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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.

My favorite teachers

apple-256261_1280Image by jarmoluk via

This week’s #YourEduStory prompt asks, “How are you, or is your approach, different than your favorite teacher?” I have been through lots of schooling and I have had lots of teachers. I remember many of them fondly. I don’t remember all their names. What I do remember is that I enjoyed being in their classes because they showed me they cared about me and my learning. They made me want to come to school to see them and to make them proud.

Considering how I am different from these wonderful educators was challenging for me. I struggled to think what distinguished me and my teaching from theirs. Even though I came to teaching after several years as a stay-at-home mom, I know that my teaching style was influenced by all those teachers and professors I loved. I made a conscious effort to emulate them; I didn’t want to do otherwise. I aimed for an approach that took what was best from those teachers and put it into practice.

So, how am I different? What sets me apart? I suppose I would have to say the fact that I believe in flattening the walls of the classroom to have students connect with others as much as I can. Being a media specialist, I don’t have the final say in how lessons are delivered, but I try to help my teachers come up with plans and activities where their students can share, interact, and collaborate with people in other cities, states, or countries, be it through Mystery Skype, writing and commenting on blogs, publishing work online, or something else.

Far be it from me to criticize my teachers for not doing this when I was in school. We had pen pals in one class, but it wasn’t nearly the same. The technology to do what I do didn’t exist back then. (I know, I’m old. At least I got to use paper and pencil instead of a stone tablet and chisel.) They did fabulous things with what they had available, and they certainly went above and beyond what was expected. For example, one of my teachers, Mr. Augenblick, used to take his classes camping for a week every year. He was wonderful, and we stayed in contact long after I left 6th grade. He was even invited to my wedding. He passed away in 2013 (you can read all about him on page 8 of this issue of United Teacher), but I am sure he would be proud of me and what I have accomplished. I hope all my favorite teachers would be.

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!

CUE Rock Star Solana Beach Reflection, Day Two

Another day, another pair of fabulous CUE Rock Star sessions filled with learning. Today’s session were all about using mobile technologies. Both the sessions I chose focused on iPads.

The One Ipad Classroom

My first session, the One iPad Classroom, was led by Jen Roberts. Although we don’t have any one iPad classes at my school, we are far from 1:1. This year, each class will have from 5-8 iPads, so I was interested in learning strategies to use and share them effectively.

One of the best ways to use a single iPad is to connect it to your computer or projector via a dongle or the inexpensive Reflector application for your computer. Once students can see your screen, there are several things you can do.

  • Use the Presentation Clock app ($0.99). It displays a countdown that changes from green to yellow to red as the time winds down. The visual feedback is very helpful for students who need to meet time goals for presentations. It can also be used as a timer for any classroom activity.
  • Use ShowMe Interactive Whiteboard app (free) to record a voice-over as you write on your iPad and teach your lesson. You can add pictures from your camera or those stored on your tablet.  After you are done, you can upload your lesson to the ShowMe website, copy the embed code, and put it on your website for absent students or for those who are struggling and/or would like to review. There are also many other videos on the website that you can share with your class.
  • Walk around the classroom as students are working and use your iPad as a mobile document camera to showcase exceptional work.

There are other ways you can use your iPad without projecting it. Plickers is a free Android app that is coming soon for iOS devices. The teacher gives each student a paper barcode and students answer multiple choice questions by holding their codes up. The teacher scans them with her smartphone and gets a bar graph showing the answers. Data can be anonymous or stored by student. If your students don’t have iPads, but they have smartphones or other devices, you can use Socrative to participate in class discussions and take quick quizzes. The results are saved in a Google spreadsheet.

Because so many of the participants at this camp are rock stars, when there was a little extra time at the end of the session, they shared some other apps that they love. Most of them are free as of this writing.

  • Subtext (best with 1:1) for collaborative reading.
  • Too Noisy to monitor classroom noise. An alarm goes off when it gets too loud. You can set sensitivity levels. When kids are monitoring their noise level, they are also monitoring their on task behavior. It is worth 99 cents for the pro version. 
  • Confer is a notetaking app for teachers. You can take detailed notes as you observe students and review their work, then sort and share them in a variety of ways for many different purposes.
  • Stick pick to select a random student.
  • Pick me buzzer to use your iPad as a buzzer when playing games.
  • Puppet Pals to create puppet shows .
  • Remind 101 to text parents and students without them seeing your phone number (not an iPad app, but still very useful).
  • Haiku Deck to create beautiful presentations with Creative Commons licensed images. One way to use this app in class would be to create a group presentation, passing the iPad around, and having each student add a slide according to the theme of the presentation (adjectives, a 6 word story, etc.).
  • Common Core Standards so you have the standards in an easy to use format.
  • Snapguide to create step by step guides with pictures and text.
  • PixnTell to take pictures, put them into a slide show, and add a voice-over. 
  • Snapseed to enhance the pictures you take with your iOS device.
  • Number Pieces, an app with virtual manipulatives to help with understanding place value.
  • Cheater Pants Calculator to show you not only the answer to the problem but the steps to get there.

Content Creation

In the afternoon, I went to Will Kimbley‘s session on Students as Creators of Content, not Mere Consumers. Will showed us (and we got to play with) several apps that could be used for this purpose. Some of them have web and/or Android versions with similar functionality. When students create content, they are more engaged, learn to think critically, understand the content better, and retain the knowledge longer. Below are some of the apps we got to experiment with. Some of the apps are free; others cost a few dollars.

  • iPevo Whiteboard Somewhat more for direct instruction, although you can also have students create their own tutorials or instructional videos to demonstrate learning.
  • ThingLink to create interactive images on virtually any subject. See my earlier post on this app.
  • Venn Diagram to create Venn diagrams. Students can save the diagrams as images. They can even use them to create ThingLink images or add them to a whiteboard app, Animoto, or similar. (Has logins for multiple users.)
  • Trading Cards to create trading cards for famous people, animals, historical events, chemical elements, or anything else you can think of. (Has logins for multiple users.)
  • Animoto to create slideshows with text, images, and music. Animoto offers a free educational account.
  • SundryNotes to create and share notes with text, audio, images, maps, and more. Students can collaborate with others on the same wifi. Some ways this app can be used include creating field journals or recording scientific experiments.
  • Notability is another note taking app with similar capabilities.
  • Explain Everything is another screencasting and interactive whiteboard app that lets you annotate and animate as you record your voice-over. You can even annotate over your video.
  • Ask3 is an app that lets teachers and students collaborate on lessons inside and outside the classroom.

What I really liked about the apps that Will showed us was how flexible they all were. It didn’t matter if you taught elementary school or high school. Almost all the apps could be used for students of any age and for any content area. I look forward to introducing them to the teachers at my school and seeing what wonderful ideas we can come up with.

It was a great day. I am looking forward to another one tomorrow.

CUE Rock Star Solana Beach Reflection, Day One

Since I had such a great time and learned so much at CUE Rock Star Tahoe, I decided to sign up for another three day session of learning and networking a little closer to home at CUE Rock Star Solana Beach, and I’m so happy I did. I will take a page from Melissa Hero’s book and write my reflections day by day so I can process today’s information before it gets overwritten in my brain with new information acquired tomorrow. Yes, I am taking notes in Evernote (one of the best tools ever), but writing about what I learned helps me make better sense of it.

The structure of the conference was the same as at Tahoe; there were ten sessions to choose from, each attendee could choose two to attend, and each day follows a theme. Today’s theme was “Getting Googley,” just like in Tahoe, but the sessions offered were different. I chose Holly Clark‘s session on digital student portfolios and Who Said Google Docs is not for the Primary Grades? with Juli Kimbley. One of the goals at my school this year is to increase communication; I thought that these two sessions would help me find ways to make it easier for teachers to publish student work online for an authentic audience.

The Power of Digital Student Portfolios

In Holly’s session, what I was really looking for were things I could take back to my school and share with my teachers to explain why they needed to have their students create digital portfolios and how easy it was to do it. I was not disappointed.

One of the best reasons to have students create digital portfolios is that it provides an opportunity to discuss digital citizenship. As students are working on their portfolios, we can teach them they about their digital footprint and how nothing online is actually private. This is key because when students post something online, whether they post it on Facebook, Instagram, or somewhere else, they are actually building their own brand, but they often fail to realize this fact. We need to teach students to think about what they are putting online. It is easier and better to create a positive digital footprint than to fix a negative one, so they need to learn how online interactions now will affect them later. This is especially key in an age when college admissions officers and prospective employers search for you on Google before they make a decision about whether you are a good fit for their school or company.

Digital portfolios also offer an opportunity to teach kids to be good global communicators. They must learn to put their work online in a way that makes people want to consume it. Simplicity is key. Just because you can use red text on a green background doesn’t mean you should.

Holly also pointed out that when work is online, both students and teachers up their game. Students produce better work when they know it will be seen by an authentic audience, and teachers will reflect on their lessons to make sure they are good enough to be used in a digital portfolio.

Holly’s recommended workflow:

  • Upload all work to Google Drive
  • Provide a Google Form for students to use to write a reflection
  • Publish the work and the reflection on the digital portfolio

Suggested platforms for the portfolio were Google Sites (good, but can have a bit of a learning curve for teachers), Kidblogs (not live, you can choose to limit visibility to specific people), and Weebly (her favorite for ease of use and attractiveness of the result). If none of those are an option, at least the work will be stored in Google Drive and accessible. She recommended that whatever platform you select, make sure that the kids never have to click more than twice to get to their work.

One of the keys to her success was parent buy-in. We need parents to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. If we can do that, they will be on board. Talk about what you are doing on Back to School night. Have as many meetings as it takes.

My favorite take-away from this session was the idea of creating QR codes that link to student work housed in the portfolio and posting those on the class walls instead of printing and then posting the work. Codes can also be sent home to parents.

Choose File > Make a Copy to save the planning sheet below to your own Google Drive.

Digital portfolio brainstorming sheet

Who Said Google Docs is not for the Primary Grades?

In this session led by Juli Kimbley, I hoped to find ways to have students in the primary grades collaborate and publish online. We are not a Google Apps for Education School, so I was hesitant about whether this session would be useful for me, but I decided to check it out.

Juli started out by immediately allaying my fears. A classroom account will work just fine for younger students to create in Google Drive. She suggested making the name and the password easy for the students to type and sharing all passwords with the parents.

When introducing Google Drive to young students, Juli pointed out that they must first be given the opportunity to play with it, just as they would if they were be given math manipulatives for the first time. Have them open a practice doc and type on it. Let them explore a bit.

Other helpful tips:

  • Have students use a consistent naming protocol for their work, such as first name and date (Ex. Nancy 7-24-13) so that you can find it easily later.
  • Have students work in pairs, especially in the beginning. This allows them to remind each other about what they need to do and how to do it.
  • Ask students to do a pre-write on paper before they open a doc. It doesn’t have to be a rough draft; it can be a brainstorm, a Venn diagram, or anything else that has meaning for the student. In this way, you can avoid students sitting at the computer complaining that they don’t know what to write.
  • Don’t worry about teaching proper keyboarding. Children at this age are too young for formal keyboarding instruction. That will come later.
  • To help students learn beginning research skills, put information they need to access in a folder in Google Drive and let them pull what they need from there. Photos to be used in the documents can also be stored in a folder in Google Drive.
  • Once a project is complete, store all the student work and any research/image folders inside a single folder. This cleans up your Drive without deleting any work and makes it easier for students to find what they need for the next project.
  • Showcase one student’s work on your website every week.

By using Google Drive in her classroom, Juli said she saw improved classroom management (nobody wanted to lose laptop time), collaboration skills, and higher quality work as the learners strived to make their work as good as it could be.


When I get back to school in a few weeks, I will be meeting with the teachers to do planning for the beginning of the year. I hope to get at least a few teachers to try out digital portfolios, perhaps posting one project per trimester. For the younger students, maybe just using Google Drive will be enough. But first, I have two more days of learning here in beautiful Solana Beach.

12 Ways to Use Twitter in the Elementary Classroom

I recently completed a short course on Twitter for Professional Development. For my final assignment, I created a plan for conducting sessions on Twitter for the teachers at my school site. As part of the assignment, I created this graphic using Google Drawings. The professor liked it so much, he asked if he could add it to the course resources. Of course, I said yes, and also decided that if he liked it enough to share it, I should too. You can do the same.

Twitter for elementary

Click to see a full-size version.

Confessions of a Wannabe Rock Star

Photo: Hands in the air – in concert by Martin Fisch

Or, my experience at CUE Rock Star Teacher Camp.

I signed up for CUE’s Rock Star Lake Tahoe because I wanted to learn and have fun doing it. After attending this three day non-stop learning extravaganza, I have to say, “Be careful what you wish for.” Talk about your proverbial attempt to drink from a firehose. I (more…)