Monday, November 30, 2015

Legos on Build with Chrome (An Early Introduction to 3D Building on a 2D Screen)

Legos are fantastic! They encourage creativity, cooperation, planning, revising, constant improvement, and many other personal and professional skills. Unfortunately, all of that valuable learning is expensive and those expensive pieces are hard to clean up.

Thankfully, Google and Lego have teamed up to create Build With Chrome and provide people all over the world with their very own virtual Legos. The name is a bit misleading because you're not building with silvery-colored chrome blocks; it's actually taking place in the Chrome operating system and it uses all the familiar Lego bricks (blocks, flat pieces, round and cone shaped ones, etc.)

Chrome can be downloaded onto iPads and is already on Chromebooks. Students can build without logging in or signing up. Although, saving their Lego creations requires signing into Google. In my class students usually create something in BuildWithChrome, screenshot/Print Screen it, open it in Notability, and then label the important parts.

For example, two weeks ago my students wrapped up a unit on the early colonies by researching and re-creating a colony or settlement. We learned about Plymouth, Jamestown, Roanoke and the neighboring Native American civilizations and only mentioned "there were other colonies." This was an opportunity for them to use critical thinking and research skills to learn about new colonies.

The students were given two days in the computer lab to research and build their colony. On the third day they photographed (screenshot) their colonies and labeled them (What is this? What does it tell us about the inhabitants? etc.). It was a very successful project because students had fun thinking like an forensic archaeologist and doing research like a historian. When the project was over students could explain the significance of a stone wall versus a wooden fence (stone walls defended against other European canons/ wood only protected from hand-held Native American weapons) and understood colonists got their water from a community well. By looking at other students' projects they also saw the difference between strategic colonies with military forts, like San Juan and St. Augustine, and commercial or religious colonies, like Jamestown or Plymouth.

Here are some other ideas for using Build With Chrome:
  • Create a Biome: Students can research the temperature, precipitation, flora and fauna of a biome and create it. What color should the floor be? Why? What animal is that? 
  • Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Fish: Have students recreate one of these vertebrates and label the features as well as the distinctive features of the group.
  • Build a Process: Recycling, the water cycle, Three Branches of Government, and a number of other processes are easier to understand (and assess) if students can create their own representation of the process.

However you decide to use it, here's some advice:
1) Give Them a Rubric: This tells them what they are going to need in order to meet your standards. It also gives them autonomy and freedom to create something original and awesome. This also gives you something concrete to point at when you ask them, "ok, I see you've created an amazing spaceship, but the rubric says you need to represent a Native American village."

2) Use a Computer: Doing this on an iPad or other tablet is possible, but it is very difficult. Use something with a track pad, or better yet, an actual mouse.

Build With Chrome is very similar to AutoCAD software, it's just simpler and uses bricks. The ability to make things in three-dimensions on a two-dimensional computer is already an essential skill for engineers, interior designers, and many other professions. Using Build With Chrome will start to build this important skill!

Have fun!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

GoFormative: The Best Ed-Tech of 2015 (maybe ever)

Watch this video about GoFormative.

Still interested? This is, without a doubt, the most valuable assessment tool I've ever used. For starters, it is web-based like Kahoot and Google Drive so it can be accessed anywhere (on any device) so long as it has an internet connection. Furthermore, the student doesn't need an account, username, or password. All they need is a four-letter, three-digit code provided by the teacher. Each code is linked to a specific GoFormative activity.

Once students are in it is possible to get live updates of what they are doing on each question. If one of my students is lining the decimals up the wrong way I know they should be in a small group of other students making the same mistake. Is he or she the only one making that mistake, well, then maybe I should make my way over to their desk and correct the problem now.

When students complete the GoFormative, they hit submit and (depending on the question type) their answers are corrected automatically (short answer, multiple choice) or left for me to correct (short answer or show your work).

Then I can use this data in grade books and, more importantly, deciding how to modify instruction or structure small-groups.

Basically, GoFormative can be used to create quizzes or to turn PDF worksheets into self-correcting forms. However, the power of this app goes far beyond simply digitizing paper!

How do I use it in my classroom?

Morning Check-in: 
Every morning when my students come in there's a GoFormative waiting for them on Edmodo. When they arrive at the GoFormative there are about ten questions which will take them between five and fifteen minutes to answer.
There are usually four academic questions, one each for math, literacy, science and social studies. These questions are carefully chosen (often from classwork) to tell me whether or not students have mastered daily/weekly/unit learning targets. Starting the day out knowing who needs more help and who needs acceleration is invaluable and, as far as I'm concerned, there's not better tool for this kind of morning assessment. An added bonus of putting the link in Edmodo? Their mere presence in the GoFormative tells me who knows how to log-in to Edmodo. It's amazing how many kids can log-in to Edmodo everyday for three weeks and then, one day, forget their password.

After the academic questions come logistical "questions." About three times a week students are asked to take a screen shot of the lock screen. This screen shot shows me the battery level and today's date. On the next question the students are asked to share the battery percentage and this question is auto-corrected. Students with a low battery get bothered by me and, two weeks in, low batteries are very low in my class. Similarly, about once a week, students are asked to take a picture of their iPad bag, cord and charger with the barcode facing the camera. This ensures students don't wait until the last week of school to announce their cord or charger is missing.

Finally, most morning check-ins involve homework turn-in. The students take a screen-shot or photograph of their homework and upload it into a "Show Your Work" problem. If students are struggling on the academic questions, having the homework helps me diagnose the problem. Are they assuming all colonies were English? Did they fail to understand the temperature and precipitation graph? Honestly, I'm not big on homework, but I do give it so students can practice important skills already learned in class and, sometimes, because I need to see a student do something six times to really determine how well (or poorly) they understand the concept or topic.

Running stations is always a challenge if you're the only teacher in the room. Having four students at five different stations makes it hard to monitor all of the learning. Having GoFormative up and running on my iPad allows me to move around the room and talk to groups, while still looking at the streaming data from other tables. Josh is drawing pictures of minions again and Tania is making an excessively detailed drawing of a longhouse. Fortunately, based on the photos they've uploaded, it's clear the CalTech group understands the value of iron tools in the New World. All of this can be seen while I sit at a table and watch another group re-build the fort at St. Augustine using primary documents and a box of Legos!

Class Discussions:
The short answer questions are very helpful for class discussions because all of the students' answers can be displayed simultaneously (albeit very small). By clicking on individual responses the teacher can make these responses larger. It's a really smooth platform for asking discussion questions and then critiquing answers as a large group.

Close Reading (Experimental)
Warning: I haven't had tremendous success with this...yet. However, I am trying to guide my students close reading skills by uploading PDF texts (like NewsELA) and then putting question boxes into the text. My goal is for students to read the text and see that I have a question about the text. In so doing, they will stop, ask themselves, "why is Mr. Stewart interested in this section," and after a hundred repetitions will ask questions for themselves.

These boxes in the text can also be a place for students to comment on a quote or sentence; share a connection to a previous topic; or share a picture explaining what they they think a Sauropod looks like.

I'll report back on how this works.

Finally, there's the question of feedback and exporting data. Yes and yes. Feedback can be immediate if students are logged-in. As far as exporting data it can be done via Excel, but there's almost too much data (like the number of points possible per question). This is one area where GoFormative could improve. In the future I would love to see the ability to export into Google Drive or, even better, connect directly with the Edmodo gradebook!
Best of luck and please share how you are using GoFormative in your classroom! If you have any questions the people at GoFormative are very prompt about answering questions.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Putting Current Events into the Classroom

It's difficult to prepare students for the real world if they don't know what is going on in the real world. It's even more difficult to teach students who see no relevance in the content. CNN Student News is a 10 minute solution to this problem and fits perfectly into morning meetings, hallway passing time, or that odd 10 minutes at the end of the hour. You can watch it everyday or every now and then.

Things I like about it:
1) Each show is produced with the Common Core and other national disciplinary standards in mind. This, plus the two sentence summary on the home page, allows you to preload concepts and vocabulary. It also means you can say, "today we're going to hear about Ukraine. What did we learn about Ukraine and Russia yesterday?" or "How does the current conflict in Ukraine relate to the Cold War and the Soviet Union?"

2) Each week CNN puts together comprehension questions. These can help you gauge what they're gaining from the show, give you some idea of how well they understand the world around them, and maybe, help you find out what is interesting to them. Which brings me to my next point...

3) Any current event can be connected (or paralleled) to historical events, economic theories, physical geography, scientific discoveries, and the like. CNN Student News can give you inspiration and ideas! Are your students curious about the measles outbreak? Use it to teach students about the immune system, the scientific method, or historic pandemics. Are the students asking questions about the events in Ferguson? It can be tied to every amendment in the Bill of Rights or open a difficult, but important conversation about race in the United States. 

4) The entire show is put together with students in mind. The host is upbeat, but doesn't downplay the gravity  of serious situations. Each country on the show is shown on a globe and difficult concepts are explained in detail. This isn't a new label on the same, old news. The show is really made for students.

However you use it, you will find your students making connecting classroom concepts to CNN Student News, and vice versa.

CNN Student News is great and it is a wonderful way to develop the habit of watching the news, and also teach students critical thinking skills. However, knowing how to read non-fiction text, like news articles, is also important. 

Thankfully, there's a great newspaper-ish website for students.

NewsELA is a great option for exploring current events through text. NewsELA borrows articles from major newspapers around the country and then rewrites the articles at different Lexile levels. They also provide text-dependent quizzes and writing prompts related to the articles. 

It's very convenient to save the document as a PDF and share it via Edmodo. This makes it easy to distribute and allows students more colors and tools for close reading. It also means they can take screen shots of important passages. If they encounter a word they don't know, like "inaugural," it's easy to find a picture or definition and paste it into the article.

As I mentioned earlier, many articles come with a quiz at the end. It's very easy to remove the answer page, but I think it is better to leave the answers attached. Successful readers don't know all the answers. They know how to learn anything and why they know what they do. Students need to find, highlight and label the paragraph which gave them the answer. This builds skills and reinforces the mindset that all answers are there, it's just a matter of finding them or figuring them out through inference.

As with CNN Student News, NewsELA is a way to explore why last centuries events are still relevant today. Why do the Scots want independence? How does their independence movement compare to the American Revolution? 

Current events develop habits of good citizenship, like critical thinking and being informed. It allows students to connect the past to the present and the here to the there. When they know what is going on in the world, they will want to know why and that is what good education is all about!

If you are interested in putting more current events in the classroom, be sure to check out Fantasy Geopolitics! There are lots of resources there! My blog post on it is here!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Having Fun with Physical Geography, Climate, Culture, and Economic Development

It's always wonderful to ask for something and receive it, but it's even more wonderful when you think something would be great and one day it appears. For a long time I've suggested Social Studies teachers should use high-resolution images of unknown places (photographs of neighborhoods, web cameras in markets, etc.) and have students use their critical thinking, knowledge and sources to determine an approximate location of a place.

EarthCam has a huge selection of cameras positioned all over the world, from the bustling Times Square to a quiet ruins in Jordan. With a little careful planning, you can cover up the cameras location and from there students can use what they see to determine the cameras location. If students are clever, and they most assuredly are, they can develop tons of low-level questions and then synthesize the answers in a very high-level way.

  • What is the climate like? What is the weather like? Is it day or night there?
  • Is there any distinctive flora or fauna?
  • Are there people? How are they dressed?
  • Is there any tell-tale physical geography? Like mountains or seashore?
  • Is there any writing visible? What language is it written in?
  • Is this a developing nation?
There are so many other questions to ask, but they all serve the same purpose: to narrow down the location. There are many places that have palm trees, but if it's night time that means it is on the other side of the world. Many places have paved roads, but only a few drive on the left-hand side of the road. This is fun for students, but it also gets them thinking about how places are similar and different and just how many facets there are to the concept of "place."

So, for years I've been content with the aforementioned activity, but today, I learned about Geoguessr and it turns this activity into a bonafide game! Go play it. It's really fun! Basically, you're given a random image on Google Maps and asked to show (on a map of the world) where you think it is. The closer your guess (in kilometers) the higher the score. Players are given five different locations and can look all around and even go up and down the roads. Just like with EarthCam, this could be done as a whole class activity or with teams. Students could use standard classroom atlas or notes from class. As the year went on, their notes would become more and more valuable and the scores would (hopefully) get higher and higher. The only problem I have with the game is its inconsistent difficulty. Sometimes the answer is all too easy, like when I landed next to a well-marked Post Office in Texas. 

This Geoguessr had me so inspired today, I set out to find the perfect electronic atlas for students to use. This interactive map from National Geographic allows students to create their own maps with different layers, and would be the perfect tools for students playing Geoguessr or another "World Image" guessing-game.

"Oh, look there's a mosque. Let's select a layer for world religions. This image is probably from a part of the world where Islam is widely practiced. In the distance are some mountains, let's look at the map for some major mountain ranges. Judging from the cars and the condition of the road, it looks like this country is highly-developed. Let's try to find a layer that might suggest economic development or widespread infrastructure."

(One could also use GapMinder to find countries that are densely populated or highly developed, etc.)

Using this e-atlas in conjunction with EarthCam or GeoGuessr will encourage students to use their atlases, problem solving skills and other higher-order thinking to find a right answer. Even if they get the wrong answer, it's an opportunity to look for missed opportunities or to discuss how to countries can be so similar and yet so far away. 

This can also be a platform to learn vocabulary! If students are going to describe their surroundings, they should use the right terms. Many mosques have tall towers attached to them, but they have a specific name (minaret) and students should use this term. Are those mountains or foothills? What's the difference? Is this an urban or rural environment? Is this a temperate or subtropical forest? Going along with the vocabulary, is the sense of place! If a student can look at a picture and say, "that's in Latvia," they know a lot about Latvia. Or, perhaps even better, they know how to learn about a country.

Take their enthusiasm for this activity and spin it off into something else! Give them a checklist of things (mountains, lemurs, adobe buildings, etc.) and have them find a place on Earth that will satisfy as many of the checkpoints as possible or a different place for each item. This could be an opportunity for them to use relative and absolute location. They can tell you the latitude and longitude of the Street View or they can tell you that it is in San Francisco, near the TransAmerica Pyramid. Again, being creative, motivated, and focused on your learning objectives is the key! 

The beauty of this activity is that it is appropriate for all ages, but the depths to which you go can be varied to fit the students. For lower-elementary grades it might be enough to talk about how this places is similar or different from where they live. Fourth-graders could talk about specific geographic features, and sixth-graders could identify signs of industry (factories, large trucks, smokestacks). High-schoolers could identify plant species (depending on the resolution of the image) and match those plants to the climate zones. (Interdisciplinary link with science!)

There's so much potential here!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Wikipedia: Genuine Audience and Collaborative Writing

There are few things as valuable to budding writers (or as scarce) as a genuine audience. By "genuine audience" I mean somebody who wants to read their writing and will make use of what they read in some way (discuss it, use it to make an informed decision, etc.). Experts agree that the opportunity to share their writing in an authentic way encourages and engages them in the writing process.

Another important, but difficult, concept to convey to students is that knowledge is ephemeral. As Tommy Lee Jones'Agent K put it so wryly in Men in Black," 1500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the Universe. 500 years ago everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow." Students often seem to think that the collective knowledge of mankind spurt out of a fountain at a university, in a laboratory, or somewhere on the East Coast, and was then placed into textbooks and shipped to them. In some ways, I think access to the Internet and a renewed focus on open-ended questions and inquiry based methods has helped students understand where "knowledge" comes from. Still, they need to recognize that what we believe and know is based on research and that it changes from time to time. This problem goes hand-in-hand with students sometimes struggling to see the value of citations and identifying sources.

Lastly, I want my students to know their writing an always be improved. It's wonderful when a student completes two or three drafts before they turn it in, and I'm not trying to foster self-deprecation, but they should understand that good writing often goes through dozens of edits with massive amounts of text added, removed, or relocated! Even after all of that there's probably some way to make it better, but you can't spend your whole life on a three-page essay.

How will we solve all of these problems? Wikipedia! No, we're not going to look up the answer on Wikipedia; we're going to research topics and improve the World's Largest Encyclopedia. There are Wikipedia pages waiting to be created, edited and improved covering every topic imaginable, from military vehicles to little-known waterfalls. 

Let's start with how to edit a Wikipedia page. You don't need to be signed-in as a member to edit Wikipedia, but it might be a good idea because it often speeds up the time from when one edits and submits to when the changes appear. It also allows students to receive some recognition for their efforts (albeit, fairly anonymous). To create an account, click the link or go to Wikipedia and look for the "create account" link in the upper right hand corner. Once you've clicked it you'll be asked for basic information (username, email, password preference) and proof that you're not a robot. If you have each student create their own account (for grading or organizational purposes), my suggestion would be to make your student username's fairly anonymous. It might be a good idea to give students a format for their username, such as Teacher's Last Name/Hour#/Initials. Thus, Jane Doe from my second hour class would be Stewart2JD. As for passwords, check with your technology department to see if they want you reusing your school password outside the school's network. 

First-time editors and those new to the Wikipedia culture might want to visit the Teahouse at Wikipedia. This is a place to ask questions (formatting, content, culture, or anything else you want to know) and receive answers from experienced editors and contributors. Remember, Wikipedia has its own Manual of Style and this should be consulted regularly to ensure content alignment. Many of the rules are quite nuanced and designed to make Wikipedia professional sounding and culturally sensitive, but there are some important rules that should be considered by all contributors. One of the most important is images. They must be in the public domain through a Creative Commons license or by some other means. Googling "Khwai River" and inserting it into a document is always unacceptable, but it's particularly bad form on a website like Wikipedia. It might be a good idea to review major guidelines with students and help acquaint them with the Manual so they can find their own information.

Now that students know how to write a Wikipedia article, it's time to find articles in need of improvement. Wikipedia identifies approved topics in need of additional information as "stubs," and they have a massive index of these stubs, organized by subject. Perhaps you want your students to work on a particular topic, such as the physical geography of Africa. If that's the case, navigate through the index to find waterfalls, rivers, forests and oases of Africa. Keep in mind that there's a reason these articles are stubs and it might be difficult to find information. My advice would be to keep the topic as general as possible, while still addressing your learning standards. If it's Social Studies and they're supposed to understand how systems of trade develop ask the students to find a stub related to trade, commerce, currency or another pre-approved topic. If it's Language Arts and you just want the students to write for a real audience, or get practice doing research, have them write about a local topic, like the local county park or a hometown hero.

The difficult part would seem to be assessing, but if you have the students complete their article or contribution on a separate document, like Google Documents, then you can grade their writing and facts. They can post to Wikipedia, share the link with their classmates, via Remind101 or Padlet, and look at each others' work. Of course, the learning isn't over when they've finished posting and reading the articles. Encourage students to revisit the page and see how it changes over time. It's almost guaranteed others will visit the page and make minor, or major, changes to the article.

*A final bonus for using Wikipedia is it helps students understand the fallibility of sources, especially ones that allow non-experts to contribute. (Personally, I think Wikipedia gets a bad wrap. It shouldn't be used for dissertations and there are definitely better websites out there for conducting research. However, too many grade-school teachers treat Wikipedia like a gateway drug to illiteracy and the decline of modern civilization. If anything, Wikipedia is bringing literacy and knowledge to billions of people and is the preeminent example of a future in which knowledge becomes egalitarian and accessible to all. But that's just my opinion!)

I would love hear your thoughts or see some links to pages your students edited!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Connecting with Families (Digitally)

Most of my posts focus on how to connect students with worthwhile learning opportunities, whether it's "flying" them over the Pyramids of Giza or turning spelling into a game. However, we've known for  a long time parent involvement is one of the most important factors in determining students' academic success, and the evidence continues to mount. Thankfully, there are many different technological tools available to help teachers, parents and their students connect, even if their lives are busy and hectic. By making connections (digitally or otherwise), parents can share how those subjects are relevant in their lives, provide enriching activities, and support the teacher from home by ensuring projects are completed. The ways in which parent involvement matter could crash this blog's server! In every case it's probably better to check the technology out for yourself. Here we go:

Remind 101: Cell phones and email are ubiquitous; almost everybody has one (or both). Remind 101 allows teachers to send mass text messages or emails to parents, study hall teachers and anybody else who signs up. The beautiful thing about Remind 101 is that it is easy to set up, easy to send out, and teachers and parents don't directly swap phone numbers or emails. Instead, Remind 101 is the intermediary. Teachers set up an account and are given a code. That code can the be shared publicly and parents can sign up by texting or emailing the code to a six digit number. When the teacher sends out a message via e-mail or text, it is routed through Remind 101 and then delivered to all of the subscribers. It's free and there are no advertisements of any kind. On my seventh-grade team, we send our daily agenda to the math teacher, who enters it all into an e-mail, and hits send. All of the seventh-grade teachers are signed up for Remind 101 and it's great because we know what's going on in the other classes. We can help our Connections/advisory students stay on track, make cross-curricular connections and avoid having three projects or tests on the same day. Parents like it too because it's delivered directly to them and doesn't involve logging on or wondering if the electronic grade book is up-to-date. If parents are "too busy" to sign-up, ask them for their information and sign them up. It will only take you ten seconds, but could make a lifetime of difference for your student. One final advantage of Remind 101 is that it spans the Digital Divide. Not all families have internet access at home, but while almost all adults (especially between 18 and 65) have cell-phones.

Twitter: Twitter is concise and abuzz. You can share short blurbs of text and pictures. Want to let parents know how the mini-ecosystem project went? Send out a picture. Want to share today's or tomorrow's essential question? Tweet it. Maybe direct that essential question towards a respected expert in that field. You never know they just might respond! If your latest project has a rubric, you can upload it on to Google Drive, share it publicly on the web, shorten the share URL, and send it out. I don't promote my Twitter feed enough, but I have some really great followers, including the local chamber of commerce. From that, several other local leaders have started following me and now they know what's going on in their school. Maybe they have a sibling visiting from Monterey who happens to be an expert in marine eco-systems. Now you've got yourself an expert to speak to the class. The possibilities are endless! Here are some tips for getting started with Twitter, including how to use hashtags to organize the noise. The only tip I would urge you to disregard is the one about maintaining a ratio of followers to following. There's nothing wrong with following more than you're followed. In education, a diverse collection of interests (as evidenced by who you follow) only reinforces that you're a lifelong learner and that your class or subject extends far beyond the walls of the classroom.

TodaysMeet: Almost every presentation or posting on educational technology talks about TodaysMeet. It's very simple; combining the brevity of Twitter with the structure of a comment forum or chat-room. Setting one up takes about fifteen seconds. Then, using the URL or a QR code, students can visit the chatroom, enter their name, and post on the page 140 characters at a time. This is a great tool for exit slips! I also like to share these pages with parents via Twitter or my blog. This allows parents to see what their student is doing in class and allows them the opportunity to partake in the process of informal assessment. My exit slip questions are often something like, "what was the most surprising thing you learned today?" When a parent can look up their student's answer, it gives them a place to start a conversation. "Hey son, I noticed that you were surprised by the ending of the third Hunger Games book. It surprised me too!" Bam! Now the family is talking about what happened at school and forming a positive bond. 

Google Drive: Sharing is an important part of being a family, right? So, why not share digitally? When students are working on an essay or presentation in Google Drive, ask them to share it with you and their families. This allows the student, teacher, parents, grandparents, etc. to communicate and collaborate! It's very simple, just have the student click the blue "share" button and enter an e-mail address. My grading is done via Google Drive, and this allows parents to see specifically how their students paper was graded and gives them a far clearer picture of the student's abilities than a simple letter grade or comment. Remember that this "sharing" can be done with anything on Google Drive (Spreadsheet, Draw, etc.), including notes or PDFs saved into Google!

Blogger: There are lots of different options when it comes to blogging and that link will explain the pros and cons of the different options. My preference for Blogger/Blogspot is based solely on their integration with Google. It's part of Google and if you use Google Drive or Gmail, you're already signed up! There are also some slick first- and third-party add-ons that interact well with other Google products and will help tailor the blog to your needs. So, how does a blog help you connect with parents? Twitter and Remind 101 are designed to share sentences and phrases worth of information. If you want to share pages or paragraphs of information then a blog is a free way to do that. One common misconception is that blogs must be a lengthy, one-page beast that requires a frustrating amount of scrolling. Blogger, and most other blogging platforms, allow the user to add tabs. This is my classroom blog and you can see that there are two tabs: one with general information about what is going on and another for resources. The first tab is primarily used to communicate with parents and they can sign-up to receive updates in their e-mail. The second tab is aimed at students, with a number of websites or slideshows aimed at supporting or furthering learning at home. Sometimes parents don't understand what is being taught at school or don't remember exactly how to use commas in a list of adjectives. This blog gives them a resource to support their children's learning. Using a blog in conjunction with Twitter is a great way to share information. This allows you to send out a concise message about what is new on your blog and provide a link back to it. 

QR Codes: This sort of mixes no-tech with high-tech, but in the print industry QR codes have a proven record for success. link QR codes to your blog, your email, a rubric on Google Drive, a page or a third-party website of relevance and attach the QR to student's take-home folders, report cards, or newsletters. If it works for advertising agencies, it will work for you!

The Educational Websites You're Already Using: Edmodo, Classroom Dojo and most other purpose-built educational websites have features designed to connect parents and families with the digital-ether of the modern classroom. Check these out and use them. 

Remember, families want their children to succeed, even if the tangible evidence is sometimes frustratingly absent. Often times parents don't understand how important their role is, or are simply modeling what their parents did. Whether it is high-tech or no-tech, make sure you connect with families!

One final note: the reliance on educational technology has removed the tangible evidence of learning from many households. Students no longer bring home a textbook and worksheet, leaving parents a little confused about what exactly is happening in the classroom. For involved parents this is frustrating and even disconcerting. Thus, it is more important than ever to find ways to share the teaching and learning with families. If there's something you're doing or using with great success, please share it in the comments. As Red (from Red Green) used to say, "Remember, I'm pulling for you. We're all in this together."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fantasy Geopolitics

If you're a frequent reader of this blog you've noticed that I am a big believer in "gamification." There's a reason (actually reasons) people enjoy playing sports, Nintendo and board games. It's exciting to find ways to bring the thrill and challenge of a game and apply it to learning. Fantasy Geopolitics crossed my radar several weeks ago, but it wasn't until today that I finally had time to log-on and try it out. 

What is it? There's a video on their website (and above) that does a great job of explaining it. Essentially, it combines fantasy sports with, you guessed it, geopolitics. Students "draft" countries and receive points each time the country is mentioned in the New York Times. To succeed, students must research carefully and choose wisely.

It's free and very easy to set up. All you need is an e-mail address and a few minutes. Navigating the website is very easy. Once you've signed up, it is time to create a league. You can create multiple leagues, which will be handy if you want each class or grade to have their own league. As you set up the league you'll be asked to decide how long the season will be and how many countries players add to their roster. I chose the maximum (five) but you can opt for only one per player. Remember you will need to multiply the number of choices by the number of students in your class. If you have twenty-five students in a league and their rosters will all have five countries, you're talking about 125 different choices. That's going to take time, but it's also going to mean students do more research. Finding a balance is up to you!

In order to succeed in this game, students need to pay attention to trends and current events. Four weeks ago, Malaysia would, unfortunately, be a good choice because the media coverage of Malaysia 370 was intense. As the search winds down and the World Cup in Brazil approaches, it becomes increasingly likely that Brazil will net points on a regular basis. If the season started in February, Russia would've been a spectacular draft. The Olympics wracked up points on a daily basis for two weeks, and this was followed by the events in Crimea. To aid students in their research, Fantasy Politics provides links and resources. These include video clips of NBC Nightly News, indexes at the State Department, and a global development activity. The website automatically tabulates scores on a daily basis and displays maps of which countries are trending. The best way to understand the genius of this activity is to sign-up and explore!

The need for research and attention to current events doesn't stop after the draft, because students can edit their roster. If they determine a country is no longer likely to produce points, it can be swapped for another country. However, you can't draft a country that has already been chosen by another player.

This game has value beyond simply encouraging an interest in Geopolitics. It is also a valuable way to generate discussion about information sources. How does the Times' location (in New York and America) effect its publishing decisions? How does its global audience effect publishing decisions? What information sources did the winners use and did those sources matter? 

Track how long events stay in the headlines. What stays in the headlines longer: a famine or a global summit? A visit from a foreign dignitary or an international wire-tapping scandal? Does the amount of attention granted align with its importance? What is important? Why is it important? What's the most important thing to happen during the Fantasy season? Why is there so much conflict in one region? Why are some countries present at every international event? Why are some countries consistent point-producers? Why do others produce massive stats for a week and then go dormant? Is there a relationship between GDP and column inches? Is population a predictor of point-generating ability? Tying in math, how could we determine the ratio? When it's all over, students can discuss their successes and short-comings. The opportunity to explore deep questions, cross curricular lines, and develop complex answers is, ultimately, the appeal of this activity.

My guess is that students will try to find information sources beyond those at Fantasy Geopolitics in an effort to get an edge on the competition. This could lead to relevant, engaging lessons on how to use search engines effectively and how to identify credible sources. Students will ask more questions when victory is on the line. 

Many students will appreciate Fantasy Geopolitics similarity to a sporting event. If you're familiar with sports video games, then you've probably seen the All-Packers Team or All-Dodgers team. What would be the ultimate roster from the 1960s? What was Saudi Arabia's best year, in regards to Fantasy Geopolitics? It would be very difficult to find out what the right answer is, but that means students need to make their writing convincing and based on sources, especially primary sources. Have students develop and explain their roster, randomly choose three front pages from that year, and conduct a close reading, and score the rosters. Teachers could find semi-objective answers using Google N-Gram. Just remember that some countries have changed borders or names (ex. Congo). Maybe the person with the best "All-Star Team" wins the first draft pick?

All in all, Fantasy Geopolitics has tremendous potential for Social Studies and cross-curricular minded Language Arts teachers. This activity could become the foundation of a massive, year-long World Geography class or a tiny part of a week-long unit on using sources and search engines.