Skip to main content

Tech. Learn. Coffee. logoI’m excited to announce the launch of, a new podcast created by Lisa Nowakowski (aka NowaTechie) and yours truly. We will be discussing all forms of innovative teaching. Podcasts will be released on iTunes the first and third Wednesdays of every month. If you want to listen live, join us on Blab Mondays at 7 p.m. Pacific time. Episodes will be short, typically less than 15 minutes.

The focus of our podcast will be determined by the listeners. Contact us via the website to let us know what your innovation questions and thoughts are. Do you know someone who should be a guest on our show? Let us know that, too.

Besides Blab, you can also find us on iTunes or Podomatic.

people watching fireworks

The Spark of Connection

people watching fireworks
Image by matt_saywers, via, Public Domain

Bruce Springsteen wrote, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” As I considered this week’s #youredustory prompt, “What is connected learning and WIIFM (What’s in it for me)?,”  that quote kept coming back to me. To me, being connected means having people to provide the spark if it’s lacking for me, or to fan my spark, help me kindle the flame, and keep my fire going.

Connected learning takes many forms, and they are all based on personal relationships, which I cultivate with care. I make sure people know I am open and willing to share. Thanks to these relationships, I can go in person, text, or call other teachers at my school or  in my district if I have questions or want to bounce ideas off someone. I can also turn to my PLN (personal learning network) on Twitter or Google+.

These connections did not happen accidentally. I participated in Twitter chats, shared on Google+, commented on blog posts, and generally reached out to those I thought could help me light my professional fire. Most people responded very positively. I also went and continue to go to as many conferences and unconferences as I can manage because, although I love the online connectedness, I especially love meeting those people in person. It adds another invaluable dimension to the relationship. I found, too, that as I made more connections, I connected with their connections, and their connections’ connections, and my learning fire grew bigger and brighter.

So, what’s in it for me? Everything. I may have a great idea. By discussing it with others, it can become greater. I may need a great idea. By reaching out, I can find one. People I know may want to bounce an idea off others. By helping them, I am rewarded as they develop their idea and/or I might come up with something of my own. Not to mention that I have lots of new friends whose professional opinions I respect and whose personal company I enjoy. I truly believe that we are all #bettertogether.

Today I Didn’t Teach: Thoughts on Independence

Today, I didn’t teach anything. I let my students teach themselves, and it was wonderful.

Although the Hour of Code was in December, we didn’t work on it then, because there were many other projects that had to get done. Now that the school year is winding to a close, I thought it would be a nice way for the kids to spend their last visit to the computer lab.

One of the classes that came in was a class of third graders. I played them the 60 second teaser video for the Hour of Code, explained a bit about what coding was, and then introduced the importance of going patiently step by step and iterating your code by showing part of a BrainPop movie, Computer Programming: One Step at a Time. (We had a limited amount of time, so I only showed them the part that covered the basic concepts.) I demonstrated the site we would be using,, and told them that I would not answer questions once they started working. If they ran into trouble, they had to figure it out on their own or ask another student. (more…)

First Grade Writing with StoryKit

Just before winter break, I was in need of a quick project that first graders could do independently while their teacher and I pulled individual students to work with us. We decided to use Storykit and have them create books about the holidays.

Storykit is an iPhone app created by the International Children’s Digital Library. It works well on the iPad, but if you are looking for it in the iTunes Store, you need to look in the iPhone Apps category. It allows users to create an electronic story book that they can enhance by adding pictures, drawings, text, and audio. Books can be accessed through the StoryKit app or shared via email.

We showed the students how to create a page, take and insert a picture, and add text (about 5 minutes total), then paired them up. The children were asked to take a picture of their partner, ask the partner what he/she liked about the holidays, and then type the response using the format “He/She likes…” After the first child had taken a turn, the second partner took the iPad and created a page about the first child.

The whole project went much better than we ever expected. When there was a problem the children collaborated and solved it themselves. They helped each other spell unfamiliar words, use the camera, and troubleshoot problems. Using four iPads, the first graders were able to create pages for 26 children in just under half an hour. No adult help was required, the kids were engaged and empowered, and the resulting books were adorable.

They could have been published just as they were, but later that week, to complete the project, the teacher had the students draw cover pages, which they photographed and added to their books. She also worked with small groups on the spelling. Had she wanted to, she could also have asked each child to record a sentence. The books were saved on the iPads for the students to read and were also shared with the families via email. Here is an example (children’s faces blurred for privacy).

Screenshot of book

I could see this project being used in many ways at different times of year. It could be a “get to know you” book for the beginning of a school year. Kindergarteners could create an “I see” sight word book, perhaps with pictures the teacher has already added to the camera roll.

Mystery Skype (or Mystery fill-in-the-videoconferencing tool)

My 4th grade team is about to embark on their first Mystery Skype. If you are not familiar with Mystery Skype, I will tell you that it is an excellent way for students to connect with learners in other classrooms. Basically, a Mystery Skype is when you use Skype (or Google Hangouts or whatever videoconferencing tool is available to you) to contact another classroom and neither class knows where the other is located. Students take turns asking the kids in the other class yes or no questions to try and figure out where the other class is located. Mystery Skypes are great fun, involve the whole class, and get students working collaboratively and thinking critically. Although there is some prep involved, especially before the first time you do it, as you explain to the students what they will be doing, the actual call goes fairly quickly, about 20-30 minutes.

Once you have the system down, less prep is needed. Students soon learn what to ask to pinpoint the location of the other class. They will also learn how to use geographic vocabulary, how to work with students of other cultures, and their collaboration skills will improve.

Here is a very brief list of some Mystery Skype resources. There are many more out there. I also highly recommend Twitter if you are looking for a classroom to connect with.

When are we gonna do that again? by Craig Badura
4th grade Mystery Skype sign up page
So you want to do Mystery Skype? by Pernille Ripp
Skype jobs video and chart
Edudemic: 5 amazing ways to collaborate with another class
Mystery Skype page from
Mystery Skypes

One great hint I learned from Holly Clark at CUE Rockstar Solana Beach: When doing a Mystery Skype, make sure your classroom flag is not visible to the other class. It narrows down the country pretty quickly!