Tag Archives: technology

It doesn’t have to be Genius Hour

6 Mar

Genius Hour, what isn’t there to love? And it is easy to see why – learning becomes a joyful experience that is owned by each student. Our classes become authentic environments where students choose what to learn. Of course this sounds great!

But I’m slightly afraid.

I love the idea of inspiring kids to learn by giving them ownership over the topic. I have been experimenting with Genius Hour/20% Time/Innovation Hour in my junior English classes this year, and let’s just say that I’ve learned a lot.

What happens if we ruin it?

My biggest fear is that I’ll have a group of juniors walk in to my room and moan because, “We did this last year,” or, “I never know what to do,” or, “This is boring,” – all sure signs that we ruined it. But it is so important that we do not destroy this experience.

In order to do my part in avoiding ruining Genius Hour, I decided to do something different with my sophomore English classes, something with a little more structure. We created magazines in small groups in order to address real-world writing purposes. It has been a great experience and has helped my students develop a sense of the audience they are writing for.

We still had the most important element in a project like this – student choice.

We created a magazine for each of the first two quarters, and there was some great work! But now it is time to switch things up. Students are going to create a blog or a video blog/YouTube channel on the topic of their choice. The goal is to build a following and create their own brand.

Our first brainstorming session had a great buzz. Students were coming up with great ideas, thinking deeper about those ideas and their potential audiences, and coming up with even better ideas. Some student were working together, and some were working in a group of up to three. There were even a few people who are going to do their own thing but be in the videos of another group.

One key that we discussed in the brainstorming process is that usually our first idea is not our best idea. If I were to sum up my inspirational speech of that day, I think it would sound something like, Get past that first idea, take it out of the mix. What else do you have? Keep building on something unique. Find you niche. What can you offer that others cannot? 

The highlights of my day were the few interactions that went just like this one:

Student: Mr. Sanders, this (a makeup blog) is actually what I want to do for my career.

Me: Yes, this is the start of your career! In a year you will be able to point to your blog and say that you have been doing this for a long time.

And the young man who wants to be a baseball scout will be able to point to his portfolio and show off how much experience he has.

There are groups doing fashion advice and makeup advice and spoofs on makeup advice with guys who are clueless. Food, hockey, tattoos and more.

Give students some choice and see the excitement build. Instead of prodding students to get going, you’ll answering the question, “Can we get started right now?!” Trust me, that’s slightly more fun.

It isn’t Genius Hour, but it sure feels genius to me!

Stop being safe, and start failing

20 Nov

Book drives, winter clothing drives, and canned food drives.

This was not what I had planned when I ventured into my Vague Friday Projects/Genius Hour. But you know what? I just jumped in. Am I failing? Yes, I’d say that I am.

Hey, at least I’m modeling failure for my students!

If I want to see innovation, creativity, and genius in my Genius Hour, I need to start getting kids to question what school is supposed to look and feel like. After one quarter, it’s time to do some reflecting, changing, and flipping upside down. Here’s what I wish I knew at the start of this process, and what I will work to change for my classes now:

Break the rules. Innovation is all about getting people out of their comfort zone. We have to get past the first wave of ideas, past the second wave of ideas, and get to something that is truly innovative. Book drives happen because students think, “I know this will work.” It is my responsibility to open their minds and keep going when the easy and safe answer is staring at them. Innovators do not follow rules. Know the rules so that you can break the rules.

Start with something small. Ideas are hard. If we are going to work on something for one hour on Fridays only, it is tough to expect all students to be ready with their idea in a short amount of time. Students should choose something that they are interested in, write a proposal for the length of the project, the amount of points it will be worth, and what they will accomplish. This will give them practice with the process and experience finding something that they care about. This first project should last three weeks or less.

Keep the groups small or work individually. So much of this type of project depends on students being passionate about learning something. If you get to the point where a group is choosing to do something because it sounds the easiest, it’s time to do some reflecting. Trust me. Some students may want to learn a certain skill, some may want to research a current event, and some may want to invent a new product. Just make sure that each student is following what he or she wants to do.

My next step is to break down the rules that I inadvertently created and start to encourage risk taking. I will use my failure and the reflection that I have done as a model for my students. We’re all in this together, and we don’t learn anything new without failing along the way!

Google Presentation – So what am I going to do with it?

1 Jul

For a long time I have told myself that I need to get better at creating visual presentations. That I need to stop relying too heavily on my students’ listening skills and not properly supporting them. And that it is just more fun to have images to go along with what I’m saying.

I think I was probably a little afraid to be bad at presentations, and probably slightly overwhelmed. I have used a few SlideRocket presentations that were simple and interactive, but it wasn’t often enough. I just didn’t want to put up slides of words and read them to my kids – ever.

A session from the ND GAFE Summit immediately caught my eye – Breathe Fresh Life into Google Presentations with Mark Hammons. Yes, please! So let’s take a look at the ways this presentation on presentations is going to be my biggest change for 2014-15.

One of the goals was to use 40 words of less in a presentation. If we focus on using pictures, that will allow the presenter to tell a story, and that story has the power to resonate with the audience. We even got to swear like a Boy Scout, “I vow to tell a story and not teach what can be read.” If the audience can read it, why am I there?

If you do have a slide that must have words, that can be done in a creative way with a word cloud. This will avoid the reading of bullet points that does not accomplish anything, and keep the presentation moving in the right direction.

But let’s get back to pictures. We learned all sorts of tricks with color matching and photo editing that are going to make my presentations awesome. I’ll do my best to share them! It might help to take a look at the Presentation Playground that Mark had us use. That is my copy, so you can see the few slides that I created by following the directions, but feel free to make your own copy and practice!

Here’s the first example from Google Presentations:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.49.15 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.49.28 AM

We used the research tool that is found under the “Tools” menu. Amazing. By searching for a famous person, you will get quotes, pictures, and links to websites that make creating a slide a piece of cake! Just click on “insert” and make it look great. We used a Chrome Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 11.01.41 AMExtension for that called ColorPick Eyedropper. This allows you to find the color hex number (an ID of sorts) that you can use to customize your background to match a picture (and much, much more).

Example #2:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.01.46 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.01.57 AMThe power of pictures was something that stood out to me during this session. When a quality picture takes over an entire screen, it is an eye-opening experience. So we resized this image of Mark’s son pretending to throw up in order to fill up the entire screen. We can then insert a text box over that to get our couple of words in.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.16.39 AMTo make the text box a transparent color, click on the “Fill color” icon, go down to “Custom” on the bottom, choose your color, and adjust the transparency bar (the farthest to the right) to the level that works best. This will help your viewers to focus on the words as well as the great picture.

Example #3 – For some reason the most mind-blowing at the time:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.20.51 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.21.06 AMThe ColorPick Eyedropper was great, but what do you do when you’re stuck with a picture that is straight up and down, but the background color is different from top to bottom?

Mark took a screenshot of the tiny sliver on the right side, being careful not to catch the finger at all. We then, following his example, inserted that screenshot into the presentation, resized it to fit from top to bottom, and stretched it all the way across the slide. Now we have a gray screen that is very similar in color to the background of the picture. So easy, but so cool!

Example #4:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.27.03 AMWe used the Eyedropper again, this time go grab the color from this great picture. Copy the hex number, change the color of your text to a custom color, and paste the number in the box on the top! Such a simple way to connect your text colors to your photographs.

And example #5 sums it all up:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.38.54 AMPresentations can be incredibly engaging – as long as we do them right! The most important thing to remember is that slides should help your audience connect with what you are saying. Make them funny. Make them personal. And make them great!

We can also begin to think of the power we can give our students to create when we teach them how to be confident and engaging presenters. These tools go beyond just the creation of an all-encompassing PowerPoint and require our students to deeply know the content of their presentation.

And if you want to dig a little deeper into the power of presentations with Nancy Duarte, check out this TED Talk.

Google tricks to make life easier

24 Jun

Google really does it right. Last weekend’s Google Apps For Education (GAFE) Summit in Grand Forks was energizing, engaging, and full of learning experiences. After a session was finished, I found myself staying in my seat in an attempt to absorb as much what we had just done and learned. Is that normal? The good news is that we had 30 minutes between sessions that provided time for collaboration, questions, and recovery. Brain sweat is fun!

Some of the most exciting things to me were the little things. The things that I might use every day or every week in the classroom to make life a little easier. I’ll let you in on a few of those things today!

I use my computer all the time to show students all sorts of things. When our presenters asked us to follow along, they made it easy by zooming in as well as highlighting the mouse. Both tricks were highly effective. The first one is to highlight the mouse. I spent the $4.99 on the Mouseposé app in the Apple App Store without regret!

MouseSo now when I want my students to see where I am navigating, I press F1 and highlight my cursor. Brilliant!

Another often-used trick was zooming on a Mac. Whenever a presenter wanted to help us focus in on something, give us a web address, or anything else that did not require the full screen, he quickly scrolled up and zoomed in on that area. I know it’s a small thing, but I was impressed! I can imagine using this daily.

Here is how you set it up for your Mac. Go under Universal Access in the System Preferences. Turn the zoom on, go to Options, and check “Use scroll wheel with modifier keys to zoom.” I think it is set to be the control key, so now when I hold down control and scroll up with two fingers, my screen zooms in. These little things will help keep the focus on where it needs to be during any sort of presentation.

My students constantly point out the extreme amount of tabs that I have open in Google Chrome. Here are a few tricks that deal with tabs:

One Tab is an extension found in the Chrome Web Store that takes each of your tabs and condenses them down into one tab. That tab can then be shared as a link with students or saved for later. It saves on memory and reduces clutter!

Tab Scissors is another extension that divides up your tabs into a split-screen look allowing you to type on one side while viewing another page at the same time.

Tab Glue, you guessed it, puts the tabs back together!

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 9.36.21 AM

And a few other tricks that everyone already has if you right click on a tab – ctrl+click or two-finger click with a Mac:

You can pin the tab to your task bar, and that will remove the X that would close it.

You can also close all other tabs.

Or close all tabs to the right of the one that you clicked on.

And lastly, you can reopen your last closed tab with this click or ctrl+shift+t.

I know this is going to make my life easier. I hope it does the same for you!



iPads are the answer, even if they are missing a keyboard

6 Mar

Students writing as they read, jotting down notes on the text, highlighting, and bookmarking. Most teachers would respond with, “Don’t write in the book!” But if we are going to do what we need to do to meet the Common Core, we MUST be writing in the book. Or the iPad more specifically.

Personally, I believe iPads are the way of the future in English education. More and more I see the importance of reading relevant and current nonfiction and being able to annotate and interact with the text, and it seems like the iPad is going to be the best way to do this.

Apple has sold 170 million iPads and counting. The most innovative computer company in the world doesn’t stop there. Apple’s stranglehold on teens’ music/internet/social networking devices is an important focus. If schools want to connect to our students through technology, we need to meet them where they are. Knowledge and information is at the fingertips of our students at all times. iPads are simply the best option to read, annotate, search the web, and view content easily.

Netbooks. The current answer to our technology issue. Students need a way to surf the web, research, and word process in a convenient way. Convenient being a debatable term. Right now it is another thing to lug around school on top of textbooks, notebooks, and the ever-important planner. These limited computers are not the answer to what we need in an English classroom.

Now the iPad isn’t perfect, the biggest complaint about iPads being that they don’t have traditional keyboards. The keyboard is an issue for the teachers, not the students. Most of my kids will choose to type a blog post on their iPod instead of using their netbook.  And if you need more proof, here are some real-world examples where students said, “No thanks,” to keyboards.

“Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” Principals Association, 1815

Although this quote might be slightly embellished, it is partly based on reality. Physical keyboards, like chalkboards, are moving towards the past. As much as teachers feel the need to keep them alive, they are becoming impractical. Our students just don’t like them. Teachers should help students get the chalk dust off their hands if they choose. Keyboards? Make them available, but not required.

No really, when?

28 Jan

A few years back I remember reading an article about how we, as teachers, would soon look back and shake our heads out our former selves for banning cell phones from schools.

Why isn’t that time now?

Do teachers and administrators expect students to walk inside the hallowed walls of our fine institutions and cast away all thoughts of the outside world? When are we going to realize that students are people just like us?

In today’s world it is hard to imagine being cut off from the outside world for an hour, let alone an entire school day. But that is what we expect our students to do each time they walk through our doors. Under our current cell phone ban, students have to sneak their phone out of their pocket or ask to use the restroom in order to steal some time for a text message. If students were allowed to use their phones between classes, we would greatly decrease the need for secrecy and sneaking around.

Our students, much to the dismay of teachers, have lives outside of school that are very important. Lives that they care about, and lives that they can even learn from!

Instead of focusing on the social aspect of cell phones, think of the possibilities for learning and student engagement that they present. Facts and information are more powerful when found by a student instead of told to a class.

How are we going to find a balance with cell phones in schools? We have students with phones that can film HD quality footage, be used to blog on the go, or even to read a book. We also find information at the blink of an eye as well. But somehow schools continue to ban these powerful tools because of fear. Cell phones are resources that students are already familiar with. We want students to feel ownership and care for the devices they use? Use devices that they own!

Right now my middle school supplies each student with a netbook. Want an easy way to cut costs and make students happier, more engaged, and perform better? Let’s start bringing our own devices! And if a student is unable to afford a device, they can check one out for the year from the school. Even if only half of the students choose to bring their own device, think of the costs that will be cut! This article from Forbes is a good resource that addresses some concerns.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 10.09.45 AM

These Tweets over the weekend were fitting. Let’s take the devices out! Allowing teachers to use these student-owned devices at their discretion could be a huge asset to classrooms, especially those that are concerned about budget issues.

Like it or not, we rely on our cell phones and so do our students.

Well isn’t this a conundrum ?

18 Dec

Give me technology! We absolutely need it in our schools. Netbooks, Chromebooks, iPads, or student-owned devices. I am a firm believer that we need devices in our students’ hands in order to prepare them for success, engage them with relevant and current information, and explore creativity and make a difference.

But really though, let’s get rid of this whole one-to-one mass deployment of technology.

Now let’s talk about how to do this. My district has been moving towards a one-to-one, and all of my 7th and 8th graders have their own Asus netbook. I’ve mentioned some of my students’ grumblings about these devices in my previous post, but hey, at least we have something! But I’m not sure I am always in the majority on that feeling.

Here’s my recommendation: let’s find out which teachers would like the technology in their room, and which devices would best suit their purpose. Those teachers could then apply to have the devices and would therefore be more likely to use them and build lessons to suit.

Until our schools are properly suited to store personal technology owned by the school, it is difficult to ask the students to take care of a device. If our lockers were charging stations, sure! If students brought their own device, absolutely! 

I picture my students reading and annotating articles in order to build background knowledge for meaningful discussions on iPads that are housed in my classroom. As the teacher who is issued the devices, they become like a textbook in terms of how they are tracked and issued.

We can also open the door for students to bring their own device to school in order to use something that they are used to. This Edutopia post is a good one for thinking about BYOD and its potential. One of the most important things that I have learned from our current one-to-one deployment is that students need to feel ownership of a device to take care of it and always have it. They need to feel like it is important to them and to their learning. It’s hard to create a sense of ownership, but it is much easier if actual ownership exists!

Part of the reason that people advocate for the widespread use of personal learning devices is that students will be using devices similar to these to create and collaborate in their future occupations. But not all jobs use Asus netbooks or iPads or Macbooks. By helping students become familiar with multiple devices, we are helping them to better prepare for the world that lies ahead of them.

Now with every teacher having their chosen device housed in their classroom, what do we do about flipped classrooms where students need devices to view lectures at home? Ok, maybe I don’t have all the answers…