Mystery Skype Experiment

I’ll try making this a quick one.
My classes and I participated in the Microsoft Education Skype-a-thon by doing two “Mystery Skypes”.

Mystery Skype is basically a global “Marco Polo” guessing game.

Two teachers from anywhere in the world connect on the Skype-a-thon website. Each teacher knows where the other is located; their students, however, do not. The teachers then initiate and help moderate a Skype video call. Students on each side ask questions, collaborate in teams, and problem solve to find out where the other class is from by asking a series of yes/no questions.

It was awesome. My students got into it right away. It was really something to see them work together, be engaged, problem solve, speak, and compete, all while connecting with people from other countries (Chile & USA).

The process of getting a classroom hooked up and prepared with the proper technology was a fair task. Accounts, sign-ins, downloads, wires, more accounts, etc. But it was worth it because it was spontaneous, fun, and my students learned. Then something just came to me; the realization that if I didn’t have the technology skills I do as a teacher, I would never have done this. I don’t mean just using apps, but understanding how different hardware works together.

Knowing how to setup and use technology is a skill all teachers need. It’s not about reinventing the wheel or using technology all the time. Having technology knowledge and skills gives you access to a whole different branch of pedagogical opportunities. Don’t let those opportunity pass you by.


Compliance vs Learning

Once upon a time, I had a discussion with a colleague about how teachers integrate technology into their classrooms. We seemed to agree that if a teacher wants to fully harness the power of students in the classroom, they must be willing to adhere to a teaching style that promotes “higher-level thinking” or “deep learning” (hereafter referred to as just HLT).  This isn’t a post about how students use technology in a class and therefore it is HLT. That is a fallacy. Just because technology is used does not inherently make it HLT, and HLT does not need to use technology. This post is about how we get teachers to practice higher-level thinking in their classrooms.

No!  The answer is not “use technology”, and it isn’t “ask deep questions”. The answer is also NOT:  “the Cs”, “inquiry-based”, “trust the students”, “see what happens”, “21st Century Skills/Fluencies”,  “project-based learning”, “be okay with not having all the answers”, or “guide on the side”.  It is not just one of these things; it is all of them and more. Promoting and practicing higher-level thinking in the classroom is an approach and a process, and can never be summed up with a buzz word or phrase.

This was when my colleague and I really started wondering: why aren’t more teachers on board with teaching in a way that promotes higher level thinking or Deep Learning?  This led us to speculate: do teachers want their students to learn or to comply?

Well of course we all want students to learn, but often equtate a student’s compliance with learning. To some degree this is true and necessary, but I believe that a “good”, compliant student is not going to be as educated as the one who explores her own interests, asks interesting questions, or dares to disrupt the status quo.

If, from start to finish, we want students to produce the result we want, then we sell the whole education system short. We’re not educating, we’re feeding and informing. On the other hand: if, from start to finish, we allow students to make every choice without guidance, we sell the public short because we’re not educating.  This upcoming question is not intended to be as bipartisan as it seems, but I want you to think about what side you are on.

Do we, as educators and educational institutions, want students to explore and learn, or do we want them to comply and produce the results we want? 

A Great Success

*Disclaimer* I’ll keep this post a concise as possible. I’ve been meaning to blog more, post more, share more; but I find that I get caught up in wanting to make grandiose, well-polished posts. I’ll try to just say what I mean and hash the discrepancies in the comments should the need arise.

The Classroom Story.

So anyone who knows me or follows me on social media might know that I’ve been talking about, promoting,  learning, and demonstrating this teaching style for a while now. What is it? Part role-playing, part game, part creative story-telling, part writing, collaborative, creative, and  part-whatever you want it to be. Fun most of the time. Unsure plenty of the time. Very engaging for students and teacher. I’ll eventually post about what it really is, how I discovered it (not on my own), assessment practices, and why it works. For now I’ll just say it is a way to suck kids into what’s happening (engagement) and then gives them a context to do the curricular work you need.

So one of my grade eight ELA classes wrapped up the “Hobbit” classroom story we did today. My students made characters that were either human, hobbit, or dwarf. They made their own adventure groups that would then go forth into Middle-earth and try to retrieve Smaug’s hoard of treasure in the Lonely Mountain. We used the plot of The Hobbit as our own. There was trolls, goblins, shape-shifters, Gollum, mountains, wizards, forests, spiders, elves, dragons, potions, and other magical items and weapons. Yes, we became a class of nerds – and we loved it.

From the outset, the secret lesson (or “moral of the story”) I wanted the students to somehow understand was that gold and treasure (material goods) are not as important as the experiences you have. They learned this, yet I didn’t even have to teach it, it just happened!

Flashback to the beginning of the story/unit.

I told the students that the group/person with the most gold at the end wins. The groups then competed making a series of choices (battling monsters, completing quests) which earned them loot (little paper pieces of gold and other items). I should say that all the while students constantly writing from their character’s perspective in first-person. They got used to me saying, “it only counts if you write it down!”

Fast-forward, back to the present.

So in various groups, the students ended up killing Thorin & Co. inside the Lonely Mountain (oops!),  stealing the Arkenstone to broker a peace between dwarves and elves, and then unleashed the dragon Smaug on everybody (with some casualties along the way). After defeating the dragon with an entertaining game of pin-the-black-arrow-to-the-dragon, Smaug was vanquished. Then, after writing their character’s epilogue, all students eagerly came up for a group picture in the front of class where they had their character journals and their gold. Then the coolest thing happened: they all decided to throw the gold in the air for a cool “make it rain!” shot.  So little pieces of paper gold flew everywhere with the look of pure joy on all their faces.  That was it, classroom story done.

But wait…I thought the person who accrued the most wealth is considered the winner? What happened to the most gold wins thing? Odd. They didn’t seem to care at all when they launched their treasure in the air. One student kind of mentioned it but didn’t really care. They all cleaned up the gold, handed it in, and felt good to have had “so much fun” during class. The students had fun, worked together, and shared a variety of experiences. The “winning” was an afterthought.

I think they learned the lesson.


V is for Vector

My “Shield of Captain America”

Program: Adobe Illustrator (Vector). Tutorial by Andrei Marius on TutsPlus, found here.


Typically I scour the web looking for interesting tutorials to learn and do myself, then subsequently share with my students. I look for an end-product that catches the eye, then make sure it has a well made tutorial that is at my students level of understanding. Both of my Digital Art classes have done the “Ninja Gang” and “Retro Fox” illustrations with great success (samples below).

I didn’t have my students do the Captain America Shield above because it’s pretty advanced for where they are at.  One student, however, wanted the challenge of trying to make the shield above. He had previously been unengaged in the course so I figured  there was nothing to lose by him trying. He seemed intent on doing it faster than me, and yes, a bet was made. Although he didn’t win the “free time” for his class – failing to complete the illustration in 3 classes – he surprised me by committing to the process and he completed the project anyways. His product was about 95% accurate (if I had to put a number on it, which I just did), but he did many of the advanced things required and demonstrated his digital art skills. Also, since he knew that I had done it previously, he was asking for my help, and our student-teacher relationship benefitted. Win-win for both of us.

Overall, I love how in Illustrator I can adjust paths and strokes, group and resize elements, create interesting shapes using a variety of tools, and generally, just create cool graphics to be proud of. My students have also been enjoying it a lot.  Even as a beginner, Illustrator allows students to create a professional looking graphic without having to have an extensive knowledge of art concepts. Just by following tutorials they have become way more comfortable with the interface and a large array of tools.

The student work below demonstrates some interesting things. One, how shapes can be similar, but unique (fox shapes). Secondly, even when following a tutorial, students may assemble and design their graphics with their own stamp of personalization. Finally, students have been engaged, actively problem solving when things don’t go right, asking questions, and collaborating together to help each other out. It’s been a great creative, learning experience.

Fox by Feven
Ninjas by Mallory
Ninjas by Mallory


Ninjas by Jake
Ninjas by Jake
Fox by Matthew
Fox by Matthew

Reading Aloud is Awesome

Who doesn’t like being read to? Really. It’s a grand tradition that we humans hold dearly. Initially we did it orally, passing down stories to another generation of eager listeners, then we started recording stories. We are read to as toddlers and children, but it seems that at some point in our lives, it’s not acceptable anymore. It’s like we think it’s childish to be read to. Well, I think that is wrong.

When in university doing my Arts degree, I took an English course about the legends of King Arthur. The main text we studied was Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”.  Well, it was written in Middle English, essentially a foreign language, and it was like learning to read again. Luckily we (the class) had an amazing professor to teach us how to read it.

First, the prof modelled for us the proper accent and annunciation, and provided us with commentary to give us a knowledge of the vocabulary and historical background.  When the class had to read, there was a sort of competition between classmates as to who could read best, added pressure to enunciate the words properly, and special attention being paid to the syntax in order to read more fluently.  Great lessons were learned in that classroom because classmates got to learn from one another, we did not have to strictly depend on our own understanding. I know for a fact that I got better at comprehending Middle English from just two classes of reading aloud than I would have just reading it on my own. Yes, there were times I was uncomfortable reading it out loud, but hard lessons aren’t easy. This is something I remembered when I did read alouds with my classes.

With my grade eight classes I recently did a novel study of “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien . It is a classic fantasy book that was written in the early 30’s, and it is a challenging read because of the vocabulary, syntax, and complex punctuation. Since there was only one class set of novels, my two classes had to share the books and could not take the books home to do assigned readings. This worked fine because the book was challenging, so I decided to start reading it to them.

I was surprised by how the students were totally engaged. All following along, paying attention to how I paused at commas, changing the intonation of my voice for things that were said in brackets, stopping to talk about things that intrigued me, and changing my voice to match the character’s mood, and so on.  Then some students (the stronger readers) would volunteer to read as well. As the unit went, I gradually made it a requirement for every student to read aloud at least one paragraph per reading session. At first, there were some nerves evident, but I just encouraged and told them how well they did, constantly reassuring them that this was a very hard text and that I also made mistake reading out loud. They had to learn to feel safe with reading out loud regardless of their performance.

As we progressed through the book, I literally got to hear the students improve in their oral reading skills. They were figuring out tough words, using the punctuation to help their fluency, learning about pacing and posture, and best of all, they became confident. One student, who at first stuttered as he read because he were so nervous, eventually was able to read smoothly and effectively. Credit to him for the mental toughness. He wasn’t forced, he wanted to do it.

I love reading aloud. I think a fair number of teachers still do it with their classes. If you don’t or haven’t, I highly suggest you do. I had read alouds with previous classes I taught, but this time was different. I think because I threw the students into the fire; I made them read out loud in class. Yup, some students were uncomfortable and didn’t do too well, but they got better and more confident. One might say they learned something. I think that’s what education is about…

The New Learning: Authentic Information Experiences

Student engagement has been a hot topic in education recently. It appears that an increasing number of students are not active participants in their learning despite new technologies, teaching methods, and the best efforts of educators. It is my opinion that students are not as engaged because they are not getting authentic information experiences.

I define an authentic information experience as: an experience whereby an individual or group is actively engaged in collecting, creating, and sharing information – photos, video, text, or ideas – in a real world context. These experiences happen when people instrinsically want to learn and create something; not because they’re being told to, because they want to.

I believe the youth of today are learning in two worlds.

In one world, youth have dynamic and engrossing information experiences. They exchange, create, and publish information with just a tablet or smarthphone and an Internet connection.   With these tools they can:

  • find out an answer to almost any question through a Google search
  • learn almost any skill from YouTube
  • create a viral meme in a matter of minutes
  • share thoughts and experiences through Twitter and Instagram
  • find joy in random stuff on Tumblr
  • critical think and problem-solve in video games

In the other world, youth are told what to learn, how to learn it, and why they ought to.

I am not against curriculum, or teaching in traditional ways, but times have changed. Information is ridiculously abundant and the youth of today want it more than ever before. They don’t just want to take it in, they want to help create and share it! If educators want their students to be engaged, the students need to be made an important part of the process, not just the recipients of information.

I’ll use a quote from David Warlick’s article entitled Information Ethics that I think articulates the “two worlds” idea that I was describing.

Preparing children for an information-driven, technology-rich future requires us to redefine literacy in a way that reflects the changing nature of information. You and I were taught to read what some body handed to us. Our students will read from a global digital library that anyone can publish to, just about anything they want, and for just about any reason.

The bottom line is that participating in an informatoin experience is learning. Students are yearning to share their experiences on a grander scale. I like to use technology and social media to provide my classroom, not only a window to the real world, but a communication line where ideas can be shared, heard, viewed, and discussed. This is the way I’ve chosen to engage students. How will you?

Two Weeks Later: Expanding Thoughts from #Embracing2012

Ya…this post might seem a little late, but that’s okay. It’s okay because I find that after professional development we (teachers) get all pumped up for the message, only to forget what we thought, felt, and got us excited in the first place; or we just didn’t implement anything in the first place. So for this post I’m going to revisit and expand upon some of the tweets I made while taking in the Embracing the Edge* conference.

I’m not writing an essay here, I just want to expand on some of these thoughts. These thoughts are basically about how we view the Internet and its purposes. For the sake of brevity and converstation, I’m going to simply give you some bulleted thoughts.

Got something to say to that? Good, comment!

The Tweets

  • The world is constantly changing. Instead of focusing on learning “stuff” we need to develop skills to help decode that “stuff”.
  • Skill based courses can capitalize on this best because they are not constrained by mandated provincial “knowledge” outcomes.
  • Real, applicable lessons are all over happening all the time. Don’t be afraid to stop your class when a teachable moment occurs. If the students are engaged in the topic then you’re probably going to accomplish a lot more for their long-term education than you may think.
  • We no longer need be held hostage by textbook companies and encyclopedias. We don’t need a particular company to tell us what’s happening. There are huge amounts of wikis, blogs, magazines, and other reputable publishers and news agencies that give us the information we want to know. Want to learn a new skill? I’d check YouTube first!
  • We no longer have to sit back an take in media and be told what to think. We (the observer) are now a vital part of media landscape. We are welcomed to respond and interact with the producers of media and share our thoughts and opinions. In many cases, WE are the producers of information and media.
  • This is democracy! Because of the Internet, everyday people can interact and be heard among the vast array of voices online. People debating, arguing, producing, consuming, learning, and teaching. It’s the new age Agora.
  • The “older” generation has no problem with watching movies and TV, but “darn those video games!”. Well sorry to burst your bubble, but gaming is a much more immersive and responsive world that teaches a lot of critical thinking skills. Games tell stories, except you (the gamer) gets to participate in them.**
  • Looking at a screen, clicking buttons, and participating in technology is not always fun or engaging. Believe me, there are countless video games, websites, and programs where you can do this but they ARE NOT fun or engaging.
  • If we teachers think that just because we use “tech” in our class that we are teaching 21st Century skills, we are wrong! The students know how to do lots of this stuff already. It’s the closeness that we experience with one another in the exchange of information and stories that’s fascinating. Some examples are: being able to track and talk to celebrities via Twitter or Instagram; giving your opinion to your favourite companies or friends on Facebook; watching videos on YouTube to learn something or take in a great story; keeping up to date with what’s popular on the Internet and talking with people on Reddit. The examples are endless.

What now? How do we use this? What is “this”? Will we let our level of familiarity of online tools dictate if we want to learn it and use it? Are we willing to change how we teach in order to capitalize on the Information Revolution? What are the pitfalls?


* Based on the number of tweets I saw congratulating Andy McKiel (@amckiel), I believe it was him who was the driving force behind this conference. Bravo sir! You carried out this conference in a manner that truly practiced what we (tech educators) preach. The livestreaming of the keynote speakers was cutting edge, the number of tweeps interacting online was noteworthy, and the overall organization and presentation were executed flawlessly.

** There are lots of trash video games, just like there are trash movies, books, and TV. Don’t take my endorsement of gaming as a green-light for all gaming. It’s about moderation. I don’t think any individual should be spending 30+ hours a week watching movies, TV, or playing video games. This includes myself for the times that I have done this!