Friday, August 28, 2015

These Notes Look a Little Sketchy

Earlier this month I wrote about thinking about note-taking differently in my classes this year. That post shot to the top of my "posts most read" list since starting this blog about year ago. I'm not sure why it has been so popular. When I shared the described differences with my students, they weren't clamoring for more information. They had the same "ok, we'll take notes if we have to" looks on their faces that they typically have. Maybe one reason the post gained so much traction was my brief discussion of sketchnoting.

Sketchnoting is hot right now. There is no doubt about that. If you are following this trend, you know that sketchnoting is like purposeful doodling. At least that's how I described it to my students. If you haven't seen much sketchnoting, imagine taking notes in pictures and images, using words and pictures equally or even pictures dominating over words. My first sketchnote, such that it is, is pictured above.

I'm not a pictures thinker. That's not to say that I don't picture things; I do, vividly. When driving somewhere new, I picture where I am going. As I drive in to school, I picture my lesson in my mind. While reading or learning, I picture the ideas. When teaching, though, I am more likely to describe things than draw them because that's what I prefer as a learner. Still, with so much being written about making thinking visible, and the undeniable statistics that we are such a visual society, I know that this is an area where I could do some wandering and exploring.

So, as I started this school year, I have tried to take opportunities when I am a learner to sketchnote what I am experiencing. I started with our opening convocation delivered by our school superintendent and an amazing student at our school. Here is that sketchnote:

This week I attended two days of inservice. Day 1 was an extension of our district's focus on Marzano's work. We explored ways to use technology to enhance the art and science of teaching. Here is that sketchnote:

Inservice Day 2 was a thinking deeper about Marzano strategies day. There were many valuable insights that day, but I tried to save just the ones that resounded most with me. Here is that sketchnote:

And here's what I can say about sketchnoting so far:

  • I thought some of these looked pretty bad, but I have received many compliments, including this one (may favorite):
  • While sketchnoting, I find that I have to pay closer attention to the activity at hand. It is much harder to multitask, check my email, write tomorrow's quiz, and so on, if I am focused on recording the ideas in an artful way.
  • On the other hand, sometimes I am working so hard to make something look just the way I want it to, or at least as nice as it can with my cheapie stylus, that I miss something important like directions or reflections.
  • I need to use fewer words and more pictures.
  • I also need a better stylus.
  • It's a cool experience to try to encapsulate the ideas into just a few words and pictures. It's a great prioritizing experience and I am learning a lot about my takeaways by doing it.
  • I have attended a lot of inservices where I walked away with a packet from the power point. That packet sits on my desk for a while until I eventually file it somewhere and probably never look at it again. A sketchnote is more interesting to look at and takes up no space in my files or on my desk.

If you have been toying with giving it a try, I recommend it. I am only 4 sketchnotes into this, but I am going to keep working on this during this year. And to celebrate, I might just buy a fancy stylus tonight!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

I'm Gamifying my To-Do List

I am always on the lookout for a good to-do list app. Every one that I've tried is too complicated or too needy. I download new ones from time to time and try them out, but always abandon them for paper and pencil. My fave so far has been Google Keep. Simple, shareable, easy. But yesterday I saw another one that looked so funny that I downloaded it to try it out.

Quest is an iOS app for iPad or iPhone that you can use for to-dos or reminders or other similar task management. When you start using it, you get a pixelated 8-bit character. As you complete tasks and check things off your list (your Quests), you can level up your life and earn things for the avatar. It caught my eye because of the gaming quality. When my son was younger and didn't want to write his spelling words, I would sometimes draw him a scene where a truck would advance a certain amount with each word or a train advanced on a track toward the station. He is starting middle school tomorrow, so right after I installed Quest on my iPad, I installed it on his iPod.

It's easy to create tasks and lists of tasks with a swipe. As you complete tasks, you also swipe. The task turns into a jewel. Tap the jewel and you can see your level edge toward completion. My son was instantly drawn into the app and wanted to create tasks. Hopefully he will want to complete them as much as create them.


I like the simplicity of the app with ability to easily customize. The gamifying quality is a new twist on task management that will make keeping track of my to-dos more fun. Maybe grading lab reports will seem like a great accomplishment when I get a new outfit or weapon when I finish! Quest has many 5-star reviews in the app store. Reviewers suggest that it needs a way to add recurring tasks (that would be great) and a female avatar (I concur). Quest was free yesterday (and might still be free today). It requires iOS 7 or later. There is an Apple Watch app too. If you are ready to gamify your to-do list, check out Quest.

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Nearpod Update that is an Instant Improvement

It's no secret to anyone who has ever read this blog that I am a big fan of Nearpod. If you are unfamiliar, Nearpod is one part presentation tool, one part student response system. You import your slides and then add interactive components like quizzes, polls, drawing, websites, and more. This week's update made this already great tool even better.

Today at the SPARCC conference, I led a session comparing Nearpod and Pear Deck. I also compared them in a previous post. They are similar tools with many similar features. I like them both a lot and use them both in my classroom. Both combine slides with interactive components. Both export reports. Both integrate nicely with Google. Sometimes there is a tradeoff: Nearpod has better classroom management features, but Pear Deck allows teachers to ask questions on-the-fly, altering the prepared, planned lesson as necessary with spontaneous follow-up questions. But now Nearpod users can do that too.

With this latest update, instant questions and other components have come to Nearpod. While inside a live presentation, you click (or tap) the blue Nearpod at the top of the screen to see the instant options.

You can ask a True/False or Open-Ended Question, send everyone to a website or send an impromptu slide (complete with text or drawing or images from your files or Google), or send participants a Draw It slide. I love the idea that I can quickly draw something and send it out or take a drawing and screenshot it and send it to all the participants for corrections and additions. The ability to ask instant questions really increases the value of the tool because it implies that instruction is changing to meet the needs of the learners; it's not just a stagnant, pre-packaged plan.

I hate to sound greedy, but I would love to see polling added to the instant options. I love the idea of being able to ask students if they agree or disagree with discussion points or if they think a problem solving strategy would or would not work. I tried to use the True/False option like this, but you have to indicate a correct answer, so it has a different feel.

The app update also says that you can follow authors you like and receive notifications of when they have new content available. I haven't figured out how to do that yet, but, if you do, and you like chemistry, consider following me. As of today, I have 15 NPPs available in the store.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

ReFlexing our Math Muscles



A couple of times this summer I have mentioned on my blog that we are working hard on math facts this summer with one of my kids. Both kids are changing schools this year and I am worried that we're not exactly math-fact-ready. We have tried a lot of things this summer - iPad and web games, flashcards, drawing visual representations of the facts. All were met with teeth gnashing and big sighing. The most recent addition to our math fact repertoire is a web tool called Reflex.


Reflex is a math fact fluency tool made by ExploreLearning, the Gizmos people. My school district has been a subscriber of Gizmos, standards-based math and science simulation tools, for over three years. As subscribers, we get a regular e-newsletter for Gizmos and Reflex. In each newsletter, the big gains possible with Reflex are highlighted. This is what made me try the 14-day trial. 

The first time we used Reflex, we were greeted by a funny crab who delivered directions. Numbers had to be typed as quickly as possible, probably to gauge how quickly a child could type a response. Eventually simple numbers turned into math problems. Step two was similar but in a different setting. A rabbit named Dwight invited simple number typing and then problem solving. Next a student pops balloons by answering problems. This allows a student to earn a ticket to Reflex island when games can be played after some coaching and puzzle making with a bear called Coach Penny. She gets us ready to play the games each day. Games allow students to earn tokens that can be redeemed in a store for clothes and other customizations for an avatar.

Dwight and Penny prepare students to play games on Reflex Island

There were many reasons this tool appealed to my child on Day 1. With all these layers and characters, you don't get bored. Even when you find something you don't like (we're not big Coach Penny fans over here), it doesn't last long and then the focus shifts, even though the work remains the same. The characters are unique and funny. Every time Reflex is "played" at our house, someone mimics Dwight the Rabbit as he explains that if we see a fact we don't know, we can "hit the space bah." The avatar is fun and customizing it brings a gamification quality to learning facts. The games played on Reflex Island are simple - the ninja game was a BIG hit over here - and emphasize mastery in a way that just feels like playing a game.

There have been many reasons that this tool has appealed to me so far. Each day a new element is introduced. New games are unlocked or new features are enabled or and the difficulty increases. Coach Penny does give a brief lesson, so some direct instruction of a rule or fact family is present. I like the focus on fact families. When 100% fluency is reached, it will be with multiplication and division of numbers 0-10, not just multiplication.

We're now on Day 11 and I am pretty impressed. From the teacher side of the tool, I love the reports that are available so I can see the progress from Day 1 to now. The fluency meter continues to rise every day, a fact family tree shows how many facts have been assessed and how many have been mastered, and I can quickly generate graphs that show fluency gains over time. I also like the milestone certificates that are generated. 

We have had a few setbacks. As the content increased in difficulty or games got harder, there have been tears. One way we combated that was to turn down the volume. This way it's easier to ignore the pressure of the timing feature - my children do not like to be timed - and the sometimes distraction of music and noises.

This great tool does have a cost. For home use, I'll pay $35 per student per year. On the one hand, that feels like a lot. On the other hand, in 11 days I saw big gains in fluency, so it feels like money well-spent to me. Which is good because our free trial ends in 3 days. I just wish my subscription came with a plush Crabby. Or that we could buy a plush Crabby. That sure would be nice tucked inside a schult├╝te in two weeks.