Tag Archives: featured

The MARS Challenge – Week 1

Two elementary classes embarked on a new challenge this week – design and build a school for people who will colonize MARS.  What will it look like?  How will you keep students safe?  What subjects will they learn?  What will be the same as school on Earth and what will be completely different?

Here’s the overview of the challenge:

This project introduces students to design thinking through the student-friendly LAUNCH process.  What we love about this process is it highlights the fact that students will make “Glorious Mistakes.” From those mistakes, they will adjust and learn, until they reach success.

So far, students have gone through the first 3 stages of the design thinking LAUNCH Cycle – Look, Listen, and Learn, Ask Lots of Questions, and Understand the Problem (Research).  Next they will Navigate Ideas with a brainstorming map and sketches of their proposed school.  Then they will Create the prototype of the school using basic materials such as cardboard, duct tape, and straws.  During that process, they will Highlight what is working and fix any problems with the design.

Above, students work with their LAUNCH teams to brainstorm questions and list them on large chart paper.  Teams then rotated among the other posters to learn from the other groups and make note of any questions they missed.  What did they come up with?

  • How will we breathe?
  • What is the terrain like on Mars?
  • What will we need to be able to withstand?
  • Is Mars hot or cold?
  • What technology will we use on Mars?
  • What subjects should we learn?
  • How will we get food?
  • And many more…

Students then researched and put together a notes document with answers and reference pictures to help them build their schools.

What did we observe as students worked?

Students were engaged and excited about the process.  They sometimes needed guidance to be sure all ideas were being heard in a group and that they didn’t get stuck on just one idea, but they were working mostly independently with basic guidance from the teachers.  Great research-based ideas were emerging, such as:

  • Maybe we should build part of our school underground to protect from the cold and dust storms on MARS.
  • We will have an astronomy course since we will be learning from a completely different perspective.
  • We could use a greenhouse to grow food.
  • There should definitely be a slushie machine  🙂

We look forward to seeing what the students build and will share more with you next week!


New Google Sites

Example of google sites header

While Google has put out some great tools in other areas, Google Sites has always been a bit lacking.  It is difficult to create sites that are visually appealing and many end up looking like something straight out of the ’90s.  Not anymore!  The totally rebuilt version of Google sites is intuitive, simple to use, and makes clean, modern looking websites.

What’s new in the rebuild?

Real-time collaboration – The new sites will function just like any other google product – allowing multiple collaborators to work on the site at a time.  Currently, multiple people can edit a site, but only one at a time.  This opens up better possibilities for students using this tool as well.

Drag and drop design – In the new version, you will see a sidebar that provides all of your options for adding content to your page.  No more complicated menus.  Simply click to add a new text box or image, resize it, and move it wherever you’d like.

Responsive Design – As you design, you can view what the site would look like on a mobile tablet or phone.  The design will adjust based on the device being used, so content will still look nice and be accessible regardless of the device. If parents are accessing your classroom website on their phones, it will be much easier to use.

More to come – While the new sites is much simpler to use, it also means that are fewer features than in classic sites.  Google will be adding in additional features in the future, but we will have to wait and see what those include.

What about my current site?

Migration tools to transition classic sites to new sites will be coming out in 2017.  Gradually, classic sites will be eliminated in 2018/19, but Google will provide at least a year’s notice of this change.  If you would like to transition your site prior to this, you will have to do so manually by copying and pasting or recreating content from your classic site.

Quick Introduction Video

If you are looking for something a little more detailed try this New Google Sites Tutorial.

How do I access it?

Google sites is now built right into your Drive.  Once you are in your Drive, Click New > More> Google Sites.Create a new site from DriveYou can also go to the sites app in your grid or sites.google.com.  When creating a new site, make sure you choose New Google Sites from the left.Choose new google sites when creating a siteHow can I use this?

This new version of sites is a simple way to create a classroom webpage for parents or to post information for students.   Maybe even more importantly, it can be a great tool for students to build a portfolio, demonstrate learning in a different way, and share their work with a wider audience.

Fake News – Highlighting the Importance of Evaluating Information

How do you get your news?

Do you enjoy a cup of coffee over your morning paper?

Follow a few blogs and news sources that you check daily?

Click on links and posts on various social media sites?

The amount, quality, and way we consume information  has changed drastically in the last couple of decades. As a society, our willingness to pay for unbiased, high-quality journalism has waned, and free, flashy, clickbait-y news has gained prevalence – especially on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.  With the way our feeds are curated, much of this news tends to confirm our own point of view (confirmation bias), which makes it more likely that we will believe it.  Beyond being biased, many of these articles are flat-out completely fabricated, and yet get shared, re-tweeted and referenced again and again.

Because of this, it is more important than ever to think critically about the news we consume and not take everything at face value.  As teachers (and especially librarians!) we have always known the importance of teaching students to critically evaluate information sources for accuracy and bias, but recent research suggests that students are not very good at doing this.

Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds

The article highlights a Stanford study that assessed students’ ability to assess information sources.  The results were described as “bleak.” Here are a couple of highlights, but the entire article is worth a read.

  • Most middle school students can’t tell native ads from articles.
  • Most high school students accept photographs as presented, without verifying them.
  • Many high school students couldn’t tell a real and fake news source apart on Facebook.
  • Most college students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group.
  • Most Stanford students couldn’t identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source.

What can we do?

We need to be deliberate about teaching students information and media literacy skills.  It needs to become second nature for us and our students to think critically about the information we consume – even more so when it fits in perfectly with our own narrative.

At the high school, many English classes have begun using the CRAAP test as a process to evaluate information.  This walks students through a process of determining:

  • Currency
  • Relevance
  • Authority
  • Accuracy
  • Purpose

Some of the most crucial questions in relation to recent fake news articles include: Is the information supported by evidence? Where does the information come from? Does the point of view appear objective and impartial? Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?

These questions about information can be reinforced any time students are gathering information – whether for a formal research paper, a personal interest, in social studies, science, or any other discipline.  We teach students about reliable sources of information, including library databases, but the truth is that all of us curate our news from many sources – including social media – where fake news abounds.  Instead of shying away from those types of sources, we need to teach students how to also critically evaluate information that comes at them through social media.

At the younger levels, students can learn about advertising and how companies use techniques to persuade them to buy certain products.  When middle school students are researching, we need to explicitly teach about native advertising and how it deliberately is made to look like legitimate news articles.

The library media specialist in your building is a phenomenal resource for this (and is already teaching these skills when possible!).  Not sure where to start in your classroom?  Use her to find resources, lessons, and activities or partner with her on a mini-lesson during a research unit.

The article states that the solution “is to teach students to read like fact checkers.”  We teach them to think like historians or scientists, and while gathering information, they must also read like fact checkers.  Being an informed citizen is part of engaging in democracy and it is our responsibility as educators to help our students in that task.


LAUNCH – Using Design Thinking

lauch-bookI’ve had this book for a couple weeks now, and I am excited to dive in!  Design Thinking is all about allowing kids to be makers, designers, artists, and engineers.  It allows them to unleash their creative potential and be empowered to control their learning.  Design thinking is a framework for creative work that is used in a variety of industries and with the LAUNCH cycle, John Spencer has created a student-friendly way for kids to approach design thinking.

Follow his blog for more information and ideas.  His recent post about what happens when kids become design thinkers highlights the benefits of working in this way.


Created by John Spencer and licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

What is Design Thinking?

In the book, Spencer describes design thinking as “a way of solving problems that encourages positive risk-taking and creativity.”  The process helps to create a framework for an otherwise messy creative process. It helps students move step by step through the creative journey, during which they have to research, learn, ask questions, design, reflect, rethink, and share.

I find this process so exciting because it gets at many of the Seven Thriving Dispositions that we are working toward in the district – Accessing & Analyzing Information, Critical Thinking & Problem Solving, Communication, and Curiosity, for example.

As I learn more about the process and how it can be used in Makerspaces, Genius Hour, and other classroom activities, I will have more to share.  Stay tuned!

Can you breakout?

Last fall, my colleague Kara Turner from Brown Deer shared an activity with me that she learned about at a conference called Breakout EDU.  She explained that it is like an Escape Room for classrooms.  I literally did an excited little hop, because I LOVE escape rooms.  If you’ve never done one, an escape room is a a game in which you are locked in a room and work together with a group of people to find hidden clues, solve puzzles, and escape the room.  It requires teamwork, communication, and critical thinking skills.  And it’s just plain fun!IMG_20160106_203009039

Let’s apply this to education.  Collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication are skills we want our students to develop and Breakout EDU is one (really fun) way to allow them to practice those skills.  Games can be aligned to all different content areas, allowing students to dive into content knowledge as well.  I bought a kit right away!

General info about Breakout EDU:

  • How does it work?  These are challenge escape games.  The students will find and solve clues in order to open locks and break into the box.  A variety of games are available from BreakoutEDU with different content.
  • What do I need?  There is a BreakoutEDU kit full of locks, lock boxes, an invisible ink pen, UV light, and other materials.  Once you have these supplies, you can play many of the games.  Educators are always adding new ideas for puzzles using different materials, so each game has a list of items required.
  • Why play?  The game offers a fun and engaging way to strengthen students’ collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills without even realizing learning is happening!

Here’s a great overview video.  It’s about 10 minutes, but worth a watch if this is something you’re interested in trying.

I had been sitting on this idea for a couple of months, not sure the best place to begin.  After a conversation with 7th grade history teacher Bizzy Schultz, we decided that the best way to learn about it was to just do it!  So the first day back from break, we ran six groups of students through the Breakout game called Time Warp.

How we prepared:

  • Chose the game:  Time Warp was a good fit because it focuses on the history of communication, which is something that Bizzy was already planning on covering.
  • Adjusted the game:  Most games are meant for smaller groups of 5-15 students, so without two kits, it would be hard to have the entire class play at once.  We decided to split the class in two, so Bizzy could run a lesson while I facilitated the game.  We took out two puzzles to adjust the game from 45 minutes to 30 minutes, so both groups could play within the class period.
  • Prepared the materials:  Each game gives a list of materials and instructions for setting up the room.  We printed the resources we needed, set the locks to the correct codes, and placed these items around the room for students to explore.

The day of the game, we explained the game to the group and told them the objective was to break into the box by solving the clues.  That’s about it.  We showed them the game space, started the timer, and let them go.  It was up to them to work together to decide what to do next.  They were given two hints to use when they were really stuck, but all team members had to agree to use these hints – which was sometimes tough! Every group operated a little bit differently. In the end only one group was fully successful, but they all enjoyed and learned from the experience.

After finding the UV light in a locked box, students try to figure out how to use it to locate the next clue.

After finding the UV light in a locked box, students try to figure out how to use it to locate the next clue.

All resources are fair game in a breakout, so students are researching various ideas to solve one of the puzzles.

All resources are fair game in a breakout, so students are researching various ideas to solve one of the puzzles.


Here’s a short clip of students putting different pieces together to solve the code for a locked box.


Success with 1 minute 48 seconds to go!!

What did we observe?

As facilitators, we saw students who were fully engaged and working together to solve the puzzles.  They were excited!  Some groups collaborated better than others, and often their reflection forms indicated this.  They knew they would have been more successful had they communicated better or listened to all ideas.  That’s a growth opportunity for them next time.  Overall, their feedback was very positive.  They liked the environment of working together to solve problems and being able to “think outside the box.”

How do I try this out?

All of the BreakoutEDU games and resources are completely free.  Register here and you will receive access to the games.  (They are password protected so that players can’t simply find the instructions during the game!)  You can also join the very active Facebook group to ask questions and learn about new tools.  If you (or your students) want an even greater challenge, create a Breakout game to share.

I have one set of materials and would be happy to lend them out or help facilitate a game in your classroom.  The students loved it, and it is great to watch them so engaged!

Connecting with Authors

Providing students with authentic connections and experiences is one of the benefits of our current technology landscape. Ms. Lentz leads an Exploration of Play Production class whose end goal is to write and produce an original class theatre production. They took advantage of technology by connecting with a couple of authors who had written a musical titled “Understudies.”  After their learning so far this semester regarding the elements of a play, character development, and writing their own short production, the students read this scriIMG_20160310_100035950pt with a critical eye to offer feedback to the writers.

The students then engaged in a video call with the authors using Google hangouts to provide feedback face to face.  Part of the challenge of this experience was providing constructive criticism in an honest but kind manner.  The students commented that it was easy to have very frank discussions during class, but it was more difficult to provide that feedback directly to the authors.

One of the critiques of the play was that the antagonist felt flat.  The students expressed that sentiment to the authors and also explained how the villain was a main component in the first play they had written this semester.

“Our inspiration was fleshing out a good villain,” one student commented. “We tried to explain why he is doing what he is doing and that involved revenge and losing his family.  We started from that and worked everything else around it.”

In addition to the students providing feedback, the authors provided advice to the class about a variety of areas related to writing and producing a play including how to register for a copyright, the importance of networking in any career, and how to get your work out there.

“You have opportunities to easily share things on this ‘internet’ and get immediate feedback and distribution,” one of the writers said.  “It’s so inexpensive now.  We recorded our songs in the kitchen with just a couple hundred bucks worth of equipment, and it does a good job of representing the music.”

By using a video call, the students were able to easily get outside the walls of the classroom and make a connection with people working the field they are studying.

Plickers – Quick Feedback Through Student Response

There are numerous ways to gauge student understanding during a lesson, both with the use of technology and without.  Many of you are already using platforms like Socrative, Kahoot, Quizziz, or Poll Everywhere, which allow students to use their own devices to respond to polls or questions that help assess understanding and keep students engaged.  These systems can also provide a voice for students who are reluctant to speak up in class and allow teachers to adjust instruction on the spot while providing anonymity to the students who are struggling with the concept.

What about a classroom where not everyone has access to a device? What about younger students?  It can take a chunk of time to get them to the correct interface to provide a response like this.

Plickers is a free alternative which does not require students to have devices.  Rather, each student gets a card with an image on it.  The direction that they hold these cards indicates their answer choices, and only the teacher needs a device to scan these cards.


Students hold up the cards to indicate their answer, and the teacher scans the room using the Plickers app on their phone or iPad.  The answers appear on a graph as they are scanned, and questions and responses are also saved for the teacher to reference later.  The cards are numbered and can be assigned to specific students, so the teacher can look at data on a per student basis to determine individual student needs.

Getting started is easy.  Print the Plickers cards from their website, download the app and create an account, create your class, and write your questions.

The resources below walk you through getting started with Plickers.

Plickers Website Tutorial

Getting Started Guide

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