Monday, March 16, 2020

Biogeochemical Cycles Digital Dice Games

During my career as a middle school teacher, I've made use of a number of biogeochemical cycle dice games that are readily available in several variations on the internet. A couple of days ago, as I was bringing the illustrated dice I had for the water cycle, I thought that this would be the last year I could use that particular set - they were a little crumpled from handling and the pictures had faded. While creating the dice is not hard, I was a little unmotivated to do it and wondered whether there was another way to still use the activity but save me the work of recreating the dice every so often.

It has now been several days, but I did it! A digital version of the water cycle dice game.

Now, of course, this would not be the way to show it to students, so I posted it up for actual use on a Google site, with a link to a record sheet -

Biogeochemical Cycles Dice Games

Not being able to stop myself at just the water cycle, I then went ahead and created a page and "game" for all other cycle games I use. 

I purposely re-used the illustrations to give students an idea of the similar reservoirs for matter as it cycles through on Earth and to allow for easy comparison between the cycles.

After playing any of the games, you could have students write stories or draw cartoons with the information they gathered or discuss how difficult/easy it is for a molecule to leave a specific reservoir. If they play more than one, they can also compare their journeys in both (which reservoirs are present in two or more, which processes are similar, etc.)

I would love to hear more ideas about what you could do with them.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Plate Tectonics Google Map

For several years I have been teaching Plate Tectonics to students and we have done several paper-pencil activities that have to do with plotting earthquakes, volcanos and landforms on maps. Over those years, I've searched far and wide for a Google map that included the outlines of the plates in the hopes of turning those activities into a digital product. I've only ever found Google Earth maps with this feature and while cool, the idea of navigating Google Earth with students has always been daunting. This year I had some time and decided to create my own Plate Tectonics Google map.

The link to the map, which you can see above and can use to make a copy is If you decide to use it, I only ask that you share it forward, freely, to any teacher who may also be looking for it.

The project I use it for, which includes not only the link but also a Google slide deck with instructions on how to make a copy of the map, add markers and share it (see below), can be obtained for free from my TpT store at

If you do download it, consider leaving a review. Thanks!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Plate Tectonics - a digital escape room and how to create one

Escape rooms have been in vogue in education for a couple of years. The proponents, such as Breakout EDU, tout them as a fun way to engage the students, and I can totally see the appeal. However, the mere idea of purchasing all those locks and boxes, making all those copies and "transforming" my classroom for a class period gives me nightmares. I also knew that there was a digital version of escape rooms, which house everything on the cloud and for my situation seemed more manageable, but again I had not really thought about actually running one.

As I was prepping for my classes a couple of weeks ago, I came to that awful realization that sometimes happens. I would finish a unit a day before a break. Not a good time to start something new but a great time to review. Usually, my fall back would be to create a Quizziz or Kahoot and call it a day, but as I was thinking about this and scrolling down on my Edmodo stream I saw a post talking about digital escape rooms and thought, what if I just take the plunge and create one. From my Boss Battles and some of the other stuff I've done with gamification, I knew some of the mechanics that I could use, and while visiting BreakoutEdu's sandbox I saw there were several sites housed on Google sites. I visited those in the hopes of getting some inspiration and was not disappointed. From there I gathered that I needed some kind of narrative (why are the students attempting to break out?), a set of tasks (the questions that will need to be answered in order to break out), a conditionally formatted Google form (where students will input "the codes"), some sort of linked image (to make the game "interactive"), and a set of "decoders". Before I proceed, let me show you what the end product looks like:

Plate Tectonics Escape Room

Creating a digital escape room

The tasks: 

Research has shown that educators should begin with the end in mind. For this particular escape room, I needed review questions, which I already had. However, if you are inspired to create your own, this would be the time to think about what you'd like the students to interact with/do. Since I knew that I would be creating linked hotspots on an image I housed each set of questions on individual Google slides and spent some time making them pretty.

The decoders:

For the escape room that I was creating students would need to answer the questions correctly, and I needed some way to also not make it a straightforward "abcd" selection. A Google search of escape room decoders gave me some ideas and the magic of Google draw made them possible.
Though I did not use it for this game, LearningApps would also be a great way to do it since you can create the task and add messages at the beginning and end, much like what you see here:

The main image:

This is where you will house all of the clues and tasks you have created. For me, this is a Google Drawing that uses a cluttered image as the background. Think "Where's Waldo", "I Spy"  or any room image that has lots of smaller images where you can "hide" things. The messier the image the better. Once I selected a background image I liked, I added transparent shapes to it and linked them to the 6 tasks I had created. If you are unsure about how to do this, visit @mpilakow's blog post "Hiding Easter Eggs in a Google Drawing"

The Decoys: 

Although you do not have to do this, while hiding Easter Eggs in previous classroom activities, I learned that my tech-savvy students quickly figured out a way to "find" them all by creating copies and using the select all option on their own copy. Since this would defeat the purpose of searching for clues, I decided to create decoys also hidden within the main image. These are one-page, published to the web Google slides, that also open, but are irrelevant to "escaping" the room and sometimes have some sort of commentary.

Below you see the image that I chose, with all the tasks and decoys before they are hidden:

The narrative:

This is where you get to be a little creative. Students need a reason to escape or look for clues, and while it needs to offer the incentive to engage with the tasks, it does not have to be long or convoluted. In the case of the Plate Tectonics escape room I created it simply reads:

"It is the year 2050, and a group of scientists has been sent out to explore the center of the Earth in a newly developed “dig-pod”. Unfortunately, the secretive lead scientist forgot all of his instruments in the office, and the team is now stranded without any tools. As an intern, you are now tasked with finding all the tools he left behind in his office and bring them to the dig site before they leave. Look around the office, and answer all the questions, which will allow you to collect the different instruments. If you get there in time, you will be able to join the expedition. Good Luck!"

The Lock Sheet: 

How will you know that your students completed the tasks and decoded each one correctly? While I do give my students a worksheet of sorts so that they can keep track of their work, I used the magic of Google Forms to collect their responses and auto-correct their progress. This Google form also allows me to determine who escaped first and even assign points directly into our leaderboard (using the Vlookup formula explained in "Assign XP automatically"), so I do not even have to look at the sheets they fill in to know who did what.

Putting it all together - a Google Site:

This is where everything I created for this escape room came together. Although there are several platforms to choose from to house the escape room, for me a Google Site was the easiest choice so I would not have to worry about whether the students could open any of the different things I had created. 

I resized the font on the page title to the smallest available and copy/pasted my narrative. Then I used insert from Drive to place the room with hidden clues and decoys and finally inserted my form, again from Drive. Clicked on publish and DONE!

So there you have it. It does take some time and patience, but your students will thank you for developing new experiences for them. If you've tried out digital escape rooms and would like to share with us, leave a comment. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Interpreting graphs with "What's Going on in this Graph?"

It's been three years since the New York Times partnered with the American Statistical Association to bring "What's Going on in this Graph?" to teachers and students. The premise is simple, every week during the school year they publish a graph asking students to think about it and discuss their observations whether on the site itself or on Desmos. A week later, they have a reveal, with more information and highlights from the moderation.

I started using the activity with my 8th grade Science and Engineering classes last year, as I struggled to teach them to interpret motion graphs. What I was looking at at the time, was students who jumped to conclusions without stopping to actually look at axes or units,  or choosing to bar graphs over line graphs simply because they were more familiar. I also, at the time, was invested in having students create infographics for projects, but again, they were doing so without actually looking or thinking about why one choice was better than another, or even worse, Googling for ready-made ones and pasting them without realizing that what they had included actually contradicted or was completely irrelevant to the message they were trying to send. The need was obvious - How do I help students acquire the skills they need to analyze graphs and charts.

During the first few months of using them, I presented the graph posted by the NYT that week and used their prompt:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?
  • What's going on?
This was fine except for one little thing, they started looking at the comments posted for "correct" answers or as a guide for what to write in their response to me. While it did force them to at least open and read the comments, they were still taking that short-cut of having someone else do the thinking and noticing. So I started adding some other questions that would require the act of reading the graph in order to answer them. These questions were not necessarily of a very high DOK, but rather of the "actually look at the graph" type. Things like
  • "What is the military spending worldwide presented on the graph?" for this installment
  • "Which destination seems to be the most popular for Thanksgiving Travel?" for this one
  • "Describe how the author represents data in the graphic."
These types of questions are always presented before the analysis questions and have served us well to help students look at the graphs before moving on to the deeper analysis posed by: 

  • What's going on in this graph? (i.e. what would be an accurate conclusion that can be supported by this graph). To answer this question use the CER framework
  • Write a >140 character Tweet that could accompany the sharing of the graph. Your response must include a relevant hashtag.
By now, I have a bundle of 29 such activities in the GoFormative library. Most of which come from the weekly NYT publishing, with a couple added from other sources due to my students' interest in a topic. The activity for me is weekly and takes up about 30 minutes of class time. Since many of them are related to my content it ends up supporting not only the acquisition of the skills for interpreting graphs espoused in the CCSS and NGSS but also addressing ISTE standards for students, making the activity an absolute win.

Documenting Peer-Reviews leads to better builds

As a project-based learning teacher, I know about the importance of feedback during project runs. I constantly conference with students, formally and informally, trying to push them to think critically about the project as well as what they are creating. Unfortunately, these conversations and documents don't always make it into their final projects, leaving both me and the students frustrated come unveiling day. You see, often my students become enamored with an idea and it is really hard to sway them, even when they realize that they should have taken a different approach. They come up with "patch" solutions to "fix" the immediate problem, but they seldom take a step back and realize that they should start from scratch. While I know that the learning is in the process, I also see a lack of transfer of those lessons from project to project - i.e. this did not work last time, why would it work this time?

Case in point - I run a project based on Teach Engineering's "Adding Helpful Carrier Devices to Crutches", and have this whole set-up that walks students through the engineering design process for it (Assistive Technology - Crutches). Last year we even had one of the students as an actual client that needed the device and built to her specifications, supposedly. What happened was that students basically attached whatever they had on hand without much consideration for usability - boxes and bags that make holding the crutches almost impossible, or too big causing a severe imbalance, etc. When challenged about this during first testing, their solutions were always about fixing what was already there (create a hole for the hand or adding dividers so help with the swaying of things), but they never included "take the whole thing off and re-work from scratch". After weeks of patches, students unveiled final products that did comply with the requirements but were not actually useful. The posed to the student we were building for, "Would you buy this?",  was always met with, "No, not really" - even for her own build! This led me to a bigger reflection of where I was dropping the ball and/or what could I do to help promote better builds.

As I pondered this question, I came up with two key things that I've implemented and seem to be working:

The fast build 

As soon as the project is introduced, the students have one class period to create and test a quick prototype. This happens even before the brainstorm. The goal of the fast build is to help students identify where the problems may eventually arise.

The Peer-Review documentation

After the fast build, my students continued through the engineering design project as usual. However, when it came time for testing the first full build, I introduced a "Prototype Evaluation" rubric.
The key portion for us was the requirement of providing specific ideas to help the team improve.  I "sold" this to the students as "your team has already thought about different ways to address issues, but that is only 4 brains. You are getting the benefit of 28 other brains that are seeing other things you have to address." After the testing and prototype evaluation rubric has been filled out, each team is responsible for compiling the feedback and presenting a summary of the information obtained from those rubrics and creating a plan of action for the next prototype. 

This peer review documentation seems to be working, though it does add three days of work for each prototype. In this case, I am requiring at least three rounds, extending the project 9 more class periods.  while this may not be feasible in every situation, I believe that it will be time well spent.

What do you think? What scaffolds do you have in place to ensure yous students are successful during their project runs? I'd love to hear about them.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Declutter your district Gmail

Having a district Google account has many benefits. From single sign-on to sharing documents with students and using Google classroom, it provides many opportunities for collaboration and communication, which makes it an invaluable tool. However, dealing with the e-mail attached to that account has always been a nightmare for me. That e-mail account is clogged with newsletters from different vendors and notifications of shared documents from students to the point of making it completely useless. In the past, this has not been a problem since my district was also using an LMS  which made it easy for me to bypass the use of that Gmail. However, it looks like it may no longer be the case, so I needed to find a way to make that Gmail account work more efficiently for me, and the answer was not as difficult as I thought it would be. It all relies on filtering your e-mails.

Filtering the vendors

1. Click on any e-mail you receive from a vendor to open it
2. Click on the three little dots at the top right of the message to open the "more" menu and select "filter messages like this"

3. On the screen that opens, select "Create Filter" and then choose what you want to do with those e-mails.

Filtering the invitations to edit

This was my biggest issue. No matter how many times I've asked my 240 stduents that when they share something with me (which I do want, of course) they should "skip sending a notification", they almost never do - that requires paying attention to details, which is not their forte. So on any given day, I would get hundreds of "____ has shared a document" e-mails. Filtering those was not as straightforward since the option to "filter messages like this" is not available. However, it can also be done.

1. Open your Gmail. Click on the Gear icon and then on Settings.

2. Select Filters and Blocked Addresses

3. Scroll down until you see Create a New Filter
4. In the box that appears, create the filter

5. Once you click continue, select what you want the filter to do and then click "create filter"

I selected "skip the inbox" for these types of e-mails just in case something gets filtered that I then need to go back to at some point. These e-mails will never make it to your inbox so if you ever need to see them, you will need to click on "more" on the left side of the screen, and then on "all e-mail".

It is important to note that all these filters you created do not necessarily apply retroactively. Anything received before you created the filter will still appear in your inbox unless you do something about it. However, anything new will be filtered according to the rules you just created.

So there it is. I hope you find this useful and if you have other tips I'd love to hear about them. On to teaching students about the wonder of BCC and never using "reply all".

Monday, July 8, 2019

Boss Battles with Google Forms and Sheets - An Update

I spent most of the last summer creating Boss Battles for my gamified classroom. Throughout the school year, I also shared with you a couple of tweaks I made to those original sheets, adding "first hit and first perfect hit", and then adding "shiny bosses".  My students really got into this whole idea of battling the bosses and I was really happy with the excitement they generated.

A couple of days ago, I began the painstaking process of clearing all of this work out in preparation for the new school year. While I would have loved to use them as they are, they no longer fit the game narrative that I am exploring for the upcoming year, plus, I reused Bosses across my grade levels. While this may not be a problem for most teachers, it is for me because I loop the students, so most of them would be re-battling the same bosses they already know. Perhaps they would not remember, but all it would take is one of them to check their student sheets (where the bosses are displayed), and the excitement of getting collecting the boss would be diminished. 

With all of this in mind, I started creating new bosses - we will be rescuing scientists - and clearing out the old forms/sheets tweaking the originals a bit, which is what I am sharing today.

Boss Battle Form (will auto copy)  - I have dummy-filled it with some data so that it is easier to explain. If you make a copy simply delete all the prefilled contents of "form responses 1"

Boss Sheet

While it looks basically the same, there are important things to note. 
  • Column L contains each of the Boss possibilities. Each is its own drawing (published to the web) and placed into the cell using 
=image("published address of your google drawing")
You may be tempted to make use of the new "insert image in cell" function. Don't. You will be calling the images into the boss battle pane and into the scores sheet. Google Sheets does not recognize images insterted that way as actual objects so until they fix that what will happen is that you get blank instead of the image you want to display.

  •  Cell F15 now contains a new formula:
=index('Form Responses 1'!$B:$B, match(true,isnumber(search("/",'Form Responses 1'!$A:$A)),""))
This formula looks at the timestamp looking for the first appearance of the slash symbol (/) in Form Responses 1 column A and reports the  matching contents of column B in the same sheet. This formula solves the problem of having to change cell references as the sheet is populated the first time around.

  • Cell F16 contains a similar formula:
=index('Form Responses 1'!$B:$B, match(true, 'Form Responses 1'!$C:$C=12, 0))
In this case, it matches the contents in column B with the first time the "perfect score" of 12 is achieved, and of course that can be changed to whatever number you is your "perfect score". 

Perfect Sheet

That sheet simply reports the contents of first hit and first perfect hit and assigns them a value. I bring that into my leaderboard using the Vlookup function as a way to give students an added incentive.
Formula that imports this into your leaderboard:

=IFERROR(VLOOKUP(A17,IMPORTRANGE("Boss Battle Google Sheet Identifier","Perfect!A:B"),2,0), 0)

Where the number 2 is the column number where those "extra points" are housed.
If you are interested in the Vlookup formula as it pertains to the leaderboard, visit my post "Assign XP automatically using Vlookup - Google Sheets"

Scores Sheet - AKA Where the magic happens

As originally, this is a pivot table that aggregates the data generated first by adding all the scores each student generates (Column B - Sum of Scores) and then by reporting the maximum score the student obtained (Column C - Max Score).

Column D (Counts the number of times a student achieved a Perfect Score)

I've been toying with the idea of having students "catch/rescue the Bosses". This collecting of the bosses had a great impact in engaging students to attempt the quizzes multiple times throughout a semester, regardless of whether it is an official Boss Battle day with the whole display of the Boss. In order to achieve this assigning of bosses I first needed to know how many times a student scored a perfect score. To do this, I added a Calculated Field to my Pivot Table:

If you click anywhere inside the already populated pivot table, the Pivot Table Editor opens. This already had the score summarization by SUM and by MAX.

The Times Perfect Score was added using by clicking Add values and selecting "calculated field". The formula is simply a COUNTIF, though you notice that the normal use of the quotations is eliminated.

=COUNTIF (Score, 12)

The number 12 obviously corresponds to the "perfect score" in this particular case and could be changed to whatever suits your needs.

If you are recreating your own, also make sure that you select Summarize by Custom and Show as Default.

That got me the number of times a student got a perfect score. You may be wondering why this was important. The answer is that I did not want to give out the Boss simply based on the number of points. My students are notorious for finding the easy way out and often would rather take a quiz 100 times scoring 1 each time than getting 100 the first time.

Column F (Where the Shiny Bosses come in)

With that number of "perfect scores" aggregated by student, it was time to move on to the "catching/rescuing" of the boss.

When working to pivot tables, you can still add formulas to the columns that are not being used by the pivot table itself. I added a title to Column F and called it boss obtained. To give the illusion of randomness to the catch, I decided on the following formula

=IF(D2>=10, Boss!$L$9, IF (AND(D2=9), Boss!$L$8, IF (AND(D2<=8,D2>=6),Boss!$L$9, IF (AND(D2<=5,D2>=1),Boss!$L$8," "))))

which gives the Boss in Cell L9 or L8 of the Boss sheet depending on the number of perfect scores. You would think that you could use the RAND (random) function, but unfortunately, it is what is called a volatile function, which means it refreshes each time and I did not want students to have a new boss catch simply by opening the sheet.

The formula is just copy/pasted down through the sheet so that each row gets its own student reference. The results of this column are again imported to my Leaderboard using VLOOKUP as mentioned in Perfect Sheet above. The key here is to remember that VLOOKUP references the column number:

=IFERROR(VLOOKUP(A2,IMPORTRANGE("your sheet identifier","scores!$A$2:F"),6,0), 0)

where the initial A2 - is what it is looking for (e-mail of my student),
"scores!$A$2:F"- the sheet and range where the data is housed
6 - really column F where the bosses caught were "assigned"

Column E - Maximum Possible Score: the end to "grinding"

Last year, some of my students greatly inflated their leaderboard standing by retaking boss battles over and over again. While in principle this would be OK with me, there is a point where enough is enough. I know that I can simply close the form, but that leaves the student who may need the extra practice out of the loop, and opening and closing a form manually means that I must remember to do so. Taking this into consideration, I opted for writing in a formula that reports a set number of points out to my leaderboard (again with the VLOOKUP formula) to my leaderboard once the maximum is reached.

=if (B2>40, 40, B2)

Looking at the formula, it simply reads if the contents of cell B2 (where the scores are added is greater than 40, report 40, otherwise report the number present in cell B2. The formula is copied down Column E.

That is it for today. I hope this inspires you to keep working on your leaderboards and perhaps make some additions or modifications. And as always a big shout-out to Mr. Powley who although has moved on to standards-based grading and may be letting go of the Dread Sheets inspired this whole Boss Battle process.