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BTW was created by Patrick & Julie Johnson, two Canadian educators with an interest in eduction & technology. This site showcases our interactive IBOOKS for students, but we also explore educational issues in our INQUIRY segments and share lessons/teaching ideas in our TEACHING TOOLS sections. Use the Labels section in the sidebar to navigate by topic or simply browse.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

INQUIRY: A Reflection on our Digital Collaboration with Maker Cycles

In previous posts I outlined an idea I had for learning hubs and maker cycles that could occur across classrooms.

This idea is a good one and has a lot of benefits! Check out the details here.

It was a bit tricky putting it into practice, however, and I wanted to outline our experiences and share them.

In this blog post, I am speaking on behalf of myself and also basing it the comments that have been shared with of fellow teacher participants: Sheri Edwards and Tania Bumstead.


Having students in a learning hub, where they got to create content on a blog site and also view content on a blog site, was a great way to explore the concept of digital citizenship.

Students would view each others work and then leave a comment.

Overall, students LOVED viewing each others work and engaging with it.

Sometimes, however,  the comments they left came across in an abrupt or hurtful way and needed to be addressed. Often times, the student didn't realize their words could be interpreted that way. They were simply writing as they talked, but so much gets lost in writing in terms of tone, context and body language.

So, yes, that make for a great hands on learning experience!

But it also took a lot of vigilance and time and effort on our part to ensure communications ran smoothly.

Also, some students broke guidelines and were no longer allowed to post publicly their work, or parents preferred that their work not be public, which made it difficulty for them to participate in the project.

We created a time line in this project of one digital make per month.

By the time March rolled around, this was harder and harder to keep. Also, the teacher participants had various curriculum requirements that didn't fit either the time line or the proposed topic for the month.

'Running out of time' to either have students create or view the projects was one of the most difficult aspects of this project.

Hubs were made up of 5-6 students, so that meant viewing and responding to 5-6 projects, which was perhaps a bit much for the time required to do it.

We made our hubs quite broad in scope and we had lots of students participating.

Perhaps there are ways to adapt this, to learn from our experience, such as:

Smaller hubs, less classes participating?
Maybe just join up with one other class? A smaller hub would mean easier to maintain, and also less of a stretch for the teacher to keep an eye of comments and content.

Focus of makes more aligned to curriculum?
Tania is a science teacher and is continuing the project as a science hub. That will allow her to better meet curriculum needs while still connecting with other classes digitally.

It was so so fabulous to connect with other teachers in other areas and to collaborate not just as educators but as whole classroom communities!

When it worked, it really worked.

We had full learning hubs, students in Washington State, Alberta and Waterloo Ontario communicating and deciding on group names and supporting one another's efforts.

The idea behind the project is a sound one! It just needs a bit of tweaking so it can be administered easier!


Clip from short film: PLOT DEVICE

In SCDSB, some Gr. 4-8 teachers will administer a reading comprehension assessment called a CASI.

This includes a short piece (non fiction or fiction) to read, and then a series of questions.

For fiction, these questions include:
  • summary
  • main idea
  • narrative traits (such as plot, setting, character)
  • character traits
  • evaluation of title
  • connection to text (text to self, text to world and/or text to text)
  • evaluation of perspective or point of view

Students complete their first CASI in September and I like to retest in January.

From that, I can determine which areas need support.

For example, typically students often confuse summary with main idea, or do not provide enough evidence to support their conclusion, or make fairly superficial inferences when discussing a connection, etc.

I can use that data as a starting point, to help students learn how to be more specific, to provide proof, to go deeper into the text, to develop our ideas more thoroughly and with more conviction.

A great way to practice this is to use short films!

They are narratives, and thus allow for the same discussion points as the CASI.

Being so short, they allow for repetition. We can tackle main idea x 5 in a fairly short amount of time, while still analyzing stories that have depth and complexity. (Also, they are a lot of FUN).

In class, we've watched:

And for each we discussed the various CASI questions.

We also look at emotional arcs as a subtext: in addition to the obvious plot there is a not so obvious emotional journey. Therein lies the substance for our more complex inferences, the deeper meaning and connections.

Lots of rich discussion can come from these short narrative pieces. Discussion about character motivation, author/director intention, the methods by which character or setting or plot are conveyed to the reader/viewer, etc. Lots of great debate ensues...what would be a better title? How could this story be improved? What's the main idea?

There's a lot of excitement in these short videos...which generate to excitement in the classroom. Students actually start debating 'main idea' interpretations! WOW!

Written stories differ from their visual counterparts only by the fact that words are used to paint a 'mental picture in our heads'. In most other ways, they

To consolidate these skills, I give students an at home assignment, their own version of a Movie CASI. They can choose any movie they want (for example, I've had Star Wars, The Incredibles, The Dukes of Hazzard, etc), or they can choose another new short film I've provided (The Butterfly Circus). They respond to the film using the CASI question format.

The results are really fabulous...

I've done this many times now and I alway see immediate student improvement, from the beginning of this unit to the end. And the skills transfer to the reading CASI portion as well, when I retest in the winter.

All in all, I'd say my experience using short films to boost reading comprehension has been a huge success!

Using Narratives to Explore Growth Mindset

In my grade 8 class last year, we scheduled in 20 minutes of personal reading time. Students spent that time reading material of their own choosing (typically, a novel).

We would then do an activity (either reading or writing focused) that they can apply to their personal reading.

Sometimes it's a CASI type question (CASI is a reading comprehension assessment tool we have available in our school board. It asks questions like: what is the main idea? Explain with proof. List 3 character traits, using proof to support your answer. Is is a good title? Explain with proof. AND SO ON).

And sometimes it's a exploratory type of question (ie: write the scene from an alternative point of view).

And sometimes it's writing related, as we look for examples of 'good writing' in the text. (ie: which writing trait (such as organization, description, unique idea, convention use etc) is the author uses effectively or ineffectively? give an example).

One other area we are starting to explore within these narratives is the concept of Growth Mindset.

For example, one book we read together is Running To Extremes.

In this biography Ray Zahab, a Canadian ultra-marathon runner, explains how he got into the sport, and also the many many challenges (mental and physical) he faced while racing in the Yukon, Sahara and the Amazon (and elsewhere).

There are numerous times when he wanted to give up...but didn't. Or made mistakes...which he then adapted to or changed for the better next time around.

The concept of Growth Mindset is all through out this book!

Of course, a narrative doesn't need to be about ultra marathon racing to illustrate the growth mindset.

Many narrative plots involve an obstacle that needs to be overcome...Characters often face challenges and conflicts that require a shift in perspective and self-understanding... This is true in novels (written narratives) and film (visual narratives).

Looking at main characters and plots through the lens of 'growth mindset' is a great way to connect personally to the concept. You can look at how Growth Mindset effects the characters in narratives and in that way, develop your own understanding of how this method of thinking might impact your own life.

PS. For more about Canadian ultra-marathon runner Ray Zahab, click here

Saturday, September 12, 2015

UPDATE on our INQURY PROJECT: Digital Collaboration Using Maker Cycles in the Classsroom #clmaker

If you look through the two previous posts, you'll see how our Maker Cycle project has grown from 'just an idea' into a full fledged teaching plan spanning  a full year and several time zones!

Now that it is September, the plan is starting to roll out...

To quickly summarize, this is the project: 

Students from different classes (grade 6 to high school) will connect digitally through the process of creating digital/media based maker projects which are centred on a similar theme. 

Themes cycle through the year

Some classes will participate in specific cycles, other will connect the whole year through

Students will place their maker creations on a digital portfolio, which can be viewed by others on the internet

Also, some students will be placed in 'digital learning hubs'

In these learning hubs, students from the different classes act as makers of content, but also as an 'audience' for each another, providing commentary on each others works (within a structured format) on the digital portfolios.

We've tried to strike a balance between structure/freedom to create. We felt that students needed some guidance in the realm of constructive feedback to others, for instance. But students will have lots of choice within the realm of maker creation.

If you'd like to follow along, on Twitter this project will have the hashtag #clmaker.

Also, here is the schedule of maker cycles with tentative due dates:

  1. A Personal Introduction (Using Google Slides, if you choose) (part 1) & (Due Oct 1)
  2. Group Name/Design a Group Badge Using Google Docs to communicate (part 2) (Due Nov 2) *collaborative across learning hubs
  3. A travel piece (Due Dec 1)
  4. Environmental Issues (Due Feb 1)
  5. Social Justice Issues (historical or present day) (March 1)
  6. Poetry/Lyrics (Due April 1)
  7. Completely Open! Do Anything! (Due May 1)

Maker Cycle #2 is a digitally collaborative piece between classes. We've tried to solve the problem of 'different time zones and conflicting class schedules' by using google docs to communicate between students.

It will definitely be interesting to see how this project addresses our inquiry questions, such as:

  • Can maker projects align to curriculum goals?
  • Can maker projects be assessed?
  • Does having a digital audience of specific peers improve student engagement?
  • Does having a digital audience of specific peers encourage students to apply their skills more effectively than when just creating work for their teacher?
  • How do I create authentic learning spaces of making and reflecting that empower self-directed learning?

There are also logistic issues to work through: how much tech is available, how comfortable are the students with tech, how comfortable are the students with the freedom to create, which tech apps or sites work best for the project ...etc.

This will definitely be a learning curve for us all!

I will definitely be posting here through the year to reflect on the process. So stay tuned!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Follow up to INQUIRY: Digital Collaboration Using Maker Cycles in the Classroom

In the previous post, I put forth an idea that (I hope) will help me answer the question of how to promote more creativity in the classroom. (Please review that post for background on the project).

I wanted to take a moment here to update everyone on the progress of that project proposal.

Here is a general outline of the project plan as it currently stands.

1. Teacher Digital Collaboration

In my proposal, I asked for (hoped for) teacher collaborators who would join me in the project.

I have had the great fortune to meet @TaniaBumstead, @MrsSmithLA, @mkurashige, @grammasheri, @MWeller77, and @eatcherveggies!

Using the parlance of this project plan, this is my teaching learning hub!

We have been collaborating digitally via google docs, Twitter DM, and (sometimes) Skype and Voxer through out the summer. It started with a few of us, and then a few more joined in...

That it itself is VERY COOL. Every now and then, I take a moment to stop and appreciate the fact that:

Teachers from Hawaii, Washington State, California, Washington DC, Albert and Ontario (x2) are collaborating digitally on a year long maker cycle project!

We took the main premise, developed a time line (one project per month starting in October and ending in May), decided upon maker cycle topics (more on that below), and determined the student's process for the 'learning hubs' (more on that also below). We are also working on a list of 'tried and tested' digital tools for classes to use.

2. Maker Cycle Details

Between the teachers involved, we have different school year start and end dates, different curriculum objectives, and different amounts of time that can be committed to the project. (We also have different time zones to contend with! More on that later!) (And @MWeller77 is a high-school teacher. All other classes are in the Gr. 6-8 range).

That means that the plan we have devised needs to have a certain degree of flexibility and adaptability.

We've settled on a maker project per month, hoping that will give us enough time for the production process, plus the 'commentary' process that comes afterwards between students in the learning hubs. (Of course, we can tweak this as we go along, if needed.)

Some teachers are going to participate for every cycle, others are going to participate in those cycles that fit best with their time lines. (They will either create cycles ahead of time and be 'experts in the field', providing sample works for others to view and/or they will piggy back on certain cycles, joining their learning hubs at those times).

As to maker cycle topics, we chose ones that could be interpreted through various curriculum, such as science, social studies, writing/media.

Here is our current topic list:

  1. A Personal Introduction (Due Oct 1)
  2. A Travel Piece (Due Nov 2)
  3. Lyrics/Poetry (Due Dec 3)
  4. Social Justice Issues (historical or present day) (Feb 1)
  5. An Environmental Issue (March 1)
  6. Completely Open! Do Anything! or Do Anything with This 1 Tech Tool! (April 1)
  7. Reflection on the Maker Cycle Year (May 1)

We thought this list gave us a nice range of adaptable themes that promote creative applications.

3. Digital Learning Hub Details
Learning hubs are created between students in each class. So Student A in my class will be paired with Student B in @TaniaBumstead's class and so on. Their learning hub will be made up of students from different parts of Canada and the US.

Students will create a tech-based make for each cycle (we are calling them 'clmakes', the cl standing for connected learning, as in #clmooc, which, if you read the previous post, was a source of inspiration for this project).

In other words, they will use a digital tool to interpret the theme of the cycle. We have a list of tech tools to choose from, but there is a lot of choice, creatively speaking, as to how they might want to approach the maker cycle topic of the month.

They will then post their clmake on a blog of some sort--one that allows to either link or embed the digital work and also allows for commenting. This site which in turn will create a digital portfolio for students over time.

Once their clmakes are posted, the students in the learning hub will have the chance to view each others clmakes and comment on them.

We decided to structure the commenting process, because we feel that students require a model for this, that they haven't had a lot of practice giving feedback. So we are going with TG: Tell something you liked, give a suggestion.

With 7 teachers, and thus, potentially, 7 students in a hub (a student, or possibly a pair of students, from each class will form a digital learning hub), we don't want to overwhelm them with commenting requirements.  So it seems best to keep the commenting process straight forward and simple.

But we do want them to feel a kinship in being part of a group, and that they have an accountability toward being a responsive audience to that group. We also want them to feel a sense of ownership over the work they produce: they are, after all, showing it to a peer group for their consideration!

We will also be using this as an opportunity to teach/model digital citizenship.

4. Still in the Works...

We are currently working on our own inquiry method: how we will track or observe the effects of this project on our teaching, and on our students. These are some of the questions we hope this project will help us answer:

Can maker projects align to curriculum goals?
Can maker projects be assessed?
Does having a digital audience of specific peers improve student engagement?
Does having a digital audience of specific peers encourage students to apply their skills more effectively than when just creating work for their teacher?
How do I create authentic learning spaces of making and reflecting that empower self-directed learning?

We are also working on how we might launch the project. Because of time zones, and scheduling differences, we can't all be in the same place at the same time for a group google hangout or Skype between all our classes. We are currently working on a plan that would allow for a bit of digital collaboration between students in a learning hub as means of getting to know one another a little better before becoming an audience for each other's work.

So this project is still a bit of a work in progress, and of course may adapt further as we get closer to launch or as the year goes by.

But certainly I will be blogging and tweeting about it as we go (as will other teacher participants) and it has the potential for some really, really interesting results!

So stayed tuned!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

INQUIRY: How Can I Promote Student Creativity Using Maker Projects In The Classroom? A Proposal for Digital Collaboration.

I consider myself a creative person who, even in my ripe ol' 40s, routinely gets JAZZED by ideas that I want to transform into reality.

It's exciting to get excited by ideas.

As an educator, I've noted, as have many of my colleagues, that there can be a distinct lack of excitement in students towards learning.

School can be boring. Right up there with doing the dishes. For some students, the whole school day is a chore. Just doing the dishes. All day long.

Intrinsic Motivation
Like many of my colleagues, I've wanted to tap into that seemingly elusive 'intrinsic motivation', the motivation that doesn't require 'carrots or sticks' (rewards/punishments) and is generated from within. An innate, inner quality, individual to each. The impetus for 'lifelong learning'.

Appealing to student strengths and interests is one way to promote 'engagement', which led me, in my career, to game based learning, youtube in the classroom, incorporating pop culture, digital narratives, etc--trying to tap multi modalities and link it to learning experiences.

Twitter definitely accelerated this process (see previous post).

Maker/Innovation Movement
Now the maker movement is gaining prominence, and this is exciting new territory where student interest, student voice, intrinsic motivation, personal choice, technology, hands on materials, art, writing, all the communicative tools, can intersect.

I've started to explore this area (i.e.: recently enrolled in #clmooc, one of my sources of inspiration! Our school library also started maker spaces this year! Our school @ShantyBayPS also did a very cool school wide 'greenovation' project!) and have been having conversations about it with colleagues in person and on twitter and via #clmooc.

I anticipate a few blog post to follow this one on different aspects that intrigue me and questions that I have...

Ideas are starting to coalesce...

Deep Thoughts
One of the big questions I currently have is how to make the 'maker' idea work in a substantial way within a classroom. Moving, say, beyond Maker Spaces as extracurricular or 'in addition to' regular school life--which is how I've mostly seen them operate.

How could it work in a classroom on a regular basis? How could it promote writing & media skills/curriculum? Can it be tied to curriculum? Can it be assessed? If so, do you assess the project or the process? Both? How?

Can the joy of maker 'play' be joined with school driven structure? How do you promote individualized, open, curiosity driven tech/media/communication exploration while still adhering to curriculum, skill building demands and also perhaps the need to scaffold skills?

A Proposal

I've come up a plan for myself, and for anyone who might be interested in joining me. This is my own sort of maker inquiry, for September of next year.

Here's the plan, currently: a structured student maker cycle, similar in part to #clmooc

I'm envisioning:
  • 3-5 classes (mine included) are part of digital learning hub
  • the teachers together determine maker cycles, say 5-6 for the year
  • each maker cycle has a loose framework, pre-determined by the teachers, with deadlines predetermined by the teachers (see below for example ideas for the cycles)
  • each student in each class has their own peer hub to which they are both creator of content and audience, so, for example, Student from my class A is paired up with a student from class B, C and D. Their content is viewed by their peers, and they view the content created by there peers. (Of course, they can view others! But this is the area they are responsible for)
  • students provide feedback to their peer hub creations (constructively! this would likely need to be modelled and taught with clear expectations! maybe 2 stars and a wish format, something like that? TBD)
  • student interaction is contained in the hub (no off road interactions on personal Facebook, instagram, etc)
  • student content is accessed digitally, curated by students with teacher supervision (I'm thinking of each student having a digital portfolio via blogger (which permits comments) or something like that)
  • teachers could assess their students work as they chose...or not (this would be an interesting conversation at the end of the year in a debrief with each other...to explore some of those questions around how to assess creativity)
  • perhaps Skype at the start or end of the year to meet one another 'face to face'?


Digital Citizenship
At the end of the year, students would have a digital portfolio and also would have maintained a year long digital relationship based on mutual appreciation of content creation.

They would also have a built in audience for their writing/media, something that is currently lacking in traditional classroom settings, where much of the time students are producing content for teachers eyes only, in order to get a mark.

Of course, work is sometimes shared via class blogs, Twitter, or youtube, or between class mates or within the school, but this is not necessarily the same as having a structured, expected, intended audience...of peers.

My hope would be that this would give students a context, a purpose, a sense of agency and authorship that would take them 'beyond grades' in terms of their performance. (In fact, I'd hope this inquiry would shed light on whether or not that is the case)

Critical Analysis
Having students view content created by themselves and others that resides within a specified framework = a rich opportunity for critical analysis. How did the use of a particular tool by Student A convey this cycle's theme? What is your opinion? Is this a 'good' interpretation? Define 'good'. How does this speak to you? What sort of connections do you make? Etc. 

There would be a rich vein of material in which to go deep. The bonus is that it is material in which they would (hopefully) have a personal vested interest.

Structured Choice
Open play has its place, but I have found some students flounder. They are not used to it and don't know what to do. The framework of the maker cycles would centre them, focus them, but choice...and thus a sense of autonomy...can still be provided.

Maker Cycles Ideas: Examples
The first cycle might be something like 'introduce yourself using one of these digital tools [list]', another might be: 'use this digital tool [name] to create what ever you want', or: the topic is 'identity' or 'the environment' or or or or [fill in the blank], use any tool to demonstrate your reflection on this topic.... you could start off with a fairly tight focus and loosen and open it up as they become more comfortable with the process/concept. In fact, the last one could be completely open so they aren't just 'designing but also defining'.

I'm sure we could come up with 5-6 good ones for the year!

I am slated for Gr. 7/8 next year so if you are similarly teaching Gr. 7/8 (or perhaps Gr. 6 and Gr. 9...probably should keep it close to their peer group) and you like this idea, PLEASE CONTACT ME!

And also, if you have done something like this, and have any insight to share, or any feedback to give or suggestions on how to improve this plan of mine, PLEASE CONTACT ME!

Twitter: @julieejohnsonn
Email: jujohnson@scdsb.on.ca

Monday, June 15, 2015

INQUIRY: Why Should Teachers Be On Twitter? How Should They Use It?

I joined Twitter in 2010 so it's been 5 years now of Twitter fandom but I didn't start out that way. At first, I didn't 'get' what Twitter was all about. I was a skeptic.

I have a blog post from my writer's blog back in 2010 wherein I complain that roaming through other people's tweets was "worse than microfiche." (For you young ones out there, THIS is the headache inducing, mind numbing machine known as microfiche. May you never have to experience the horror of spooling through endless rolls of microfiche film at the library...)

Anyway, I didn't get it at first. I didn't know who I should follow or why I should or how to get to the good stuff. What was the point?

It took some time, I'll admit, but I still remember the TWO amazing moments when Twitter finally started to work its magic for me.

1. When a fellow writer on twitter visited my writing blog and actually left a comment!
2. When a teacher sent out a tweet on his use of Mario Kart Wii in math for mean, median and mode.


I'm not kidding. MIND. BLOWN.

First, I had connected with another person (who, incidentally, lived in Australia!) on a topic of mutual interest (writing).

Second, I had connected with another person (who, incidentally, lived in Scotland!) on a topic of mutual interest (education) AND I discovered a realm of educational instruction I NEVER KNEW EXISTED! Namely, game based learning, bringing conventional video games into the classroom in meaningful ways.

I had reached someone with my writing AND someone else had reached me...and we all lived across the world from one another!


I've been a proponent of Twitter ever since.

Here are FOUR BIG REASONS why teachers should be on Twitter

1. You will be inspired by others on a regular basis.
Teachers blog about the cool stuff their doing. You will be inspired. You will want to try new things. This will invigorate your own practice.

2. You can inspire others.
Share what you are doing. I can't count the number of times I've told co workers. 'What you are doing is so cool! You should put this on a blog and share it on Twitter! I know others would find it cool too.' It feels good to contribute, and it is affirming to know that others find your info useful and valuable.

3. Reflective Practice
Part of the sharing between educators isn't just on lesson ideas or cool media/tech stuff etc. A lot of the times teachers are asking questions (like this one from the other day from Brian Aspinall that really resonated with me: A Student Asked Me 'How Can You Assess My Creativity' and I Didn't Know How to Respond) And you will realize, hey, I wondered that too! And in the blog comments section you can be part of a dialogue about trying to come to terms with this situation, hashing out solutions).

4. Getting to Know People/People Getting to Know You
I've had conversations with other teachers about non-educational stuff: weather, hobbies, recipes, music, shows, travel, my writing life, among other things. You don't have to be locked into your teacher identity...most teachers on twitter aren't. It gives you the chance to get to know them...and you might even meet them one day (as I once did, at a social media event) and it will be a very cool experience and you will find that you have more to talk about than simply teaching.

Okay, now that you've decided Twitter is the place to be: how should you use it?

1. Make sure you have a profile picture AND a bio.
This is so others can understand your purpose for being on Twitter, to see if you align with their purpose for being there and would thus be a good person to connect with, or follow.

2. Include a link.
This could be your class blog site or an about me page or something else online. This is another way for people to understand your purpose for being on Twitter and to get a sense of who you are, and if your interests align.

3. Find some cool follows.
Here are a few of my favourite teachers on Twitter: @MzMolly @dougpete @cybraryman1 @derekrobertson @dogtrax @aviva1oca @willrich45 @shellterrell @courosa (This list goes on and on and on. But it would be a good place to start.)

You might also want to check out #edchat on Tuesday nights. (Follow the #edchat hashtag to see the conversation happening, use the #edchat hashtag to be included in the conversation).

4. Spend time, but not a lot of time.
To really get the benefit of Twitter, you do have to spend a bit of time on it, checking out tweets and links and blog posts. But you don't have to do a lot or do it for hours (though you may be tempted! Twitter can get addicting!). Just hop on for a bit, check out what people are doing. I go on Twitter daily, to both post and read, but not for very long.

5. Be generous.  Be Polite. 
Retweet the cool stuff. Reply to tweets that you are think are cool. Connect. Respond. Favourite. Also, give credit where it is due. If you are quoting or linking to someone, use their twitter handle.

6. Be Aware
As with all social media, it is important to be aware of who you are engaging with. That being said, I have never never never had a negative experience with a fellow educator. Ever. The atmosphere is collegial, respectful, encouraging. And I add to that by acting similarly.

I'm sure there is more that could be said on this but I'll stop there. (I do have a tendency to gush on this topic).