An Ancient Tradition To Connect Us

When I think about some of the best memories of my life they involve storytelling. Where the stories came from and who was telling them varied, of course. But what never changed, for me, was the feeling of being part of someone else’s life and experience for a short time. Whether it was a read-aloud novel, a campfire tale or a grandparent’s remembrances of the first car in town I was always mesmerised. Pulled in by the speaker’s tone and cadence, pulled forward by the path of the story, I can’t help but be enthralled by one of the oldest traditions on earth – storytelling. I’ll come back to that.

Today, all of the educators in our district participated in a professional development day. I often find these days frustrating. There’s loads of eduspeak, talk of shoulds and why nots and in the end I am not sure what I learned and how I will apply it. Today was different. We listened to a presentation by Jo Chrona, that I found both interesting and thought-provoking. 

I went away wondering (more so than ever before) how I could take indigenous ways of knowing and incorporate them into my technology-driven work world. The indigenous peoples of British Columbia have lived here for thousands upon thousands of years, most of them with no written language. And yet they have an incredibly rich culture that is intricately connected to the natural world and the importance of family and place.

In thinking about this rich culture and how they passed learning from generation to generation it hit me. The way to connect technology to indigenous ways of knowing is through storytelling. After all, it is through stories that we are able to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to imagine their life and experiences. And in doing so, we find commonalities. Through these we can begin to understand each other and truly learn from each other.

Everyone has at least one story they can share, even our youngest students. And they can all use technology to amplify and enhance their voices. Whether it is something as simple as recording a story about a holiday using an app like Clips or as complex as creating a documentary about being an immigrant. 

So, if you are looking for an authentic way to bring indigenous ways of knowing into your classroom, look no further than digital storytelling. The stories your students tell do not need to be about the indigenous peoples of Canada. The stories your students tell should be theirs, about them and their lives and interests. As they tell their stories they build connections between each other and promote understanding.

Want to give it a try? My three favourite digital storytelling tools are Apple’s Clips, iMovie and Book Creator. I’ve blogged about digital storytelling here, here and here, about Clips here and about Book Creator here and here. Maybe you can start by telling your students a bit of your story!

Bits and Pieces of This and That!

So, depending on where in the world you live you might just be heading back to school, you might be teaching remotely, you might be teaching in a hybrid setting or you might be back at school but ready to go remote. 

Here in BC we’re back at school in person but we’ve been told to be prepared to go online in the case of a “functional closure”. In my district that has meant getting your Google Classroom ready and prepping lessons for a possible absence of two weeks.

In light of that, I thought this week’s blog could just be a collection of hopefully-helpful Google stuff! So, here goes!

Classroom Notifications

Let’s imagine you are a high school Math teacher who has 3 blocks of Grade 8 Math this term. Do you really want to be notified every time a student hands in work or makes a comment in Classroom? What if you teach a K class with 18 students? Don’t you want to know when a parent or student leaves you a private comment? After all, you don’t want to have to check your Google Classroom every day to see what’s going on, especially if you’re not in functional closure…amiright?

In both cases, it helps to know how to manage your Google notifications. Here’s the latest episode of Bits & Bytes, showing you how to manage Google Classroom notifications!

Unique You!

Do you want to make your Google Classroom look unique, so that students don’t mix it up with others? Are you a visual person who likes to change things up sometimes? Either way, here’s a blog post that shows you how to change up the banner at the top of your Google Classroom.

Inviting Your Students to Your Classroom

There are actually 3 ways to get kids (and parents if you teach littles) into your Google Classroom.

With older kids, have them go to classroom.google.com while logged into their Google account. Make sure they choose “Student” if they are given an option and then they should click the PLUS button, choose Join A Class and then put in your “class code”. Not sure where to find your class code? The quickest way to get to it is to look on your main page:

Note, you could also do this with younger students – you would just need to let parents know the class code and probably their child’s Google credentials as well. If you do this, make sure you send out individual emails and not a class list with everyone’s Google usernames and passwords on it!

Another way to get your students into your classroom is by inviting them via their school email. Now obviously this is not the best way if you have a ton of students but I have occasionally used this with students who were having some trouble getting in or who needed a reminder that they weren’t in yet. You can do this by going to the People tab and clicking the little “person plus” icon and then enter their school email.

Finally, you can send out a link to your classroom. When you click the aforementioned “person plus” icon you also have access to a link to your classroom. You can copy this link and give it to class members or parents of younger students. As always, they will need to log in with their students’ Google username and password!

Organization is Key!

Being thoughtful and specific about how you organize your Google Classroom and the assignments and materials you share with students will help both you and them in navigating digital learning. Use Topics as a way to organize the assignments and materials you put in Classroom – here’s some help to get you started.

And while we’re at it…here are two blog posts (here and here) about keeping your Google Drive organized.

Have Some Fun

Finally, because everyone likes to have fun, here is a Google Slides game you could use with your intermediate and secondary students. It’s based on the game “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and it could be played in person or online. To do this, you need to make you own copy of this slide deck and then watch this video tutorial.

If you like this one and want to try playing another Google Slides TV game, here is a link to the instructions for playing Jeopardy!

Pear Deck Pro-D

As often as I can on this blog, I like to highlight awesome digital tools, like Book Creator. Today, I would like to highlight Pear Deck for Google Slides! This is a tool that was recently approved for use in our district and it makes slide presentations interactive and engaging. Here’s a quick promo video:

So, let’s start with the basics. Pear Deck is an Add-on to Google Slides. It is not actually owned by Google but it works with Google. You can find it by opening a Google Slide deck and clicking Add-ons. You can use Pear Deck with Google Slide presentations you have already built as well as with new ones. When you launch a Pear Deck enhanced presentation, students can enter a unique “secret code” on joinpd.com and they will be able to see your presentation on their own devices – whether they are learning in the classroom or at home! And…they can interact with the presentation!

Sounds cool, right? So, to make the magic work, you go through two easy steps. They are a) preparing the slide deck and b) launching it. 

In preparing the slide deck, you choose how many slides you will make interactive (I wouldn’t advise that you make every slide interactive…maybe every third or fourth slide) and what type of interactivity you want. The 4 we have access to are “text, choice, number and www”. The draw and drag functions come with Pear Deck premium (which we don’t have in our district).

The text options works like this: you add a question to your slide and when viewing that slide students will see a place where they can type their answer! (Depending on the age and skill of your students you might want to have them answer in point form or the typing part can take quite a while!)

The choice option sounds just like it is. You can give them a binary choice (yes, no) or a multiple choice situation.

The number option is similar to the typing option but students put in a number answer.

The “www” option allows you to embed a website into the slide and then kids can interact with it. This sounds pretty cool, although I haven’t actually done it myself (yet). Here are some great ideas of websites to embed and here are the instructions for how to do it.

Once you have prepared your slide deck (either by adding Pear Deck features into an existing slide deck or by creating a new one), you are ready to launch or present your slide deck to your students (either in person or remotely via Google Meet or a similar platform).

If you are in my school district, there is one major step you need to take before you present, in order to protect student privacy. Start by clicking the three lines (the hotdog) to the right of the green “Start Lesson” button. Make sure the “Require Student Logins” toggle is untoggled – it should appear grey, not green. Now, this means that students will be accessing your Pear Deck without logging in. You will not be able to identify individual student responses. (By the way, there is a safe way around this – just have students begin their written response with their first name or nickname – then you know who wrote what!)

Okay, so once you have dealt with privacy, you are ready to present! Click the “Start Lesson” button and you will be walked through the next few steps. You want to get to the part where the students are told to go to joinpd.com and use the code (6 characters) to join the class presentation. Once you know that all students have joined (you will see there is a little prompt on your screen telling you how many students have joined) you will launch the presentation!

During the presentation, you can choose whether to show student responses to everyone or just keep them to yourself, to look at afterwards. If you do project responses, be prepared that not all students will respond appropriately, any more than they might in class. Also, some students might not want their response projected up for all to see if their name is attached to it!

There is a lot more to Pear Deck than just what I’ve shown you. They have a great Youtube Channel, with loads of tutorials, their website has lots of great teaching ideas and how-tos. They even have a section on remote learning, for those of us who are facing functional closures (not a phrase I ever thought I would say!). They often publish slide decks you can use and the slide decks they have that go with Google’s Be Internet Awesome lessons are great!

So…do yourself and your students a favour – give Pear Deck a look!

June-Tired

Look around you. Teachers are tired. Not the pre-pandemic “it’s almost winter break” tired. Teachers today are June-tired. And the year isn’t even half-way done!

It isn’t hard to see why educators are tired. This is the third year of teaching-during-a-pandemic. The third year of worrying about our health and our students’ health. The third year of living with division over treatments, masks and vaccines. The third year of trying to do what we used to do in a time that has never been. 

And whether you are excited about the ways that education could change for the better by using lessons learned during the pandemic or you are in despair over all the things that have been lost, chances are you are weary. Closer to tears or rage more often than you have ever been before. Chances are that the connections you have with your students and colleagues are the only things that keep you coming to school each day. 

Does any of this sound familiar? Teachers, as a rule, are selfless, giving people. Right now there is a danger that teachers will give and give until they have nothing left and the tank has run empty. June-tired in December. Not a recipe for success!

So, hang in there for the next two weeks. Try to let go of a few things in your classroom. Is it really necessary to squeeze in one more test or project? Try saying no to a few commitments that aren’t totally important. Make sure you spend a little time each day doing something you want to do, even if it’s just singing along to the radio on the way to work. And then, starting Friday, December 17th, try to focus on you and your family and friends. Do things that recharge your batteries. Say no to things that sap your energy. 

And when January 4th comes around, even though you might not be September-energetic, hopefully you will no longer be June-tired.

The 12 Days of Christmas – EBook Version!

Today is November 30. It’s a Tuesday. Tomorrow is Wednesday, December 1st and that means that between now and when Christmas break starts here in BC, there are 13 days of school. And since I know that at least one of those days will be so busy that it will just fly by, that leaves 12 days until Christmas Break. Hmmm…..I wonder why that rings a Christmas bell?!

This year I give you the 12 Days of Techie Christmas (Book Creator Edition)! You can use it as you see fit. Dole out the activities one a day or save them all for one day of fun! Some activities are geared more towards little people, some are for older people and some are fun for everyone. Consume them as you want and enjoy!

It’s Not What You Think

I teach Robotics. Competitive Robotics! Usually when I tell people that I get one of three reactions. Some people say “Gee, I wish that had been an option when I was in high school!” and then they proceed to tell me all about their high school experiences. Some nod politely, their eyes glaze over and they quickly change subjects. Others immediately ask if the robots battle each other, like they’ve seen on tv. Very few people actually stop, ask intelligent questions and seem interested. And that’s too bad, because as you are about to see…Robotics is only a small part of what we teach these students!

So, let’s start with what this all looks like. We have 4 instructors, all with varying skill sets and experience. We have three rooms in the tech wing of one of our high schools. All three rooms are filled with equipment, tools, work tables, storage bins, high tech machinery and playing fields. And, as often as we can manage, the rooms are also filled with hand-built robots and engaged, motivated kids.

Our classrooms aren’t run like typical classrooms. Our students range in age from 13 to 18. All in the same classes. They come from all three of our high schools. We start every class with a 10 to 15 minute “team meeting” where we all get together in one room and go over all the reminders, to dos and instructions that all students need to have access to. From there, kids move off to their assigned work table in one of the rooms but they are able to flow freely between all three rooms, depending on what tools they need or what problem or question they have. 

Beyond the team meeting at the beginning of class we almost never have “lectures” or presentations to all students. Instruction and learning happen in many ways in our classes but most of it is dealt with in a hands-on, just-in-time way. Sometimes this instruction comes from a teacher but just as often it comes from another student. The more experienced students know it is an expectation that they will mentor less experienced students and they generally take this responsibility very seriously. 

Occasionally, a teacher will arrange to meet with a small group of students to go over something specific but most of the time we teach students individually, at their learning level and on what they need to know right then. Individualized learning? We’ve got it nailed!

Our students work in teams of 2 to 4 and the teams can be cross grade. Each team is responsible for designing, building, testing, programming and competing a robot. The challenges the robots face on the playing field change every year, so there is always something new to learn. We expect that all students have some knowledge of all aspects of Robotics, but as students move through the grades they often start to specialize in the area that most interests them. The end result of this is that we have some students graduating from our program with a near industry level understanding of diverse fields – from Computer Assisted Design to Computer Programming to real-life knowledge of the application of Physics and Math. And the majority of this is student-driven; they push themselves because they want to be the best at what they do. Cool beans, right?

Judging by all the trophies and banners lining our main room, our teams do well. Very well! At our latest tournament, one of our middle school teams was thrilled to discover that their skills score was 4th highest in the world. Yep, you heard that right. The WORLD! And while we teachers are pretty proud of them (and all the others, too) the awesome scores and trophies are, by far, the least important part of what we do with our students.

What is important? We teach communication. Our students are all taught how to send a proper, professional email, how to speak politely to adults they don’t know, how to present their ideas and work to judges they’ve never met and, perhaps most importantly, how to communicate with their teammates in stressful situations. All of our students work on keeping professional Engineering Notebooks, something that many of them will do when they eventually move into jobs in the real world. Being able to communicate what problems you’ve encountered, how you’ve solved them and what your next steps are….well, I know adults that can’t do that!

We teach collaboration. Competitive Robotics is a team activity. The teams that do the best are the ones that have learned to work together, especially in high stress situations like competitions.

Creative and critical thinking is what we do on the daily! Imagine having your robot break apart during a competition? Suddenly you and your team have to rebuild with only the assets you have at hand. You may need to reprogram, borrow parts from another team, rebuild…all of this while knowing your next match is only half an hour away!

We often see our students talking about how something they’ve learned in Science or Math class applies directly to their robot – talk about making learning relevant. Not to mention the cross-curricular pollination going on!

We assess 5 areas. The first is professionalism (how they present themselves, how they look after their tools and work areas, how they get along with teammates and rivals, etc). We assess their Engineering Notebooks. We also have a digital badging system in place and students work to earn badges in many areas of the curriculum. They can also earn badges for skills they have outside of Robotics, like having a part-time job or earning a First Aid certificate. Each term they are expected to earn a certain number of badge points. We assess robot skills (how the robot does in competitions) and we also assess student skills (are they learning, challenging themselves and showing signs of growth?) We don’t give tests. We don’t need to as there are constant real-world tests occurring. What do you do when the program you wrote doesn’t work the way you wanted it to? You debug, test, reprogram and try again. That’s test enough. And, exactly the kind of test you might see in a real-world application!

Not all of our students stay with us for the full 4 years. Some dip in, try it out and then decide it’s not for them. Others join later in their school careers, especially when they see the advantage that hands-on, real-world experience gives them in applying for post-secondary options. We have graduate students studying Computer Science, Engineering, Business, Physics and Mathematics in schools all over the world! Students from this year’s graduating class are finishing up their early applications and two recently had very promising interviews – one with Stanford and another with MIT!

When I decided to become a teacher, I never dreamed that I would be teaching high school Competitive Robotics. When I was asked to join the team I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to teach the students anything – I mean, my university degrees are in International Relations and Education. But guess what? It turns out that teaching “robotics” is the least of what we do!

Mrs. X and Computer Science Education Week!

So, what’s special about the first full week of December? Why, it happens to be Computer Science Education Week or as some know it, Hour of Code week. A whole week devoted to celebrating Computer Science and helping to educate people about the importance of teaching students computational thinking and an understanding of basic coding principles.

Now, I could spend time telling you how important it is that ALL students be exposed to computational thinking and basic coding skills, but I’ve talked about that many times in my blogs. (Here, here, here and here to name a few!) Instead, I want to paint a picture for you.

Meet Mrs. X. She is a dedicated teacher who loves her students and believes it is her job to make sure they are all learning to the best of their abilities. She spends many extra hours each week preparing engaging lessons and marking work…endless marking. Mrs. X has two teenage children at home. Neither of them are old enough to drive yet and both of them are heavily involved in extra-curricular activities that she drives them to. In addition, Mrs. X’s mother-in-law lives in an assisted living building that has had two Covid outbreaks in the last 6 months and her own parents live in another country and she has been unable to cross the border to visit them. Report cards need to be written, it’s been raining for 4 weeks straight and Christmas is looming on the horizon. In fact, the family cards should be addressed and mailed this week!

Holy cow, can you say stressed? And then there is this district person, asking her to teach coding to her kids? Has the world gone crazy? She can not add one more thing to her list!

Sound familiar? Well, as that district person, I am here to say that if you feel like Mrs. X, your class can participate in a coding activity with almost no skill and planning on your part. Bonus? They will be so engaged that you might even have time to enjoy a cup of tea before it gets cold! It’s really a win-win!

How does this magic happen? Give your students the Hour of Code address (hourofcode.com). Their website gets bigger every year and there is something here for everyone, from beginning students and teachers to accomplished programmers. This year there are some cool new choices. One is called Hello World! and the other shows students how to combine poetry and code – super cool!

Show your students how to use the filters to find appropriate games and then don’t be afraid to let your students explore and fail – and don’t feel you need to have the answers! Part of the fun of coding is trying new things and seeing what happens!

So, if you’re feeling like Mrs. X, use Computer Science Education Week as a way to expose your class to some cool activities with great learning opportunities.

And for those who are hungry for more, it’s out there!

The Computer Science Teachers Association has lots of  information on their website, including some great profiles of people of varying backgrounds who work in the CS field.

Canada’s Hackergal team has an event they are inviting girls and young women to. It takes place on the 10th – here is a link to the invite!

For teachers, Apple is running an Apple Teacher Meetup the week before (December 1st) and it is focused on Coding. Then, during CSEW, Apple is hosting Coding In The Early Years on December 6th, Inclusive App Design (no coding needed) on the 7th and Activitie de conception d’ apps inclusives on December 9th. Although my French isn’t quite good enough to let me be involved in the session on the 9th, I will be at the sessions on the 6th and 7th – I hope to see some of you there!

So whether, like Mrs. X, you are just looking for a dip-your-toes-in kind of activity or you’re feeling adventurous and ready to learn something new, there’s something during CSEW for everyone!

The Human Touch

When I taught Grade 7 Language Arts and Socials I would spend hours on assessment. I had rubrics, I wrote notes, I highlighted and underlined and even then I felt as if I wasn’t spending as much time on assessment as I should. Students often made the same mistakes over and over and I began to feel like I was wasting my time! Were the kids even reading all of the feedback? It certainly didn’t seem like they were taking it into consideration.

So one year, with one assignment, I decided to change my tactic. For each novel study I read, I made a few notes for  myself and recorded a mark. Then, during silent reading time (and whenever else I could find time) I called the students up to me one at a time and gave them verbal feedback. We talked about what they had done well, where they had gone wrong and how to do better. To a person, they all thanked me (even students who did not do well were genuine in their thanks!) and, based on the next assignment, many of them made the recommended changes. And when I asked them which type of feedback they preferred they pretty much all said “the talking kind”. Bingo!

Now, as a former primary teacher I should not have been as surprised as I was. I know the power of the one-on-one teacher-student talk. But somehow, as an intermediate teacher I had gotten all caught up in assessing and keeping a paper trail of evidence and I had forgotten that simple human touch. Talk to them. 

The reality is that with a heavy teaching load, especially in high school, we don’t always have time to discuss each assignment with the students in person, even when we know it helps. That’s where technology can come in. My district is a Google district and one of the “extras” we have is Read and Write for Google Chrome. So, if the student has handed something in on a Google Doc (either by sharing it with me or by handing it in on Google Classroom), I can use the Voice Recorder tool in Read and Write to leave short verbal feedback to each student. Here’s the latest how-to video from Bits & Bytes, showing what to do.

You only have a minute to record your feedback but you can fit a lot of detail in one minute! You can also leave more than one recording!

When students get the assignment back, they can click on the recording and hear your voice! Not quite as good as having you there in person but certainly more of a human touch than a filled in rubric or a few scribbled notes and a mark!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Why Representation Is Important In The Digital World

I’m going to start today’s blog with a disclaimer and a fact (I bet you’re excited now, right?!) First the disclaimer. I know representation is vital in all walks of life. We all need to see ourselves reflected in the world around us to feel that we belong and that we are important. However, for the purposes of this post, I am going to refer specifically to representation in digital technology because that’s where I find myself spending much of my work life. And now the fact. I am a woman. For those of you who know me, that’s probably not a surprise, right? But just keep that in mind, because my gender is a part of my lived experience and it informs much of what I am about to say.

This past weekend I attended my Robotics students’ first competition in almost 20 months. It was exciting and I am certainly proud of all of the kids. But I did notice (not for the first time) that there was only one other female teacher/coach there and that the overall ratio of female to male was about 1:10. Or maybe even worse. Then today, I helped out at a choose-your-own-activity event a local school was putting on. I offered a Robotics course. The Grade 3 and 4 students chose Robotics in almost equal amounts. But for the older students, the ratio was 1 girl to 17 boys. Wow.

Now, before you bring it up (because I know someone will), in both scenarios LGBTQ and Indigenous students were probably also massively underrepresented but, for obvious reasons I don’t have those numbers. Like I said earlier, I am riffing off my own experience here, although it is relatively easy to draw some parallels, as you will see.

Now, as an educator, you’ve likely heard the statistics about fewer women going into Computer Science and Robotics careers. You may also know that jobs in those fields pay well and they are always looking for new recruits. Did you know that the pay differential between men and women in tech fields is generally lower than in other fields and that tech companies often have more progressive maternity leave policies and better work/life balance goals?

These are all good reasons for us to encourage more women to go into Comp Sci, Robotics and Technology. But there’s more to it.

Let’s look into the future a bit. Maybe 30 years. If we haven’t managed to ruin the climate there’s a good chance robots or robotic machines will be in charge of lots of everyday tasks. You will likely take a self-driving vehicle to work, have your lunch made by a robotic chef, have a routine check-up done by a medical droid and then head home via self-driving car again.

Why is this important? Well, someone will have to design and program those robots. And those designers and programmers will all come to their jobs with their own biases and experiences which will, of course, at least partially inform their practice. And if 85% of them are male then the potential is there for 85% of what is created to have a built in male bias. I suppose if 85% of the population were male that might be okay. But, of course, that’s not the case.

I think it is to everyone’s advantage to have the people designing and programming our future to be representative of the people living in that future. So, what do we do to make sure that we, as educators, encourage girls (and LGBTQ and Indigenous and other underrepresented groups) to go into Computer Science, Robotics and Technology? Big question, right? My thoughts and some possible answers coming in a future blog, but in the meantime, what do you think?

Shiny, New(ish) Tool!

Remember that excited feeling you had when you got a new game or toy and couldn’t wait to share it with your closest friends? Great feeling, right? I have that feeling today, because I have a new(ish) digital tool that I get to share with the staff and students in my school district. I’m a little nervous (because I want them to love it as much as I do) and a little anxious (what if they don’t like it?) but mostly just super excited!

So, for the staff and students in my district, I have secured Book Creator Premium for all of us to use from November 1, 2021 to June 15th, 2021. Pretty exciting, right?! (If you are not in my district, know that the free version of Book Creator is still uber-awesome and available to you.) If you are in my district and you already have a free account, you will get upgraded on November 1st.

I have blogged about Book Creator before (here), so I won’t repeat what I said there (well, not all of it anyways). What I will say is that I truly feel this is one of the best ed-tech tools out there. It is a K to 12 (and beyond) low floor-high ceiling, engaging, interactive, potentially collaborative and transformative for students and teachers tool!

Not only is the tool great, but the company behind it is, too! They “get” education. Their site has tons of examples of books students and teachers of all ages have created, covering a wide range of topics. They have a Youtube channel with tutorials. They have tons of resources for teachers, many of which are actual books that you can download to your Book Creator “library” and remix to make them your own. The people behind Book Creator are always looking for ways to make the product better and more responsive to what educators and students want! 

Still not convinced? Listen to what other teachers have to say:

For teachers in my district, I will be sending out more information over the next few days. I will likely run a few webinars in the coming weeks. I’ll even come to your classroom and help you if you want. And I have some swag to give away!

In exchange, I am hoping you will give Book Creator a try and let me know what incredible learning artifacts you and your students create!