Monday, March 23, 2015

Really "flipping" the classroom.

Technology use in schools has been a buzz word since I became a teacher eight years ago. At that time I wasn't sure why it was such a "new" idea. I mean, I left a career in science that was flooded with technology. It was second nature to use various tech tools on a daily basis. However, most of these tools were presented in such a way where we had to use them to "create" a solution. It seems that technology in schools has become a little stuck.

I recently read a post from Vicki Davis that reminded me that technology is more than a substitute for paper, books, and pencils. I took a moment to reflect on my own teaching to find areas where technology is a substitute and where it is used to create. As I was reflecting, I realized something; there are places where technology is a substitute and it is OK. Like using Google Docs, or Slides, or digital media. But, more importantly I realized that my classroom really is "flipped." Not in the sense that flipped is used in educational technology, but flipped in the Constructivist sense. Somehow I've been able to evolve my classroom into an environment where students are comfortable to direct their own learning and reflect on the process to realize what knowledge they gained from those experiences. As the teacher, I  guide them toward opportunities to engage with the content, but the project based, problem solving that occurs  grasps the idea of using technology to create, as Vicki Davis describes.
borrowed from Pixabay

I am looking forward to school tomorrow for many reasons;

  At the end of one class a  student showed me the amazing website she built for a virtual project tour. I am excited to see the creativity of the rest of the class.

Another student shared a great idea where students will use their understanding of various Earth systems to design a Utopian Solar System to support carbon based life.

Another class has been tinkering with robotics and the use of robots for space exploration. The end of the unit arrived with some audible disappointment. However, a student shared one more idea for  project that will use robotics for another Astronomy concept.

Planning for the next project was completed by my students. The technology that will be used to engage in learning activities was also driven by them. My role is to outline the project to ensure these ideas align with the curriculum by creating appropriate assessments framed by the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards. I also need to provide access to appropriate technology tools.  "Flipping the classroom" is more than giving the students a technology tool to complete classwork at other words; providing a tool to do different kind of homework. It is more of letting go of the "Sage on The Stage" mentality, listening to students, and using their ideas. Students are creative individuals and their creativity should be encouraged to help direct the learning of the entire classroom.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Increased Readability

Getting students to read in the classroom always poses a challenge. Here is the typical scenario, the teacher assigns a reading complete with appropriate "pre, during, and post" reading strategies that are creative and engaging to hopefully increase student participation. Most students will do the work, but may not truly grasp all the information. Here is the typical student reaction to the reading;
They flip to the first page, stare at it for a few minutes, maybe read a sentence or two. Then they get distracted by something for a few minutes, go back to the reading and realize they don't know what they just read so they go back to the beginning. Then they are frustrated with having to start over, so they start to look how much they have to read. They then bend the book back and physically hold the chunk of the pages they need to read, and stare at it with a look of defeat and wonder how they will ever get through it all. Then, they start again, only to go through this whole process again before asking if they can go to the bathroom.  

 It is clear they are simply reading for the sake of getting through the assignment they aren't really getting much from it, despite the efforts you put forth with the reading strategies. Here is my super secret process for getting students to focus on the content and not the amount.

Super Secret Tips

  1. Choose current, relevant topics that are short, sweet, and right to the point. Some of my favorite science places to obtain good articles are:
      1. NPR Science
      2. BBC Science
      3. Smithsonian TweenTribune
      4. Student Science
  2. If I need to use other readings from a book or text book, obtain digital copies, and again use recent publications. My textbooks from 1992 are really just good for a weight or building material for some lab activities. They make really good holders for Popsicle stick bridges, great walls for Lego Robot courses, awesome supports for ramps when doing acceleration and velocity experiments, they also work really well to hold down the end of a board for pendulum demonstrations. 
  3.  This is super important for this final trick...Use a digital formats. This will allow you to use various reader tools to adjust how much text will show on a single page. 
Now, the moment you've been reading on for, the final trick!

Use an appropriate reader tool to make the font huge, and limit the amount of text that appears on a page. You need the digital format to work in your favor, meaning that you want the format to keep your students engaged and feel as though they are making progress. Essentially, you are taking away the "chunk of pages" they want as visual cue to the finish line.The trick is to make the text as big as possible, and adjust the formatting to squeeze two to three paragraphs on a single page. It feels like you are cruising through the reading, and there is not an overwhelming amount of text on a page to throw you for a loop. 

I will use one of these two methods.

My first option, if I already have an epub, or mobi in the correct format is to use a online  tool for chrome called Read &Write for Google. What this does is allow me to upload my epub, mobi, azw3, pdf...etc to Google drive, share the document with students, and let them open the edoc. The app provides a nice online viewer that has the described format of a large font and limited text per page. 

Or, I use Issuu to share documents with my students for reading purposes. Issuu does a fantastic job making the digital format feel like a physical book. To obtain this trick I have students choose the single page mode, and zoom way into the document.  This requires students manually adjusting the settings, it may not be quite as effective. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Google Docs Image Edits

There are occasions when you need to include an image to a Google doc and you might have to insert arrows, highlights, or edit the image to fit your needs.  Here is how to insert any image into a Google doc to allow you to include these minor adjustments.
  1. Create your Google Doc. 
  2. Insert a "Drawing"
  3. In the Drawing window click "Insert"
  4. Select "Image"
  5. Grab the image you need from wherever it is located. 
  6. Make the adjustments you want. 
  7. Click save and close
The image will be inserted into your Google doc at your cursor. 

A Positive Social Media Experience in School

I stumbled across and interesting competition on-line. Being the season of basketball madness, a group of scientists organized the Mammal March Madness.  Essentially it is a match up between species of varying habitats to determine who could "survive" in head to head species competition. This seems like a great opportunity for Biology and Ecology students to perform relevant research on the species to be able to make an educated decisions about survival. Just as we seen in the natural world, the native species may not always be victorious, the one who can out compete for resources has a strong advantage.

The "battles" will be play-out in "real-time" through Twitter at #2015MMM. In order to be able to view the results at school, twitter would need to be an acceptable resource to use. In my school district, as well as many others, all social media sites are blocked by network security. It seems like many school districts block these sites as a way to combat cyber-bullying.

Which is a serious matter and one where students should learn the laws and regulations and understand that their digital citizenship matters. Social media is all around us and is something students should learn how to appropriately use. I recently read an article that is related to a similar issue of personal smart phones and other devices being blocked by schools, to only result in retaliation from students to use the tools secretly.  Should we "block" these tools from our students or should we teach them how to use them to further their education and careers? I'm of the mindset that social media etiquette should be taught in schools, cyber-bullying should be faced head-on just like all other forms of bullying and harassment, and students should learn how to actually use the powerful devices they carry around. They have so much information readily available at the touch of a screen. While the Mammal March Madness seems like a very engaging, entertaining, and unique educational activity, access to social media is a key player for the full experience.

Even though my school has twitter blocked, I still plan to run this activity with my students, and access the live tweets of mammalian battles in a round about way. I will simply save the "search" of the hash-tag from my personal twitter account at home.  Then I will print the search to Google drive for my students to view the next day in school. This will help them experience some of the excitement of the "real-time" matches and also provide the opportunity to view the details as they unfolded and follow the reactions of other players.

Here is how to save a search in twitter and archive for later.

  1. Sign in to your Twitter account.
  2. Type your search query into the search box at the top of the page and hit return or click the magnifying glass icon.
  3. Click Save at the top right corner of your search Results
  4. Click anywhere in the search box at the top of the page.
  5. Scroll to your Saved Searches and click on the saved search to revisit the results
  6. To archive the search, scroll down the list to the farthest tweet back you want to save and use this chrome addon either in chrome or opera to save to Google drive. 

Good luck to those of you who fill out a bracket, have fun, and use creative, but safe alternatives to access blocked tools at school.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

How to quickly enable/disable the Confidentiality Notice in gmail.

Most teachers should have a notice like this attached to their emails...


This e-mail message, including any attachments, is intended for the sole
use of the intended recipient(s) to whom it is addressed and may contain information that is legally privileged, confidential and exempt from disclosure under applicable law. If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any disclosure, copying, distribution, use and or taking any action on reliance on the contents of this electronic mail message, confidential information is strictly prohibited (Fed Reg 42CFR, part 2). If you have received this e-mail in error, please notify us immediately or arrange for return of the original electronic mail transmission.

This essentially adds a layer of protection to you with your parent/guardian correspondence. It reminds the recipient that the conversation is confidential and shouldn't be shared with anyone outside of the immediate concern.

Adding this to gmail is easy. Typically, users will add it as part of their signature.  However, there are times when you may not need to have this notice, like if you are corresponding internally to colleagues with just a quick note like "The team meeting today is canceled." You don't necessarily need the notice with this type of message.

Here is how you can quickly turn this on and off in gmail, as needed.

1) Log into your gmail.
2) Click the gear icon and select settings.
3) Navigate to labs and enable "canned responses"
4) Save your changes, gmail will reload.
5) Compose a new message. You can leave the To: and Subject: lines blank.
6) Insert you confidentiality notice into the body of the email.
7) Click the little down arrow next to the trash can, and select "canned responses."
8) Select "new canned response"  give it a name like "confidential" then hit ok.
9) Now when you are typing an email that warrants the notice, simply hit the arrow again
10) Select canned response and insert the one you just made.

This will allow you to quickly enable the notice as needed, depending on the nature of the email.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Many schools offer 1:1 programs for students. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, the school provides a device to the student to use as their "own" for the length of time they are a student in that school or district. There are various pro's and con's to this kind of program, but that is a larger debate. My school is not lucky enough to offer such a program, yet. I will keep pushing until it happens, but until then we need to be creative. It can also be challenging to book computer labs and laptops for students when they are in high demand among all teachers. How can I create a 1:1 environment and deliver a flipped classroom that is all the rage these days, when the technology isn't quite there?
Here's how:

My school has a unique cell phone/personal device policy. Students are allowed to bring
them to school, use them "freely" at certain times and places throughout the day and are allowed to use them at teacher discretion. Within any given class a teacher could assume that 99% of the students in that room have some kind of personal device on them. One that is capable of accessing the Internet and use as a pseudo 1:1 environment. Allowing students to use their own devices that they are comfortable with  and really know how to use, can be a huge advantage compared to giving them a device and saying "Here. You have to use this."  It is not uncommon to walk through my classroom and see various devices out and about. If you were to look at the screens of those devices you would see many of the same apps running; Google Classroom, Google Scholar, Wikipedia, and Issuu. I allow my students to use their devices, and encourage the use for learning purposes. It helps provide that 1:1 environment without purchasing a device. This also allows me to use Google Classroom as a mechanism for a flipped environment. Knowing that 99% of students have a device, and 99% of them can get access from home, I am confident that I can deliver a flipped environment through various devices.

Now what about that 1% of students who do not have devices? Here's where the hoarder creative teacher comes into play. First and foremost, teachers are hoarders. If we hone those skills to hoard "old" technology,  we can provide for our students. I have been able to obtain 35 "old" desktop machines, 3 "old" laptops, 8 "old" netbooks, and I am always on the lookout for more. These "old" machines are ones that were labeled as trash, because they were slow, or had windows xp. The easy solution was to wipe the hard drive and install Linux. Just like that, these "old" machines are speedier, and more responsive then the brand new machines kicking around the building. This allows me the freedom to sign out machines to students who might need them. I really only have 11 machines that are practical to sign out, however that is 11 students that I can provide that 1:1 for if they do not have their own device.

I mentioned that a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is advantageous to a 1:1 setting. Think about the one device you have that you really love to use. Think about how well you can use that device to find out something completely random and useless like what was the name of the horror movie that kick started Julia Louis-Dreyfus's career?  Now if I handed you a random device and asked you the same question, how much longer and how much more frustrated might you get trying to find the same information? Compound that by a million to understand how a student might feel when they are asked to find some serious information related to the content on a device they don't like and don't really know how to use. This is where their own device eases the pain of researching content information.

To conclude this long winded post, if your school policy allows for it, and you do not have a 1:1 program, or your 1:1 program is struggling, try letting students use their own devices. You might be surprised at the results.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Chrome Distill Option

Chrome seems to be one of the popular browsers for education...(in due time Opera will take over, but that's just my opinion). Chrome is packed full with extensions, add-ons, security, speed...etc. All the features you'd want in a browser. One of my favorite add-ons for education has been Clearly. This is a nice simple tool that allows you to distill the page to leave you with simple text, and quickly export the information to your Evernote account, if you choose.

However, Chrome has made the distill process much simpler...sort-of.  It is embedded into the browser. There is a tiny trick to turn it on, but once you do, it invokes the cleanliness of Clearly right in the browser, without any add-ons. However, you won't have the options that Clearly offers, but you still can access the native distill option for clean reading. Here is how.

1) Regardless of your OS, find your Chrome launcher.
2) Navigate to the properties of that launcher, typically a "right-click" will bring up a menu to find properties.
3) in the "target" box or "launch Command" add this at the end

Here is a screen shot of mine (Note, i'm running Linux and using Cairo-Dock as my launcher so the screen is going to look different)

the full command for me is
google-chrome-unstable --enable-dom-distiller

In windows, when you right click the launcher and select properties, a window will pop up. In the text box called "target" add this after the last quotation mark

Once chrome starts, when you click on the menu know those three little bars in the upper right, you will now have an option that says
Distill Page

Select this option when you are on a news article, or a website that you want to read without the distraction of ads, sidebars, other posts...etc. Again, all this does is exactly what Clearly.does, without the bells and whistles, and without installing any third party tools.

(on a side note: The color of the screen-shots are a result of my desktop set up. I use all dark colors for all applications, and tools on my laptop. This is mainly for two reasons. First it saves battery life...big time. You may have a different opinion, but when I use the default settings of black on white,  my battery drops significantly fast.  Second; it reduces eye strain. The light on dark is easier on the eye, especially when reading at night, or reading for extended periods of time. Try it on your kindle or nook, you can read way longer!  Third; it just looks good)