teaching with the tools of a digital world

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Back in the Saddle

It has been a LONG time since I posted on my blog, but my teaching life has undergone some recent changes that have been making it so that I have a desire to begin writing again. Most notably, my regular fellowship with the Knowles Science Teaching Fellowship (KSTF) came to an end this summer. After five wonderful and growth-promoting years I now am no longer required to attend and participate in KSTF meetings and activities. I still have opportunities as a senior fellow that I plan to attend, but the opportunities are more a la carte.

I’ve wanted to get back to writing because it provides a space for reflection on my teaching that KSTF has fulfilled for five years. I’m hoping the regular use of my blog will help me to maintain that reflection and lead to some of the same growth as I’ve experienced in KSTF.

Next blog post, my implementation of and experience, thus far, with a flipped classroom.

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A Game Based Story

I have started down a path of Game Based Learning (GBL) in my class this year and it originated from an experience last year that I will relate, shortly. I am currently using a number of GBL ideas and philosophies in all of my Earth Science and Physics (although less so in Physics) classes. I have seen some successes already and I have made refinements along the way. I hope to get back to blogging more regularly and have decided to focus around my use of GBL and Project Based Learning – this will without a doubt dredge up some about my beginning use of performance or standards based grading. 

All of this started, or at least, the realization that I was going down this path, started at a conference during last school year. I was a presenter at a conference put on by the University of Wyoming’s Distance Learning Center. While in attendance I listened to a presenter discuss how they had implemented a Game Based Learning environment for an introductory university level writing course where the end goal was a completed research paper.

Up to this time I had been struggling with what to do with a required research paper that students had to write for Earth Science. The previous year I had taught this unit had been atrocious! Students dragged their feet, complained and made minimal effort to complete the assignment and I felt they accomplished little and learned less. This idea of making a research paper process into a game was intriguing and I ended up basically copying the idea in a couple short weeks just in time to implement it in my own class.

Here are the basics of the project:

As a researcher you are asked to defend a scientist’s greatest contribution to society – either their theory or discovery – from being slandered by outsiders. The game consisted of four levels that each had several assignments to choose from. Each level also had a total of 300 points available to students, yet their grade was only calculated out of 200 points – this gave students the ability to pick and choose which assignments they did at each level to get to their 200 points (they did not receive extra-credit for getting more than 200 points). As students progress through each level they came out with more and more of their research paper completed (Leve 1 = research, Level 2 = rough draft, Level 3 = self, peer, and instructor editing, Level 4 = final draft). Students were able to progress through the levels and whatever speed they chose – although a few needed some extra encouragement at the end to make more progress, but not nearly as many as in the previous year.

This ended up being such a succes that I began looking for ways to add components of GBL into my class writ large, rather than just this one unit. I found on this search a book by Jane McGonigal “Reality is Broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world.” I have since read the book and begun implementing a number of changes in my class. I would like use the next few blog posts to describe what I have learned (and experienced) about games, how they can truly change the world of education, and how they can make us all better along the way.

Game on!

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“Beam Me Up Scotty!”

First off I want to apologize for the lack of posts for most of this school year. Last year my blog was such a successful part of my reflection and my own learning as a practitioner that I am dissapointed that I haven’t managed to make it a part of my regular routine. I can say this has still been a great year! Despite not utilizing my reflection tool I have learned, thought and changed a lot about my teaching and more importantly the learning that happens in my classroom.


A major focus of this year has been on designing successful group work. (I purposely refer to it as “team work” in my classroom rather than group work to highlight the differences between groups – any number  of people considered to be related in some way – and teams – a number of persons associated in a joint action or task who are dependent upon each other). Students have worked in teams in th PBL (Project Based Learning) activities in each of my courses. My Earth Science and Physics classess have been entirely project based, whereas my Chemistry and Atronomy courses have utilized PBL at times but not entirely, this has mostly been due to time constraints.


Another related aspect of my class that I have focused on has been Game Based Learning. Before discussing what I have done in my classroom and plan to do I would like to relate an experience that I have had very recently that exemplifies the reasons I am studying and implementing GBL in my classroom.


A colleague of mine recently purchased a multi-player computer simulation game, Artemis. “Artemis simulates a spaceship bridge by networking several computers together.

One computer runs the simulation and the “main screen”, while the others serve as workstations for the normal jobs a bridge officer might do, like Helm, Communication, Engineering, and Weapon Control” (Robertson, Thom. “What Is Artemis?” ARTEMIS. Artemis, n.d. Web. 05 July 2012. <>).


I have played my fair share of video games, but I have to say that Artemis represents the most fun I have ever had playing a video game. It was highly-challenging, exciting, engaging and collaborative. It embodied all of the things that I wish my classes always had. Even though I have been thinking about a game-based classroom for some time this experience with Artemis has encouraged me to press forward and accomplish the goals that I have. To transform my classroom into a game-based learning environment.


My classroom has always been a place where I am constantly experimenting, but I think this will be the largest scale that I have ever experimented at in one single instance and it will also be the most complete transition I have ever made (in my two short years of teaching…).


I have poured all of my available resources into this endeavor. I have used my Summer Professional Development time and my Materials Grant funds from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation ( to support this transition and I have been thinking about this change all year and will continue to work all summer on it, as well. It will be a year long (or longer) endeavor and effort. Please join me!

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Google Apps for Education: Calendar

Google Calendar allows for greater connections to my students and parents of my students. It is also a great tool that allows me to chronicle what happens in my class on a day to day basis. I have a separate Google calendar set up for each of my courses (Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Astronomy). On each calendar I place a description of what we will be covering and the activities we will be completing in class. I also have the ability to attach documents, links or other information for quick access for my student. I typically attach this information to a different section or my classroom website, but the option is there and can be very useful.

I invite all of my parents to subscribe to my Google Calendars which allows them to view what we are doing in class at any time. My calendars are also available to any that may have interest; administrators, other teachers, etc. Now that all of my students have their iPads (as of last week) I am going to help them to subscribe to my calendars. This gives them direct access on the iPads or anywhe they might access their Google Calendar (phone, laptop, home, etc).

Google calendar is just one more way that Google Apps for Education helps my students and I to be more connected and be able to spend our precious time focused on learning.


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Google Apps for Education: Blogger

I have had many people ask me how I use Google Apps for Education (GAFE) in my classroom, I have also started providing more trainings for teachers and it is helpful for me to have down in writing the benefits and uses of GAFE. I am planning a series of posts on the different ways GAFE are used in my classroom and district.


I wanted to start with my student’s blogger accounts. I have daily journals in each of my classes (Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science and Astronomy). I used to use paper notebook journals. I didn’t notice the lines waiting for collecting notebooks and the extra time it took for students to grab their forgotten notebooks, I did notice the 70 pounds of notebooks I took home every couple weeks, the long hours grading and counting journal entries. My students now have 1:1 iPads, thanks to a counseling grant and a committed district. This has made blogs an even better opportunity, with the roll-out of iPads many of my students have been using classroom laptops for their blogs this first few weeks of the year. The boot-up time difference between an iPad and a laptop is immediately obvious, with iPads we are wasting much less time waiting for technology and even making up for lost time if we were using paper.

I am able to subscribe to each student’s blog in my Google Reader and instantly follow their progress on their journals each day. I no longer have to carry the journals home, I can grade from any computer and in any situation. An additional benefit is my students love seeing comments on their blogs and watching their page views go up.

I am hoping to implement some additional outside commenting for my students on each other’s blogs and try to bring other people in to see their blogs, like their parents and other stakeholders.

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Time for a New Year!

Summer is over, it was short and busy! Schools is starting and it’s time time get back to blogging. I haven’t had a chance all summer, but lots of things have happened that I need to share. I’m adding Astronomy to my list of courses I teach (Physics, Chemistry and Earth Science). I’m refining my class projects to more formally match a Project Based Learning format after attending a great PBL workshop this summer in Santa Barbra, CA. I’ve made some changes to my classroom Google sites and how I am using Google docs in the classroom. My school is going to 1:1 iPads this year and I’ve starting working more with sharing Google Apps for Education tools and training with teachers and admins across my district.

It’s shaping up to be a busy, but exciting year! Check out this article in T.H.E. Journal from an interview I had a couple of weeks back:

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Goal 13: Give Students Reign


This post is more of a successful report on a project in the past that went really well, rather, than a current project. My students were working on a research project on water shortages around the world. I set out on this unit a plan to give as much control over to the students as possible.

1. Students brainstormed questions they would need to answer to under stand what “water shortages” are and what causes them.

2. Students, in small groups, chose one of their brainstorming questions and did preliminary research.

3. Students reported to each other their basic findings on their questions, then students selected the “important” questions and topics to continue to investigate.

4. Students researched a topic of their choice, from those selected as a group. They had the overall goal on becoming a “class expert” so they could share their knowledge and skills with everyone else.

5. Students developed a way of sharing their expertise with their peers, completely of their own method and choosing.

6. Students chose the criteria that would be used to determine if they could be considered an expert.

7. Students scored each other based upon their self-selected criteria for expertise.

This ended up being a great project. I feel that simply because of the autonomy that was afforded students I had many grasp the assignment and run with it. Students that typically are the most difficult to engage in the classroom were the most engaged when they had the opportunity to have nearly complete control over their own decisions.

This was a great experience that I feel helped to shape the rest of my school year with my students and that I hope to be able to refine and improve upon for next year.


Goal 11: Ask, Perhaps You’ll Receive, iPads and Conference Fridays

My 18 month old son playing on my iPad

This goal has been a long time coming. I came up with the idea for this goal way back when I started the 30 Goals Challenge (and it has taken me much longer to get to this point than I expected, but soldier on!). The item I have decided to ask for is a classroom set of iPads. I have my own iPad and really enjoy it. I also think that I could leverage the power of the iPad in my classroom in valuable ways. The biggest thing my students complain about is the log in time for our laptops (partially the laptops fault, partially the nature of the beast). Turns out my Technology Integration Facilitator has had the same plan as I have. We are definitely getting a classroom set of iPads to test out, one for the middle school and one for the high school. However, we are writing a grant for 1-to-1 iPads for all students in the high school. This would be a big commitment and a big undertaking. It would be coupled with virtual machines to make up for the “missing Apps.” For my science class this would include LoggerPro (a program for analyzing student collected data).

The second item in this goal that I have asked for has to do with a change in the schools schedule for next year. As mentioned previously we are a small rural district where a majority of the student body participates in athletics and other extra-curricular activities which regularly takes them out of the classroom, especially on Fridays. Due to this, the district is moving to a 4 1/2 day school week. That 1/2 day is the point of this post. It has been decided that there will be no progression of content because of the number of students out of class. Which left us with about 28 minutes in each class to not do much other than review. This led our principal to ask for ideas from the staff.

A group of teachers and I, built the idea of “Conference Fridays” (the name may not stick around…). The idea is that Fridays will become much more like a conference (think also of Google’s 20% time). Staff will propose and present cross-curricular extension activities, not tied to a specific course or grade level. Students will be able to choose which “conferences” they attend and will have a month to attend the proposed conference. Each conference will culminate with a student product and a student presentation, the venue can vary from the school board, a local company, science fair, art show, etc. There are many teachers and students very excited about this idea (including me)! The best thing that as a first year teacher I have had the opportunity to spearhead this effort because of a administrator and staff members who are able to rely on each other and open to each others’ ideas.

I am presenting this idea to staff members tomorrow morning, I will also embed a copy of the presentation which explains the idea in greater detail. Wish me luck!

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Make a Connection Goal 10

Google Teacher Academy was great! It was great to be in Australia, but even better to be able to connect and become a part of such a resourceful group of education leaders. I was able to connect with a number of new Google Certified Teachers, past and present, and meet, in person, a number of others In my PLN. Though GTA was fast and furious I felt like I gained a number of new ideas and uses for Google products in my classes. Most importantly, however, it was a crucial example of of how to facilitate and share Google products with other educators.

I hope to be able to take what I learned from the experience and share it with other educators to help them inspire them to try new things in their classroom. I already have three PD’s planned on Google Apps for Education and it is great to have an amazing example to follow and from which to learn.


What is that? QR Codes in the Library…

I have been working on this project for a few months now. There have been a few technical and logistical challenges to overcome but it is finally ready for the Grand Opening. Working with my school librarian we have been able to add student-written reviews to in house library books and make them accessible to students on the web and (probably more importantly) on their cellphones. We have done this using QR codes.

A couple of months back our library adopted a new cataloging system from Follett Software Company; Destiny Library Management. The most exciting thing I heard about the new cataloging system was the ability for students to write their own reviews of books in the library. I instantly saw this as a great opportunity to make the library a more collaborative and connected space.

After one quick discussion my librarian was completely on board and excited for this new challenge and opportunity. It took a little experimentation and prodding to get the first students to write reviews but we are off and running with a handful of reviews written which are linked to QR codes that have been pasted to the inside covers of the books.

This goes “live” to the rest of the district this week but I have been talking with other staff members to brainstorm some ideas to promote this among the students.

  • Chocolate – The librarian will be offering a small treat to students who write a review for a book. Can’t go wrong there…

  • Advertisement – We’ve already hung a poster about QR codes in the library but we’ll be making additional efforts to let students know what is happening and get them involved.
  • Integration – I’ve got multiple english and reading teachers who are making plans to integrate book reviews into their curriculum and more specifically integrate their classes with the library on new and different ways.
  • Education – All of my students know what QR codes are and how they work, but that is about it in the school population. Part of this process will be sharing this tool with other students and teachers.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a new implementation of new technology in the larger school community. If you have more ideas of how we could expand or improve this please leave a comment!