I Never Knew My Device Could Do That!

Have you ever been projecting a website onto a screen to show students or other teachers and had someone say “can you enlarge that/make the font bigger?” or have you wished that you could have your device read something out loud to you while you’re taking notes? Are you one of those people who prefers dark mode on your mobile device?

All of these issues have something in common. They all allude to the reality that there are as many types of technology users in the world as there are people and something that works well for one person isn’t at all helpful for another. 

Lucky for us, the people who design and create technology and well-versed in accessibility and universal design. They (generally) understand the idea that technology should be created so that it has built-in adaptability that will allow users to change settings in any device to make it work better for them.

I’m a little biased here, but I think Apple products do a great job of this! When I click on System Preferences on my Macbook, there is a whole section called “Accessibility”. These go way beyond the helpful, but kind of creepy, Siri! I can choose simple shortcuts to zoom in and out on my screen, I can enlarge just what is under my cursor, I can increase the size of that cursor, I can get the device to allow me to edit text and give commands with just my voice…the options go on and on and many of these same types of options are available on Apple mobile devices, too! To learn more about Apple’s accessibility features, click here.

Not to be outdone, Windows devices have many of the same features. Click here to get started on learning more.

Chromebook also has universal design features, which you can learn about here.

For those of us lucky enough to teach in a district that has any version of TextHelp’s Read and Write, we’re….well, lucky!! Read and Write has many of these same types of accessibility tools. (Here are a few blog posts about Read & Write for Chrome, here and here) Best of all, they’re all in one easy-to-navigate toolbox and kids love them. I have worked with numerous students who found these tools to be real game changers. I will never forget the look on one little grommet’s face when he told me that Read & Write’s voice to text feature made him feel like all the other kids because he could “write” just as much as they could. For the first time in his life. (I’m not crying – you are!) 

Universal design and accessibility features are there to support everyone. From the little writer who finally felt like his classmates to my aging-but-still-techie parents who like being able to increase the font. Take some time to learn which accessibility feature on your device might help you out and then help your students do the same thing!

As Martha Stewart would say….universal design and accessibility…it’s a good thing!

May The 4th Be With You!

It’s May the 4th. As in….”May the 4th be with you.” So I thought I’d dig up this post from the past, brush it off and maybe add a thing or two! 

Like many people, the myths, legends, heroes, villains and worlds of Star Wars have been a large part of my life, and I wonder – how has it influenced me? Since this is an ed-tech blog, here are 8 things Star Wars has taught me about life and educational technology!

Have A Mentor, Be A Mentor

This, of course, is important in all walks of life. Like Luke when he goes to Dagobah to find Yoda, we can all use someone to challenge us, support us and guide us to our true potential. My ed-tech mentors have ranged from my UBC profs to people in my PLN to students of mine. People who push my thinking and question my ideas help me grow and become the Jedi I want to be. I’m still looking to connect with Yoda, so if you have an inside track, let me know!

Just as important as having a mentor is being a mentor. No matter how little you think you know, there is always someone who knows less and would benefit from your guidance! As Yoda so wisely says, “Pass on what you have learned.”

You Can Be A Princess and A Warrior

Princess Leia showed a young me that girls could be girly and tough, too. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. As a female ed-tech teacher I am aware that it is now my turn to be a role model and to show young girls that women CAN code, build and run robots and know just as much about computers as boys can (maybe more!) Don’t let your gender dictate what you can or can’t do! Oh, and Star Wars? Thanks for giving us strong new female characters like Jyn Erso and Rey!

You Don’t Have To Be Fluent

At one point, C-3PO informs us that he is “fluent in 6 million forms of communication.” Teachers often fear that they need to be fluent in a given technology in order to use it. But guess what? 6 million forms of communication didn’t always help C-3PO and you don’t have to be fluent. You just have to be willing to give it a try! Start somewhere! I teach coding to kids and I can assure you, I am not yet fluent in any coding languages! But I do know how to learn and where to look when I get stuck. Which brings me to the next one….

Have A Flexible Point of View

Obi-Wan cautions Luke that “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Change your perspective or point of view and the “truth” can change. As educators, we call this “having a growth mind-set.” Don’t think “I’m too old to learn new technology” – instead, think “this looks interesting, I’m going to give it a try!” Which leads to…

You’re Capable of Amazing Things!

This idea weaves itself through all the Star Wars movies and many of the characters. Who thought a crop-dusting farm boy could destroy the Death Star or a that a scavenger from dusty Jakku could use mind tricks on a Stormtrooper? When Luke doubts himself and fails to pull his X-wing out of the swamp in Dagobah, Yoda does the job easily. He then tells Luke, “That’s why you couldn’t do it. You didn’t even believe it was possible.”

Over and over, Star Wars tells us that we can do amazing things if we just believe in ourselves and try. Not sure if you can use green-screen technology with kindies? Of course you can – believe me…I’ve done it!

Failure Leads to Strength

Obi-Wan tells Darth Vader, “Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Through Star Wars we learn that falling down and getting back up again is okay – it leads to strength. And it leads to knowledge. I am constantly stumbling when it comes to using technology in the classroom! And each time I stumble I learn a little more and I get a little better at what I am trying to do. 

The Best Laid Battle Plans…

Have you ever noticed that almost any time someone makes a battle plan in Star Wars, something goes wrong, forcing them to change or even scrap their plans? Yeah, well, technology does that to plans, so be prepared! On the day you’ve planned that perfect lesson/demonstration/learning opportunity you can be sure that: 

  • You will have wifi issues
  • The site you need will be down for maintenance
  • Half the kids won’t have devices
  • You will forget the dongle you need

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and improvise (and have alternate battle plans at hand!)

And Finally…Know When to Let The Wookie Win!

I will never forget trying for hours to get something to look right on Google Docs. I felt so frustrated but I was determined to make it work. Finally, in a moment of desperation, I tried the same thing on Google Slides and it worked perfectly. As R2-D2 learns in “A New Hope”, sometimes it’s just better to “let the Wookie win.” Know when to give in.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my light-hearted, somewhat tongue-in-cheek mash-up of Star Wars and educational technology! And may the force be with you!

Scratch Week – Plan For Some Fun!

If you’ve spent any time coding with kids, you’ve come across Scratch! Scratch is an awesome, free, block-based coding site. It’s one of those low-floor, high-ceiling apps that lets everyone experience success. I’ve blogged about Scratch quite often (here, here, and here).

This week’s blog is about something new – Scratch Week! It’s a full week in the month of May (May 17th to 23rd) and to help celebrate, Scratch will be pulling out all the stops!

Each day there will be a new theme to encourage you and your students to code. You can visit the “Featured Studios” section of the Scratch online community to see what the themes are and then create your own game or interactive story to match the theme. For those who want to make their creations public, there is a guide for how to share to a studio (make sure students are using their edu accounts and are not using their full name).

For teachers who haven’t yet used Scratch but want to give it a try, make sure you follow the “best practice” guidelines for creating your teacher and student accounts. Don’t wait until the last minute, as it can sometimes take a few days for the people at Scratch to verify that you are a teacher.

Finally, for those intermediate teachers in my district who are planning to have their classes participate in this year’s Coding Arcade, note that it will be happening during Scratch Week! (Zoinks! It’s almost like I planned that or something!!)

Digital Citizenship Redux!

If you’ve been reading my blog posts for some time, you’ll know that I am passionate about teaching digital citizenship. In fact, in 2019 I created a digital citizenship website with lessons and resources for K to 7 teachers and students. The idea was that the website would be a “living” resource, one that I would change as I found more resources and learned new things.

Then Covid hit and maintaining the website fell to the bottom of my to-do list. However, I recently took some time to update and refresh the site. The resources now go from K to 9 and the parent’s page has had a few additions. Also, I did some reworking of the “categories” of DC. The website originally had 9 categories but it’s now a more manageable 6. They are as follows: Media Balance and Well Being, Digital Footprint and Identity, Privacy and Security, Relationships and Communication, Cyberbullying, Digital Drama and Hate Speech and finally, News and Media Literacy. I’ve taken those categories from the Common Sense Media website.

The resources and lesson plans on the website come from 4 main places. The first is Media Smarts, a Canadian organization. The second is Common Sense Media from the US. There are a number of great lessons from Google’s Be Internet Awesome and some other great ones from CTRL-F. However, there are bits and pieces of resources from lots of other sites, too. I tried to pull together enough good resources that teachers would have a nice variety but not be overwhelmed! If you have a lesson plan that you think would be a good addition, don’t hesitate to email me and let me know!

The website can be used in a number of ways. You could systematically work your way through the categories, doing a lesson from each one over the course of the year. You could choose one category and do a school wide focus on it for a few weeks or you could pick and choose lessons to fit the circumstances in your classroom. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.

It is my sincere hope that this website will be a help to you and your students as you navigate the world of digital citizenship!

Assessing Technology?

I was recently working with a group of students to help them get up and running on using Scratch and block-based coding to build video games. The teacher was pleased to have my support, happy with the progress her students were making but puzzled with how she should evaluate the learning. “I don’t begin to understand coding,” said the teacher. “How am I supposed to assess their work?”

Wow. Awesome question! Which brings up a million other questions, chief among them “should we assess student use of technology?” Of course, my flip, off-the-cuff response is “No! Do we assess the use of pencils? Technology is just a tool we use to accomplish something – do we assess tool use?” But, of course, it’s far more complicated than a simple “no” and sometimes the answer is “yes, and” and sometimes it’s “yes, but” and sometimes there is no easy answer! Like almost all questions in education, the answers (yes, there are more than a few!) are complex and multi-faceted and involve everything from age, purpose and platform to language, poverty and equitable access. Talk about opening a can of worms!

But, like Pandora’s Box, we’ve opened it now…so let’s have a look. Let’s jump into a hypothetical Kindie class. The class is using iPads to listen to student-chosen stories on Epic Books! The teacher has shown students how to access the app and put in their code. They are now happily reading. Do we really need to assess the fact that 3 of the 17 little grommets are still struggling with putting in their code? As the teacher, we might make a mental note of who is struggling or we might check in with each of those three to see what they need help with, but this isn’t really something we need to assess. The technology is really just being used as a tool to support reading.

Let’s take the other end of the spectrum and jump into a high school ICT class. The class is learning Python with an eye to creating a program that sorts the most popular songs requested on the school radio station by time of day requested and then creates special playlists for each hour of the day. In this case, there is a clear educational purpose for the use of the technology and if a student struggles with understanding Python, they are going to have a hard time with this assignment. (I might be speaking from personal experience here…just sayin’) The teacher would be able to lay out clear criteria for success and show the student where they had or had not met this. The student’s ability to properly understand and use the technology IS the purpose here. Therefore, marking the technology makes perfect sense.

But what about all the many instances between these? Like the Grade 5 class that’s using iMovie to make a documentary about the Gold Rush. Or the Grade 9 student who used their YouTube and TikTok skills to create a tutorial to show the Design teacher that they knew how to make a 17th century dress? In each of these cases, the technology is an integral part of the project, used to help the student(s) communicate their ideas and learning. But the technology is not THE project. 

In cases like these, I will often set aside a few marks or a row on my rubric to address the student’s use of technology. I might make a helpful comment like “Don’t forget to turn off the Ken Burns effect in iMovie next time” or an encouraging comment like “The music you chose sounded like 17th century music – what a great way to enhance your video!” My main focus, however, remains the core assignment. Could the Grade 5s show that they understood the importance of immigration in the story of Canada? Did the Design student truly demonstrate their understanding of and skill with 17th century tailoring and fashion?

Knowing the purpose of the assignment is what helps me decide whether or not to assess the use of the technology used. If the purpose of the assignment was to make sure the class understands how to create graphs from data entered into a spreadsheet…then by all means, assess the use of technology! If the purpose of the assignment is to compare ancient government systems to modern Canada then don’t spend too much time worrying over a mark for their Google Slides skills.

Finally, what do you do if you are in the same spot as the teacher who wasn’t sure how to assess coding? Well, you have several options! If you aren’t teaching a high school level coding class (which you wouldn’t be in this case!) just praise the heck out of the kids, tell them how clever they are (because they are!) and leave it at that. Or, if you must assess, assess things you DO understand – their ability to communicate the information, their ability to work with a partner, etc. 

As I stated near the beginning, this is potentially a huge subject, with many layers. Much too big to cover in one blog post. But hopefully it’s a starting point for further discussion, both here and in your staff rooms!

New Flowers in the Google Garden!

One of the things that can drive me crazy about Google is that it’s always changing. One of the things I love about Google is that…it’s always changing? Sounds about as crazy and contradictory as a spring day in Vancouver, huh?

Seriously, though….the people at Google listen carefully to teacher feedback and they do make changes, innovations and improvements on a pretty consistent basis. So I thought I would share a few cool ones with you!

The first one is something many of you have asked about. Version History on Jamboard! No more guessing about who created that less-than-on-point sticky note – check the version history to find out! This functionality is on gradual roll-out and is only available for the web version. We have not yet been “rolled over” but hopefully by the end of this month?

These next innovations are pretty “STEM-Y” – yep, science, tech, engineering and math! Through Google Chrome, there are now over 2000 STEM topics that have become more interesting and interactive. I typed in “Newton’s Laws of Motion” and here is what came back. You can see over on the left that I now have easy access to videos, examples and even practice problems. 

Wait a minute….practice problems? What?!?! Here is what I get for practice problems….pretty cool!

What about Math equations? Type a Math problem into the search bar and you will get a breakdown of how to solve it. Not quite as involved as Khan Academy, but useful nonetheless! Here’s what I got when I put in 2x + 3 = 24. 

Of course, I saved the coolest for last. If you are using Google Chrome on your mobile device, there are currently about 200 science concepts that have nifty 3D AR examples you can access. Pretty cool to see a 3D version of the human skeleton. And, you can even use the phone on your device to place the skeleton in your environment!! So cool!

I hope you stop to enjoy some of these new Google flowers!

Draw Like A (Digital) Artist!

Even though the local mountains are covered in a fresh dusting of snow, the sun is out, flowers are poking their heads out of the ground and you can just feel spring is about to burst onto the scene. And to top it all off, Spring Break starts this Friday at 3 pm (but really, who’s counting!)

I’m willing to bet that some of you might be looking for an awesome activity you can do with your kids this week, when you’re all ready for something quiet, creative and ready-to-go! Am I right?

Thanks to the folks at Cobblestone Collective (a new Canadian ed-tech pro-d company) I am happy to share two neat digital art projects that you and your students can do. And thanks to generous funding from Google and Microsoft, both projects are available for free! Both lessons are led by Emma Cottier, a classroom teacher from Victoria, BC.

The first project is inspired by the art of Roy Henry Vickers, an indigenous Canadian artist. Vickers is best known for his vibrant, limited edition prints showing off the landscape of BC. He has also published a number of books such as “The Elders Are Watching” and “Orca Chief”. If his books aren’t in your school library, they should be!

This project uses Vicker’s piece entitled “Whaler’s Islet” as a starting point. Cobblestone Collective provides you with a Youtube instruction video that you can project to your students. The great thing about having this on video is you can stop and start the instructions, depending on how your class is managing. At the beginning of the video, there are a bunch of questions that were interactive but no longer are. If you want to skip this part, go to the 15 minute mark. 

At the end of the tutorial, everyone in your class will have their own version of “Whaler’s Islet”. No muss, no fuss and those who are struggling can just watch the video again! (Remember, loading the video on your Google Classroom will make it safer). The one caveat is that this is really not an iPad friendly lesson. Actually, neither of these lessons  are iPad friendly…sorry….

The second lesson is inspired by art from Elyse Dodge, a Canadian landscape artist who uses geometric shapes in her art.

Cobblestone Collective uses Microsoft Powerpoint as their “canvas” for this lesson, but all of the same tools are available on Google Drawings (therefore, if you are in a Google district like I am, do this lesson second so your students are already a little familiar with Drawings).

Again, Cobblestone Collective provides you and your students with a Youtube tutorial. The interactive parts at the beginning won’t work as the video is no longer live (although your students might enjoy coming up with the answers!). Start the video at about 17:31 if you want to avoid this part. Again, stop and start as needed, especially as you will be translating from MS PowerPoint to Google Drawings. By the way, if you aren’t sure how to do something in Google…ask your students! Chances are one of them knows how…use the collective wisdom in your class!

I hope some of you dive in and try these great art activities! If you post any of your students’ work on social media, don’t forget to tag The Cobblestone Collective (@thecobblestonecollective on Insta and @thecobblestonec on Twitter). I know they’d love to see your work!

What’s Your Favourite Flavour of Pi?

There are lots of special days in the school year. Days that teachers and students celebrate with various traditions and ceremonies. Halloween, Valentine’s Day, the 100th day of school, picture day, prom, Earth Day…we love special days! March 14th is one of those special days. It’s Pi Day. No, not pie day….Pi Day! You know, of pi-r-squared fame?

And while the mathematical concept of Pi may not be everyone’s idea of special, I think it’s pretty cool and besides – any time we can have fun and learn at the same time? That’s a win-win for sure! In BC, Pi Day actually occurs during Spring Break this year, so I thought I would publish this blog post early, for those of you who want to celebrate with your students!

Not totally sure what Pi is? Want some cool facts to share with your students? Here is a great Pi Day infographic!

Want to introduce your younger students to Pi? Try the book “Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi” by Cindy Neuschwander and Wayne Geehan. Here is a Youtube video of the book.

Because it’s always fun to combine Math and Art, there’s this activity. I love the idea of using the numbers in pi to create a silhouetted cityscape!

Language Arts more your kind of thing? This quiz checks to see how many “pi” words you know. And this fun article is all about writing “pi-ish poetry”!

Finally, for those of you who really love Math and Science, I have slices of Pi Day goodness! The first is NASA’s series of 2020 Pi Day Challenges (these are cool!). The second is a lesson about how to estimate pi using the random tossing of toothpicks – who knew!?

Sadly, one of the best ways to celebrate Pi Day, the baking and sharing of yummy fruit or pizza pies, is not an option this year. So I’ll leave you with a few pieces of Pi Day humour!

The Right Dog

Disclaimer: This blog post is not really about ed-tech.

Dedication: This blog post is dedicated to my dog, Maisey. Maisey is a big, sweet, yellow Labrador. She has been my shadow since we adopted her when she was 3 months old. She is now almost 15 and she has lived a long, wonderful life filled with forest walks, river swims, scritches, snuggles and snickety-snacks.

This past year has been hard, no matter how you judge it. Maybe not quite “Anne-Frank-hiding-in-an-attic-for-761-days” hard, but a lot harder than most of us are used to dealing with. And none of us in education have escaped the stress, from superintendents to custodians to students. Our collective mental health has taken a terrible blow. And it is likely that this trauma will continue to reverberate through our system for years to come. Psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors will all weigh in with ideas for how to help us cope with our feelings. With ways to make our classrooms feel safe and comforting. Ideas for calming anxiety and helping students and colleagues deal with grief and changed life circumstances. There will be webinars, conferences and Pro-D sessions dedicated to dealing with the pandemic’s effect on the education system, its students and its educators. All of this is well and good, and likely as it should be.

But I have another idea for helping schools and their occupants cope. Dogs. Not just any dogs. The right dogs. Therapy dogs. Kind, sweet, gentle, funny, love-everyone dogs. A dog for every school. A dog that will be happy to see students every morning, can run with them at recess, listen to them read at 11, calm them during a test at 1 and be there to hear their secrets and lick away their tears before they go home. A dog with a big enough heart to love even those kids who feel unloved and a calm enough demeanor to win over those who fear animals. The right dog.

You may think I am joking here but I am completely serious. Many studies have been done showing the benefits that dogs can provide. Social interactions with dogs can increase oxytocin, a hormone that, among other things, eases stress. Oxytocin can also decrease anxiety and lower the heart rate. Other studies show that petting a dog can decrease cortisol, a hormone associated with increased stress. A quick search of the internet shows dogs being used to help people in many stressful situations, from university exams to flying to loneliness, hospitalization and PTSD.

Dogs aren’t just beneficial for helping us cope with stress. Helping to care for dogs can teach children responsibility, respect and an awareness of the feelings of others. Children learn to nurture and care for another creature, which increases their confidence and feelings of worth. 

Of course, nay-sayers will come up with all kinds of concerns, such as allergies, fears, dog poop and more. None of these are insurmountable, there are solutions. None of them truly outweigh the benefits of the right dog. 

A Google Smorgasbord

Smorgasbord: def. noun A wide range of something; a variety.

Today’s blog is a quick smorgasbord of Google fun and tools. Enjoy!

Google Slides Templates

Slidesmania is a site that has awesome templates to use with Google Slides (and PowerPoint). They have a wide variety of edu themes. One new one is the “Virtual Art Gallery” template. Use this as a way to display your students’ work to the home crowd or to create a lesson plan on famous works of art. Another new one is “The Tower Building” which was designed for elevator pitches but could be used for a wide variety of lessons. The site has loads of free templates – check them out!

Pixel Art Self Checking Quizzes (kinda)

If you have reasonable Google Sheet skills, this is a fun way to give your students little self-checking “quizzes” or assignments. To make it simple, after you’ve done some Google magic, you give your students a copy of a Google Sheet with questions on it, as well as spots for answers. As they enter the answers correctly, the picture begins to appear on the screen! Here is a blog explaining how to do it and here is a Youtube video showing how!

Rainbow Scratch Off Pictures on Jamboard

This idea comes from the ever incredible Eric Curts. Not only did he come up with the idea, but he also created 12 different templates that you can use with your students! Here is a link to his blog post.

The Next Time You Teach Poetry

Do you teach poetry? If so, you and your students might be interested in one of Google’s Artificial Intelligence projects: Verse by Verse. Verse by Verse uses the styles of a variety of famous American poets to inspire and aid you as you write your own poetry. There are faults with it, of course. It’s American only and the poets chosen are mostly DWGs (dead white guys) but it might spark some interesting conversations in class about creativity and artificial intelligence. 

Well.that’s it for the smorgasbord today – I hope you found something here to enjoy!