Saturday, December 6, 2014

Actively Learn

Actively Learn

There are many resources available for educators floating around the net, but the volume can be overwhelming for those interested in implementing the use of technology in the classroom. Shifting through the apps, programs and websites to find activities and curriculum for students that will transform the learning environment can take a tremendous amount of time - time that a busy teacher can't spare.  Yet finding and curating these resources is essential if educators plan to turn the digital learning environment to one of transformation and redefinition.

I recently learned of a new website called Actively Learn.  This site provides a platform for creating rich, critical thinking and cross-curricular activities that can be shared out easily with students.  The real beauty of this site is that, for once, the key to a successful lesson lies in the teacher’s ability to create meaningful discussion questions or connections rather than in the bells and whistles the tech provides.  And….the site is easy to set up and use. 

I was impressed with the amount of materials available on the website, albeit not all are free. They range from grade 2 to grade 12 reading level and include Shakespearean Plays, Poetry Collections, Myths, Current Events, Social Studies, Science and Healthy Living.  Documents scanned as PDFs can be uploaded and URLs to articles on the web can be posted.

Adding Discussion and Comprehension Questions
Educators can easily turn each article or text into a critical thinking activity.  As the students read through the text, they come across short answer and multiple choice questions, notes and links to other media that have been personalized by the teacher. They cannot continue reading the text until the activities are complete. One of my favourite features is the ability to match documents and direct students to other media so that they can compare, contrast and make connections to what they are reading.  It takes the learning experience into a category far beyond that of worksheets and computer-generated quizzes.  There is a grading component that will show individual student and class progress on the assignment.

Another great feature is the ability of students to add comments to the text as they read.  Students can share comments with their classmates or keep them private for the teacher.  I see this is an excellent way to encourage students who are reluctant to ask for clarification or share ideas and give them an opportunity to participate more actively in the process.  Another positive for me is that rather than providing handouts, the students are functioning and learning the paperless environment.

When teaching, I try to focus on skills such as making connections, inferencing and critical thinking.  So how do I plan to use Actively Learn?  Some early uses could be:

• personalizing learning - students can have different articles and activities personalized on an topic

• literature circles - students can add their discussion questions, vocabulary, comprehension and connections to the document itself prior to meeting in groups.  Students can preview the activities, share their thinking and then meet in the literature circle groups for extension and other activities

• poetry unit - pointing out connections to students, comprehension checks, short answer questions all while sharing with the classroom

• students who leave school on extended vacations. They would be able to continue interacting with their peers and would be able to take family visits without missing learning opportunities.

Will students be engaged?  I believe so. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

NextLesson - A Recommended Resource for 21st Century Learning

Current trends in education support the development of collaboration, critical thinking, inquiry and acquisition of 21st century skills.  While there is huge cache of lessons, materials, poster and memes available, in many cases, educators may find it difficult to imagine what this would look like in the classroom.  The challenge for educators is weaning themselves away from the textbooks and worksheets and substitute quality activities to their students without a great expenditure of time and frustration. 

NextLesson ( is a great resource for educators committed to trying these new approaches - whether they are early adapters or newly on board.  NextLesson is a resource that supports teachers trying to engage students.  Website based, NextLesson provides a vast database of projects, lessons and performance tasks, all of which is searchable by subject, grade level and 21st century skills.  (I like being able to search using criteria such as collaboration or self-monitoring.)

A few years ago I had the very great pleasure of attending a Keynote Speech given by Dan Meyers, a noted mathematics educator.  His advice was to encourage inquiry, collaboration and critical thinking through math instruction and activity.  I was thrilled to find many of the lessons available on NextLesson are adapted from Meyer’s 3 Act Math activities - providing the inquiry questions, resources and guidance for the activity. 

NextLesson’s newest offering are their Performance Tasks & 21st Century Math.  The idea is to provide real life scenarios with real data and real challenges.  The lessons are ready to go and require little or no preparation on the part of the teacher.  A good example is the Spoonful of Sugar series for Grade 6 Math.  Students are given the assignment from the point of view of a nutritionist interested in raising awareness of the sugar consumption in children.  Students do the math - complete charts, compare rates and rations and graph the result.  They are challenged to apply critical thinking to analyze the results,  They are given a final challenge that involves research and critical thinking, exposed to a glossary that includes diabetes and given job background information on nutritionists including salary, training and job outlook - a nice comeback for that “Why do we need to learn this?” question.   I like that many of these performance tasks involve students in cross curricular activities.  Some even require that students have read a book….a great way to connect literacy and numeracy  

Another great resource is the lesson The Box Project:  What can you make with a cardboard box?   As someone whose students participate in the Cardboard Challenge, Genius Hour and other design activities, this introduction to project based learning is a great jumping off point for inspiring students to use boxes for something completely different.  This lesson includes a supply list, step by step guides, resources, planning and reflecting sheets and more.  These can be adapted to any other theme including projects for Genius Hour.  

The downside of NextLesson is that while many of the resources are free, to get full access there is a monthly fee.  Despite that, there are many free options available - using data from the Android App Store, Minecraft, CSI Investigations, NBA, NFL and the Cost of Smoking.  Why do we need a resource like this?  It is because educators are being asked to re-create the classroom, often with little or no support.   This is the replacement for the binder handed to you by an experienced teacher and well worth checking out.  I strongly urge every educator to check out the website and try a performance task with your class.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Look at Science eTextbooks - Engaging and Inspiring Students

One of the biggest challenges of teaching with iPads, for me at least, is churning through what often seems like an endless sea of quality apps.  There has been an explosion of resources made available for parents and educators alike.  Trying to choose which app to use can be one of the biggest challenges for those educators thinking of using the iPads with students for the first time.  (In fact, this is why I advocate choosing two or three apps and using them almost exclusively in the beginning).  Often overlooked when searching for resources and ideas are some of the most visually stunning eTextbooks and eBooks.  I thought it was about time these resources got a look (and yes, I do know I have added another level of resources to the mix).  Here are some of my favourite eTextbooks for teaching and learning Science.

Senses and Natural History: Origins are two examples of the visually stunning, interactive and informative eTextbooks that are sure to revolutionize the type of textbooks educators will soon choose to use.  Published by Imaxina, an educational organization from Spain, and written by science specialist and educators, both Senses and Natural History: Origins are suitable for students ages 12 and older.  The texts use interactive media and amazing imagery.  My favourite image was the enlarged pop-up picture of the octopus tentacles.  The texts are engaging, contain the information students need and are visually complex.  The Science textbooks I have been using with my Grade 6 and 7 students for the past decade are wordy and difficult to use in any way other then…. read for information, answer the comprehension questions and fill out the worksheets.  Science should be exciting and these eTextbooks present the material in an interesting and informative way.  I was engaged and I am pretty sure they will engage my students.  I can see using them in any Science classroom and believe them to be a valuable resource for educators

Another amazing series of eBooks are the Life on Earth series of 7 eBooks by E. O. Wilson, a noted Biologist and University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard.  Developed in partnership with Apple, they are free and can be used in conjunction with a free iTunes U course.  The course and books cover several topics.

I had the privilege of hearing E O. Wilson speak about these books in July and was amazed and inspired by the amount of detail and work that went into them.  Added to the interactive media are some pretty detailed scientific animations that so clearly demonstrate the scientific concepts that even I can understand them.  The visuals are stunning, the text is written by one of the leading experts in the field of Biology and…it is a free resource that is far superior to any I have seen in my classroom. While the text is more suitable for older students (and is designed to provide the full high school Biology curriculum), the images will engage younger students and provide a starting point for discussion, questioning and scientific inquiry, exploration and discovery. 

Thinking Like a Scientist:  Students as Mobile Researchers by Julie Hearn (a Maple Ridge, BC Grade 6/7 Teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator) is not an eTextbook for students but rather a guide for teachers on how-to introduce inquiry into the curriculum.  These ideas can be adapted for all grade levels and give examples of ways to use iPads to capture and share the learning experience.  This eBook is free, as are many others, and well worth the read.  Check out the Apple Bookstore for other great examples.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

5 QR Code Activities that Work in Every Classroom

Background Information
QR codes are easy to generate and read with free apps and on-line sites.  You can create them for any purpose and they can be scattered around the classroom or school for a scavenger hunt.

Lesson Support

iPads and/or iPods can be used as QR code readers and the apps can be downloaded for free from iTunes or Android and will need to be installed on all the devices. The Gallery contains five QR Codes you can use for a Primary (Kindergarten/Grade 1) Photo Hunt.  You can create your own activities using this QR Scavenger Hunt Generator where you can enter questions for a quiz or hunt.  This link will take you to a site that allows data to be input to create a variety of QR codes.

Guiding Questions

What images did you choose and why?
How do your photos meet the criteria?
Is it possible to find other images that can also meet the criteria?

Curriculum Connections

This activity will facilitate connecting Fine Arts to other curriculum areas, provide alternate assessment ideas, promote critical thinking and inquiry based learning.

My new book:  5 QR Code Activities that Work in Every Classroom

Monday, July 21, 2014

What Are the Really Important Lessons I Learned as a Teacher?

I left the classroom under some really harsh circumstances.  The British Columbia teachers’ strike/lockout closed down the schools suddenly and the last two weeks of school just didn’t happen.  I didn’t get to say a proper good-bye to my students.  Instead, I spent my last two weeks on the picket line.

I want to say good-bye to all the wonderful students I have taught.  And there have been so many.  Grade 7 is considered to be a tough grade to teach.  Grade 7 educators deal with raging hormones, anxiety over the future, crushes, bullying, supporting students through more challenging curriculum, overnight trips to camp and more.  I loved (almost) every minute of it.  I had so many adventures with my students.  More importantly, I learned a lot from them.

Coaching basketball is just one example.  I am not a fan, I don’t understand the game or the rules and I have no skills.  That didn’t stop me from trying.  It took three years before I even understood the purpose of the pick.  My students were so understanding and supportive and they taught me that not knowing something is no reason for not trying.  Take a chance and do your best.  You never know what might happen.

They taught me what culture means.  While the Grade 7 Social Studies curriculum is all about ancient civilization and culture, until you experience significant cultural differences for yourself, iI don’t think you really “get it”..  I was lucky to be immersed in the South Asian culture for over a decade.  I was introduced to butter chicken, saris, Bollywood, Bhangra, Punjabi, the Ghardwara and more.  My students inspired me to travel to India and what I experiences there will enrich my life forever.

They taught me about courage.  I was honoured to be part of groups of inner students heading for camp.  Many had never been away from home and virtually none had ever gone camping.  They hiked, the canoed, they climbed cliffs and braved the high ropes despite their fears, walking away from each adventure with cheers of triumph and a grin on their faces that was infectious.  They vowed that these experiences would inspire them in the future.

I learned not to fear failure.  This is something you tell students over and over again, but it took years for me to learn that lesson myself.  My first leap into the unknown happened over 10 years ago, when I shifted my teaching  practice to focusing on project-based learning.  Believing that I would find away through the challenges meant I needed to evaluate each step forward and each step back.  I became a risk-taker and I loved the freedom that gave me to be a creative and more fulfilled person.

They showed me that quality learning experiences are essential.  I struggled for years against poor funding, poor resources and poor opportunities for these exceptional people who needed these types of opportunities.  Now, I will take these lessons I learned and try to create a learning environment where all of these experiences are celebrated.  Yes….I am opening my own learning commons, a place for learners, creators, makers and risk-takers of all ages can find the resources they need.  I plan to teach only own terms and try to make a difference in the only way I know how.  That is something I learned was important from my students as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Promoting Inquiry in the Classroom - Exploring Ecosystems

This is a great hands-on science activity that can promote inquiry and understanding of the scientific process.  Students can explore different ecosystems (forest, meadow, beach, mountain) and gather data and evidence at each site in order to compare environmental factors such as plant life, animal life, humidity, wind speed, temperature and amount of light.  It would be best if the ecosystems are close by, for instance a forest and a meadow, in order to have the data collected at the same time and under similar conditions.  Have students measure and record the conditions in different ecosystems.  They can choose to use instruments such as thermometers, pH Meters or litmus paper, hygrometers (to measure humidity), compasses and cameras.  If students have access to smartphones or tablets they can use many available apps for altitude, barometers, pH and other measurements.  Google Earth will also allow them to pinpoint the location of the ecosystem using latitude and longitude and there are weather apps and resources that can also use.  Students can record their findings and display them in graphs, spreadsheets or an annotation program, such as Explain Everything, to share their results with others.  I have curated a collection of Science and Math measurement apps, many of which can support these activities.  These activities provide opportunities for students to make curriculum connections to the processes of Science, using Scientific instruments, measurement, graphing, understanding ecosystems and the integration of Numeracy into Science.

Use inquiry questions to support and guide student learning.  These questions need to be both open-ended and ones that require investigation, experimentation and collaboration to answer.  Smarter Science has created a question matrix to help frame inquiry questions.  Some examples are:

•  What evidence do you have?
•  What did you expect to find and why?
•  How was it different than other ecosystems?
•  What patterns, similarities and differences did you notice?
•  How can you explain these patterns, similarities and differences?
•  Why did you chose these instruments to work with?

This type of activity helps students develop their communication skills and the ability to share their observations and results with others.  This lesson is one of 5 included in my iBook - 5 Inquiry Activities.  The iBook can be downloaded for free from iTunes.