Friday 10 December 2010

Celtx: Amazing Media Pre-Production Tool

My grade 8 students are making their own short educational videos. While they are all about something different, they still use the same process and once again, the design cycle has been very helpful in keeping us on track. While searching for a good tool to help them make storyboards, I came across Celtx. Their website claims that over a million media creators from 170 countries have used the software, so I guess it isn't a much of a secret. But it was new to me and has since become a great tool that our Drama and English teachers have also started to use.

Celtx can do much more than storyboards. it is a complete media pre-production suite that helps you organize everything from your script to your cast and crew, from background information on your characters to the production schedule.

And the best thing is, it's free! Celtx is an open-source project and there is a large community of users sharing tips and tricks and other useful information. You can download Celtx here. And you can find 101 tutorial videos here.  There is even more information on the Celtx wiki.

Friday 3 December 2010

Serious Games in the Classroom: Throwing Constructivism a Lifeline?

I am putting together the final essay for my Foundations of Educational Technology class for my MET program. I thought I would post the abstract in case people might be interested. I will add a link to the rest of the paper when it is complete.

*edit: Here is is the link...

Richard Clark’s article, “Learning from Serious Games? Arguments, Evidence and Research Suggestions” and the many emotional responses it has elicited, clearly illustrates the sharp division with Constructivist thinking on one side and the sort of direct instruction propounded by the Cognitive Load theorists on the other. While the use of simulation-based computer games in the classroom tends to be justified by a Constructivist vision of pedagogy, which has recently come under attack in outcomes-based educational reforms, I will argue that simulation-based computer games can accommodate both arguments and presents a powerful teaching tool that should not be ignored. Although there are theoretical shortcomings, most of the criticisms levied against Constructivism (and Constructionism) in education are based less upon pedagogical concerns than on economical ones. This essay will come to terms with critiques and merits of Constructivism as a learning theory and will examine the role that simulation-based computer games can play in alleviating some of the concerns.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Xtranormal: Easy 3D Movie Maker

I just discovered Xtranormal this morning and am still getting the hang of it but it is really easy to get started and it seems that you can get a lot out of the free version. I will post back more after I show it to some teachers and see what sort of classroom use we can get out of it. It would appear to fulfill a similar niche to our comics. I wouldn't use it for long movies but for kids to throw together a quick dialogue to embed it would work great. i am thinking it would be useful for a unit about conflict resolution. You could start scenarios off and then have students take over where the videos leave off and they could try to resolve the conflict.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Comics in the Classroom

This is something I will come back to once I have some more examples of what teachers have been doing with it. For my 'Foundations of Educational Technology' class, we were asked to make a comic strip about something that had been up for discussion in one of the modules. Here is the one that I did:

This was a lot of fun to work on.  I took the picture with my Android phone using an app that made it look like a black and white line drawing (Camera 360) then I ran it through a pile of Photoshop filters until I got the look I wanted.  The story in the strip is from a news story I heard on CCTV9 that I found sort of ironic.  But, this took me quite a while to do.  I'm sure that most teachers aren't interested in this sort of thing.  But it did get me thinking about uses for comic strips in the classroom and I started looking for other tools.

Here are 4 online tools that I presented to our teachers:

StripCreator:  This one is really easy to use, but the comic strips can't be embedded.  You will need to print them out.

Pixton:  This one is the most powerful of the four but takes a little more time to get things the way you want.

MakeBeliefsComix:  Really cute.  Really basic.

ToonDoo:  This one is probably the best all-round choice.  it has a lot of flexibility and a lot of images and characters to choose from.  This one was very popular with my fellow MET students.

In the classroom, I found comic strips as a useful tool to get students to make storyboards while they were writing stories.  They also made a nice alternative to journal writing for ESOL students who found the visual elements helpful in expressing their ideas.  And putting together a comic strip isn't as simple as it seems.  When you only have 4 or 4 frames to tell your story, you really need to distill it down to its essence.  It is a good activity for reflection at the end of a unit.  If you have more ideas about how to use comic strips in the classroom, please share.  You are welcome to add your own comments.

Online Pop-up Books

I have been doing some work with students using a great new tool I found called Zooburst. It allows you to build 3D pop-up books from your own photos or pictures. You can add sound or make characters talk in voice bubbles. It is really easy to use and you can sign up for free. Some of the features, such as adding sound, require you to sign up for the premium membership but it is pretty cheap--$50 USD for a year-long membership that gives you 250 login names for your students. And you can register each of those 250 logins without email addresses. This is pretty handy if you want to set up a whole class of young ones that don't have their own email addresses.  And if you don't renew after a year, you can still access those books you made.  You just won't be able to edit them anymore until you renew your membership.  If you don't want just anybody to be able to see your book, you can protect it with a password.  The password for this book is: test.  (There isn't much to it yet, but you will get the idea.)

Thursday 11 November 2010

'Scratch' Across the Curriculum

This weekend, I will be delivering a workshop about Scratch at the Beijing Learning Summit that will be hosted at the Western Academy of Beijing. I thought it might be a good idea to prepare some links to resources that might be useful to workshop participants. Below is a Scratch project that one of my grade 5 students put together last year. The assignment was to present "A Day in the Life..." of a person of a different religion from yourself. He chose Islam.

Click here to see his work.

(You can also embed your Scratch projects.  Scroll down to see an example of an embedded Scratch project.)

So what is Scratch?  Scratch is a programming language that makes it easy to create interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art.  It is an open source project out of MIT from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group.  It has its origins in the LOGO programming language and is based on the same Constructionist pedagogy which argues that the best learning happens when learners are "in the active role of designer and constructor" particularly when the end product is shared with others. (Harel)  Give Dr. Seymour Paper's book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas a read to get a better understanding of the theory.

The simple commands that were the hallmark of LOGO were later embedded into graphical blocks that could be dragged around the screen and 'clicked' together to create programs.  There are now a number of educational projects using this block-based programming idea, including Scratch, TurtleArt, StarLOGO TNG, Google's AppInventor and (at least inspired) Alice.

There are tons of great resources available for educators interested in using Scratch.  If your classroom is organized around centers, you may like using Scratch Cards which you can print off and leave next to a computer for students to work through on their own.  A great website with video tutorials is  You can find a fantastic 6-day Scratch unit with project ideas, instructional PowerPoint presentations and some other interesting bits here on the Scratch site for educators (ScratchED).  Some other tutorials and lesson plans can be found here and here.

One great feature of Scratch is the ability to make your own custom sprites, backgrounds and sounds.  Everything you program in Scratch is either a sprite or a background.  While you can use the sprites that come with Scratch, and there are lots of cut out figures, objects and cartoon characters to choose from, it is a lot of fun to make them yourself.  You can just as easily take a picture and using the edit tools in Scratch, or your favourite image editor, cut out the figure that you want to use in your animation or game.  There is a sound recorder but you can just as easily import any sound from another file on your computer.  When my students want to download images from the Internet, I encourage them to use license free works from the Creative Commons.  You can find an excellent site for searching for images here (Wikimedia Commons) and you can freely download all of the sounds you want from here (The Freesound Project).

A big part of the Scratch experience is sharing, so users are encouraged to upload their projects to the Scratch website and to comment on one another's projects.  As of now, there are 1,399,956 projects on the site.  And anyone can download a project and open it up to see how the creator coded it.  Last year, one of my students found a game about aliens bombing a city.  He downloaded it and changed it to make the alien ship into Santa's sleigh, turned the city below into houses and made the bombs into presents.  He uploaded the project back to the Scratch website and gave credit to the original creator in his notes.  Then, we embedded his happy Christmas game into our class website.

Because Scratch is open source, other programmers can download the code and make their own modifications as they like.  One such project, called BYOB (Build Your Own Blocks) and another, called Panther attempt to extend the functionality of Scratch for slightly older, more sophisticated computer students.  A third, more unusual project, allows you to use Scratch to program objects in SecondLife (Scratch4SecondLife).

Finally, Scratch can also be used in conjunction with external devices and sensors.  One that I have been working with is the PicoBoard which is a small circuit board with a number of different sensors on it that you can use to have your on-screen Scratch sprites interact with the world beyond the computer.  Scratch can also be used to interact with the LEGO WeDo robotics kit.  i haven't had a chance to play with this yet but I may be posting back here about it soon.  I just found a pile of LEGO Mindstorms (named after Paper's book) kits at my school and am starting to get more interested in robotics projects.

I hope there is enough here to get you started with Scratch.  I would love to be in touch with more teachers using it in their classrooms and share ideas.  If you email me, perhaps we can encourage our students to comment on one another's projects on the Scratch website.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Host Your Own 3D Virtual Worlds!

I recently attended a series of online PD sessions in the use of Quest Atlantis, which is a 3D multi-user learning environment for children between 9-16.  While it was a bit buggy and a bit clunky compared to what is commercially available, particularly for gaming, it inspired me to look a little deeper into how 3D worlds might make their way into the classroom.  This is something I will continue to write about as I learn more.  I plan to do a unit about Digital Citizenship next semester with my grade 6 students and I think that Quest Atlantis may do nicely.

But as I was looking at Quest Atlantis, and some of the educational islands in Second Life , such as International Schools Island, my brother suggested I take a look at Open Wonderland.  It is an open source Java-based toolkit to build and host your own collaborative, multi-user 3D worlds.  The project was started by Sun Microsystems in 2008 but when Oracle bought Sun, they canned to project.  A few months ago however, it went open source and since then, progress has been steaming along.  I couldn't believe how easy it was to set up.

#1)  You need to download and install the Java Development Kit (JDK).

#2)  You need to download Open Wonderland.

#3)  You need to open a command prompt, cd to where you put the Wonderland.jar that you just downloaded, then run:

"\Program Files\Java\jdk1.6.0_22\bin\java" -jar Wonderland.jar

....and that's it.  You will se a bunch of stuff running in the console, it takes a while, then when it is finished loading things up, you will see the url to access the world.  You can just open a browser, put in the (ip of that machine):8080 and you will download a small .jnlp file which you then double-click to run.  A viewer window will open up and you are in.  The default avatar is pretty ugly and doesn't walk or move body parts very much.  But it is easy enough to choose a different one from the menu.   I am currently running it on an old Pentium 4 with 2GB of RAM and I managed to get 15 grade 8 students in there at the same time, walking around and talking to each other.  It didn't crash or even slow down noticeably.

But this is not the part that blew me away.  What really got me was that I could drag objects the I made in Google Sketchup right into the world by dragging and dropping.  My colleague Rob and I decided to have some fun.  We went outside and took some educated guesses about the size of the school, then went and built a model of the school in Sketchup.  We exported the file as a .kmz (Google Earth) file then just dragged it into the world.  It immediately copied to the server and Rob and I were both suddenly standing inside a scale model of our school.

We have been brainstorming a million and one different things to do with this, but the first one that we have gotten rolling is a good start.  Our goal is to make an accurate scale model of the school, including every classroom, step, door, everything, and put it into a virtual world that we will host on the school server.  Then, we will be able to let potential new students and teachers to take virtual tours of the school online, among other things.  So we have found a grade 10 student who is working on his MYP personal project.  He is interested in getting the project going.  He will rebuild the school and add on windows, doors etc... Working with the teachers, we have started a school-wide effort to measure every inch of the place.  We will be able to use those measurements in our designs.  We will offer incentives to get students to build furniture.  Other computer technology classes will build rooms and fill them.  Once we have built the school (it will likely take a year at least, to get it right,) we will be able to modify it for fun and make it into a hallowe'en haunted school, a school of the future or whatever we like.  (Below are a few screenshots that I took yesterday while I was playing with it.)  Since then, I have learned about a number of other open source 3D virtual world projects, including OpenSim, Open Cobalt and Solipsis but none of them appear to be as mature as Open Wonderland.  OpenSim was more difficult to install and Open Cobalt was clearly a work in progress.  Solipsis was easy to download and easy to install.  It looks pretty good but on the older machine that I was using (the same one that runs Open Wonderland beautifully) it was a bit slow and when I tried to change costumes, it crashed.  It appears to run off of a distributed P2P model so I am interested in looking at it a bit more in the future, but for now, I think I have settled on Open Wonderland for the next while.  (I was really hoping to see Open Sim working well because it is compatible with Scratch4SecondLife.  More on that in an upcoming post.)

[caption id="attachment_92" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="This is the demo world that is pre-installed."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_93" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Here is the building in Sketchup."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_94" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Here is the school after I dragged it into the Open Wonderland world."][/caption]

Thursday 4 November 2010

The Crystal Island project

[caption id="attachment_87" align="alignleft" width="300" caption=""Your adventure begins in a village on a deserted island supplied only with a backpack. The necessities have already been provided—a camera, notebook and map—and will aid you in navigating this quest on foot.""][/caption]

This morning, we had an exciting visit from some colleagues at The William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University.  Bethany Smith and Dr. Hiller Spires introduced my grade 7 class to their Crystal Island Project.  With a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, they have developed an innovative, educational science video game for elementary school students.  Students work through a series of quests on a deserted island in a 3D virtual world.  Their game uses the Unity game engine that also powers Atmosphir and Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online.  Today's class was fully engaged and I have already gotten emails from a number of students asking for the web address so that they can continue playing from home.  At the moment, the project is still in its research phase, so it is not available to the public.  Which makes it all the more exciting that we have had the chance to participate.  They have welcomed to me continue participating, so I will be talking to grade 4 and 5 teachers this week to see if they have any interest in running a class through the game.  They have one project aimed at grade 5 students that teaches landforms and ecosystems while the grade 8 project is about microbiology.  It will be exciting to participate in educational technology research first hand .  I will continue to post about our experiences as different groups get to try out the game.

Monday 25 October 2010

Learn Design by Making Your Own Video Games

[caption id="attachment_76" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Gamestar Mechanic"]Gamestar Mechanic [/caption]

2 Years ago, I got an invite to participate in the closed beta test of Gamestar Mechanic.  It was a very innovative video game aimed at middle school students that was designed to teach the basic principles of design.  It was started through a partnership between various groups including the Institute of Play, Gamelab, and the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab (AADLC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Students would work their way through a narrative set in a futuristic, steampunk world and at each level would be set with tasks that would demonstrate certain design principles.  Eventually, students would get their own workshop where they could build their own games from scratch and share them with the rest of the community.  I had a group of  students working on it as an extension project in my grade 5 class.  Unfortunately, the company hired to build the game went under and Gamestar Mechanic was shelved for a couple of years.

Well the project reappeared last year in a revamped version built by E-Line Ventures.  Originally written in Java, the new Flash-based version is smoother and snappier.  When I rediscovered the project, I was excited to see that they were just entering another closed beta-test and I again asked for an invite.  This time, I wanted to use it to teach the design cycle in my MYP Technology classes. The unit was focused on the AOI (Area of Interaction) 'Community and Service'.  They would provide feedback to the developers about their experience and would try to help identify bugs in the program.  Each student kept a blog as they made their way through the game and documented their thoughts and feelings as well as any technical problems that they encountered.  Later, these blogs were transformed into web pages where they documented the entire process of making their own game using Gamestar Mechanic.  As members of the growing Gamestar Mechanic community, they would leave constructive comments on other people's games that they played in Gamestar's 'Game Alley'.  Here is an example of a grade 6 student's blog.

This turned out to be a very exciting project.  The developers were very interested in the students' feedback and were reading the blogs and commenting on them regularly.  We had a back and forth discussion with them on VoiceThread and later, all of my classes had a face to face with them using Skype.

In recognition of their valuable contributions, they are giving each student a one year premium membership to the site for free!  (They usually charge $50 USD.)  So we got a chance to take part in a great project, in a way that was valuable, authentic and fun.  And I learned that the best opportunities don't always fall in your lap.  you have to go looking for them.  And if you want something, ask.

Friday 22 October 2010

Funny Faces with Scratch

Inspired by a visit from artist Hanoch Piven, my grade 7 technology class decided to make funny faces of our own--but ours would be animated!. We have been learning Scratch and it turned out to be the perfect platform for the job.

Learn more about this project

I have just sent in an application to deliver a Scratch workshop at the Beijing Learning Summit 2010 that will be hosted at the Western Academy of Beijing on Saturday, November 13th. Hopefully I will see you there!

Monday 18 October 2010

Making Movies

My grade 8 class is planning to make their own short videos this term. They will eventually put together their own 2-3 minute videos. The MYP 'Area of Interaction' for this unit will be Community and Service. The videos are expected to be educational to some degree and will be shared with the community. We are still in the early Investigate stage. Students are watching and sharing a lot of short videos on their own and we are beginning to categorize them according to form, content and style. In the meantime, the videos that I am showing try to draw attention to particular features that I want them to think about when they start making their own. For example, we were looking at creative use of sound in Friday's lesson. I showed them a great little video from a reality show called 'On The Lot' that was on TV a few years. ago. The director, Zack Lipovsky was well known on the show for his stunning special effects work. But in this video, there are none--just very clever use of sound effects. And they make all the difference. Take a look:

Friday 15 October 2010

The Perfect Paper Airplane

[caption id="attachment_59" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="A reliable classic"][/caption]

This week, I started a new unit with my grade 6 classes to build the 'perfect' paper airplane.  After an initial tuning it period where students build a variety of airplanes that they knew and argued about the virtues of each we realized that we would have to unpack the problem a bit more and try to understand what sort of 'perfect' we are talking about.  Students began brainstorming about criteria that we ought to look for in our airplanes and what sort of fair test could be used to determine which airplane is the best.  So, as we begin to investigate the problem, students have been set with 2 tasks.  First, in groups, they have to design some 'fair tests' that we could do.  I have asked for 4 ideas.  In each case, they have to explain what criteria they are looking for and how they intend to measure it.  They might be looking for a plane that stays up in the air for a long time, flies very far or flies very straight.  And they have already realized that an airplane that is built for one purpose may not necessarily win out in a different category.

They also realized that as a part of our fair test, we will need rules.  Can each person use whatever paper they want or will we make everyone use the same one?  How many pieces of paper can they use?  Are tools like scissors or glue allowed?  Can extra pieces, like paperclips, be added or not?  On Monday, we will look at their responses and by next week, I will be able to post in some detail about our upcoming 'Perfect Paper Airplane' contest.

In the meantime, let me leave you with the results of some of my own research.  A popular term for airplane building is aerogami after the Japanese origami. Having invented paper, the Chinese are likely to have been the first to build paper airplanes.  There is evidence of paper airplane building in China from as early as 500 BCE.  The world record for time aloft for a paper airplane is 27.6 seconds, held by Ken Blackburn.  A very cool paper airplane design that you may not have seen before is the ring.  I can confirm that, at least indoors, it flies surprisingly well.  This website has pictures and downloadable videos for a whole bunch of intersting designs.  This one doesn't require any downloads.  They are laid out as a series of moving .gif files.

More on paper airplanes next week!

Saturday 9 October 2010

Back in the saddle again...

I am back online and newly committed to keeping blog entries rolling on a regular basis. I had to take a bit of a break with the arrival of a new member of the family, starting a Master's program and the start of a new school year doing a new job.

Let me start with the little guy.

[caption id="attachment_45" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Welcome to the family!! "][/caption]

He arrived at 3 kg with no complications.  He is sleeping and feeding well.  His brother is going to need a little time to get used the the idea but at with paternity leave and a couple of holidays, I hope I was able to make up for some of the attention that he wasn't able to get from his recovering mommy.

I just started work on my Master's in Educational Technology from the University of British Columbia.  My first course is Foundations of Educational Technology.  It claims a "crisis of unity and purpose" in the field of educational technology.  Studies in feminism, Post-structuralism and Post-colonialism have "eroded" some of the traditional foundations of the field and we will look at what is left and what is being put up in place.  This blog will also serve as a sort of ePortfolio for some of the work that I am doing in the program.

Finally, I have started a new school year in a very different role.  I spend half of my time teaching Technology to Middle Years students.  The rest of the time, I am a "Technology Integrator".  I work with elementary teachers to help them find new and innovative ways to integrate technology into their classrooms.  We just got classroom sets of netbooks for the elementary school so it should be an exciting time.  (If you are curious, we went with the ASUS Eee 1005PE.  It has an unbelievable battery life and feels a bit more durable than some of the other options we looked at.)

Sunday 6 June 2010

My first MYP IDU

So, next year, I will be leaving the comforts of elementary school and stepping into the grown-up world of Middle School. In my new role, I will be in the elementary school as a resource to oversee ICT integration in the classroom. The other half of my job is teaching Technology in the middle school.  There willl be no shortage of new acronyms to learn, I'm sure.  (Middle Years Program, Interdisciplinary Unit btw...)
So, in the past, the DT teacher started the year with a project that had students design a postage stamp. He would walk the kids together through the design cycle as they worked their way through each step.
I thought it would be fun to have them work on a business card instead. It would have a cool logo and they could pass it out to friends when they were done. But what would they put on it... student? Boring!  They are really just beginning to create identities for themselves.  So, I am going to have them do a business card for themselves as they see themselves in the future.

Each autumn, everyone starts the year having kids write about themselves, right?  What they like and don't like etc... Instead, I thought we could get them to tell us about how they imagine themselves in the future. It would be more interesting and more likely to get the kids to really think. The information we get out of it may turn out to be more useful in helping us understand our kids better.

So, I got together with the English and Drama teachers and the librarian, we put together a project where the kids will start the year writing about how they imagine themselves 17 years in the future--in time for their high school reunion!  They will develop their characters through a series of writing assignments.  In library/English, they were already planning a pretty long unit about biographies. Now, they will introduce it with a shorter one about autobiographies.  In drama, they will work on improvisation techniques and further develop their characters.  I will be running them through the design cycle as they set up digital, on-line portfolios and create their business cards.

So in the 3rd week of school, we will host a 10 year high school reunion party for our current grade 6 students, complete with long stem glasses and shrimp dip.  I think the business cards will be a nice prop to help get dialogue rolling.

Of course, we will film the whole thing. It should be a blast!

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.04 is the frontrunner...

Jolicloud is really a great OS.  It runs smoothly.  It looks cool.  Everything 'just works' out of the box.  But it is based on Ubuntu 9.10 and there seem to be some battery issues.  Not a big deal, but this Eee 1005PE gets 12+ hours out of its 6-cell battery and using Jolicould that was cut by about half.  Otherwise, it is sweet.

I am in love with Meego.  It is fast.  It is beautiful.  I think this will ultimately be the one to beat.  But for now, it is really intended for developers.  There is practically no support available.  There isn't a lot of software available.  I couldn't find a terminal.  I don't know which packages it uses (I seem to remember reading Intel-Moblin using  .deb then switching to .rpm but that was ages ago.)  For now, it isn't ready to hand out to schoolkids on classroom laptops.

Lubuntu, Puppy, there are lots of other options out there that will make these machines bump and hum a lot faster than UNR but it seems to be the best compromise.  (Actually, it didn't even find the wireless drivers out of the box) but it is current, slick and really well supported.  We don't pass the machines out until August, so I have time to change my mind, but so far, 10.04 is it.

The kids in my classroom have had no trouble figuring it out.  Some of the kids in my class have been installing it on their own.  I have 3 netbook kids with Kubuntu 10.04, 1 with Lubuntu on an HP laptop and 1 with it on a Mac.  They didn't have any trouble working it out on their own and are pleased with the results.  They all set up dual boot systems, but I haven't seen any of them using another OS in weeks.  And it is interesting to listen to their conversations as they argue the merits of one desktop environment over another.  Apparently, we have been teaching them critical thinking and problem-solving after all.

** Despite an evening and a morning of attempts and with help from the forums, I still can't get the wifi to work. Using the same set of instructions, some users seem to have it working and others don't.  Still trying... Not a good sign.

Friday 28 May 2010

Which netbook OS will it be?

We planned to add 45 netbooks to the arsenal at BISS. After some deliberation and counting pennies, we settled on the ASUS 1005PE. I have teh first one now and am running it through its paces. In the next week, I will test out a few Linux distros aimed at netbooks to see which one is the best as a backup os and intro to Linux for the kids. I am currently downloading Expressgate from ASUS, the new MeeGo 1.0 from Intel/Nokia and Jolicloud which is a slightly tweaked version of Ubuntu Netbook Remix. I will also give Lubuntu a spin. It is fast as anything on the old P3's in our classroom. The grade 5's prefer it to Windows.
I will report back in a few days.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Handhelds in the Classroom

I just attended a workshop for educators that are interested in implementing handheld devices in the classroom. Unfortunately, I came away with the same feeling that I went in with. I did not see any applications what weren't just a crippled version of something that would work much better on a larger device. These were tech nerds with a deep, personal interest in education and looking for ways to meld their two loves together. And I really came away with nothing. If anything, it was a reminder of how much of my own time I waste screwing around with my phone. If my productivity has increased, it has been balanced out with dumb stuff. For the classroom, give me a class of netbooks any day.
That being said, Apple will be giving us a class set of iPod Touch devices for the Flat Classroom conference that we are hosting next year. Apparently, we get them for a whole year, so I am hoping something will change my mind. I don't want to turn my nose up at a good thing. Any thoughts?

Sunday 23 May 2010

Choose Your Own Adventure lives!

I was back home a few summers ago and went on a second hand book binge. (China has all sorts of restrictions on importing books, so it is not easy to find good books here...) I was teaching grade 2 at the time and went hunting for picture books. I came across some old Choose Your Own Adventure books and started trying to figure out how I could integrate them into my program. Even the easy ones were too tough for my kids to read themselves. I lent them to a friend teaching grade 4 and together, we came up with a series of lessons for some gifted kids in his class. They wrote their own stories in the same style. We decided that PowerPoint would lend itself very well to this. The stories came out great.

So when I moved up to grade 5, I wanted to expand on this. We have a unit about Conflict Resolution that was perfect. Throughout the unit, we talked to the students about how conflicts can occur and how our choices can cause a conflict to escalate or de-escalate.

We had them write a series of situations where conflicts were likely to occur--where there were differences of opinion, an imbalance of power or resources, some sort of misunderstanding etc...

Then, we put them together in groups based on similar conflicts.  They tried to amalgamate their ideas into one scenario.  Each group then constructed a concept map/flowchart/tree diagram to look at various choices for the protagonist and how each one would turn out.  These were developed into poster-sized storyboard.  (We used a variety of software tools for this.  Because they were working in groups, sometimes from home, the best tools tended to be cloud-based.  Most groups chose Webspiration to map out their stories.

In the next stage, they wrote scripts for each 'bubble' in their story.  By this time, our class was using Google Docs pretty regularly and it turned out to be very helpful.  Students could be on different machines and collaborate on the same script.

So, at this point, a group might have a story that begins as a short 30 second to 1 minute scene.  The moment of conflict arrives.  Then, the main character is presented with 2 or 3 choices.  Each choice leads to a continuation of the story.  Each of those might be a minute or two.  Then, in each of those, there may be a couple of choices that will lead to a conclusion to the story.  So, all together, there may be 10-12 scenes.

Groups rehearsed their scenes, then, usually with the help of a 'camera person' from another group, they filmed their stories.  We edited the clips down and plugged them into PowerPoint presentations.

So, in the PowerPoint, we click through the title, watch the first scene, then are presented with a couple of hyperlinks that lead to the next part of the story and so on to the various possible endings.

I think much of the success of this project lies in the fact that it allowed us to integrate language arts, drama, art and math.  The math part had to do with some of the logistics using the time scale with the clips and PowerPoint.

I will try to post links to a couple of these videos shortly.

Better late than never! Here is one of the videos.

Monday 10 May 2010

Crayon Physics

We just finished a unit about 'Discoveries, Inventions and Innovations' that was also the theme for our PYP Exhibition.  On the last day, we I introduced a video game that I thought was appropriate and it was such fun that we are setting up a tournament.  It is called 'Crayon Physics Deluxe'.


Here's a description from their own site:

Crayon Physics Deluxe is a 2D physics puzzle / sandbox game, in which you get to experience what it would be like if your drawings would be magically transformed into real physical objects. Solve puzzles with your artistic vision and creative use of physics.

Since it came out a lot of copies of the game have popped up.  I have one called 'Space Physics' for Android on my phone and one called 'Numpty Physics' running on the Lubuntu Linux machines in our classroom.  But the original one is by far the best.  You can play with a mouse but it is better with a writing tablet or tablet/touchscreen computer.

There is a circle/ball somewhere on the screen and a star someplace else.  The object is to guide the ball to touch the star.  You do this by drawing ramps, levers and other shapes on the screen.  Almost everything in the game moves as though it were affected by gravity.  You really have to try it to see.  The demo that is available on their site is unlimited (I think) except that it does not allow you to play online.  No big deal.  I do encourage people to but it though.  It was not developed by some huge game studio--it was developed by one guy independently.

We have been learning the 'Design Cycle' that is used in the MYP.  As we go through the different levels, students discuss the boards in groups and then draw out potential solutions on scrap paper.  They test their solutions and if they don't work, they go back to their groups and discuss how they can improve their plan.  They may also just scrap it and try another one.  I thought they would want to race through the different levels and see the whole game but this hasn't been the case.  They want to try to find lots of different solutions to each problem--as the game itself suggests, "It's not about finding just any solution.  It's about finding the awesomest one."


In a previous unit, The Economics of Food, I started the kids on a stock market simulation game.  We spent a couple of weeks on it in math class and since then, it has taken on a life of its own.  Most of the students have kept up with it on their own and before class begins, they often log in and share.

After scouring the Internet for a good one, I settled on StocksQuest (  It is very easy to set up a private or public game for others to join and it is free.


There are also free lesson for teachers.  Each player in our game started with one million dollars.  For each stock they purchase, there is a place to leave a note explaining why you chose it.  We have used Google Finance and Yahoo Finance to check the performance of various stocks and read relevant stories that may explain why they have gone up or down.  For the most part, my kids choose companies they are familiar with and their reasons are typically personal.  Nevertheless, our class has beaten the market average.  Since we started a couple of months ago, I have almost a third of my students up at least 10 percent.  Not bad!

On Slideshare, I just found a rubric (more like a checklist) that a teacher made to keep students on track and assess their portfolios.  Check it out:

When I started looking around for materials at this grade level about financial literacy, I was stunned at how much is out there.  If you read 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad', you may know that the author, Robert Kiyosaki created a board game called 'Cashflow' to teach financial literacy to kids.  They later made it into a computer game and it has recently been made available online for free: This is another one that my students are crazy about.  When you start the game, you are given a character.  It isn't always fair.  You may be a lawyer with no kids or you could be a custodian with several kids and heavy mortgage payments.  In any case, you have your monthly income and expenses laid out on balance sheets.  Your goal is to have your passive income (from property, investments etc...) to be greater than your expenses.  Then, you can get out of the 'Rat Race' and onto the 'Fast Track'.  There is a lot here  to support your Math program and probably Social Studies too.


Back to Blogging

Our PYP Exhibition is now over and I have a bit of time available.  And I see that my article about our Amazing Race has been published in The International Educator--on the front page!  (  So I am inspired to return to my blogging and try to share some of the things that we have been working on in our classroom (currently grade 5) at BISS.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Not updating at the moment

I have too many other websites to maintain at the moment. This one will be in stasis for a while. Older content can still be found in

Iconic Design: Bic Pen

  I bet we all have one or two of these. Learn the story of this perfectly designed product. (I question his argument that the pen caused an...