Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lightening up our Standards

Have you seen these light boxes around? I keep seeing them all over the place. From my view in the aisle of the store, I was feeling pretty "meh" about them until my daughter received one as a birthday gift. She was so excited to get one that it was one of the first things she opened. Now that I have seen it outside the box, I admit that I, too, am quite taken with it. And, as with so many things, I keep thinking of things I could do with it in my classroom.

One idea I had is to post my standards on it each day. A standard light box comes with a small set of letters - maybe two of each letter and a few extra of the vowels. That probably wouldn't be enough to write an entire standard. I got to thinking that I could type the standard in a large font size, print it, and use the copy machine to make a transparency. Then trim it to the right size and slide it into the tracks for daily viewing. I like the idea of this because it would emphasize the standard in a way that's fun. The light draws attention to it. I mentioned this idea to my daughter and she said she appreciates that her ELA teacher posts the "I Cans" every day and she thought the light box would be great for that.

Of course, the light box could have other classroom applications too. Maybe it could announce birthdays. Kids would get a kick out of that, I think. Maybe reminders could be posted. Or homework assignments. Or station directions. It's a little gimmicky, I guess, but I think these have a place in the classroom. Are you using one in your classroom? Do you have ideas for how you might use one?

It's almost Teacher Appreciation Day. A light box is on the top of my wish list. I'll let you know how I use it if I get one.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Two More Possible Padlet Replacements

Doug Robertson definitely wins the "best tweet of the day" for his suggested Padlet replacement: giant pad of paper and sticky notes. I love it!

There have been lots of other free suggestions today, like using Google Docs, Slides, or Drawings as a replacement. Everyone's fave Richard Byrne blogged about 5 Alternatives on Free Tech for Teachers today.

Still, I poked around and looked at two more possible Padlet replacements: Pearltrees and Stormboard.


Pearltrees was not new to me, but I was prepared to hate it because in my previous use of this tool, I found it to be not intuitive. I am usually willing to give a tool 15 minutes. In that time, I either find value or decide it's not worth the time. I'm glad I took a fresh look at Pearltrees because within 15 minutes I could see teachers using this one. It's much different than I remembered it.

The interface is pretty simple. Click a plus sign and you can add a collection or an image, file, link, note, or import things from Drive, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, or your computer. Collaborators can be invited through email. Collections are embeddable. Here's the one I made:
You can also share your collections via link, through email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and by QR Code (nice touch for education!).

Pearltrees has a free and premium service with special packages for educators. The free package comes at a cost - all collections are public. For only $25/year, you can change the setting to private and get full customization.

Pearltrees has an iOS app, an Android app, and a web clipper Chrome extension or Firefox add-on that you can use to add things to your collections from anywhere on the web.


Stormboard was a new tool to me, so I was excited to try it out. I saw a few people recommend it on Twitter yesterday as a possible replacement. It's really designed to be an online brainstorming, collaboration tool, but could be used with students in a Padlet-y way, I suppose.

You start by creating a "storm," a board where you will post ideas and perhaps encourage others to do the same. They have ready-made templates that serve many purposes, including some education specific templates to help students write 5-paragraph essays or compare and contrast two topics. Once you name your storm and choose a template, you can click to add an idea in the form of text, a whiteboard, an image, a video, an index card, or a file. "Text" is a sticky note and I quickly mastered that. You can color code the sticky notes and create a legend for what each color represents. I struggled mightily to get the whiteboard to work (I managed a sad scribble eventually) and almost started cursing when I tried to delete my index card. Video and image were much easier. If I used the tool a lot, I'm sure I would get the hang of it, but I didn't find it to be intuitive. Here is an image of my final product:

You can share storms, and invite collaborators, via link and email. If they are embeddable, I did not find that option. When you are finished with a storm, you can close it, but they can never be deleted.

Pricing is a little tricky. There is a free Personal plan that gives a user 5 open storms with 5 collaborators each. For $60/year, the Startup account gives unlimited storms and collaborators. There is an Educator package also which allows for unlimited storms and collaborators with more storage and features; it is free until June 30, 2018. Not sure what happens after that date.

There is an iOS app, Android app, and Microsoft app, but I did not find a browser extension or add-on. That makes sense for what this tool is designed to do. It's more about brainstorming and not so much about curating.

Bottom line: For me, I would choose Pearltrees over Stormboard, but depending on what you need, they each have potential.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

After Padlet, There's Wakelet!

Padlet users went into mourning today when the inevitable happened: Padlet become a lot less free. Beginning today, if you used Padlet, you received a message about how many more free walls you could create. If you create a Padlet account today, you can choose between a free account (3 free walls, ads, 10 MB file limit, and standard support) or a $99/year plan where you get unlimited walls and lots of bells and whistles.

In fairness, and before I suggest an alternative, I'll say a few things in Padlet's defense. First, if you want a tool to grow and stay awesome, that takes people and ideas and infrastructure and those things have a cost. The expression "there's no such thing as a free lunch" definitely applies here. Second, in the letter I got from Padlet, it implied that I could have a total of four free walls (based on my usage), but if I created four and wanted a fifth, I could delete one that I no longer use. This suggests that it's not that I can create three more, it's that I can have four total. Also, you can pay by the month. For only a month if you need it for a month. Finally, Padlet is providing some extras in the Padlet Basic (free forever) account like Search, Themes, and Premium Wallpapers.

Still, for many teachers, $99/year to use Padlet is too much to spend on one webtool, so people began looking for an alternative. My pal Sarah Rivera suggested Wakelet, so I investigated that tool tonight. Here is what I found out:

Wakelet is similar to Padlet in that you can curate items together into collections. In my experience Padlet looks more like a bulletin board and Wakelet doesn't necessarily look like that, but beyond the aesthetics, the idea is basically the same. In fact, you can choose among a couple of different views for your collections and there is a grid view that can give the illusion of a bulletin board. Ish. Take a look at a collection I built tonight (you can embed them!):

Wakelet Features You Will Like

Wakelet is free.

Click a button to create a collection. Click in the header to upload or choose a cover image. Same for background images. Click to add a link, something from Twitter, and image, or text. When you have your collection just as you like it, click Save or Publish. You can have a private, unlisted, or public collection and you can add collaborators by email.

There is a Wakelet iOS app, an Android app, a Chrome extension, Firefox add-on, and Safari extension.

You can import your collections from Storify (which is shutting down as of May 16) which is kind of a cool feature. I didn't use Storify all that much, but I went ahead and imported what I had there just to try it out.

In short, Wakelet is not a perfect substitute for Padlet, but it is free, easy to use, can be collaborative, is embeddable, and has many of the shortcut tools that Padlet offered. It's definitely worth a look!

PS I'll make a comparison chart at some point . . . after a few more alternatives emerge.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Goophy Addition to Google Docs

While exploring Add-Ons to Google Docs today, I found one that I think will be a lot of fun called Goophy. Goophy allows you to insert animated GIFs into Google Docs! If you are creating a word processing document that you plan to print and copy, inserting a GIF is probably a useless idea. If the document will be static, you might as well insert an image. For documents that will live a digital life, inserting a GIF might serve many different purposes.

While working in a Google Doc, head over to the Add-Ons menu and drop down to get add-ons. When the pop-up window opens, search for Goophy. Install it. Then go back to the Add-Ons menu and drop down to Goophy and click on Start Goophy. When the sidebar opens, you can search for a maximum of three words and then GIFS are found. Want to put one in your Doc? Just click it. Once it's in the Doc, you can change its size or move it around just like you would a static image. Except this one is an animation.

Here is an example of a Doc I made with some GIFs (plus some ideas for using them):

I like the idea of using GIFS in Docs as a way to capture attention. I might use a follow directions GIF near the procedures of my labs or a safety GIF to highlight safety features. I might add a GIF near the title to illuminate the concept of the lab. I would also entertain the idea of inserting a GIF that I could use as a visual for a test or quiz question. With my colleagues, perhaps a GIF could lively up a boring agenda or make a to-do list seem less laborious. 

I think kids would like to open a Doc and find an animated surprise. A quick warning: If you're planning to show this one to kids, tread lightly. The GIFs are not all school-appropriate. A search for "chemistry" revealed the ones I used above, but also revealed GIFs that said Sexy Chem and included curse words. 

Like any other strategy, if overdone, this would be tuned out. Still, for me it seems novel today and I am looking forward to trying it out at school.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nominate an Outstanding STEM Teacher for the PAEMST

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) are sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of STEM teaching. The nomination window is open until April 1, 2018. With just 11 days left, consider nominating an outstanding STEM teacher for this prestigious honor.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I won the PAEMST for Ohio Science in 2015. I was first nominated, though, in 2013 by an assistant superintendent in my school district. My first reaction was surprise (Who knew she thought I was doing a great job?), followed by fear and dread (This looks really hard. I'm not sure I can do it). I never would have applied without her vote of confidence; I am incredibly grateful that she believed in me so much that she nominated me.

It wasn't that hard!

The application process includes some application paperwork, letters of recommendation, a 30 minute video of a lesson, and a narrative reflection on the lesson and your teaching practice. If you have achieved your National Certification, you will know how to attack this. Step 1: Read through the narrative questions. You will reflect on why the content is appropriate, why you chose the strategies you used in the video, how assessments guide your practice, how you reflect on your success and challenges, and how you lead outside your classroom.
Step 2: Decide on a lesson where you can showcase the skills you want to write about in the narrative questions. Look for something where you facilitate great thinking, deep learning. Capture 30 minutes that will show some variety - small group and large group or lecture and lab or discussion and experimentation. 
Step 3: Make arrangements for videotaping. It doesn't have to be professional (my mom followed me around with a Flip camera to make my video), but if you have an expert, use one! Allow for mishaps. I had my whole plan in place and then learned there was a scheduled tornado drill! Give yourself plenty of time to write the narrative, collect the letters of recommendation. Applications are due on May 1.

Why bother?

Teachers receive so little recognition, and so much criticism, that any opportunity to celebrate educators is one worth taking. I will never forget where I was when I opened the email that told me I was a finalist for Ohio. Or when I opened the email that indicated I had won the award. All of the winners traveled to Washington, DC in September 2016 for our awards trip. Meeting so many talented, passionate STEM teachers was an incredible experience. I continue to follow many of these teachers on Twitter for inspiration. We were treated to professional development, networking opportunities, a beautiful awards ceremony, and a tour of the White House. You can read more about my PAEMST trip hereAgain, if you have achieved your National Certification, you probably don't need to be convinced. You would do this for the same reason you went after that. The video and narrative offer a chance for deep reflection into your teaching practice. It is so validating to have a group of your peers evaluate your work and find it to be noteworthy.
Ohio's Math and Science PAEMST winners, 2014 & 2015

Like with the National Board Certification, winning the PAEMST put me into a select group of STEM teachers who will be offered opportunities to contribute to the field. I have been invited to serve on selection committees at the state and national level and contribute to various PAEMST efforts to spotlight great teaching. I would love to be able to help shape educational policy and winning the award makes that more likely. I am facilitating a science specialists network to inspire continuous improvement and innovation while honing my own teaching.

In 2018 the PAEMST winners will be K-6 STEM teachers. There is a probably a terrific K-6 teacher in your life. Maybe it's you. Take a quick minute to nominate. For me, the nomination was the nudge I needed toward my own Nobel Prize in teaching.

Monday, March 12, 2018

$1 Merge Cubes: Easy and Cheap Handheld AR/VR

I went to Walmart yesterday, looking for Merge Cubes. A friend had mentioned them to me as a cube that triggers virtual reality games and I was anxious to see one and try it out. According to Google tonight, Merge Cubes sell for between $5 (eBay) and $15 (Target), so imagine my delight when I found them at Walmart for $1! I scooped up four of them and headed home to try them out.

I was immediately impressed by the product. The Cube is made of material a little tougher than a stress ball, so it can be dropped and tossed and will not break or break things. Each side of the black and silver cube is covered with designs that will trigger holograms in the apps that will Merge with the Cube. It comes packed in a little plastic case; it's not fancy but will store the cube nicely.

If you haven't tried out augmented or virtual reality, here is how the Merge Cube works. You get an app and launch it on your mobile device. Then, inside the app, point the mobile device at the Merge Cube. The designs on the cube trigger augmented and virtual reality experiences - games, activities, and more. The Merge Cube apps work with a mobile device or by pairing a mobile device and a VR headset. 

I tried out two apps as soon as I got home - Mr Body (FREE) and Galactic Explorer (FREE). My Body is pretty cool. You are greeted by a stick figure guy whose organs you can see. Tap the organs and you see that one close up. Tap the buttons on the organs and you can read some information about it. Flip the cube and you can see Mr Body (and his organs) from different angles. The graphics (seen below) might look cartoon-ish but the information is pretty sophisticated.

Galactic Explorer is an exploration of the solar system. I tapped the record button inside that app and made a quick video you can watch to see how this one works. In the video you can see my hand as I flip the cube and turn the solar system. I am tapping and untapping planets to zoom in and read information about them.

Here are some descriptions of a few of the other educational apps that are available:

57˚ North: A choose your own adventure app where two cousins are shipwrecked and decisions must be made in order to survive ($2.99).

Anatomy AR Plus: Hold the brain, heart, and lung in your hands and explore them in incredible detail ($0.99).

Cube Paint AR: Choose from several animals, paint them any way you want, and watch them move with their custom paint job (FREE).

Dig: Mine and build holographic worlds that you can hold in your hand and share with others (FREE).

Dino Digger:  Dig for dinosaurs with famous paleontologist Jack Horner. Uncover fossils and learn interesting dino facts ($1.99).

My ARquarium: Choose from among 55 types of fish to fill your virtual aquarium.

There are lots of games apps too.

If you have wanted to explore virtual or augmented reality, this is a durable and easy-to-use product that is available at Walmart for $1. It's definitely worth the price!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Supporting Parents Supporting Students: Start with a Calendar

In my last post, what started as an endorsement of The Incredibles2, and their recent sneak peek trailer, ended as a declaration that parents need help supporting their children with school work at home. Think about how frameworks have changed over the last ten years (but certainly since parents were in school). When parents were in school, there might have been weekly newsletters or emails indicating what happened in school this week and how parents could support students at home. Then teachers developed websites where parents could check assignments and look at support resources. In the last few years, learning management systems came onto the scene and replaced websites. Teachers can now, with a few easy clicks, easily store everything they want to in a digital classroom for students to access. Unfortunately, parents often can't access this resource. Even when Google Classroom added parent email capability, it only sort of helped. 

A most basic example of this is with tracking assignments. Parents probably start the homework routine with the question "do you have any homework?" Some kids probably know/remember/recorded what they have to do and get right to it. For those of us not blessed with professional students, the answer is often "I don't know," followed by a groan (and sometimes it's the student)! An easy solution to this is to use a calendar program and share the link with parents. In my classroom, this is Google Calendar (which I couldn't get by without), but other calendar programs probably work the same way. 

Here's my system:

1. Create a free Google Calendar with the name of my class.

2. Add my assignments to the Google Calendar. I like the "Schedule" view for an assignment calendar because it looks like a list rather than a calendar, but you can choose among several different views. If you want to provide an agenda for each day, consider starting your "assignments" with numbers, like "1 Review Homework" followed by "2 Forces and Motion Lab" so they will stack up in numerical/chronological order.

3. Go into the calendar settings and make the calendar PUBLIC. This will allow anyone, whether or not they use Google calendar, to instantly see your assignments. Share the URL with parents (and students!).

You can also share the calendar with individual email addresses. Or embed the calendar on a website. This way, parents can add your calendar to their digital calendar. Then the assignments come to them without having to do anything special. If you're trying to support student learning at home, what could be easier for parents than just seeing what the assignments are inside an existing calendar? Of course, parents might need to be shown how to do this. That is a great task for Open House, right?

If you want to learn more about Google Calendar, check out this post I wrote about it earlier this year.

The system you have in place might look great to you. Take a minute and think about it, though, from a parent's perspective. Can they access the information? Without an account and a password? How many clicks does it take to get to the vital information for all the classes their children take? Is the system convenient for parents (whose help you probably need) or is it convenient for you? Have you taken steps to teach parents how to make this system work efficiently?

When we make decisions about the way we will support students outside the classroom, we need to think about the classroom that happens at their homes. A fellow Ohio technology enthusiast, Mike Daugherty, addresses this with his website on a page called Help @ Home. Mike is a K-12 Director of Technology and an endless supplier of tips and strategies. He was selected as a Google Certified Innovator in part due to a project that aims to help parents understand and navigate technology advancements that we discretely teach to our students. Of course, this thinking fills the gap that I have now described in two posts. If you are feeling that gap, subscribe to his email updates on his website. And, of course, follow my blog for continued conversations about this topic.