Saturday, December 19, 2015

Edmodo Spotlight - The Gem You Have Not Heard About

A long while ago, I talked about Edmodo -  an educational website that takes the ideas of a social network and reļ¬nes them and makes them appropriate for a classroom. If you have not heard about it, I invite you to read about its benefits and how I use it in my classroom. (Edmodo at AdVENTURE). 

What you might not know is that they recently came up with the idea of Edmodo Spotlight, a place where teachers have come together to share, collect and discover resources. I know what you are thinking, "There are lots of sites where you can find lessons or ideas" or "I can find what I need on ____". While this is true, Spotlight is different in that it can become your one place not only for inspiration, but also the place to find that quick sub plan, or discover new tools. Teachers from all over the world are adding content daily, and if you are like me, you will always look for ways to "make that lesson better". Edmodo Spotlight can help you do just that!

Let me give you some examples. In the past month on Edmodo Spotlight I:

Would I have been able to do all of this without Edmodo Spotlight? Maybe, but Spotlight made it so much easier!

To access Edmodo Spotlight, simply log on to your Edmodo account, then click on the spotlight (top right), and click on "Check it out":

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Three ways to display student work

We all know the importance of displaying student work. Displaying student work send the message that the teachers and community values the work they do. It allows opportunities for students to learn from each other and make connections that they might have otherwise missed.

Unfortunately, not only do we have limited wall space, but the classrooms displays need to be taken down to make room for new work. All that hard work gets given back to the students and usually gets tossed out for recycling as soon as it gets home. 

You might think to take a picture of the display, but the pictures seldom not come out well enough for students to use them as reference. You might also be thinking about the impossibility of these classroom displays to show growth of a student or even whole class over time. This is where digital tools can come in handy.

These are my current favorites:


Shared with me by fellow Edmodo user Christi Collins, Thinglink is touted as the "leading platform for creating interactive images and videos for web, social, advertising, and educational channels." This user friendly digital tool provides students and teachers with the ability to turn any image into an interactive graphic. You can create multiple clickable spots within an image, and turn them into a multimedia launcher that can be used to include other images, video, audio or provide a link to any URL.


SpicyNodes is a mind mapping tool that provides "a way to visualize online information that mimics that way that people look for things in the real world. Bits of information — such as text, links, photos, and other media — are placed into "nodes," which are then linked together in an appealing interface that invites exploration." You can use spicy nodes to display student work not only for the sake of sharing, but also to provide opportunities to make connections between the different pieces of work that they created themselves.


Hstry is a web platform that allows students and teachers to create and explore interactive timelines. However, it really is so much more than a timeline. You can use it to create assignments and projects, the students can use it to create responses and draft portfolios. You can even use it as I did here to create an interactive display of student work. As with the two previous ones, the user can insert images, videos and text. If you use it for assignments, you can even include formative and summative assessments!

All of these were created with the same body of responses to a single assignment as a way to show you the possibilities of each webtool. 

Have you found other digital ways to display student work? Share them with us in the comments so we can all benefit.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Teach students to "Take Over the World"

It all started as a bit of a classroom joke. As most days, students entered and at least one asked "So, what are we doing today?" My usual response up until then would be to direct them to the board where I, as many of us do, had already written down objectives and an agenda. However, on this particular day the question triggered a childhood memory. Was it the timber of that student's voice? Maybe. I just know that the theme song for Pinky and the Brain song popped in my head, which inspired me to state, "The same thing we do every day... Try to take over the world!" The student giggled, and took his seat. The next day, he asked again, and I said the same thing. By the third day, my agenda board morphed into a "Today's Plan to take over the World" board. This soon became our classroom mantra, and has often helped me frame the day's lesson as my "Plans" started to include:

  • What (are we learning)?
  • Why (are we learning it)?
  • How will I know if I am successful?
  • How can I apply this?

All of this was fine and good. The kids got a kick of asking every day, and smiled as I responded the same way every time.

Enter Nick into the classroom, one of those bright students that often push your pedagogy forward. As we repeated the same questioning about taking over the world, he raised his hand and asked that all important question, "Mrs. Garcia, exactly how are we supposed to take over the world?" Fortuitously, I had just read an article on Edutopia describing Costa and Kallik's Habits of Mind, and in that magical moment it came full circle. I was not able to identify all 16 habits of mind for Nick on that day, but I remembered enough to say "Well, you would need to persevere and think creatively. You cannot take over the world if you give up or if you do the same thing as others are doing, right? So, let's get started with our lesson for today." We went about our business that day, but by the next day, I had done more reading, printed out some art for my walls and even developed a slide deck identifying each of the habits.

I tabled my science lessons in favor of a lesson entitled "How to Take over the World". We went over each of the habits of mind, and I encouraged the students to not only discuss each one as they were presented, but also to find examples of the habits they were already practicing. We had conversations about practicing to get better at soccer and at playing a videogame, the difference between hearing and listening and how they apply knowledge to new situations, amongst others. The students were able to see that the habits of mind we were talking about could guide us in our ultimate goal "To Take Over the World".

The moment has since past, but we have constant reminders in our Plan Board, the posters I hung on the walls, and the slide deck (which I turned into a screensaver for our classroom devices). Since then, the habits of mind are ever present in the conversations between myself and the students, "I see that you checked your work a couple of times. You are on your way to take over the world.", and between the students themselves, "How are we going to take over the world if we do the same thing as everyone else!"

And that, my noble readers, is how I know my students are getting ready to take over the world. I invite you to joint the conversation by posting your questions or comments.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

My students are taking ownership of the NGSS - Part 2: The Crosscutting Concepts

In a previous post, I talked about how my students have taken ownership of the Science and Engineering Practices by identifying the practices and making their thinking visible. When it came down to tackling the Cross-Cutting Concepts (XCC) with the students, I knew that I had deliberately model the thought process and make the connections visible. I disagree with the statement, "If you are teaching the content, students will grasp the crosscutting concepts. I don't need to teach the connections"; I cannot expect the students to just magically connect the dots themselves.

This led me down the internet rabbit hole, looking for a way to clarify my own ideas about the CrossCutting Concepts, as well as a framework that I could share with the students. During that exploration I came across Peter A'Hearn's CrossCut Symbols. Not only does he provide some cutesy graphics, but delving deeper into his site, I discovered that he had taken the time to develop a series of questions that can guide students in their explorations of the XCC. The framework had already been created!

I printed out his graphics and questions, and placed them in the back of my room, really as my own reference to use while I was teaching. When the students entered, they noticed the change, and being who they are, asked "What are we supposed to do with that?". As usual, I put the question right back on the student's shoulders and replied, "I don't know... What could you do with that?" To my surprise, one of them answered, "Well, we could try to answer the questions." That simple statement was the beginning of the XCC interactive board, and what has become my go to exit ticket for all classes.

As I am teaching, I will move to the board and sometimes point to specific XCC as I explain my thinking. At the end of each day, students are invited to write post-its in response to connections they made to specific XCC. This is a win in itself.
I read through the post-its, but do not use them for anything other than to guide my instruction and address misconceptions if needed. The only "reward" the students get for doing this is when one of them makes a significant leap, and it gets mentioned during a subsequent lesson or as a starting point for a discussion.

Now, for the real ownership part. This exercise has started to trickle down to their weekly writing. Notice the wording of that last sentence. That is the XCC - Stability and Change.

Although we have a ways to go in the "explaining department", the fact that they are beginning to add those ideas to their weekly writings makes me believe that we are on to something great.

What do you think? I would love to hear some more ideas about how to help students take ownership of the NGSS.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

My students are taking ownership of the NGSS - Part 1: The Practices

Image source: 

In a recent conversation with a group of colleagues, I was surprised to hear comments such as:
"I teach science, this NGSS are just the same content standards I already use",  "I use inquiry all the time; my lessons are already NGSS aligned" and finally "If you are teaching the content, students will grasp the crosscutting concepts. I don't need to teach the connections". This got me thinking about just what the NGSS asks educators to do, and what it means in terms of guiding student learning.

At its most basic, the NGSS tells me:

  • What to teach: Disciplinary Core Ideas
  • How to teach it: Science and Engineering Practices
  • Why I teach it: Cross Cutting Concepts

I teach middle school, and my district has not decided whether they will adopt an integrated or science domain model. However, even if I don't know this yet, I decided that I needed to begin working towards analyzing my lessons to determine whether they are NGSS aligned, and to make the alignment visible so that students can really become immersed in the content. For this, I need a different mindset.

The question then became, "How do I get my students to think like scientists so they can make the connections necessary to apply the cross-cutting concepts?" In my quest to answer this question I asked my students to recognize when they were applying the Science and Engineering practices in my classroom. I provided students with the same yes/no questions I use when I am developing my lessons and gave them sentence frames to compose their answers.

The following examples represent student responses to the same lesson.

The fact that both students identified different practices is not a problem. They just have different perspectives on what they did to develop an understanding of the content. That in itself is a win towards making "thinking like scientists" visible and NGSS alignment

Going back to the original conversation, and specifically the comment "I use inquiry all the time; my lessons are already NGSS aligned", I would say, unless the students are asking the questions and developing their own investigations, the lesson is not NGSS aligned. Inquiry is not equal to NGSS alignment. However, having the students think like scientists as they develop their understanding is a first step.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Engaging your middle school audience through PBL

It is that time of the year where I am asked to teach a concept that does not readily engage my middle schoolers. Don't get me wrong, I know that there are many connections to be made, and real-world applications to be discovered. However no amount of me talking about it, having them create catchy posters or even building models (edible or otherwise) has ever been very successful in my book when we are supposed to be able to describe the function of a cell as a whole and ways part of cells contribute to their function (MS-LS1-2). The dreaded Cells and Organelles Unit is upon us.

As I once again began my search for a different approach for teaching this, I stumbled upon this post from Plant Cell Biology, which led me through the rabbit hole of Mr. Graba's work with  high school freshmen, and figured "OK, I can adapt that cell electoral campaign idea."

The premise: The nucleus has to resign, leaving a power void in the cell. A special election is being held to elect a new leader for the cell.

What the students had to do:

1. Develop a series of electoral posters describing the role of each organelle.

Pretty much a tired old cell project, but OK. The students plastered my classroom walls with these.

2. Develop a political advertisement for their organelle. This is already rather cool, as they really took to the "meat" of the concepts.

3. As students were getting into the previous components, they also had to create and respond to a smear campaign against their opposition. This is what really got them going, and probably what improved the quality and depth of the final work overall.


Not only were they "smearing" the other candidates, they added all this evidence for their ideas. This also ended up helping students learn about other organelles, and not just about the one they had been assigned. When they started telling each other to "read the resource closely" and "I have to get home early so that I can do some more research to be able to respond to that", my heart actually sang for joy!

As an added benefit to this project, the students also learned about how to structure an electoral campaign. At the beginning of the project, questions flew about just what would go in the posters vs. the video vs. the "smears". Instead of me giving an answer, I told them to go ahead and research different campaigns and determine what had made them "successful". They requested conferences and support with their social studies teacher, just because they wanted to win this election. I am still confounded by this turn of events, but hey, why would I stand against students taking full ownership!

As we come to the end of this project, I am left with one question that perhaps you will help me answer. I cannot assign another electoral campaign to this group. Do you have any ideas about how to spark this level of interest?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

First week of school - What to do?

For many of us the first day of school is right around the corner. Many of you have been busy preparing for that "magical" day. You have your syllabus, you organized your classroom, you may have even written new lesson plans or tweaked some of your old ones. If you are like me, you are ready to start teaching your content. Let's not waste any time.

Although I would love to be able to start day one handing out green-sheets and getting right into the content, I know that my students need a couple of days to get settled into the classroom routines. They also need to get to know me and each other, as much as I need to get to know them. But, what to do? A quick Google search of "first day of school activities" brings out tons of different options.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Party 

or "Teaching students to recognize individual strengths of group members."

As the class enters they find small paper plates (cheap, unlaminated cake plates work best) on their desks. Once students are settled, set the scenario by stating ""You've all been invited to a party. It's like pot-luck, but instead of bringing food to share, you're bringing yourself and the strengths you believe you contribute to the class. For example, you may be a great with computers, a creative thinker, very organized, or able to keep others on task. On one of the paper plates, write down the strengths or talents that you bring to the party. After you have written your strengths, you may also decorate the plate, but do not write your name on it." I give students about 15 minutes to complete this. I also make my own!

Once they are done, collect all plates in the center of the room, and designate one person to pick up the first plate from the stack. That person reads what was written, and asks the author to stand up, share a little more, and then write his/her name on the plate and stick it/tape it on the wall. This person becomes the next to pick up a plate from the pile. We continue until all plates are up on the wall.

If time allows or the next day, we have a discussion about the activity, asking questions such as:
  • How can what you've learned from others be used to allow us to work in class?
  • How can you make the most of the strengths and talents of the class and still allow everyone a chance to try new things or use new talents?
  • Is the class missing any strengths? What are they and how can you build them? What if you can't? How can you overcome not having certain strengths or prevent the lack of them from becoming a class weakness?
The decorated plates from each of my classes not only make a cute Back to School mural, but also  become a reminder of everyone's strengths and can be used to guide students when trying to determine who is the best person for a team task.


or "The importance of clear communication and active listening in order to accurately express ideas and instructions or to receive messages from others."

Each student receives one piece of 8x11 paper, this may be white or colored. I tell the students to follow the directions they are about to be given, without asking any questions or looking at their neighbors for "correctness". Each student is working individually. I proceed by giving the following directions quickly, without demonstrating or clarifying in any way.
  1. Fold the paper in half and tear off a top corner. 
  2. Fold it in half again and tear off the top corner. 
  3. Fold it in half again and tear off the left corner. 
  4. Rotate the paper to the right three times and tear off the bottom corner. 
  5. Fold it in half again and tear off the middle piece.
I tell the students to unfold their papers and compare their snowflakes with those around them. Of course they find that most of their creations do not match each other. I follow up this activity with a class discussion asking questions such as:
  • Why is it that even though everyone received the same directions, not everyone's snowflake looks the same?
  • What would have changed if you could have asked questions? Why would asking clarifying questions in class be important?
  • Have you ever told someone one thing only to have the person hear and do something different? What happened, and how did you deal with it?
  • If you are the leader of a group, what steps can you take to make sure that others clearly understand what you're trying to tell them?
  • How can you improve your communication skills when it becomes obvious that others are seeing things differently than you intended?


Post-it Towers

or "Teamwork is a strategy to solve problems."

I divide the class into groups of four and hand out 15 Post-its to each group. I tell students, "Your team must build the tallest Post-it note tower. Your tower must stand alone (no leaning your structure against anything). No glue, tape, string, staples or any binding material that is not the sticky part of the post-it. You have 15 minutes." At the end of the 15 minutes, I ask students to measure their towers, compare the different structures and declare a "winner". 
I follow up this activity with a discussion centered around questions like:
  • Did you have a plan before you started building?
  • What were the skills that helped you or would have been helpful to succeed in this activity?
  • How effectively did your team communicate ideas during the activity?
  • If you could do it over again, what would you change/keep the same?
  • What are some important teamwork agreements we can implement the next time we do an activity?
During the discussion, I write down the "Teamwork Agreements" on chart paper, and finish off by having student sign their names. The Teamwork Agreements stay up as a reminder to students of how we have agreed to work together in the classroom.

What about you? What do you do that first week of school?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Avoiding death by presentation.

It is project presentation day! Your students are excited (and anxious) about presenting their work. They had lots of choices to demonstrate what they learned, each team has a different topic or solution to the problem. They have also used different tools to create amazing presentations. Slide decks using Powerpoint, Google presentations, Prezi, E-maze or even Piktochart abound. Everything is going swell, until students start presenting.

That is when you again realize that it does not matter that everyone is presenting something different or that the tool chosen has lots of bells and whistles. Students, and many adults, still rely on text heavy slide decks, and more often than not, they "present" by reading each slide out-loud. By the third presentation, and even though you have stated several times, "I can read your slide, turn around and tell us about your work", you are ready to pull your hair out. Out of the corner of your eye you see Juanita doodling and Johnny dozing off. The class is bored out of their minds. Something has to change!

Now you may already be thinking about authentic audiences, but the same thing happens when students are presenting to the community at large, and even in professional settings. And yes, I know that presentation skills need to be taught and students need to practice beforehand. We have had complete lessons on what makes a good presentation and critiqued posted presentations from around the web. But even then, the reliance on reading text-heavy slide decks is still an issue.

As I searched for an answer, I came across the idea of using an Ignite presentation format. The Ignite presentation is a 5 minutes long presentation with 20 slides where the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds. You can think of it as the presentation equivalent of a sonnet.

The idea is simple, but putting it into practice will require some prep and teaching on my part. This is the plan:

1. Introduce the idea of Ignite presentations. Share Scott Berkun's - "Why and How to Give an Ignite Talk".

2. Provide students with an Ignite presentation planner. This document becomes the presentation outline.

3. Based on the planner, students can create a slide index (on paper or a Google doc). This is basically a "what will go in each of the presentation slides". Students then practice with this slide index in hand to figure out what to say and what to include as visuals for that slide.

4. Have students choose a slide deck creator, and draft their visual presentation. Remind them of the "20/15" rule. 
  • Google slides: Create the 20 slide deck. Publish  to the web, and select auto-advance every 15 seconds. The link created is what they submit to be played on presentation day.
  • Prezi: Prezi does not offer the 15 second option in auto-play, so students will need to get a little more creative. For example it could be 15 slides every 20 seconds or 30 slides every 10 seconds. 
  • Emaze: Apply the 15 second stop duration in slides options to the complete 20 slides presentation.
The key idea in this step is that no matter what tool they use, they will be presenting using the automatic changing of slides. It should almost be a choreographed dance between the slide deck and the presenters. Practice is key!

This is what our first attempt looks like:

5. During presentation day, I will continue to use my peer-presentation rubric, which I have transformed into a Google form. Feel free to create your own copy from this presentation rubric response form  (If you are unsure of how, read my previous post Evaluating websites using Google forms).

So, that's it. What do you think?
What other ways have you come up with to avoid death by presentation? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Evaluating websites using Google Forms

Keyboard and phone image

We can probably all agree that the internet is a great source of information on all topics. From travel destinations or cute kitten videos to breaking news or the latest scientific discovery, everything is at our fingertips. Content is continuously added, often without any form of review for accuracy or reliability, so it is imperative to teach our students how to evaluate Web sites to determine if the information is reliable and credible.

There are many sites that offer lessons to teach students how to evaluate websites. One of the best tools I found for this is a rubric developed by the Ron E. Lewis Library - based on the CRAAP Test created by Meriam Library at California State University-Chico. Unfortunately, although the acronym is catchy, I cringed at the thought of having my middle-schoolers go home and tell their parents that I had used that specific word. Middle-schoolers are not known for providing context, plus if I know them at all, by the time they got home the CRAAP acronym would probably have changed to something even worse. So I took it upon myself to modify the rubric into something more middle-school appropriate, creating the CITE-IT rubric instead.

Over the last school year, we worked with a paper version of the CITE-IT rubric, and I required that any time that students were referencing sources they had to attach the CITE-IT scores and rubrics for the Web sites they used. This worked quite well, except for the fact that I had to keep a big stack of CITE-IT rubrics on hand. Also, although most students were able to manage this, but a few of them would invariably come towards the end of a project and fill in a bunch of the rubrics, just so they could comply with the requirement.

In a recent training, I learned about using Google forms to create rubrics, and thus be able to grade "on the fly". This means that basically you create a form with a field for student name and a series of multiple choice indicators for each of your criteria. In the end this gives you a spreadsheet where you have collected each student's score on the rubric, and which you can then sort any way you wish. As I mulled this idea as a great way to increase my productivity while grading presentations or essays, a spark of inspiration struck. "What about using that same idea and having students use it for the curation of websites with CITE-IT scores?"

So, this is what I came up with.

  • I created a Google form version of the rubric.
  • I modified the response sheet so that the last column on it would automatically add the correct columns. I also added a column that would advise the student on whether to use the site or not. This is based on the individual scores the student assigned - just like in the paper version.

The idea is that this will allow the students to have their own version of the CITE-IT form and response sheet, which they can then use as they are doing their research. By adding a text  field for comments, they will also be able to sort the sheet by project title (if that is what they add), share their evaluated sources with me and each other and perhaps, in my utopian dreams, even see trends in the URL addresses that come up as reliable most often.

If you would like to make a copy of the form for your students to use (or modify to suit your needs), it is as easy as navigating to this blank response spreadsheet, clicking on Make a Copy (make sure you are signed in to Google), and then click on View Form. This will maintain all formatting and formulas I used. Feel free to change anything that does not suit you, as this is now your own copy.

I hope you find this useful, and if you have an idea on how to make this better, please share.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Leaderboards with Google Apps, an update

A while back I talked about using Google Spreadsheets to create a leader board. The main drawback I saw in my original version is that students (and me) were unable to see clearly who was in the lead unless I sorted it, which at times created errors in some of the cells. I continued to tinker with it and discovered the pivot table function. This was the answer!

 Here is a video tutorial that shows just how to create the self-ranking leader board.

The formulas that I used to create this are -

Importing ranges of cells:
Conditional formula for images:
=IF(C2>=15401, image(""),IF (AND(C2<=15400,C2>=13601), image(""), IF (AND(C2<=13600,C2>=11901), image(""),IF(AND(C2<=11900,C2>=10301),image(""),IF(AND(C2<=10300,C2>=8801),image(""),IF(AND(C2<=8800,C2>=7501),image(""),IF(AND(C2<=7500, C2>=6301),image(""),IF(AND(C2<=6300, C2>=5201),image(""),IF(AND(C2<=5200, C2>=2501),image(""), IF(C2<=2500,image("")))))))))))

Modified embed code - I highlighted the part you add:
<iframe src=";single=true&amp;widget=true&amp;headers=false&amp;gid=0&amp;range=A1:D39" width="450" height="2350" ></iframe>

Of course, you can always make a copy of the document I used in the tutorial and modify it to suit your needs.

I invite you to play around with it. For example, you can add avatars or other images using
You will again need to host the images in a published document, shorten the URLs, and remember to modify the range, width and height if you are going to embed it anywhere. In this document, I show the avatars in the pivot table, and just like before they are ranked by XP.

I have not found a way to also include items or badges in the pivot page. When I try it, the totals are pushed to the very end, creating a rather messy look. However, you could always publish them in the leader board page, which keeps them in alpha order and could actually be an even better idea.

If you've found different ways of doing this or need some help, leave a comment. Don't be shy. We are in this journey together.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Gamifying the NGSS

The NGSS standards are asking students to apply science and engineering practices in order to understand how cross cutting concepts play out disciplinary core ideas. The three dimensions of the NGSS require much more than a simple addition to an inquiry lesson. The student who is not able to make connections across the content and apply his/her understanding to one DCI concept to solve a problem or answer a question in a different context or DCI has not mastered an NGSS standard.

As I considered different ways to modify my instruction in order to provide students with maximum exposure to the science and engineering practices (S&EP), as well as the crosscutting concepts (CCC), I read Leigh Roehm's lesson "pHun with Phenolphthalein" at the BetterLesson website*. In it she masterfully exemplifies just how to incorporate the crosscutting concepts into what she calls the Ladder of Discourse. Through the use of the strategy, she transfers the responsibility for the crosscutting concepts from the teacher to the students! This got me thinking about doing something similar with the S&EPs, which finally led me to the idea of gamifying the three dimensions of the NGSS.

Before I explain, I invite you to visit any of the grade-level sites I created for this. If you check out the How to Play in any of them, you will perhaps get the idea of just what I mean about how the NGSS are tied into the game.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The DCIs are present in the training rooms. These are the concepts I cover, mostly using PBL which already gives a lot of opportunities for choice, and do not provide XP or gold coins. The main reason I have for this is that in my previous attempts at gamification, including them in the leaderboards becomes a grading nightmare (see Gamified Classroom - A Year in Review). However, as the year progresses I will be granting access to PowerMyLearning and MySciLife activities that will allow the students to gain XP and gold coins through choices in this area.

Science and Engineering Practices = XP

These are gamified, providing students the opportunity to gain XP and level up by writing weekly blogs. I first introduced my students to the idea of obtaining XP for weekly writing two years ago (see Gamification, starting really small). The structure of the posts has changed over the years, and in this iteration I am asking the students to engage with a specific character, depending on the game, and provide evidence that they have  acquired experience in the S&EPs. To gamify the S&EPs meant that students needed a structure that would allow them to make each of the practices visible in their writing. In order to create the structure I used Rodger W. Bybee's article "Scientific and Engineering Practices in K–12 Classrooms", transforming each of the practices into student-friendly statements that they can choose to write about.  It also meant that they needed a purpose to push themselves in the critical thinking required by the assignment. This is where the leveling up comes in as higher levels of XP mean privileges, such as being able to use their phones or listen to music in class.

Crosscutting Concepts = Gold Coins

In thinking about what I want students to get through the gamified experiences I was creating, it made sense that the crosscutting concepts became the boss battles. Being able to identify and explain big underlying ideas that span different content areas is what the crosscutting are about, and as such require a rather deep understanding of the content. It also means that students need to be able to revisit them over and over as their understanding grows. The irony is that these were by far the easiest to gamify. I created the Boss Battles by  transforming the K-8 statements from the NSTA's Matrix of Crosscutting Concepts, and added the Ladder of Discourse I mentioned earlier to further help the students draft their "battle". At the moment, the battle arenas are set up in blogger, providing students a dedicated space to engage in them. However, this might change as my goal is to have the students keep the same arenas for the four years that they have with me, so the page structure I propose might become too cumbersome. I am even toying with the idea of having actual "boss battle" days in the form of classroom debates - but that is a post for another day.

At this point you may be asking why I decided to award gold coins instead of XP for engaging with the crosscutting concepts. This really comes down to motivation and the difficulty I am expecting some of my students to have with this shift, especially in the lower grades. Not every student will make a big connection every week. However making that connection and being able to explain it can, over time, earn the students big rewards. 

So, what do you think? Let the conversation about gamifying the NGSS begin.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Gamified classroom - a year in review

About a year ago I set out to offer my students a complete gamified experience in my classroom (Setting up a Gamified Classroom). With quests, leaderboard  and student buy in we set out to train dragons, and overall it was a positive experience for both myself and the students.

My gamified classroom was set up so that the different units (quests) would unlock a power-up.  This meant that power-ups could not be accessed until we reached that unit.  This worked well for the students that wanted that power-up, and having all power-ups unlocked became a status symbol. The goal of having students revisit work (even if it was done months before) was achieved. In fact, a student that did not join us until the second semester took it upon herself to complete the previous units just so she could also unlock the powers.

On the flip side, I also had students that did not care about a particular power-up. Yes, the assignments were completed (as they would go in the gradebook), but my vision of having them revisit old work in order to earn the power-up did not materialize. However, this is not a failure  of the gamification experience, but rather missed opportunity on my part to find a way to encourage these students to refine work.

The "training the dragon" aspect was a different matter. The dragon training was tied to a weekly blog writing assignment and its end goal was to not have to do the assignment at all (blog immunity). Although only ten of the 140 students that I had this year reached the goal, most of them came close enough that they could taste it. I had students come up to me a couple of weeks before school ended asking, "If I write two blogs this week and score well, will they count towards blog immunity?" The logic of writing one post a week for the final two weeks vs. writing two posts in one week so they would not have to write a post the final week escaped them!

From the mechanics aspect, I will be honest and tell you that as much as I love my leaderboard, keeping up with it was not easy. A big part of the gamified experience for students is immediate feedback. In the real gaming world, students can immediately see if they have reached a goal or unlocked a power-up. In my classroom, they not only had to wait for the assignment to be graded and put into the leaderboard, but in the case of revisions, they also had to wait for me to be done with all other grading before I could even tackle revisions. Now, the students know and respect the fact that I do read through all of their work, and have a rather quick turn-around for grades. However, grouping the power-ups with the unit assignments meant that I was in fact keeping two gradebooks, sometimes with different scoring criteria. This is something that I will definitely be revisiting.

All that being said, I will continue on the gamification path. Wish me luck!

Friday, June 19, 2015

PBL - Avoiding the pitfalls of "Doing Research"

OK, so you created an engaging entry event for your students. The students are excited about immersing themselves in the PBL experience. As a class you developed a list of "need to knows" for the project, everyone understands what they need to do. You walk around the classroom. All students appear to be working. Students attend the workshops you carefully develop at their request. The conversations you overhear tell you the students are engaged in some deep learning. All is well in the PBL world. Except...

Scenario 1: Time travel to day 5 (or whatever) of the project run. You ask a team, "How are you doing?" A student gleefully states, "We are doing research on cells." You continue, "What specifically are you trying to understand?" Their reply, "Umm." You follow up with a series of questions until finally you obtain a better answer, only to repeat the same process with a second and third teams.

Scenario 2: Time travel to the day before the project is due. You ask that teams submit their work so that presentations will run smoothly. Several teams are frantically compiling final products, You know that these teams will offer up piecemeal presentations. Organization and mechanics have gone out the window.

After being faced with these two scenarios several times in my PBL runs, I developed a couple of strategies that seem to help.

Project Timetable

At the start of the PBL run, and along with the "need to knows", the students and I analyze the different components that are required for a project. With rubric in hand, we backwards map the project and develop a project timetable. Both the requirements and timetable are put into a shared document, which the students use to "move themselves" through the project continuum.
Sample of my Genetics Project Timetable

Daily Project Work Report

While the project is running, I have students submit a Daily Project Work Report. This simple sheet, inspired by BIE's Project Work Report asks students to set specific goals for the day's work, and then report what was actually accomplished during the time in class. The key to using this sheet is the specificity of the goals. At the start we go over what a specific goal for a day's work means - "Doing research" is never specific enough. I collect these sheets daily and provide pointed feedback on them as the project run progresses. 

Project Management Sheet

Project Management Sheet
Both of the previous documents still have the teacher very much as the project manager. However, my goal is to shift the responsibility for managing a project to the students, so as students become more adept at managing a project run, I introduce the Project Management Sheet. This document has students take full control of the project run, from identifying need to knows, project requirements and backwards mapping the project, all the way to requesting feedback and assigning work outside of class.

Although I still get some "Doing research" answers, these tools have cut down on students going down the rabbit hole that this statement means. They create tangible evidence of student accountability for a PBL run.

Do you have other ideas for solving the "doing research" conundrum? I would love to hear them.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Student Exhibitions, an Integral Part of Project Based Learning

Student exhibitions are not the traditional open house you might have experienced, where the teacher selects some material to show to parents, and breathes a big sigh of relief when "cookie cutter" projects finally make it home. In the project based model we use at AdVENTURE, exhibitions have the students front and center as they present work, chosen by them. The students are doing most of the talking and are actively explaining their work. 

Student exhibitions are about celebrating hard work. They give students an authentic audience to present their work, and showcase their learning. The final product often takes a secondary role as the emphasis is put on the journey the student took to get there. The celebratory nature of the event gives students an opportunity to engage in deep conversations with community members, and take on the risk of becoming a "teacher of adults".

Exhibitions promote deep learning of the content. The projects being presented are the end result of an extended, in-depth period of learning, and require that students demonstrate mastery of the content and standards. Students show that deep explorations in learning can have many different paths, and provide students with new questions to guide their inquiry.

Exhibitions are also about accountability. Community members get to see first hand what the students are learning. This goes beyond rigorous academic content, and includes 21st-century skills. During the event, students get to demonstrate how they have grown in leadership, responsibility and innovation, as well as practice communication skills authentically.

Student exhibitions provide a sense unity of within our community. Although our PBL is not static, and new essential questions lead our students down different paths, the content remains. Our older students are given an opportunity to reminisce about favorite projects, and often take on the role of mentors for the younger students, giving knowledgeable and caring feedback. On the other hand, the younger students get to see what older students have done, and on occasion, even begin to plan for what they now know they will work on in the upper grades.

Finally, student exhibitions increase student engagement. Students take ownership of their work because they know their work will have an audience beyond their teachers and classmates. Although at times, students have been known to say "Another exhibition night? We've had like five...", you just need to see the pride on their faces during the actual event to know that our exhibitions are here to stay.

What do you think? Leave your comments and let's start a conversation.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Two great sites for improving Science literacy

 As a middle school teacher, I want to expose my students to as many science related content as I possibly can. In my head, I envision a classroom where students would come in ready to discuss a topic after having been able to read several pieces. Unfortunately, finding those sources can be time consuming and frustrating. Let's face it, most science articles are not meant for this age group. Even then, my student's have vast differences in reading abilities, so I often end up having to assign different readings just so that we can all discuss a topic somewhat intelligently.

That is where two websites I recently found come in. NEWSELA and BirdBrain Science. Both offer science related articles at different reading levels, with the possibility of taking CCSS aligned quizzes after the reading, and a way for teachers to track student progress.

Bird Brain Science is more textbooky. The science articles are informational in nature, and are presented within specific science topics. Although there is the option to assign readings as "interest", most are not particularly interesting to students. I see and have used it more as a supplement to instruction since I can assign a specific topic (i.e. I used the "Where did I come from?" article from the Genetics unit - to review the concept of heredity).

NEWSELA takes recent scientific articles and adapts them to different reading levels. Although much more interesting to read, the articles themselves do not lend themselves for use as part of my instruction. For example, although it might be nice to read about "Cuban crocodiles losing their identity", unless we are specifically studying the plight of the cuban crocodiles, I still have to scour the site to find articles to broaden the topic. I see this site as an enrichment opportunity or as a way to give my lower readers access to what is going on in the scientific community.

Now, if these two sites had a baby... Just imagine leveled reading for science content and science interest. What about you? Do you prefer one over the other?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Surprise Journal

A while back I wrote about transforming my students' blogs into a more reflective space (Reflective teaching and learning - the blogs). This practice has had the desired effect in my students, allowing them to put their learning in perspective and becoming more aware of the meaning behind their experiences in my classroom. It has helped clarify goals, and moved them away from the superficiality of  "My goal is to get straight A's", to the more meaningful "My goal for next week is to pay close attention when writing my notes and keep them in an organized binder so I can use them when I study for Friday's quiz."

However, for some of my students they have also become a little bit formulaic, lacking in that elusive element that makes students attempt to go beyond the obvious.This is why I was very happy when I read the Surprise! article by Julia Galef. Her ideas led me to think about how my students' blogs could also include a simple "surprise" statement. The goal is to have students acknowledge the fact that there are everyday moments that lead us to curious discoveries. That being open to those moments of surprise gives us permission to explore creative solutions, and that being wrong is most definitely not a "bad" thing as long as we take a moment to think about what we can from it.

We have barely started including these surprises, and I am once again having fun reading their posts. My students continue to grow and explore the world around them with curiosity, challenging each other to find the most interesting surprises. That is what teaching is all about.