Half-Steps, Whole-Steps, Bits and Bytes – ISTE Poster Session Downloads and Resources

The following resources further explain or support my ISTE 2015 Poster Session entitled “Half-Steps, Whole-Steps, Bits and Bytes: Music Fundamentals through Computing.”
Read more

When Griefers Strike: Community, Citizenship and Rebuilding

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 2.42.45 PM

What does it mean to be a community? When disaster strikes, how does a community respond? What does it mean to see real-world consequences of digital actions? When one group’s project was digitally vandalized just a day before it was due, a class of 6th graders demonstrated U Prep’s commitment to community and social responsibility by jumping in to help rebuild.

As an interdisciplinary project in 6th grade, students explore the effects of damming (and releasing) the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Students choose to focus their research on a particular discipline such as Literature or Social Studies. In the Science track, led by 6th Grade Science teacher Quynh Tu, students build recreations of the Elwha River valley before, during and after the dam phase in Minecraft. Working with creations of the Elwha River basin pulled from satellite mapping data, students label the effects of the dam and removal on the geography and ecology of the basin. Using a school-run Minecraft server, customized with an educational version called MinecraftEDU, all of the teams create their models in distinct areas of one shared digital world.

The day before the projects were to be presented to their peers, one team logged in to find their work had been extensively vandalized (called “griefing” in gamer culture) using the same tools that students had been using to build their environmental models. Trees were burned, a dam destroyed, a valley was flooded, and the valleys were filled with creatures called Golems which had been created by the vandals. In addition to one group’s models, the common loading area and instructions were destroyed as well.

The affected group took pictures of the damage, and reported it to Ms. Tu. When the class met for their last work session that day, Ms. Tu, Middle School Director Marianne Picha, and Director of Academic Technology Jeff Tillinghast asked the targeted group to describe what happened to the class. The students described how hard they had worked on the project, and how sad they were to see their work destroyed. They were obviously nervous about the deadline to present the next day, and weren’t sure how they would be able to make the deadline.

Without any teacher prompting, the conversation evolved as the class began to brainstorm solutions. Could the server be restored from a backup? The server backed up daily, so the server could be restored to the last image before the project was vandalized. That would mean that all the group’s work for the last day would be lost, though. The targeted group thought about that for a minute, and said that they didn’t think it would be fair for all the groups to be penalized just to save their work. Can the deadline be moved? It might be possible, but with the entire 6th grade ready to present on Friday, and with camping trips and beach day coming up the next week, it would be very doubtful. Finally, one student suggested: Most of us are done and ready to present. Can we help them rebuild?

The class moved into action as everyone logged into the world and begun to build–some finishing their own projects, and others helping the targeted group clean up and rebuild their work. The three students who had originally built the world shifted into project management mode, deciding what could be delegated to others (“There were trees all along this stretch of the river,” or “Drain out all the water,”) and what they had to rebuild themselves (such as their original dam design). As other groups finished their work, they moved over to help the class-wide rebuild. The period ended and moved into lunch, and students ran out to get their food and brought it back to the classroom to continue working. Throughout the rest of the day, whenever students finished work in other classes, they returned to help out, and a large group continued working after school. Finally, by the time the afternoon ended, the project was rebuilt and all the groups were ready to present their work the next day.

The nature of Minecraft, being an open space in which all students build freely, presented a calculated risk that someone would abuse the project or another student’s work. Responsible citizenship is a core value of the University Prep academic program, and these students demonstrated that value in action with their response as a class to this situation.

Building Our Values and Mission: Minecraft Design Challenge

Screenshot (7)

This quarter, I’ve been using Minecraft in Digital Media. For this project, I wanted to give them a design challenge related to the mission and values of our school. Their presentation is below, and if you have a chance to watch it and leave feedback, we would appreciate it!

Design Challenge: Create a world in Minecraft which reflects U Prep’s Mission Statement and Values.

To begin with, the students had to unpack both the Mission Statement (“University Prep is committed to developing each student’s potential to become an intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizen of the world.”) and Values (“University Prep believes that integrity, respect, and responsibility are essential to accomplish its mission and to sustain its vision.”) From there, they brainstormed what kinds of things could be built into Minecraft that would communicate, further or demonstrate those values both for themselves as well as other players who might join their world.

After the mindmap, they did two rounds of prototyping: first drawing a map of their own proposed world, then having to assemble all of them as a class into a physical prototype in our Maker Space. After that, they went to their in-world build. Finally, they presented their work for some of our staff and faculty for feedback. Their presentation is below (~8:00, direct link to slides). If you watch the video, please take a moment and leave feedback for the students on their feedback form. Thanks!

At the end,

Distraction and Devices: Our Research Findings and Faculty Discussion


What effect does our device program have on students’ distraction and focus in class? As part of our developing 1:1 environment, we conducted a large-scale Academic Technology survey in the fall to evaluate our program along many axes. Through surveying students, faculty and parents, we were able to get a comprehensive picture of the device program and its effects throughout the school as they were perceived by all of our stakeholders. One large question that our community had going into the program was the issue of how students would be affected by the potential distraction of having digital devices in the classroom.

This week, I presented some brief findings to our Upper School faculty. Following the presentation, Christina Serkowski and I facilitated two small-group discussions about the data and the larger issue of distraction and focus in class. Here is a summary of those findings, and the conversation that followed, as well as an invitation for you to help us continue this conversation.

A Widespread Concern

When we asked “What is the most challenging or difficult aspect of the device program,” a common answer emerged from all four stakeholder groups. (Click on any image to view larger size)

Students reported that there were really two aspects to the issue of distraction: their own ability to monitor their distraction and that of the classmates.


Students’ comments further demonstrated these two aspects.


The implication of this data is that while distraction is often discussed as an individual problem, the effect of one student’s distractions can reach to other students in the immediate area.

Students can be distracted by their own devices as well as those in their immediate area.

Students can be distracted by their own devices as well as those in their immediate area.


Faculty Discussion

Upper School faculty had a discussion following the presentation of this data, and the conversation was wide-ranging, from individual classroom strategies and potential system/school policies, to how this data changed some teachers’ view of the distraction problem. A common recurring theme was that some teachers had previously viewed the issue of distraction as personal responsibility (i.e., “If a student makes the choice to be off-task, that’s their responsibility”), but now saw the issue differently because of the effect students could have on their peers.

Comments in the faculty discussion were organized into categories in the mindmap below. The entire mindmap is too large to display here, but you can view the expanded version to see the comments themselves.

The main categories of comments in the Upper School faculty discussion. Click through to see the full summary of comments.

The main categories of comments in the Upper School faculty discussion. Click through to see the full summary of comments.


Further Discussion

Does this data align with your observations in your classroom? Do you view the distraction issue as one of personal responsibility, or class management? Does anything surprise you in this data? Any other observations, comments or questions? Please comment and continue our conversation below!

Student Publishing, Blogging and Online Portfolios

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship


This week I did a training session on student blogging and our WordPress Multisite installation. I prepared these notes and background readings beforehand, although we spent most the time talking about projects that teachers were already envisioning and ready to rollout (which is always more fun!).

First, I highly recommend Jeff Utecht’s “Blogs as Web-Based Portfolios” (PDF article) as a place to start. With that in mind, here are four examples (from other schools) of student blogging that I think highlight some possibilities.

Avogadro Salad: A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda

This is an example of one individual student’s blog. She’s included images and videos in her posts explaining her labs, experiments and concepts in Chemistry class. This site uses WordPress, which is a professional standard for building websites and blogs. Using WordPress has a lot of advantages, including a vast amount of control in the design and layout, plugins and themes which can expand the capacity of the site, and a global community of support and users. We host a WordPress server which can be used to build class or individual blogs using staff or student e-mail address and logins. Accounts are automatically synced with existing student accounts, so there’s no account generation to worry about.

Avogadro Salad - A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda (10th Grade)

Avogadro Salad – A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda (10th Grade)

This site shows a few different features of WordPress which you can use when you think about your own class:

  • Comments are turned on. This means that outside viewers can comment on posts. We can customize sites so that comments are on, off, moderated or school users only.
  • She has a page as well as posts. WordPress has two different types of content: posts, which are chronological and are the default type of content. In addition, pages are meant to be more permanent (they never get pushed down by newer content). Common examples are an “About Me” page, “Important Resources,” or anything else that you think will be useful at any time.
  • Her page shows protected posts. These are posts which are marked private and need a password to access. This is a good way to have some posts be just between the student and teacher. While you wouldn’t want to do this with every post, there might be certain elements of a portfolio or student-led conference which shouldn’t be public.

Sarah’s full name is on this website. This is a little unusual for a student website, and not what I’d recommend as best practice. My personal suggestion and a common practice is to have students use their first names only. We set this as a default in WordPress, although students uploading their work to a digital portfolio may run in to trouble if their full names are on the work.

These posts are public. How many people access this site (and from where) depends on how it is shared and publicized, but these sites are searchable and accessible globally. Again, commenting can be restricted and individual posts can be private, but students are publishing their site for a real audience. Because of the public nature of the site, parent communication in advance goes a long way. I recommend sending a note to parents explaining what the blog is, why students are doing it, what personally identifiable information will be posted, and how they can subscribe to it or follow their student’s work. I’ve found that parent enthusiasm for being able to see their students’s work far outweighs concerns over public publishing.

Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

This is an example of a different style of blog where the class creates one as a group. In this model, you can designate students to all be authors, while you retain the editing capacity, or you can appoint one or many students to be editors as well.

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship

Writing online has some specific skillsets that you can embed into their work. These posts do a great job of demonstrating proper use of hyperlinks, for example– picking specific words or phrases which are supported by another webpage or external reference (instead of dropping the entire address into the text of the piece or the common “click here:”, which distract the reader and disrupt the flow of the writing). These posts use images to support their topics. Also, the “Scales of Justice” image is sourced, and from a site that provides images for free use. Proper use and sourcing of media is an important element of online publishing. We have lots of material to support this if you need help here.

Comments and Responses at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Comments and Responses at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

The “Lady Justice” article has 3 comments, all of which model good discussion by asking furthering questions and referencing specific points in the article. In each case, the author has responded to the comments showing more depth of thinking.

Commenting Expectations at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Commenting Expectations at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Notice that the footer outlines expectations for the comments, reinforcing that blogging and online discussion should have expectations for quality.


Current Events in American Studies

American Studies - Student Blog

American Studies – Student Blog

Like with most of these sites, this site has a counter which shows the amount of traffic that a site has earned. There are a variety of these kinds of widgets which can show total traffic, current views in real-time, a global map of where readers are located, or other similar data. Since part of the appeal of blogging is publishing for a global audience, it’s really powerful to be able to show the “real audience.” In addition, WordPress has some tracking built-in which can show traffic for specific posts to see which articles get the most attention. We can also set up Google Analytics, which provides an incredible range of data regarding visitors to a website.

Amoureux da la Nourriture and Soccer Reviews Today

Under WordPress, there are a wide range of plugins and themes available to change the look and features of the site. These two pages have the same content and are from the same class, but have two different themes applied. Any themes and plugins that you want to use on your site have to be installed by the site administrator (me), but a quick search for free WordPress themes shows the incredible range of styles and designs available for your or your students’ sites.

Shakespearean blogging assignment, Amoureux de la Nourriture

Shakespearean blogging assignment, “Amoureux de la Nourriture”

Shakespearean assignment, "Soccer Reviews Today"

Shakespearean assignment, “Soccer Reviews Today”

Especially if you have students set up individual sites, you’ll want an easy way to keep track of all posts and comments. One of the reasons that blogs are so appealing is that you as a reader can subscribe and have updates go to you automatically as they appear– you don’t have to actively look to see if there are updates. If you use an RSS reader such as Feedly (free account), you can subscribe to both posts and comments from each of your students’ blogs. This way, you can take a quick scan through all of the recent activity and see what’s happened on all of the blogs in one place.


When the LMS Won’t Budge: Project Management and PBL

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 10.09.42 AM

In many ways, a robust LMS is a boon to Project-Based Learning. Many limiters or barriers to PBL center around a teacher having to multitask management of groups needing different resources and support at varying points in time. By shifting many of the resource and check-in steps to an asynchronous/blended model, we can eliminate some of the friction points where multiple groups are vying for attention or need direct intervention. A teacher can load resources and materials into the LMS, for example, which groups can access at the appropriate time. The use of discussion threads and electronic submission can let groups work at their own pace and check-in at major stages as they reach them, while still having some unifying process that each group follows so that the teacher can keep up.

Where the LMS model breaks down for group project management is once groups leave the central “everybody must” stages. Do all groups have the same steps to their project? Should they? If all projects in a class are “on the same rails,” arriving at the same tasks in the same order (albeit at different times), what does this reveal about the degree of student planning and design in the project? From another perspective, if we want students to generate their own project design (with support, of course), and we allow enough freedom in the PBL design for students to envision an authentic outcome, won’t each group come up with a different task list? Here the LMS fails us– while many LMS’s (including Schoology, which we use) allow you to direct assignments to individuals or groups, this is a huge amount of work for teachers to enter an entire class’ worth of project groups and deadlines. To truly reflect a diverse Project-Based environment, we need a better scheduling/task management tool.

Read more

Stylus PDF Markup Apps for Win 8

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Some members of our iPad faculty have gotten very comfortable with marking up papers using Notability on the iPad. Those teachers who use electronic submission through our LMS and have experienced some success with Notability have been able to take full advantage of electronic submission and feedback– archiving, organization, and timely response to students, and easy organization for themselves. As the non-iPad faculty are now using Surfaces, many are asking for the same capacity within Windows 8. There is no Notability for Windows, but I ran a quick trial of four other PDF markup apps to find a suitable equivalent. I’m focusing solely on the use case of our teachers looking to download PDF papers from Schoology, comment upon them as quickly as possible and get them back to students. This obviously ignores a huge range of PDF markup features and is a limited case, but at this point our need is quite focused.

Drawboard PDF – $9.99 (3 day trial available)

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Drawboard has an interface very similar to the Win 8 version of OneNote. Menu options are presented in a multi-level palette, which can take some getting used to if you’ve not seen it before (in, for example, OneNote). As I’ve been playing with OneNote for a few weeks now, it was totally natural for me to dive in, but I anticipate that it’ll raise an eyebrow or two if I give it to a complete Win 8 neophyte. As with eBooks or Kindle, you swipe horizontally to navigate the pages. It has the most features of any of these apps (recording and attaching sound, for example), thus the more layered interface and higher cost.

Multi-layer palette menu in Drawboard.

Multi-layer palette menu in Drawboard.

Drawboard was also the only tool of these to support using the trigger button on the stylus as an eraser– one of my personal favorite UI touches of the Win 8 stylus.

PDF Touch – 2.99

Far fewer tools in PDF Touch, but everything's immediately accessible. Where's "Erase?"

Far fewer tools in PDF Touch, but everything’s immediately accessible. Where’s “Erase?”

This is a much simpler interface, although much more limited. There’s no nuance to access here– the tools you see in the initial menu are what you get, although you can customize size, color and opacity of pens, for example. Use the navigation arrows on the side of the screen to click through each page.

While this was a 1-minute impression, I could not find an eraser, nor any way to remove previous marks. You can undo your last mark, but you cannot step further back than that. Also, the document autosaved, so when I tried to open it up in my next app, all of the marks were retained. I could have missed something very basic, but the inability to erase marks would be a non-starter for me.

Xodo – Free

Selecting tools in Xodo. You'll do this a lot if you want to use anything besides the pen.

Selecting tools in Xodo. You’ll do this a lot if you want to use anything besides the pen.

Xodo gives you the pen tool by default, and allows other tools to be accessed by the edit menu. The input defaults back to the pen tool after every mark, though, which makes highlighting inefficient. In other words, if you were to highlight two separate words, the tool defaults to the pen when you lift up the stylus– you have to reselect the highlighter to continue using it.

Perfect PDF - 2.99 (2 day trial available)

Markup tools are a couple of levels deep in the interface.

Markup tools are a couple of levels deep in the interface.

This is the only interface with vertical scrolling. I found the interface here a bit non-intuitive for our purposes and desire to get to markup as quickly as possible– pen and markup tools are two layers deep in the menu. While that may make sense for a generic PDF reader, it’s a bit slower for our purposes. Out of the box, the pen and highlighter are set much too thick– they have to be reset to a smaller size under “Show Properties” to be useable for paper markup. The settings do persist to subsequent files, though– once reset, they don’t have to be configured each time. Also, a minor pet peeve– the eraser tool is a graphic-style eraser which erases specific points, not entire lines. In other words, if you circled a word and wanted to erase that circle, you have to retrace the circle with the eraser rather than simply touching some part of the shape.

Paint-style erase if you want to clear your marks.

Paint-style erase if you want to clear your marks.


Unfortunately, of these four apps it’s clear that you get what you pay for– my recommendation to our faculty looking for a quick and efficient paper markup tool would be Drawboard, even at $9.99. Frankly, thinking about the number of papers involved and the frequency with which our Humanities staff would be using this, I have no problem from the program perspective justifying the extra cost (Drawboard does offer volume licensing).

If the cost is too dear, my second choice out of these four would reluctantly be Perfect PDF. While the interface will be a touch slower than PDF Touch, the inability to erase marks in the latter program completely disqualifies it in my mind and I use the highlighter often enough that Xodo’s resetting after each stroke would slow me down more.

There are obviously myriad options for PDF markup in Windows, and this only includes some of the most common apps for Windows 8, not the desktop programs. Are there others that we should consider? What did we miss?

Uses of Technology to Enhance Formative Assessment and Differentiated Instruction


Along with our Academic Dean Richard Kassissieh (@Kassissieh, KassBlog), I co-authored an article on the use of technology in formative assessment and differentiation. The article appears in the Fall 2014 edition of Curriculum in Context, the journal of the Washington State chapter of ASCD. The article describes a variety of ways in which our faculty are using formative assessment strategies to gather and analyze student performance as well as giving students opportunities to engage with content and skills at a variety of levels.

Freehand Thinking in French with Tablets

Posted at U Prep Technology Integration Exchange (UPTIE): Visual notetaking and vocabulary in French classes.

Students use Faculty-Designed Tool to Monitor Deadlines

cross-posted at U Prep Technology Integration Exchange. While I normally don’t post other teacher’s work here, I thought it appropriate so that I could discuss the “how” of the scripts, etc. All credit where it’s due, though– I wasn’t the “idea man” on this project at all.

University Prep students are busy, hard-working and are learning to balance involvement in academics, extra-curricular involvement and athletics. The U Prep faculty knows that helping students assume increasing responsibility for their work means that students must be able to advocate for their needs as well as to take on ownership of their schedule. Sometimes deadlines need to be moved for a variety of reasons, or sometimes things fall through the cracks, and teachers want to know why in order to form a teachable moment with a student when appropriate. Good teachers know that while it’s normal to miss a deadline on occasion, a student missing many deadlines can be an indication that the student needs some additional support.

What happens when a student starts missing assignments across multiple classes, though? Traditionally, teachers have had little opportunity to see when students may be running into trouble across multiple courses. The Math and English Departments are currently piloting a web-based system which allows students to submit a request for extension on an assignment or assessment. This request is sent to three parties: the originating student, the involved teacher, and the student’s advisor. As part of the request, the student explains the circumstances and proposes when they can get the work submitted.

Based on a form designed last year by math teacher Ian McInerney, the system has been running for several weeks in English and Math courses. The form is linked directly in the course’s Schoology page so that students can access it using their laptops or tablets. Rather than being reactive (after a deadline has been missed), the faculty hope that the use of this tool will encourage students to think and plan ahead, and use the request before a deadline arrives. The early results are encouraging here– of the 44 requests submitted so far, 35 were submitted either on or before the due date, suggesting that this tool is part of a students’ advance thinking rather than an after-the-fact reaction.

Faculty reaction thus far is positive, with advisors noting that the tool has prompted discussions with advisees around missed assignments as they develop. One advisor noted that seeing a couple of requests come in from the same advisee for different subjects enabled the advisor to have a talk with the student about the situation and resolve it holistically. While many of the uses of personal devices in school are around completing academic work, this is one example of how U Prep students use them to work on two other priorities of the device program: their organizational skills and communication.