Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Free Craft Idea: Stained Glass For Christmas

These beautiful art projects are something I picked up at a conference a few years ago and have loved ever since. They are simple and relatively inexpensive (as stained glass goes!), and the kids love them. If you need a quick homemade Christmas gift or a class art project, this is a great way to do it.


(For each student)
-an 8X10 picture frame (I buy them at the Dollar Store) with a glass cover
-glass paints
-fake leading (often sold in packs with the glass paints)

What to do:

1. Most picture frames have a fake picture in them for marketing purposes. Take it out and flip it over -- it's usually white on the back. If it isn't, you will need to trace around the glass from the frame to cut a piece of white paper the same size as the glass. 

2. Have students draw a large object (we often use Christmasy symbols like a candle or a star) in the centre of the paper. Encourage them to make it large and use outlines only -- they won't be able to draw details in "lead" easily. 

3. Once the main object is drawn, have students block in random shapes around it. Students have a tendency to make these too small, so encourage them to keep them large enough to rest a quarter inside. 

4. Once the pattern is drawn, place it under the glass and secure the frame to keep the glass and paper securely in place. Using the black leading, trace over all the lines you can see under the glass. If you're right handed, start at the top left; if left handed, the top right. Work down diagonally so as not to smudge the lines as you draw. 

5. The leading dries fairly quickly and this step takes a while, so by the time you've finished the top should be dry enough to begin carefully filling in each space with coloured glass paint. Encourage students to not have two sections of the same colour touch. 

6. That's it! Let the paint dry, remove the paper and frame, and you have a piece of Christmas stained glass to treasure for years to come.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Hour of Code Lesson Plans and Ideas

Have you wished you could participate in Hour of Code, but you don't know much about coding or programming? Join the club! Not many teachers secretly program video games in their spare time (although, wow, kudos to those who do). Fortunately, there are tons of online lesson plans to help you integrate this amazing opportunity with minimal technical expertise.

What is Hour of Code and Why Should I Care?

The Hour of Code is an annual challenge asking everyone to spend one hour learning coding. The idea is to demystify computer programming and demonstrate that anyone can learn to code. This is particularly important for our students who are growing up in a computer oriented world -- shouldn't they know the basics? Hour of Code takes very little time, but it can introduce kids to a whole new world. 

Where Can I Go For Free Lesson Plans?

There are tons of awesome free lesson plans for Hour of Code available online. Here are some of the best!

Khan Academy remains one of the first and best for tackling this sort of thing. They have a series of videos aimed at both younger and older learners. The tutorials are clear and easy to follow, even if you have no coding background whatsoever. And because everything is laid out as videos, you can have your students work on them at their own pace. 

The Hour of Code website also has fantastic tutorials (including an Elsa tutorial bound to appeal to young Frozen fans). It's a quick, step-by-step process that requires minimal teacher supervision and knowledge. There are many levels of tutorial to choose from, so you can pick the one that matches you and your students' needs.

Tynker is a free app/program (or at least, it's free for their hour of code programs) that does a great job of introducing coding in a fun, accessible way. Kids will enjoy working with it, although it does take a bit more teacher time investment as you will have to figure out how to use it yourself -- the above two examples pretty much explain themselves without much instruction.

Scratch is a very popular app for learning coding and working with computer programming, and they offer a number of suggested activities for hour of code on their website. There's a reason this program is so popular -- kids really enjoy it and it offers a lot of flexibility.

5. Simple Apps To Introduce the Concept

There are a number of different apps specifically designed to introduce kids to the idea of coding. Some of the easiest, and best, include Daisy the Dino, Kodable, and Cargo-Bot. All of these have free demo models, if they aren't completely free -- certainly enough to get you through an hour of code. Daisy the Dino is very simplistic, but it works great with young children. 

Question of the Day:
Are you participating in Hour of Code?
Click to Tweet This Question

I used the Khan Academy lesson with a grade six class today, and we had a great time. The kids were so proud and impressed with themselves!

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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Educational Apps No Teacher Should be Without

I'm getting pickier about apps. There are so many I've downloaded that never seem to get used. That's not a huge deal when they're free, but if you paid for them, it's pretty annoying. For that reason, I'm constantly refining and sorting through the list of apps I use the most, and here are the ones that survived the cut!

Ten Amazing Educational Apps For Teachers

Price: Free with a ton of ads, or $2.99 for the "pro" version.

This one remains a perennial favorite, transforming your iPad into a sound meter that warns  kids when they're being too noisy. It's incredibly useful when you have a group of students who just can't seem to monitor themselves. The ads are annoying in the free version, so it may be worth the $2.99 to get rid of them.

Price: $4.99

At five bucks, this is one of the pricier apps in my "must have" selection, but it is worth every penny. Dragon Box makes algebraic concepts incredibly clear at a basic, simple level. It's fun enough that kids love to play it, and it makes the idea of algebra and balancing equations so clear, teachers will love it too.

Price: Free

I don't teach science anymore, but I wish this app had been around when I did. It's a fantastic repository of videos about basic scientific concepts -- like YouTube, but only for science lessons and without the creepy suggested videos at the end.

 Price: $0.99

Numbler is Scrabble with numbers. Kids really enjoy playing it, and it's a great finish up activity, math center, or just way to get the entire class thinking about different ways to create equations. It gets a lot of use in my classroom. 

Price: $0.99

Scribblenauts is one of those games where kids don't even realize they're learning because they're having so much fun. You can have a robust discussion about adjectives, nouns, and spelling before and during play, and it's a definite exercise in creative thinking. This one gets busted out during indoor recesses in my classroom, as well as during language arts lessons.

These are my five top current apps for education. 

Question of the Day:
What are the best educational apps in your classroom?

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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Critical Role of Play in Learning

The single worst thing we ever did in education is remove the element of play.

Maybe in the 19th century, education without play was effective. Maybe. But keep in mind, that was a time where...

-children were essentially being prepped to work in factories. And by children, I mean boys. Girls were obviously going to be housewives and mothers, so if they didn't learn it wasn't such a big deal

-school wasn't mandatory. If you felt your kids would be better served by staying home and working the farm, more power to you. 

-the stakes were lower. You didn't have to choose a career as your focus with the knowledge that if you changed your mind, you were in for about six more years of expensive training. But in the end, your occupational choices were fairly limited, anyway. Many jobs were hereditary. Many people didn't work at all. Families and groups were small and contained, with little need for collaboration or creativity as people adhered to traditions. 

So much has changed that it's impossible for us to keep going back to a factory model of education, saying "this worked for my grandparents, and it WILL work for you!"

So where does play come in?

When we look at how education has changed, there are so many demands not just on kids, but on adults. We're expected to have more wide spread knowledge of intricate concepts. Remember, not that long ago, you only knew how to drive if you were a member of a very specific group (chauffeurs, farmers, or the very rich and bored). And if you DID drive, you knew everything there was to know about cars, because you had to. How many of us can say that now? Or have the first idea how the technology we use every day functions?

My point is, there's a lot to know. And while the basics still matter, we're no longer just imparting knowledge -- if we ever were. We're teaching students with full awareness that many of the things they're learning will be rendered obsolete by the time they graduate. So why still do it? Because the focus has shifted from learning facts to learning how to think. A well educated student will be able to adjust to new ideas, concepts, and technology by using the skills they've learned in other situations. 

All of which brings me back to play. 

How do kids learn? By exploring. By doing. In other words, by playing. If we encourage kids to view learning as fun, by making play an integral part of the educational experience, we create adults who embrace challenges, who will not be afraid of new problems, technology, and ideas. 

So next time you see your kid playing a video game, or your students come in talking about Call of Duty, take a deep breath before you panic, and try looking at it from a different angle. What are they learning? What is their play teaching them? And -- as a sneaky teacher -- how can you capitalize on those concepts?

Question of the Day:
What's a time you've learned through play?
Click to Tweet This Question

It's an old example, but I always think of trying fights in video games over and over. I try something and I die. I consider what happened, I choose a new strategy, and I adapt. Depending on the game, I may eventually realize that I'm playing at too high a level, and make the decision to go and level up -- to learn and grow more -- before I take on this challenge again. To me, this is the high level learning and decision making we want our students to show!

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

3 Common Misconceptions about Education

Teaching is one of those funny professions that involves encountering a lot of misconceptions about education. Sometimes they come from the public -- parents, politicians, and even students. And sometimes, they come from teachers and other educational professionals. Either way, there are a lot of ideas about education that are both pervasive and unhelpful, so here are three that I think should be cleared up.

1. School is about preparing students for "the real world:" college and careers.

This is part of what school does, certainly, but it isn't -- and should not be -- the main focus of education. This is something I hear a lot: how will this prepare your students for the "real world?" In the "real world," they won't be able to redo assignments that they missed. They won't get extensions when they're sick.

But here's the thing: in the "real world," people often are accommodating of us when we make mistakes, or we're sick, or we have a tragedy in our families. My coworkers and employers have never been anything but understanding when I've been ill, or a pet has died, or anything of the sort. The least we can do is extend that same understanding to our students -- who, after all, are still children, and are just practicing for the so-called "real world." No, we don't do them favors by coddling them to the point where they expect the world to bend over backwards to accommodate them, but there's no need to treat them with a lack of understanding and compassion just to prepare them for some sort of imaginary future.

2. We need to return to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic (or basic math skills -- whatever you want to call it).

Unfortunately, this attitude has become so pervasive that even educational professionals are starting to fall for it. It's a matter of causation and correlation. Yes, it's true that many students seem to have more trouble now with basic math facts than they did twenty years ago. It's completely natural to assume that this means "new math" curriculums are to blame, but the simple fact is -- and I can say this from experience -- teachers are still instructing students in basic facts and encouraging memorization. It's just not happening.

I'm not enough of an expert to tell you why this is -- whether it's because students' brains work differently now, or that they're more reliant on calculators, or they don't see the importance of memorizing facts. What I can tell you, however, is that basic facts have NEVER been the end goal of math. Memorizing facts is a means to an end: a way for students to make more complex mathematical processes easier in the future. Basics like reading, writing, and math facts ARE important, but only as building blocks, stepping stones to creative and critical thinking that allows students to solve problems and look at the big picture in a thoughtful way.

Do spelling, basic facts, and grammar matter? Yes. But in the end, if I had to choose between a student who had all their basic facts memorized and perfect spelling, but couldn't solve problems or write critically, and the other way around, well... it's not a hard choice to make.

3. Teachers are paid to teach, and education should happen at school -- period.

This myth relies on the idea that education only happens when a child is seated at a desk and doing work. In reality, though, education is a much broader concept. A child on vacation with his family is learning about cooperation, about other cultures (even if it's just the culture of another town or city), about how money and time work. A child at the hockey rink is learning about teamwork, problem solving, and quick thinking. A child playing her violin is learning about math, creativity, artistry, and balance.

Education is not something that happens "at school." Everything that happens to a child is education. They are always learning, always thinking, always wondering. School should contribute to that education in a substantial way -- hopefully more than just covering the aforementioned "basics," although that's certainly a part of it. But when we say that it's a teacher's job to teach and dismiss all the education that happens outside of 8:30 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon, we miss a critical part of educating our children.

Question of the Day:
What education myth do you think needs to be cleared up?

My three are above (although if I'm honest, I'd sure like to see the myth of the "six hour work day with three months of vacation for teachers" go out the window too!).

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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Why Teaching Kids to Cook Might be the Most Important Thing Schools Do

Once again, last week my students attended We Day Alberta. It was our third trip to this incredible event. And once again, it was an amazing and enlightening experience full of a truly insane number of young people dedicated to changing the world. If you haven't checked out the Me to We movement, I urge you to do it.

This year, one of the projects Me to We is spearheading involves a partnership with Jamie Oliver, whose show Food Revolution is something I often use with my students in discussing health and nutrition. Something Jamie Oliver has said for years is that it's essential that our students learn how to cook. This year, Me to We is working with him to create Home Cooked Heroes, a program that not only aims to teach kids how to cook but which provides tons of free resources for doing exactly that.

Let's be honest: I teach elementary school, and I have a pile of food allergies in my room. I won't be teaching a lot of actual cooking classes, but I can still start laying the foundations of teaching nutrition, teaching basic food assembly, encouraging kids to make their own lunches. I was a Girl Guide leader for many years, and it was always shocking to me how many ten year old kids would come to camp and have never washed a dish, swept a floor, or assembled a sandwich.

Teaching kids to cook may well be the most important thing we can do at the high school level, and I firmly believe it needs to stop being an optional class. A friend of mine teaches cooking in a more impoverished area, and her high school class consists of mainly male students -- most of whom aren't getting anything cooked for them at home. Many of these kids survive off fast food and convenience stores. The idea of cooking something is a revelation for them.

That's a pretty awful thing to consider. If these kids don't learn to cook somewhere, if they don't understand proper nutrition, what are they going to feed their own children in not so many years? And how will those kids learn to cook, learn to eat in a way that will keep them healthy and give them the nutrition they need?

This is a bit of a digression from my normal type of post, but I truly believe it matters. Teaching food education needs to become a priority for our kids in North America. Check out Home Cooked Heroes, and find ways to integrate food nutrition into your classroom!

Question of the day:
Where did you learn to cook?

My mom taught me to cook, but I also took home economics in grades seven and nine. When I decided to stop eating meat at the age of 14, I had to learn to cook -- it was that, eat meat, or starve! 

And if you're looking for something more along the lines of my usual posts, why not check out the interview I did over at Mind Shift?

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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Why Short Lessons Work

One of the reasons I wasn't a huge fan of Dave Burgess' Teach Like A Pirate is because it advocates a really teacher-centric form of education. Now, don't get me wrong -- Burgess' method of teaching sounds very entertaining, and I'm sure his students are consistently engaged. But for myself, and many teachers, the push in 21st century education is a move away from a lecture based, teacher dominated format.

Sometimes this is unavoidable, of course: the simple fact is that students do need to get the information, and sometimes that needs to be done in a way that either isn't hugely entertaining or that simple involves a lot of sitting. Some of these methods might include lectures, reading informational texts, or answering questions -- none of which are designed to be particularly fascinating.

With that in mind, I think the best thing we as teachers can do is shorten the lecture parts of our lessons. I try to distill my lessons down to the bare bones. What I've found is that when I lecture, almost half my time is spent answering questions -- not in class discussion, which is more active and involves more students, but in responding to the four or five kids who aren't understanding. I think it's a much more efficient use of time to get through the lecture, then pull those four or five aside and work with them as a small group. You can target them more effectively, and everyone else can move onto something else instead of slowly slipping into a comatose state.

That said, I think there are a lot of great tools that will help you minimize your lecture/lesson time. Here are a few:

1. Flipping Your Class

Flipped classrooms create short videos students can watch at home at their own pace, then focus on activities and work in the classroom. Experts recommend that flipped lesson videos be no longer than 90 seconds X the grade level of students, so for my class I try to limit my videos to 9 minutes or less. This lets each student proceed at his or her own pace during the lesson and makes class time more active.

2. 3D Game Lab

3D Game Lab allows students to progress at their own pace through lessons embedded in the program. Students don't have due dates: they move through the programs as they see fit. You're never pressured to move someone along because they're too far behind. It's pretty awesome.

3. Project Based Learning

Project based learning, by its very nature, limits lecture time. You still have room to impart information, but the vast majority of students' time is spent looking for their own answers, instead of absorbing yours.

These are three of the best ways I've found to keep lessons short and shift the focus from teacher to student, from memorization to learning, from answering to asking.

Question of the Day:
How much of your class time is spent lecturing?

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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Ways Your Mother Lied to You About Video Games

When I was young, I just assumed everyone older than me hated video games with a passion. I'm not sure how I arrived at this conclusion, since my mother had a low level Tetris addiction and briefly became addicted to Super Mario Bros, but I distinctly recall demanding of my third grade teacher: "Why do you hate video games?"

"I don't," she replied, to my everlasting shock.

But in spite of my twisted perceptions, as video games advanced and grew, there did seem to be a widening gap -- not based on age, but authority. As a twenty year old university student, I remember my mom having a near heart attack when she glanced over my shoulder and realized I'd logged over seventy hours on Final Fantasy Seven. From her perspective, this was scary territory: how could I spend so much time in a fantasy world when I had a job (which I was always on time for) and was a full time student (making honor roll and maintaining my scholarship).

Which brings me to the first lie your momma might've told you...

1. Video games make you irresponsible.

It's a cultural stereotype: the video game addict so obsessed with gaming that their personal lives fall apart. The Guild spoofed this really well with Clara, the character who left her kids in a department store with a baby monitor while she met with her guild. But for every Clara -- and they do exist -- there are ten people next door being responsible parents, volunteers, even teachers -- all of whom go home and log in, or turn on, as a hobby.

The truth: gaming is a hobby. People who obsess will obsess over them as they would anything else, but most people don't find video games brainwash them.

2. Video games make you fat.

Video games make you fat in the same way that reading makes you fat. They're both inactive ways of spending your time that are entirely cerebral. If anything, video games have more movement involved than reading. So yes, doing any activity that doesn't involve physical activity twelve hours a day will probably result in weight gain and a slew of health problems. But let's not blame it on video games.

The truth: balance is key in  anything and everything we do. Video games are no exception.

3. Video games make you stupid.

It's ironic to me to look back on the history of the novel. In the 19th century, novels were considered trash -- especially certain genres of novels. If your parents caught you reading them (especially if you were a respectable young woman), they would be horrified and certain that you were on your way to a horrible future. Fast forward a hundred years, and we've replaced novels with video games, where most parents would be thrilled to see their kids reading just about anything and despair of them playing games. Fast forward another hundred and, well, who knows?

The thing is, the research flies in the face of this lie. Video games sharpen mental reflexes. They make you think fast, approach problems creatively, and develop a spirit of perseverance. Video games are intellect trainers, which is why so many teachers use them in their classrooms.

The truth: Video games train your brain.

There are so many myths about video games that should be dispelled, and these are the top three. A lot of intelligent, loving mothers unintentionally lied to their kids about these things. Let's not keep the myths going!

Question of the Day:
What are some myths about video games you wish you could clear up?

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Is Project Based Learning All It's Cracked Up To Be?

This cat is finished... and so am I!
A short time ago, I blogged about a project based learning unit I created for social studies. This was one of my first efforts at creating a conscious project based learning experience -- I think my layered curriculums are close, but this was something different. So I wasn't sure how it would go, or if it was really all it was cracked up to be.

The unit wrapped up recently (we lost some lessons due to various other activities, so it took a bit longer than anticipated). I was wondering if project based learning would live up to the hype, and I sat down to do a bit of a debrief. Here's what I found!

1. Were the students more engaged?

In a word -- yes. I was incredibly impressed with how the project sucked students in and captured their interest. It was a pretty awesome feeling to see a normally quiet, mild-mannered student slam her fist onto the desk in frustration when the bell rang because she hadn't been able to complete a debate, and I overheard frequent conversations between kids in the hallway all about government and politics -- a definite first!

2. Did they learn the same amount as they would have in a traditional unit?

I would say yes, if not more. The students were fascinated by concepts of government, and really delved into exploring them.

3. Was group work difficult/successful?

Obviously, some students contributed more to their groups than others. That's to be expected. However, I had them do evaluations on one another, which helped to keep them accountable. It also helped that they were so engaged, because it kept even the trickier students on task.

4. Was it difficult to assess?

This -- yes. Much more difficult than a traditional assignment. I did give them rubrics, but in the end I allowed them to assign their own marks as long as they weren't absurd (if a student deserved a 1 and give themselves a 4, I had a conversation with them. With 50 students, this happened exactly five times, and on two occasions it was because the student had marked themself lower than I thought they deserved).

5. What would you change next time?

Oh, so much. That's always how it goes though. I would do the assignments in a different order, and scrap the textbook assignment entirely -- I thought it would be necessary, but it really wasn't. I would give them more time to research and put a little less time into lecturing. And I would emphasize self assessment from the get go, and maybe give them more opportunities to revise before doing the final evaluation.

Overall... I would say this was very much worth the effort (and it did take effort). I won't be converting every unit into a project based experience, but I will definitely continue exploring this in the future.

Question of the Day:
What's working for you in your classroom this year?

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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Five Tools Every Teacher Should be Aware Of

Teaching in the internet age can be stressful, but it can also be a lot of fun. Sure, we have an ever changing technological and psychological landscape to keep up with -- but that means that we also get to explore an ever shifting array of tools and resources. It can be overwhelming, but there's always something new to explore and discover.

With that in mind, here are five awesome resources I've recently discovered and wanted to share!

1. Pixaby 

Pixaby is an amazing repository of public domain images. It's fantastic for teachers looking for royalty-free images to use in classrooms, but also as a tool to teach younger students about copyright law. If your kids are too young to understand how to do an advanced search for creative commons images, or how to cite resources properly, you can still talk to them about not taking other people's work, then direct them to Pixaby for some fantastic free images.

2. Classcraft

I've actually looked at Classcraft before, but recently I wrote a review on the new and improved system for Graphite, and I was quite impressed with the slickness. Although Classcraft is designed to monitor student behavior like an older version of Class Dojo, but for those of us who have gamified our entire classrooms and spend hours each week tracking points and the like, the system is a brilliantly simple way to keep track.

3. Volume Monitors

I didn't link to any because each teacher will have their personal preference. But if you have even one iPad in the classroom, you can set up a noise monitor (anyone remember paying upwards of $100 for a "yakker tracker" less than ten years ago??). Noise monitors are a great way to get students to self-monitor their volume. Yes, you'll have to put up with the "class clown" deliberately triggering the "too loud" setting, but if you give them a few minutes to get that out of their system, it works surprisingly well.

4. Edmodo

I remain a big fan of Edmodo. It's an excellent way to keep kids informed and engaged. Many teachers also use Schoology, and I've seen many who prefer it. Myself, I signed up for Schoology, but I keep coming back to Edmodo. The only thing I don't love about it is that the Facebook style messaging makes it easy to lose important messages, but I find the kids are adept at dealing with that problem.

5. Remind

Remind allows teachers to easily and freely text updates to students and parents without giving out their personal phone number. Although this is a fantastic way of keeping in touch with parents and making sure they're updated on homework, school events, and the like, it's also a great system to remind older students of their obligations.

These are currently my top five go-to teacher tools!

Question of the Day:
What online teacher tool could you not live without?

It didn't make my list because it's not a recent discovery, but Twitter is my absolute favorite tool for teaching and sharing about learning. I know many people use Twitter for different purposes, but for me it's always been an amazing professional resource.

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