time zones primarily, with an eighth grade class at Emerald Ridge Elementary School in Wind City, Saskatchewan, Canada.  The teacher at Emerald Ridge, Shaun Horsman (@Icogit8) and I exchanged e-mails to make sure that we were all set up. Because of video limitations, we conducted a Twitter chat under the hashtag #eckbrown so that our conversation would all be in one place. We also used the #adventure15 hashtag in our tweets so they wound up in the main, global conversation.

When the kids came to class, I told them that our session was a "go" and that they should find out as much about Emerald Ridge Elementary and White City, Saskatchewan as quickly as possible. They were on it! They used Google Earth to find out what the area looks like, did an image search for the school building (it is a new building, built in 2014) and tried to find out as much as possible about what kids in that area are like. Then, the chat began.

A big Harmony Team "hello" to Emerald Ridge Elementary in White City, Saskatchewan

We fired off a few questions to get started and then, suddenly, an answer popped up. The kids were drawn in at that point and basically ignored the questions we had prepared and just began calling out questions for me to type. I did my best to keep up and throughout the room, those who had Twitter accounts themselves, or those who created Twitter accounts on the spot, started peppering the conversation with questions for the Emerald Ridge kids or answering questions that they posed to us. Of course, the kids asked about food, music, the school schedule, the school year, languages, core and elective courses, and what the Canadian kids thought about Donald Trump. Our kids were asked lots of questions too, like what requirements we have in school, what kind of sports leagues our kids belong to, whether any of our kids play hockey, what our climate is like and if we like Tim Horton's. Our chat lasted about a half hour and every one of our kids was interested and engaged. They were learning from and sharing with kids from a province in Canada that many of them had never even heard of. They discovered that things are the same and different all over the world. What a great experience for these kiddos!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gamifying the Classroom

Kids love games. Lately, educators have been trying to find ways to incorporate games into the classroom. Dozens of apps, like Kahoot, have come along and helped get the kids stoked about learning. Broader systems of gamification, like 3DGameLab, have managed to help teachers gamify the entire classroom experience. Kids can choose assignments to complete in order to accumulate a certain number of points in order to achieve a particular grade. Kids can also earn badges, level up and even tailor the gaming experience for the next class by leaving comments that are helpful to the teacher.

Recently, I attended the Illinois Educational Technology Conference (IETC) in Springfield, IL. At the conference, Liz Kolb of the University of Michigan presented a gamification session around a new system developed at the university. It is called GradeCraft. Liz had used 3DGameLab before but switched to GradeCraft because of some features that teachers thought would be an improvement on existing gamification platforms. Indeed, GradeCraft looks very cool. Certain features, like the ability of kids to predict their grade if they completed certain assignments, give the kids a whole new level of autonomy over their work. GradeCraft also insists on mastery of skills and can even include the standards that each assignment fulfills so that kids can get a complete and thorough learning experience.

Kids like to compete. Sometimes they like to compete against each other and sometimes they like to compete against themselves. One of the reasons that video games are so popular is that the games are challenging. If there is an effective way to gamify the classroom, I am all for it. I have used 3DGameLab up until this year but could not do so anymore because we could not spend money on the subscription. I have written to the GradeCraft developers at the University of Michigan to see if a middle school teacher like myself would be able to pilot the system in class. If I get the go-ahead, then I will immerse myself in this new system and use it in class next semester.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Student Guest Post 2: He Named Me Malala

Our school was funded by the Malala Foundation to go see “He Named Me Malala”. The film was a documentary. It told the story of now-18-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head, at the age of 14 by the Taliban for daring to stand up for female education. Malala was born in Mingora, Pakistan, located in Swat Valley. For the first few years of her life, her hometown was a popular tourist spot, known for its summer festivals. But that all began to change as the Taliban attempted to take over.

The film did a really good job of giving the viewers an inside look at what Malala’s life was like before the shooting, including what it was like when the Taliban started to take control. They also informed the viewers about things that weren’t really looked into by everyone, due mostly to people looking for information only about the shooting.

Malala had attended a school that her father had founded but after the Taliban began to attack schools in her hometown, Malala gave a speech about the rights of girls to get an education. Malala and her father both spoke out to crowds about standing up for rights.  She had already been recognized for prior speeches. She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and had been awarded Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize! With a growing public platform for standing for something the Taliban did not approve of, the Taliban’s anger toward Malala grew more and more, and they set out to kill her.
Clips of her speech and also clips of her father speaking were in the film. I think it was important to know that Malala spoke out before her tragedy, and not only her but her father too.
One day when Malala was on her way home from school a man boarded the bus she rode and demanded to know who she was. After she was discovered by the turning of her friends' heads, the man shot her in the left side of her forehead. The bullet ricocheted, hit her arm, and two friends of hers were also injured. The shooting left her in critical condition and it was a long process before Malala was back to her normal self.

This part of her story was shown by complete silence and pictures of the bloody seats of the bus and also a cartoon diagram showing what happened during the attack. They also gave us a view of her during therapy. This was one of the most, if not the most, emotional scene of the film.
After seeing her in therapy, not even having the ability to catch a ball, I realized we should all be grateful for being able to do what we do. We should be grateful for being able to go to school and back home without having to watch for someone trying to harm us. We should also be grateful for being able to even go to school.

After that section of the documentary,  they showed what Malala did with her popularity from the shooting. She didn’t take advantage of it like most teenagers would; she used it to inform more people, including the President of the United States, about ways we can help stand up for young children’s education.

The documentary really emphasized how strong, determined, and courageous Malala was and still is. Malala is a huge inspiration to me. I think everyone should see this film because I believe everyone could take something positive away from Malala’s story.