Saturday, December 7, 2013

App Review: EduCreations

Educreations is essentially a 21st Century slate for your students. Using the whiteboard app, students can create and record lessons that combine voice, drawing or writing, and images. You or the students can draw pictures, use images from your camera roll or dropbox. Teachers can also create lessons and have those available for students' review later.

You can use the app without creating an account for each ipad or student, but when we started wanting to save and reuse the creations, we created accounts for everyone. That's easy to do.  That said, we found it difficult to share our lessons on blogs or anywhere that wasn't the Educreations website. When we do work that we want to share, we use Doodlecast Pro instead.
  • Does it do what it says it'll do? Certainly. It's a go-to tool that we use in a million different ways, and the sharing issue is one of the only downsides.
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom? Yes. It's hard to find motivating ways to help students demonstrate understanding of concepts or reflect on their learning. Educreations is a great tool for that, especially for students with literacy issues from Dyslexia to second language acquisition.
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Yes. Capturing verbal explanations and letting kids explain their thinking in a way that teachers can review asynchronously? Awesome.
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool? My standard here is always, "Is this a shiny tool that no one really needs, or does it empower the habits of thought that have empowered good thinkers and leaders for centuries?" I think Educreations gets a thumbs-up from TJ.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

App Smashing with Smashing Apps

When they first get an iPad, many teachers begin to build a huge arsenal of apps. Math and ELA teachers end up with dozens right away, while history and science teachers hit me with emails: where is the app about Bleeding Kansas or the one about the cloud model of the atom? 

One-hit-wonder apps are great for practicing multiplication skills or sight word recognition, but when skills beyond rote memorization are needed, what's a teacher to do?

Another question was this: none of my teachers have 1-1 iPad classrooms, so how could we make the most out of our resources?

Well, I'm new here, so I really wasn't sure. I did know that when I make projects for my work or organizations, I use content-creation apps.  Sometimes I have to find new ways of sharing my work with others. Thinking of apps this way is called, apparently, App Smashing

This summer I started putting together some example units to see what happened.  You can preview some of my research and favorites at this Symabloo webmix
Stay tuned for use cases and reviews of websites that work everywhere and in many different classrooms, and the apps that make them awesome.

And really, if there's a Bleeding Kansas app, I totally want to know about it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

SXSW Panel - Vote for This, I Think

I think coaching is the most realistic, practical model for all this 21st Century/project-based stuff that I've seen. And someone (not me, I swear!) wants to talk about that at South by Southwest EDU.  You should vote for their panel to be picked. I did.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

4 Minecraft Safety Tips, and My Summer in Their World

Yesterday, strangers invaded my stepkids' world! Usually vigilant about keeping tabs on their online play, we let our guard down and apparently they switched from creative mode on Minecraft to what is apparently attack mode*. With strangers.

I had about six weeks off this summer, and this is what it looked like:

Ten points for the home team: our girls, eight and ten, recognized the danger of playing with strangers and reported the situation directly. This morning I'm looking for ways to help them play in a more controlled environment.

Having talked with many, many, many parents and aunties and teachers about Minecraft safety this summer, I thought I should share my findings.  Hopefully, we can make the game a little safer for the tweens-and-younger who seemed to all find the game at the same time this year. I've got more thoughts about why the kids are on to something here, but that's for another day. Here are

Four Minecraft Links to Keep Your Kiddos Safe

  1. My Pinterest Board "Tech for Families" has links to kid-safe Minecraft videos, basic intros for parents, etc.
  2. An excellent, quick overview for parents of gameplay and safety issues to be aware of in Minecraft.
  3.  Kid Friendly Servers
  4. Tech educators and savvy parents, you could get/make your own server

Not interested in learning more? That's understandable, too. Enjoy this funny confession from a time-crunched, usually-attentive mommy.

*actually called survival mode

Monday, July 1, 2013


I'm redesigning the blog here and let's face it, my avid readers are going to notice.  Of course, they're all Chinese searchbots, so they can cope.

I attended ITSE last week. For the uninitiated, that's the International Society of Technical Educators. Yes, there are capes.

This was my first foray into this formidable society of teacher/hackers and edu-anarchists*, and I loved it. Meeting awesome educators (Adam Bellow! Rory Newcomb! the KidBlog guys! folks from Scholastic and Common Sense Media!) made me wonder, though: how will they find me on the internet? And I realized the answer was: they can't.  (not me: Sarah McManus not in Texas )

Ergo, blog update. with my actual name and work (with me when I wrote for Southwest Airlines. also me, Sarah McManus in Texas, when I wrote this blog about not-professional life.  also also, me. also also wik Sir Not Appearing in This Film)

For the uninitiated, "ergo" is what members of international societies call ego.

All that self-googling made me think about how we teach digital citizenship. Of course we want to keep kids safe, but I want kids and teachers to be find-able by the cool kids. I want the kids in my district whose lawn mowers are goats** to know they can get Minecraft shortcuts from some kid with no lawn in Mumbai.  I'd like to see teachers who graduated from my tiny school district, attended the local UT branch, and came back to teach here sharing their lesson plans with teachers in New Zealand***.

This year, I'll be asking a lot of questions, but one of them is, how can I help kids find awesome people, and how can I help them be recognized as awesome online? ...safely, smartly? I'll continue mulling these topics and more here. Out loud. Where awesome people might hear me.

* Never heard more educators questioning the value of the "college for everyone" theory in one place. More on this in the future.
**True story. 
***As an aside, what do they put in the water there? Their schools are awesome. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Jump Off the Gamification Bridge!

"Gamification? Is that a real word?" my colleague asked me after I'd expanded on my new training plan for several minutes.

It is.  Gamification is the Next Big Thing in corporate America, and it's coming soon to an education conference near you. For those playing along at home, add "badges," "leaderboards" and "progress bar" to your Bingo cards.

But just because everyone's going to be doing it doesn't mean it's a bad idea.

Gamification, at its best, is more than the buzzwords; like an elegant proof, it brings together theories on motivation, pedagogy, and brain function to create a way of predicting how "players" will react to the environments we create over time.

At its worst, gamification is a way of sticking prizes and meaningless competition on top of work that should be intrinsically motivating. But let me tell you about the good stuff: The feature that excites me the most about this approach is the respect shown to the players.

Students are treated as individuals with their own sensible reasons for choosing to play.  Failure to participate is treated as an opportunity for design improvement, not a reasons to shame the student/player. That emphasis alone would be a great one for teachers to carry forward, especially, of course, for our boys (who choose "not to play" at higher rates).

Other elements of good gamification seem to include*:

Narrative: Gamification asks designers (that's us, teachers) to spell out for players (kids) where they're going, how the project they're working on gets them there, and why it's AWESOME.  We need to show kids where they've come from on the journey, and what needs to happen next for them to move forward and win.

Individualization: We offer ways for students to choose their own adventures. We design a place where they can grow, but they get to choose ways to move towards their goals.  And let's talk about those goals: sure, there are A's for the kids who are into that, but are there social rewards, opportunities for intellectual self-direction and exploration, or ways to compete against peers?

Lifecycle: Newbies, Regulars, and Masters are the names game designers give their players. As teachers, there's a tendency to assume everyone's a regular and no one needs to be taught how to participate or more forward. And we very rarely have the chance to let "masters" of a subject do more than wait for the rest of the class to finish.

This theory makes me wonder -- do we lose kids in high school because we never really helped them "onboard" into the system? Do they have an identity at our school? Do they know why they're here or where they're going?

PERMA: I certainly had a lot of fun in my classrooms, but I am not sure that the lessons themselves always involved PERMA: Positive Emotions, Engagement/Flow, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. I can think of lessons that did and they were consistently hard, long-term projects that kids chose for themselves. That tells me gamification's focus on this area is on the right track.

As I learn about this theory and practice applying it through our district's new training program, I'll let you know my results. For now, I think it's worth it, even given the

Thomas Jefferson Test:

Does it do what it says it'll do? Gamification in education and corporate training is new, but the exponential growth of game playing (and the gamification of web programs/platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Goodreads, Ravelry, eBay, Kickstarter, Pinterest, and so many more) tell us that yes, the theory works to motivate people to participate and learn.

Does it solve a current problem in the classroom? The problems I could see gamification addressing are drop outs caused by students who just don't see how school connects to their future. I think it could help teachers connect their lesson plans more directly so that students at the middle and top ends of their classes max out their learning. I think it could help students remember and focus on their own reasons to learn, which are so much more powerful than my reasons. So if it works, then yes.

Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Heck yes, it does. Gamification, if it works, could allow us non-coaches to bring authentic, fun, passionate, epic WINS to the classroom the way football coaches get to do each week. How awesome would that be?

Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool? What I believe is that if TJ was a World of Warcraft player, he'd be one of those guys who sells maps and can tell you how to ride the epic flying mounts at 150% speed and where to get the most important herbs. TJ was pretty much as individually and intrinsically motivated as they come; I suspect he could relate to not being turned on by a stellar report card.

Ruling: Gamification is innovative in the way it elegantly combines several other theories, but it's not a "New and Improved!" gimmick. I think TJ would want to know all about it.

I'll keep you updated in my efforts to put the theory to work. 

*This summary is a compendium of points from these following presentations (and many more, but I liked these best): 
Amy Jo Kim at Google: "Putting the Fun in Functional"
Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right by Sebastian Deterding
Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification by Gabe Zichermann (swears alert, for E. Tx readers)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Career Education Proves Boys Are No Dummies

We have an interesting dichotomy in this country: men make more money than women and hold more positions of leadership than women in every field and walk of life. And? 

"Boys are less likely to finish high school, go to college, finish college, go to graduate school, or finish grad school," says Professor James Stone III, director of the National Research Center of Career and Technical Education at the University of Louisville, at the National Policy Seminar of the Association of Career and Technical Education in Crystal City, Va. He points out that 75 percent of D's and F's are given to male students. "We are driving them out. We are not giving them things that engage them" (At least, that's what I hear from this Education Week story).

I think we've been asking the wrong questions about dropouts. I think the same thing about college and grad school drop outs, too. Educators wring their hands, understandably, when they look at kids leaving the formal school system.  They know these decisions can make kids more vulnerable to changes in the economy and less resilient when their own lives change as they age. 

But what I'm not hearing is a conversation about where the boys are going. Many, many, many of them are going to work. When the economy dips, dropout rates decrease--it makes more economic sense to stay in school. When the economy strengthens and as society begins to demand more credentials for even lower level work, dropouts decrease again across the board.  Surely there are other factors, but the boys are no dummies. 

When you think of the boys as rational economic men, it makes perfect sense that Career and Technical Education (CATE) would work for them. In a CATE classroom, students are on their feet, using their hands, interacting, able to bring their whole physical selves, to exert leadership. Boys are almost three times as likely as girls to have ADHD, and twice as likely to have a learning disability that makes working in our single-modality, sensory-deprived classrooms difficult. Of course CATE is more motivating for this crowd. 

Another facet of CATE is its rewards: they're immediate and authentic.  When you're replacing a fan belt or baking a soufflĂ© or toweling off a newborn goat, the results of your efforts are clear. There's no turning in the goat and waiting two weeks to get it back with a bunch of criticisms and a letter written on it.  The goat is alive. The soufflĂ© rises. The car starts. It's simple, and it's powerful.

CATE is also social. This factor may not, at first glance, seem to be one of the most salient factors for boys, but consider that other go-to for keeping boys in school: sports. Football and other sports teams provide not only a great place for boys to play, but a safe community where they can try out their social abilities. Recent research on Hispanic students should make it no surprise that dropouts, so many of whom are Hispanic, are motivated by CATE classrooms where sitting down and keeping quiet are not the rules of the game.  

So, CATE doesn't make boys miserable. That's honestly more than we can say for the classes these boys at risk for dropping out are taking the rest of the day.  And, it makes economic sense. The focus in the classroom is on building skills now for a job in the near-term future. As they progress, they meet professionals in their field and spend a lot of time learning about the career arc of those in their field. 

The stats tell us that the boys understand that completing their education will improve their wages enough to stick with it. Between now and the next time, I'll be thinking about how regular-ed classrooms can become more like CATE and football for the sake of all our students, but especially these boys vulnerable to dropout at a higher rate.

In fact, let's think about football one more time right now. Consider it an anticipatory set. ;)
Troy Aikman by Allison V. Smith for USA Today

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bottoms Up!

The conversation about (dun dun duuuun!) 21st Century Learning can be frustrating for those looking for concrete direction and answers.  "What do we do next?" "How does this work," and for that matter, "Who's in charge around here?" ...are all questions that we used to be able to answer in schools.

In the past, one or a few administrators would convene, make a plan, and give a list of new requirements to teachers.  Teachers created new lists of information or procedures for students.  Kids got on board. Or if they didn't, it was their fault, or maybe their parents'.

This model doesn't work anymore. Kids can get the information themselves. Good teachers are responding to this new reality by helping the kids ask good questions, evaluate information, and learn how to collaborate and contribute.  This means that administrators and their tech support overlords are going to have to follow where the teachers are leading.  We won't know how it will work ahead of time, and we're going to have to respond really, really quickly because what's "next" is happening every time a kid wonders aloud.

Sound chaotic? Maybe. The best businesses in the private sector have been doing this for a long time.  Think Google, Amazon, UPS, Southwest Airlines, Disney: all Fortune 500 Companies who have weathered massive industry shifts.  They're successful not because they have always had geniuses at the helm.  They're successful because of their focus on the bottom line--which for them is customer satisfaction. Keeping customers' needs met means empowering  the people who work with them most closely.

Studies of these companies' support models reveal a bottoms-up mentality.  Plans are based on constant, careful listening to frontline employees (who represent the customers) and to real-time data on customer experience. Procedure is less important to these companies than getting the customer the experience they're paying for, whether that's finding where their favorite band is playing tonight, getting to their next flight connection, or having a fun and easy family vacation.  And when plans aren't successful, no one blames the customers. In fact, little blame is to be found. A new plan is tried instead.

These phenomenally successful service industry companies lack many of the pressures we face in public schools, but we lack their agility, not to mention their customer loyalty, employee satisfaction, and community support.What would it look like if entire school districts were structured not around what the Board wants or how the Directors think resources should be used, but instead around what Mrs. Smith's second period class wants to find out about their new pet lizard?

If a little chaos means that our schools are not only more effective, but better places to work, then I say, bottoms up! Cheers.