Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Google Hangouts! Connecting Your Students to the World

Google Hangouts are a great way to connect your students to the world.  Recently, Mrs. Keene from Leonard Lawrence Elementary hung-out with a teacher from Raleigh, North Carolina.  The end goal is that these two classes will embark on a blogging buddy journey this year.  Each student will have a buddy who leaves comments and suggestions on each other’s writing pieces posted on their respective sites.  

But first, they had to figure out where the other class lived and what grade they were in.  There are several roles involved in a good hangout.  Here are the roles we used to make the hangout successful:

  • Greeters:  These people had a clever opening and welcome greeting for the other class.  
  • A Videographer:  This person is in charge of capturing the video as the hangout is happening.
  • A Photographer:  This person takes still shots to be used in a video once the hangout is over to showcase the hangout, (see below).
  • Inquisitors: These students work in groups to come up with closed ended questions that help the mappers determine the location of the class in question.  For our Hangout we had three different inquisitor groups.
  • Documenters:  These people work on a collaborative Google doc to take notes during the hangout to document questions and answers in case anything is questioned later on.
  • The Mappers:  These students have maps in front of them.  Based on the answers to the questions being asked, they mark through areas that are eliminated.  
  • Closers:  These students say a polite “thanks” and close out the hangout with follow up steps if necessary.  

I was impressed with their questions and they learned a little bit about time zones, different foods, and sporting events in both states.  Our goal was accomplished!  Not only did the students learn a bit more about their world and others in it, they had to use deductive reasoning to solve the puzzle.

And now the fun begins!  I can’t wait to see how their blogging buddy partnership is going to flourish and impact their motivation for high quality writing.  The whole thing took about an hour including prep time, and I think was worth it.  Check out the video below from their experience.  

Written by:  Jenny Krzystowczyk

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Project Matters: Metro Students Create Mobile Apps for the Zoo

by Guest Blogger:  Cassi Tucker

About the Project
The NRI Zoo Project was the second half of Project MATTERS, the two-year STEM-education focused research initiative funded by the Nebraska Research Initiative.  It took place from December 2013 through May 2014, and was a collaborative effort bringing together a number of community partners, with the goal of teaching middle and high school students from the Omaha area how to program mobile applications.  Beginning with the December kickoff, students participated in monthly workshops, in addition to independent work during the rest of the month, gradually building up a self-defined app idea until the final event, a celebratory/demonstration event hosted at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.  To read a short blurb from the UNO team about the project, you can visit here:

Key Partners
To make the project a success, we relied on several key individuals and groups working together.  From the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) came Neal Grandgenett, from the College of Education (and the individual in charge of the grant); Zac Fowler, who is in charge of student minions at the Attic, a development group out of the College of Information Science and Technology; and myself and my coworker Ben (we’re two of the minions).  Our role was to facilitate everything and help the students during the course of the project, in whatever form that help needed to take.

From the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, we had two partners from the educational outreach department, who helped students identify projects that would be meaningful to the Zoo, as well as providing feedback to both the students and the UNO team and helping to coordinate a deployment plan.

Finally, we of course had our high school partners—four high schools (Bellevue East, Westside, Gretna, Gross Catholic) and one middle school (Papillion Jr. High) participated, and from them six student teams were developed; these teachers devoted a great deal of time and energy to help the students with development, attended meetings on Saturdays, and keep the UNO and Zoo teams informed about what the students were working on and how things were progressing.  For additional information about the project and full details of each team’s final app, please visit

Project Structure
Every school produced a team of students (or two!) who self-organized and identified the project they wanted to work on; the only major limitation given to them was that their app idea had to somehow incorporate the Zoo goals.  This created an enormous diversity in project ideas and, we hoped, would lead to higher engagement as the students were working on something they were genuinely interested in building.  All six teams chose different app ideas to go with; some ideas that began similarly quickly diverged as the teams narrowed their focus and honed in on what they really wanted to build.  Learning for the project was self-directed; students were always welcome to ask for help from the Attic team, but were encouraged to choose their own development tools, find solutions to problems, and learn the skills necessary to accomplish their goals.

Each month, the teams turned in a log of their progress and attended a meeting held either at the Zoo or on UNO’s campus; these were either workshop days, where the Attic team taught the students a new tool or technique to help them along, or demo days, when the students brought their work and showed it off, getting feedback and suggestions to move forward.  Students were given incentives to attend the meetings (such as science books, DIY kits, and other fun STEM education things), and on Zoo meeting days were also given the opportunity to wander around the Zoo, gathering information or testing their apps out in the target environment.

Student Development
Over the course of the project, students really took a lot of initiative in building their apps, some of which were extremely ambitious and complex ideas.  The Attic team worked to facilitate the success of each team, but really left it primarily to the students to research solutions to their problems and to articulate specific questions about things they needed helped with.  In some ways, it was almost like the students were learning how to learn; the success of their projects depended on their ability to independently find solutions.  The students really got invested in their projects this way and as such worked extremely hard to make them successful, putting in a lot of time and effort (both during and outside of school hours).  Not all projects were finished at the end of six months (primarily because, as I mentioned earlier, some of the teams were really ambitious in what they wanted to accomplish) but even the teams that didn’t finish had put in a lot of development time, did a lot of learning, and ended up with at least a partial product to show off at the final demo event.

Overall, the project was an enormous success.  The goal here wasn’t to have perfect, polished, professional applications built for the Zoo; the goal was to engage students in STEM education, interest them in the possibilities of continuing down this path, and give them the tools to direct their own interests.  In those goals, I think we saw overwhelming success; some students even identified a career path in mobile app development that they wanted to pursue.
Within each team there was also some definite growth for the members, from my own perspective.  Over the course of the six months, I saw students really find their own skills to contribute to their team—development, design, graphics, or some other role—and grow in confidence.  Students who started out by asking timid questions, assuming that they had probably just done something wrong or it was a dumb question to begin with, ended the project able to confidently ask questions and articulate what they had done to try to solve the problems.  For many of the students, this was a first foray into real programming (that is, programming with a real goal at the end, not just a “Hello World” and a grade) and that growth in confidence in their own abilities will, I think, be a strong asset for the students in the future, particularly those who continue to build on this programming knowledge.
That’s not to say there aren’t things I would suggest doing differently if I could whip out my Time-Turner and go back.  The team logs were intended to give the Attic team a better idea of what kind of development workshops would be most helpful to the teams; however, the semi-consistent enforcement of turning them in meant that we weren’t always on the same page and therefore the Saturday workshops weren’t always meaningful for the students.  The team logs were extremely helpful when we had them, so in future similar projects I would definitely have them turned in more regularly.  Additionally, because we allowed the teams to choose any project and any tools they wanted…sometimes they picked things that we had never used before.  One team in particular used a JavaScript library called CreateJS, which we at the Attic had never used before—for us, it could be challenging to help solve problems when we were trying to learn everything on the fly as well.  So, again with my Time-Turner, I’d go back and start learning some of those tools earlier so as to better help the students.  

Final Thoughts
This project was one of my absolute favorites to work on so far in my (student) career.  Coming from a high school with no programming classes at all, I understand that many students will shy away from choosing college majors in technology and engineering simply because of lack of prior exposure.  This project gave students a safe, self-driven, no-fail way to get their feet wet in the world of technology, and they were able to try ambitious new things and hone their skills.  I think that, overall, this project was a great success, due to a combination of invested partners and dedicated teachers and student teams.

Cassandra Tucker is a senior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, working on degrees in History and IT Innovation.  She plans to pursue a Masters degree focusing on the Digital Humanities upon completion of her undergraduate work.  In her spare time, she—wait, she doesn’t have spare time.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Self-Analysis for Kids in a Digital World

This post revolves a lot around the idea of project based learning as analysis lends itself well to that environment.  

Often we are pushed to the limits with our pacing guides and testing expectations. We feel we do not have the time to allow kids to analyze their own progress, projects, work, or learning. Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy if you will.  Analysis sits up there at the top looking down upon the memory and understanding skills.  If you think you and your students are just skating around on memory and understanding then pause and think about providing the opportunity for some student self-analysis.  

Digital tools can make student self-analysis super easy and efficient.  First off, if student work is in digital format like Notability, Google Drive, or Kidblog, analyzing work is super easy.  Work can’t get lost and it is easy to track.  Self-analysis can be private, or be used as a conference tool between teacher and student.  

Here are some tools that could be utilized for self analysis by kids.  

  • Evernote App is great for middle and high schoolers.  It syncs up with all of their devices and lets students add in web clips, audio feeds, and share with whomever they choose.  It also builds notebooks so reflections could be easily organized by topic or date.
  • Video journals could be used for students who are super verbal or enjoy recording their thoughts without using the writing process.   This could be as simple as using the camera on an iPad or other tablet and saving it their camera roll.  Videos could be loaded to a private YouTube account playlist that is then shared only to the teacher.  I recommend this workflow only if you have a google domain for students for security reasons.  Students could also use iMovie if they want to add in clips of their work and talk about their thoughts about the project.  
  • Online sticky boards like and are great ways to create sticky boards with thoughts on a topic.  Apps like Pic Collage also works great for sccrap booking ideas.  Linoit and Padlet can be collaborative boards as well turning analyzing into a small group project.  
Not sure how to guide your students in using self-analysis?  Analyzing is all about breaking something apart.  Try these questions once a project has been completed or something has been published.

  • Analysis of elements
    • What parts worked and what parts did not work for your project?
  • Analysis of relationships
    • Who helped you become more effective in your learning?
  • Analysis of organizational principles
    • Could you have arranged your project differently or used other tools that would have helped guide the project more efficiently?

How often are you analyzing what you teach?  How often do you provide opportunities for students to analyze their learning, a project, or how they accomplished a goal?

Written by, Jenny Krzystowczyk

Blogging as a Tool for Revision- Rethinking Blogging for Kids

We love seeing our students publishing their writing to the world on or  Teachers feel accomplished when their kids are excited about writing.  What’s more motivating than having new and interesting people read what you have written?  I am excited even now as I write this post imaging who will take the time to read what I have written.  I am even more intrigued by who will take the time to leave me a comment.  Blogging is motivating for students, its that simple.  

What if we used student blogging as a revision tool instead of just a publishing tool?  
Teaching students the power of revision can make a good writer great.  What if you did a few writing lessons where the goal was to publish three times for one piece instead of publish and move on?  What would that look like in a classroom?  

I think it would look like a version of Austin’s Butterfly, except in writing.  Imagine it… Partner your class up with another class to form peer editors between students for a few weeks. Set publishing dates loosely so students know when to look for their partner’s posts.  Next, teach your students how to leave positive and constructive comments.  You could focus your writing mini lessons around traits of writing so that students are looking for those elements as they read their partner’s posts.  Teach your students to always leave 2 positive remarks about the post and then add one helpful critique.  

This does two things, it keeps the comments positive and provides explicit ideas for how the piece could be better.  Providing students the opportunity to focus on one piece of writing over a longer period of time, an authentic audience of peers, and providing specific feedback can be a powerful tool to improve writing skills and techniques.  Furthermore, your students would have three digital pieces of writing to reflect upon for self-analysis.  Self-analysis is a great extension opportunity for every student.  

Here are some ideas that comments could center around:

  • Add more details to paint a picture with your words.
  • Set the stage early in your post.
  • Hook the reader with a question, sound effect, or emotion.
  • Include an image that ties to the theme of your post.
  • Elaborate on your ending.

I challenge you to take your student blogging to the next level.  Blogging shouldn’t always be quick and easy for students.  It should allow students the opportunity to spend time improving their writing, by focusing on conventions, voice, art, emotion, and purpose.  Our pacing guides can be overwhelmingly fast.  I believe the best teachers know when to slow down and provide opportunities for students to delve deeper into a project.   

I personally love the Lucy Calkins method of teaching writing as it incorporates effective writing techniques through the use of high quality literature.  You can check out her methods from Columbia University here.  

What's your favorite method for blogging with students?  How do you see revision helping young writers?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Written by, Jenny Krzystowczyk

Monday, September 29, 2014

Eight Tips and Tricks for Using Google Classroom

  1. First time into Google Classroom, but sure to choose teacher. Even if you join classes as a student, you need to be in as a teacher to have teacher rights.  If you accidentally choose student, you will need your domain admin to add you back into the teacher group.

  2. Use Class Code to enroll students and save time.

  3. Use About to provide a quick link to a website, syllabus, a rubric, or something you want them to reference often.If you attach a Google Doc to an assignment, students need to click the assignment title to get to the attached Google Doc.  Using words like, see the attached Google Doc in the assignment description will help students know if a Google Doc is attached.

  4. Students get an e-mail when assignments are posted in Google Classroom.

  1. When making an assignment, you can choose to copy the assignment to multiple classes before you click assign.  Once assigned to one class, you no longer can copy to multiple classes.

  2. The stream with the timestamp is very helpful to share information with students.   Use the stream as a closed back channel environment for students.  Excellent for informal conversations in the classroom.

  3. Google Classroom alphabetizes by first name. If your district uses Power School, you can alpha by first name instead of last. In PowerSchool, go to "Preferences" (under the Power School Gradebook menu in your toolbar).  Go to the tab called "Student" (last one) and use the drop-down menu to choose First Last as your display choice. Now your docs in Google align with the grade book.

  4. On the iPad, save work to the camera roll. In Google Classroom, click add -> upload file -> select the file from photos/camera roll.  Slick and easy.

Written by Ann Feldmann

Friday, September 26, 2014

How to Find Inspiration When It’s Lost

Do you ever feel like you just don’t know what to do next? Do you ever feel like there are so many ways to go and you don’t know which turn to take? Do you ever feel like you won’t get out of the rut you are in, that there just isn’t anything “up there”? You are not alone. Educators are not alone. Executives are not alone. None of us are alone. At some point in your professional career, you have probably felt stuck and you are not the only one that has felt this way. You need to find……..inspiration. But where do you find it? When I feel this way I’m always reminded of the four key places where I find my inspiration.

  • Positive and inspiring colleagues
  • Personalized professional development
  • Clear the highway
  • Remember your reason
Positive and inspiring colleagues

One thing I learned at a very early age was to surround myself with positive people. Those who are change agents. Those who don’t see walls and closed doors but windows that have been left open a crack. They challenge my thinking and support me in my thoughts. They make it their mission to focus on what can be done and not what can’t be done. You walk into a room with them and you can’t help but change your attitude and mood. I like to call this group of people my circle of electricity. If I surround myself with these people I always seem to get a jolt that sends me in the right direction.

Personalized professional development

This is not a terribly new concept but maybe you haven’t tried it yet. What is it? It is the idea of building your PD based on what your needs are as an educator. Think about it as differentiated learning for adults. You find the opportunities to learn, and you pick the content you are interested in exploring. How do you do that? Find a group of blogs to follow that offer ideas, support and guidance. Join a handful of Google+ communities and start learning from others. Create or join a weekly Google+ Hangout with a group of people that want to learn the same thing you do. Turn to Twitter and get involved in some of the many chats that are happening each and every night. You are sure to find one that suits your interests. Find an online class that you can take at your leisure--one that speaks to your interests. Lean on your professional circle to help inspire you. If you don’t have a circle, start building one. And the key to all of this...share, share and share. You never know, you may be the one inspiring others.

Clear the highway

Sometimes we have so many cars on the road that it gets congested and the result is a traffic jam. How do you get out of a traffic jam? With patience and slow driving because that is the only option in that situation. Some of the cars need to take the next exit and get off the highway. Some will need to slow down and move along inch by inch until the traffic clears out. Some will try to blast through the jam and cause an accident, which in turn holds everyone up for a longer amount of time. When you find that you have too many ideas, too many commitments, it is time to slow down and sort through the jam. Some things will have to take an exit until you regroup and are ready to head down the road again. Others will be able to keep moving forward, just at a slower pace. And some, well, they may just have to go to the shop for a while. Take some time to clear the highway every few months---your cars will last a lot longer.

Remember your reason

If you are still feeling stuck, remember your reason. Think about the why...why are you doing this? Think about the students who are relying on you to be your best, so you can bring out their best. Remember the reason you started this journey, remember the ones you’ve helped, remember the ones you haven’t helped and remember why you do what you do----that will help you find your inspiration again. 

Written by Jeanette Carlson