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Five projects to engage digital learners


While there's lots of conversations around about engaging today's digital learners, the solution isn't simply to use technology. I don't think anyone will agree that playing Cow Clicker is the best use of our limited classroom time.

With the pressure of today's classrooms, students use of technology needs to help them progress towards a specific learning goal (content or process), as well as require them to apply what they know to create something new or solve a problem.

Engage Digital LearnersSo what kinds of work can students do that meets content and process learning goals? Most importantly they need to be CREATEing and making, not just consuming. Here are 5 of my favorite ideas.

1. Develop a Public Service Announcement

Students today aren't lazy, they are as idealistic and passionate about issues that affect them. Climate change, privacy rights and freedoms, health and safety,the list goes on. If you don't agree, maybe you aren't listening.

A PSA is designed to get people to change their behavior, how much more real world can persuasive writing be? Use PSAs to help students explore content issues in depth as well as practice writing and communication skills.

Created in Frames. Find more videos like this on Connect.

2. Create a book trailer

Students in our classes don't want to use technology with the end result of simply filling out a digital worksheet. Yes, that boring book report isn't any better just because we published with technology. But what kid nowadays goes to the movies without seeing, or looking up, one of the trailers about it? Movie trailers are fast-paced and exciting. They have just a few minutes to share details about a story that will connect the viewer to it.

Created in Frames. Find more videos like this on Connect.

When making a book trailer, not only do students have to know the characters, settings, and events in a story, they have to consider them in light of what someone else might find interesting. To make a great trailer, they may actually have to read the book, not just read about it online.

3. Make your own TV Show

Students today spend more time watching TV each year than they spend in school. While they may not be watching high-quality educational shows, they have most likely seen great storytelling, watched a news broadcast that affected their mood, and see a video biography on a person who interested them, even if it was about an entertainer.

Ask today's digital natives to take their existing knowledge and media literacy to craft unique responses to content they are studying. The better the question you use to frame their work, the better their response will be.

Find more videos like this on Tech4Learning
Created in Frames. Find more videos like this on Connect.

4. Help someone else learn

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the flipped classroom, but consider asking students to create videos that teach others by demonstrating a process or explaining a rule. We all know when you teach something, you learn it better. You also have to think of many different ways to approach and share information so that others can understand it. This multi-faceted approach also helps the "teacher" cement the concept in the brain.

Created in Pixie. Find more videos like this on Connect.

"When I notice someone having a grammar problem, I refer them to a student-created tutorial designed by one of their peers... and when one of my students shows mastery of a concept, I know it’s time for them to create one of their own!” shares Katy Hammack, a teacher in Santee, California.

5. Tell a story

Yes, just tell a story, any story. When students write their own stories, they have a chance to apply everything they have learned about grammar, voice, organization, and audience. A polished digital storytelling product may be a great way to hook learners, but we all know the real learning happens during the process. Producing a digital story requires planning, writing, editing, composing, considering, analyzing, articulating... the list goes on.

Created in Pixie. Find more videos like this on Connect.
The next time you are at a party or family event bored to tears by the long story seemingly without end or point, you can rest assured you are helping to save numerous people from this horrible fate.

The best projects

The best projects aren't the ones targeted to meeting a specific or narrow standard, but ones that move students toward mastery of many different skills.

Using play to engage students and promote learning


In the last post, I talked about the natural partnership of creativity and tinkering.  Once again, I am inspired by Dr. Henry Olds and want to expand on the idea of play. In his article, Iconic Pattern Play, he finds, with Dr. Walter Drew, that "unstructured, child-initiated creative play can strongly contribute to children’s growth and development."

Building bricksWith two young children the concept of play is no stranger at our house. Besides what better excuse than an 18 month olds pleading eyes?

But in classrooms? All too often play isn't visible in learning environments designed for students above the age of 5. Play isn't silly, play isn't a waste of time.  Play is essential to cementing concepts through application, but only when it is without outside expectations. This kind of intrinsic joy in figuring things out is easily seen in students in the Kinder classes, but with massive time limitations and content expectations, we rarely see open-ended, unstructured free play above this level.

Yes, we might often let students play or even experiment, but even when we do, we often inteject with questions that are leading, such as "Is that a pattern you are creating?" Even when we listen, are we "listening to them, or listening for something" we are hoping to hear? (Thank you ECOO presenter Jonathon Rajalingham)

Even if we try to ask questions that aren't leading, the simple act of asking requires a response and may be more teacher-centered than student-centered. Now what the child is answering us and is no longer doing something they initiated. The asking of a question means we are expecting a response, moving the focus off of the students back to us and our expectations.

I for one have a very, very hard time just listening and not trying to talk about what is happening. To help, I have been trying to label what is happening, rather than asking questions. In Parent Child Interaction Therapy, (PCIT), you describe behavior (only good behavior) and reflect (repeat back student speech). This simple act of stating what you see, not judging or asking questions, lets a child know that you are paying attention and focusing on them in that moment. You are there without judgement and expectations.

Play is most powerful when it doesn't come with expectations. This frees our mind from concerns about outcome and helps us take risks. Unstructured means the learner can be in the moment and better focus on process and see connections. This leads to serendipity - desirable discoveries by accident. Although maybe not quite as much by accident as we think.

I think this is true for everyone's learning journey, not just that of students. Henry reminded me of this again with his beautiful journey. Inspired by watching and supporting student learners, Henry has been doing his own pattern play in "retirement" with dazzling results! One example of his latest play is now the header for the Arlington Open Studio blog! Read the story and visit his web site.

Arlington Open Studios




Where will your play take you? 

Claymation in the Classroom - Great Memories


I have recently been revisiting the joys of claymation as I have been writing a Making Claymation in the Classroom eBook.

Years ago, I used to lead claymation workshops for educators almost every week. While I still get to every once in a while, what I really miss is doing workshops with students.

This workshop was an exact indicator of how powerful claymation can be--and this was even before we had Frames to make the computer part easy! Did we have some problems during the process? Sure. Did everything work out as planned? Not even close.

However, the workshop was comprised of over 80 upper elementary and middle school students. At one point during the process, I pulled the chaperones aside and had them listen. While there was a nice hum of activity and movement, it was almost dead quiet. Not one student was horsing around, off-task, or complaining. Yep, that's right. Over 80 middle school students in one giant room and not a peep. They were so engrossed in building their characters, storyboards, and sets, I could hardly interrupt to give suggestions. Now that is what I call engaged learners.

Math claymation

And their topics? We had a group recreating battles in the civil war, showing how terrain and troop movements over time affected the outcome. Another group retold the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears so they could take it home to show the 2nd granders who were studying fairytales. Another group created a volcanic eruption, demonstrating plate movements. And the list goes on.

It definitely reminded me of why you want to at least try claymation. There really are few things out there better for engaging students in the curriculum. If you are interested, I encourage you to download the free Making Claymation in the Classroom eBook!

I was reminded of this particular workshop because I found several fantastic photos of these students working on their projects! While I have a pretty strong recollection that I actually got a release form from their parents to use their picture, I can't find it in my piles of releases. So sad!

So, if you are out there Tony, with your chili pepper dude, you still inspire me!

Making Claymation in the Classroom

Project-Based Learning at High Tech High recognized again


While driving to work this morning, I was excited to hear that San Diego's High Tech High is one of the finalists for the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. This competition asked students to demonstrate how the learning environment at their school prepares them for college and career.

In the spirit of the project-based learning environment at their school, students worked together to produce a video highlighting what makes their school unique.

According to the students, the nature of project-based learning with a focus on work in the world outside the classroom provides them with important 21st century skills like technology skills, leadership, and ethics.

Thank you teachers and students for showing what students can do when given responsibility, leadership, ownership, and the ability to construct their own learning. It is appreciated.

Connecting with Hard-to-Reach Learners Using Project-based Learning


While digital natives may be the current rage in the media, our classrooms are also full of students who are not prepared for work at grade level and are not interested in school. Many have disadvantaged backgrounds, some need help learning even basic skills, others are bored because they aren’t being challenged. Without a rich and powerful educational experience, these students will have a harder time succeeding in the world outside of the classroom, now and in the future.

digital learningTo engage hard-to-reach learners, our classrooms need to supply both rigor AND relevance. We need to teach academics in a way that helps students make connections from what they are learning to the world outside the classroom.

While many of these students often struggle with basic literacy skills, and need additional help with the 3’R’s, they also need learning experiences that help provide important 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and media-rich communication.

Project-based Learning  (PBL) is a great way to engage students with high and low interest.  In a project-based learning environment, students answer questions/complete challenges/build products that require them to apply knowledge to solve a real world problem. You often hear the real world connection being referred to as “authentic” work.

Student work is authentic when:

  1. It is work that is also done BY someone outside of the classroom
  2. It is done FOR someone outside of the classroom
  3. The work HAS VALUE to someone outside of the classroom

An authentic task requires students to demonstrate proficiency by APPLYING existing knowledge to solve a real world problem.

Whenever I am fortunate enough to provide a ProjectLearn Academy to teachers, I like to begin to explore authentic work with a technology “project” most people are familiar with – the state report. Often this takes the form of a PowerPoint(less) presentation that shows a picture of the state map with the capital, a slide with the state song, the state bird, etc. The report contains information that can be located online in about a minute.

But what makes a state unique? What makes life in Massachusetts different from Arizona? Why do some families prefer to live in the South, while others prefer life in the West? Who cares?

“Who cares?” is a great way to figure out a real world connection! In the case of a state, who does care what they are like? A family would care if they have to choose whether to move there. The state’s tourism board cares because they are responsible for getting people to visit.

So what could a problem or task for a state report PBL project look like? There are many right answers! (like most of life’s most important questions).

You might ask students to take the role of a member of the state board of tourism to create an advertising campaign (presentation/video/website/print materials) to encourage others to visit a state. If you are concerned about meeting specific standards, set up the task so that students have to research geography, ecology, economy, and politics. You might even want to have them establish itineraries through a state for families with a budget of X time and X dollars.

You might ask students to take the role of a member of a family where one parent has been offered a very important, high-paying job in another state. Should the family move?  What is the economy like in the new state? Will the other parent be able to find a job? Or even need to? What opportunities for recreation are there? Do they match the family member’s current interests? How much does housing cost? What is the city or surrounding are like?

There are many other, and better, ways to approach a state report, but this gives you and idea of the difference in the student work. Authentic projects tend to be complex and rather than spending time hunting for correct answer, students spend their time asking lots and lots of questions!

To ensure that the students in our classrooms from all walks of life (both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds) can complete in our techno-centric global society, our classrooms must engage them and provide them with high level skills they can use in the world outside of the classroom. While project-based learning is certainly not the only way to do this, it is definitely a highly-effective strategy.

Look for future posts about using the tenets of PBL, and the spirit of authentic work, to engage learners in your classroom, even when you aren’t working on full-blown projects!

Creativity in the Science Classroom

science resized 600
As Samuel Johnson once said, "Youth is the time of enterprise and hope."

Many teachers find it hard to design imaginative ways of teaching science, especially if science is not their specialty.  I know this was a struggle for me when I was teaching 6th grade.  Science seemed to take a back seat over my love for social studies and language arts.  Today, with the use of productivity and creativity tools, doors are opening for teachers and students to creatively engage with content.

History has shown scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists.

  • In 1953, when James Watson was only 25, he co-wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time.
  • Marie Curie, the physicist, was just turning 30 when she began investigating radioactivity.
  • Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus.
  • Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the age of 26.
  • Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) most grants today for science and research go to adults during their senior years.  This is somewhat troubling given the stakes of 21st century learning.  Many youth today are not given the opportunity to explore ideas of innovation and creativity in the classroom, therefore inhibiting the advancement of science concepts.  Age does have its benefits in the field, but without the blossoming ideas of youth we may find ourselves further behind than we expect.

Tech4Learning has created a kit for both elementary and secondary science concepts.  Exploring these ideas with your students will aide in fostering creativity, innovation, and a deeper level of understanding with abstract science concepts.

The 21st century classroom – where the 3 R’s meet the 4 C’s!


Our world is changing and changing rapidly.  But while we often see digital natives on the covers of contemporary magazines, we have students in our classrooms from both sides of the divide.  A 21st century classroom must engage and energize both natives and non-natives, preparing all students to be active participants in our exciting global community.

Many look at this divide and cry out for a renewed focus on the 3 R’s - reading, writing, and arithmetic. But in order to fully participate in today’s global community, students must also master the 4 C’s – creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. (Thanks to Dr. Laura Spencer (@LMasterEdD) for introducing me to this term as we were working on the keynote for Santee’s 21st Century Learning Fair)

So often, when we talk about change in the classroom, we simply add one more thing to the list of topics we expect educators to cover. However, as you constructivists out there know, learning is activated when we help our students uncover information, not simply cover it for them.

creativity - collaboration - critical thinking - communicationWhen we think about bringing the 4 C’s into our classroom, we don’t need to “add” a thing. The best way to help students master these skills is to change HOW we teach and learn in our classrooms. It is the process of learning, not the content of learning, that addresses the 4 C’s.

Technology is a perfect vehicle for facilitating this. But this isn’t about learning how to use technology or even teaching with technology tools, it is about students creating and constructing with technology.

We help students build creativity and critical thinking by the types of questions we ask them to respond to.  With all of the information that can easily be found online, we no longer need to have students think of things, but think about them.

Students should be building communication skills that reflect the media rich world they are surrounded by. Rather than writing an essay or a report about a subject they are learning, ask students to help solve a problem and let them share a solution in the form of a digital story, video journal, animated news broadcast, or interactive game.

While you can encourage students to respond to a question in multiple ways without technology tools, multimedia authoring tools engage student’s different intelligences and interests and naturally encourage them to create products that reflect their individuality and unique ideas.

While we often think about collaboration in terms of connecting with experts or emailing experts, technology tools, like GoogleDocs, are allowing for collaboration on documents. The latest versions of Pixie, Frames, and Share include collaboration options that allow multiple students to work on the same project at the same time!

Collaborative learning entails more than just students working next to each other or even helping one another. Truly collaborative project work enhances student learning by modeling authentic work in the 21st century and helping students achieve the large-scale goals of a project in the time allotted. (Read more on collaboration)

The hardest questions and biggest problems we face today do not have one right answer. In our test-driven classrooms, it is easy to get in a rut of looking for that one correct answer. Products that look different help to foster a learning environment where lots of right answers are accepted and encouraged. As David Thornburg states, "Helping students figure out how to ask good questions prepares them for their future, not for our past."

21st century classrooms are not about technology, they are about learning! The are places that have moved from “teachers telling to students doing.” They are places where students are media producers, not just consumers.

How do you utilize student-created technology projects to encourage mastery of the 4 C’s? Please let us know!

Building Literacy Skills with Pixie

Early literacy is such a complex topic involving many issues like whole language, phonics, development, natural environment, direct teaching, and intervention.  How does one create a balanced approach to early literacy instruction through purposeful, functional use and meaningful context within a print-rich environment?  I believe the key ingredient is engagement and Pixie the tool to help with strengthening these skills in a 21st century classroom.

Using the National Early Literacy Panel’s 2002 research findings I have come up with ways in which Pixie can support their vision of the elements of a successful reading program.

For Alphabetic Principle (phonics and phonemic awareness) students:
  • Use the the stamp tool to stamp letters and form new words
  • Create letter trading cards
  • Complete various activities in the activities folder – rhyming, beginning sounds, etc.
For Fluency students:
  • Record their voice practicing beginning sounds of words
  • Retell a story focusing on tone of voice
  • Graph words per minute on various passages
For Vocabulary students:
  • Create a digital dictionary with original illustrations showing the meaning of the word
  • Create and record an original rebus story
  • Create vocabulary trading cards
For Comprehension students:
  • Use graphic organizers in the activities folder to map out the elements of a story
  • Create a new book cover for a story they have read
  • Create a video summarizing the story supporting it with original illustrations

You can find other ideas and support by watching this video I created titled: Building Literacy Skills with Pixie.

An Invitation to Expand your Literacy Program


The integration of creativity software should not be seen as "one more thing I have to do", but instead looked at as a bridge to engage students in furthering their literacy skills.  As teachers begin to give students longer, more academic reading assignments, that is when the emphasis shifts from "learning to read" to "reading to learn", many students lose steam.  So the question becomes, how do we continue to have students be "the little engine that could"?

Do Not Reinvent the Wheel
Teachers should be aware that one does not need to reinvent the wheel in order to be successful with this strategy.  Many textbooks today are filled with extension and skill building activities requiring higher-level thinking and various approaches to 21st century skills, such as problem solving.

Check Out Your Textbook
Teachers may want to take some time to look at the side columns in their student or teacher editions of the textbook and see how creativity software, such as Pixie, can support the ideas already in place to strengthen student literacy.  This is something that can be done with each core content area, as most textbooks will support literacy of sorts within their field.

Houghton-Mifflin Resource Guide
While working with some teachers in California, I took the liberty to peruse the Houghton-Mifflin literature anthology for creative ways to further engage the staff and their students.  What I found were a wealth of extension and skill based activities that the teachers were bypassing due to time.  The staff and I collaborated on how we could infuse these ideas with Tech4Learning software during their monthly themes and not add an additional workload.  The result is this document filled with a wealth of extension and skill building ideas whether you use Houghton-Mifflin or not.

Houghton-Mifflin Extension Activities

Students learning from blogging--A 21st Century Trend


 Learning in the 21st Century is a hot topic in education these days. Students need to find ways to get engaged and excited even more--what better way than to get your students to join a weekly blog?

students blogging

Just imagine, it’s Friday and you’re students have everything BUT school related topics on their mind. Start a "Friday Blog" where students can practice their writing, grammar, and creative thinking skills while enhancing their overall 21st century learning experience.   Blogging can bring kids into the world of writing, and best of all blogs are easy and fun to maintain.


Benefits of  blogging:

  • Seeing their words published on the Web is a great student motivator.
  • Blogs offer an innovative way for students to engage in reflective writing on classroom topics in a familiar medium.
  • Students who know they have an audience, gain more self-esteem and respect for themselves.
  • Kids love sharing and blogging.
  • Blogging weekly gets students into the habit of writing more, and doesn’t that make you a better writer?
  • There is no grading or test score which frees their mind for self expression and creative thinking.
  • Problem solving and communication.

Most of all blogging can teach your students to reflect on what they've learned and open their minds.

Do  you think adding a weekly blog would benefit your classroom?

 students sharing and blogging

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