Category Archives: Helping Readers

Tool Review: #GoogleExpeditions Virtual Reality App

I have an admission to make:  After a chance to experiment with Google Expeditions in class this week,  I am FINALLY convinced that virtual reality applications have a place in schools.

For those of you just hearing about Google Expeditions, it is a new app that uses Google Cardboard and stunning panoramic photography to take students on virtual reality tours of tons of interesting places.  Here’s a short video from Google introducing the product:

Neat, right?

The app hasn’t been officially released yet, but Google Expedition Team Members are traveling around the country bringing the technology to schools to get feedback from teachers and students before it goes live.  Our school was chosen for a visit this week — and I had the chance to bring two classes of kids down to kick the tires on the tool.

I went into the experience more than a little skeptical.

I’ve always seen virtual reality as a fringe technology that wouldn’t make teaching and learning any better and virtual reality fanboys as people who cared more about technology than they did teaching and learning.  In fact, if you asked me last week, I would have told you that virtual reality tools and trends would have had little to no chance of making their way into the #edtech mainstream.

But twenty minutes into my first Google Expeditions enhanced lesson had me convinced enough to start putting the squeeze on my principal to buy a set of Cardboards and teacher tablets for our grade level.

Here’s why:

Google has created literally THOUSANDS of different Expedition experiences that you can immerse your students in.

I chose to take my students to Antarctica, where we looked at penguin colonies, leopard seals, and Ernest Shackleton’s explorations.  We also traveled to the Rain forest and coral reefs.  The Expeditions catalog also includes TONS of other interesting destinations, ranging from Mars to the Moon to Gettysburg, the Ann Frank House and the Great Wall of China.

Each expedition includes background information for teachers taking students on tours.

As my students looked through Google Cardboards at the virtual worlds that I took them to, I was using a tablet to guide their experiences — and my view of each virtual world included interesting content flags that I could click on, learn more about, and then introduce to my students.  If I clicked on a content flag, students saw an arrow on their VR screens that pointed them to the location that I wanted them to see.

That made the Expeditions experience equal parts self exploration and teacher direction.   My kids discovered things that they wanted to study and learn more about all by themselves while working through the virtual world they’d entered AND I was able to point them to things that I wanted them to notice because they were tied to our required curriculum.

The entire experience was easy and the technology worked flawlessly.

Outside of a 20-minute introduction to the teacher tablets and Google Cardboards, I had no professional development at all on using Expeditions and my students had no previous experience with VR in a school setting, yet we had NO troubles trying to figure things out at all.  Pulling up new destinations, finding content tags and pointing students to interesting content within a VR tour was incredibly intuitive and fluid for me — and working with the Cardboards to explore was second-nature to my students.  In many ways, it’s hard to believe that Expeditions is still in Beta given how smooth the experience was.

But most importantly, Google Expeditions gave me the chance to literally immerse my students in places that are a part of our required curriculum.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been studying biomes in class.  As a part of that study, we did a simple research project.  Students chose a biome and then used books and the web to answer research questions about that biome.  While researching, they saw pictures of the biome, watched videos about the biome, and read tons of text about the biome.

Google Expeditions, however, made all of that research come alive for my kids.  They felt like they were standing in the middle of the Savannah or the Tundra or the Taiga instead of just reading about it.  “Collecting facts” and “answering questions” became an exploration and observation game — and kids DIG exploration and observation.  Learning through VR became a lesson in discovery as kids had to figure out what they were looking at and what it could teach them about the biome that they were standing in.

Long story short:  Google Expeditions is going to be amazing.

Knowing that I can genuinely surround my kids with the content and places that we are studying using nothing more than a free app, Google Cardboards and some cheap Android tablets/devices brings new meaning to the notion of “breaking down the walls of our classrooms.”



Related Radical Reads:

Tool Review: Screencastify

Tool Review:  Zaption makes Differentiation Doable

Tool Review:  Using Remind to Introduce Nonfiction to Students

Top Five Radical Reads of 2015

One of my favorite things about January are the summaries that bloggers share with their networks detailing the posts that drew the most attention in digital spaces.  By pulling the best pieces to the forefront, they make it easy for me to quickly find important thoughts that I missed in my feed reader during the course of the year.

Since 2011, I’ve done the same here on the Radical, spotlighting the five posts that had the highest number of page views during the previous calendar year.  For 2015, those posts were:

Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome – Sharing a simple hand-drawn image that expresses my core belief that technology CAN’T be the starting point for our conversations about changing schools, this post and its companion image on Flickr have been viewed over 50,000 times in the last few years.  Something about this bit resonates with all y’all — and that’s cool.

Wasting Money on Whiteboards – Originally written in 2010, I was pleasantly surprised to see this bit grab attention again this year.  It suggests that Interactive Whiteboards are most often a complete and total waste of money.  Before you get your dander up, check out my argument.  Who knows: Maybe I’ll change your mind!

Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low Level #edtech Practices – I’ve got to admit that it drives me nuts when people are using technology to facilitate low level practices.  What I’ve come to realize, though, is that the practices people embrace are nothing more than a response to the expectations that we are held accountable for in schools.  This bit suggests that if we want more meaningful work to happen in our schools, we have to hold policymakers accountable for setting higher expectations for our kids.

Note to Principals:  STOP Spending Money on Technology – There is NOTHING more frustrating to me as a classroom teacher than watching school leaders buy technology for technology’s sake.  We rush into spending decisions without carefully thinking through how new purchases are going to support the kinds of practices that we say that we believe in.  This bit argues that every blown decision damages our credibility in the eyes of our communities.

If Grades Don’t Advance Learning, Why Do We Give Them – Lemme ask you a simple question:  What do your students do with their graded papers?  If your kids are anything like mine, they glance at the grade you’ve given them, ignore the feedback you’ve written on their papers, and drop the things in the trash can on the way out the door.  So why the heck are we spending hours of our time giving students grades?

In the end, 2015 has been nothing short of a wild ride — filled with new opportunities, new instructional experiments and new lessons learned, both personally and professionally.

Through it all, Radical Nation has been there — reading and reflecting and challenging and questioning.  For that, I continue to be incredibly grateful.  Here’s to hoping that you’ll stick with me into 2016.  I’d miss you if you were gone.



Developing Learning Cards for Primary Students

One of the instructional practices that I am the most passionate about is using Unit Overview Sheets to give students opportunities to assess their OWN progress towards mastering required outcomes during the course of a cycle of instruction.

(See here, here and here).

The way that I see it, we do our students a disservice when all of the goal setting and assessment done in a classroom is done by teachers simply because the most successful learners are also almost always the most reflective.  If our kids don’t get comfortable with identifying their strengths and weaknesses — or believe that assessment is the job of  every learner — they will struggle in a constantly shifting knowledge-based economy.

Don’t take my word for it, though. 

Instead, Check out John Hattie’s research on the instructional practices that have the biggest impact on student achievement.  Four of the top fifteen highest leverage practices identified by Hattie — self-reporting grades, teacher clarity, feedback and metacognition — can be easily integrated into classrooms using Unit Overview Sheets with students.

What makes Unit Overview Sheets even more powerful is that their development can focus a collaborative team of teachers.  

Deciding on a small handful of essential outcomes for each cycle of instruction is an approachable practice that also helps to ensure that every student at a grade level or in a school has access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum.  What’s more, unit overview sheets can be used to write assessments and to determine remediation and enrichment needs on a learning team.  One document, then, serves as a starting point for every conversation, simplifying what can oftentimes feel like overwhelming work.

But here’s the hitch:  The unit overview sheets that I typically use with students are almost always text heavy.

Check this one out, for example.  While it’s incredibly useful for my sixth graders, the fact that there are SO many words and SO little white space makes the document age inappropriate for students in grades K-3.

So I’ve been tinkering around with a new idea for primary teachers that I am calling Learning Cards.

Here are a few samples.

My thinking is that a Learning Card will include ONE essential outcome at a time — so the samples linked above would be printed on card stock and then cut in half.  Instead of passing out a Unit Overview Sheet at the start of a cycle of instruction and asking students to refer back to it time and again, teachers might share one Learning Card per week with students — a simple step towards keeping students from being overwhelmed by expectations.

Like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards will share expected outcomes in age appropriate language — and I still prefer the I Can Statements suggested by Rick Stiggins and his colleagues at the Assessment Training Institute.  Learning Cards, however, will also include pictures and/or other visual cues that can make the learning target approachable to non/early readers.  I’ve been getting those pictures/visual cues from The Noun Project website — but any source of interesting clip art would work.

And like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards include a system for students to track their own progress towards mastery, but they are limited to two choices:  NOT YET and YOU BET — terms originally brainstormed by a group of brilliant teachers at Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont.  My thinking is that students would color the NOT YET box — maybe in red — for any Learning Card that they thought they were still struggling with.  When they were confident that they had mastered the outcome, they would color the YOU BET box in green.

If it were my classroom, each student would hang their Learning Cards on a book ring.  That would make them readily accessible for review.  Students could pull out their book rings once or twice a month, sorting their Learning Cards into NOT YET and YOU BET piles.  Better yet, students could use their cards during student-led conferences, walking their parents through the outcomes that they had mastered and the outcomes that they were still struggling with.

Finally, teachers could use the Learning Cards to quickly sort students into remediation and enrichment groups — and could bring learning cards to PLC meetings as a reminder of the skills that kids were struggling with across entire hallways.

Does any of this make any sense?  What are your first reactions to the notion of developing Learning Cards to use in primary classrooms?  What changes would you make — either to the structure of my Learning Cards or to my suggested strategies for using them in the classroom?  

Looking forward to hearing what you think!

Related Radical Reads:

Is YOUR PLC Identifying Essential Targets Together?

Asking Students for Feedback on Unit Overview Sheets

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Unit Overview Sheets!


Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas!

For the last few years, I’ve been posting a list of books that middle school boys might totally dig as a public service to parents who are out Christmas shopping for their kids.  You see, I really DO believe that books should be under every tree simply because gifting books sends the message that reading is special — and that’s a message that every kid needs to hear.

So if you are the proud owner of a twelve-year old boy, think about picking up one of these titles.  They are guaranteed to capture your kid’s attention and/or imagination:

Howtoons – Tools of Mass Construction: Over the past few weeks, there’s been a buzz coming out of the Guys Read club run by my buddy Mike Hutchinson — and that buzz centers around the Marshmallow Shooters that he’s got kids making.  When I asked him where he got the idea, he pointed me to the Howtoons website, which is committed to introducing kids to scientific principles through graphic novels and really cool tinkering projects.  That’s when I picked up Tools of Mass Construction, an encyclopedia of tinkering projects — think stomp rockets and do-it-yourself tripwires — that will keep every middle school boy busy for months.

Steelheart Steelheart is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners Trilogy.  It’s set in a screwed up future version of the United States where small groups of citizens woke up one morning with super powers.  The hitch:  Everyone gifted with super powers — known as Epics in the story — is corrupted, using their unique strengths and abilities to grab power and abuse everyone else.  The only group brave enough to stand up to these villains are the Reckoners — who through careful study and crazy weaponry work to take down each of the Epics one-by-one.  Steelheart details the work of the Reckoners to take down the strongest of the Epics — a guy with no apparent weaknesses that can turn anything he touches into steel.

Gregor the Underland Chronicles:  One of the simplest truths about middle school readers is that they are WAY into fantasy stories — and one of the most engaging fantasy series that I’ve read in a while tells the story of Gregor the Overlander — a boy from New York City who stumbles into an amazing world of adventure after his baby sister falls through a hole in the floor of the laundry room in his apartment complex.  The challenge for Gregor is that the new world that he’s discovered is in the middle of a Civil War.  Talking rats are trying to wipe out a nation of humans living underground.  Worse yet, Gregor learns that whether he likes it or not, HE is the key to saving his new friends and restoring peace to the Underland.

Anyone else have suggestions for titles that might resonate with middle school boys?  If so, leave them in the comment section.  The way I see it, turning boys into readers — which is no easy task — is a goal that we should ALL care about.


Related Radical Reads: 

Are YOU Looking to Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas?

Real Men Read

Three Fantasy Series Your Middle Schoolers will Dig

Reading is NOT Optional


Five Thinkers Every New Teacher Should Follow

Months ago, a good friend named Jen Hasler-Troutman asked me to whip up a list of folks that I think all new teachers should follow — either in Twitter or on their blogs.  She’s a mentor this year and wanted to give her mentees a starting point for swimming in the digital soup.  I FINALLY got a few spare minutes to put that list together for Jen and thought you might like seeing it, too.

Five Thinkers Every New Teacher Should Follow:

John Spencer (Twitter, Blog):   After spending eleven years as a middle school teacher, John has just moved into a position as a professor of instructional technology.  What I love about John’s writing and thinking is that (1). it is incredibly practical, full of ideas that I’m ready to try the minute that I read them and (2). it challenges my thinking around what classrooms could/should be.  John also writes more generally about creativity and living in a connected world.  That writing forces me to wrestle with bigger ideas and trends beyond the classroom — and I appreciate that.

Pernille Ripp (Twitter, Blog): After spending the majority of her career teaching elementary school, Pernille is in the middle of her second year as a seventh grade language arts teacher.  Her blog is also incredibly practical and full of ideas that I often take “as-is” and use in my own work with students.  She’s grown a reputation as an expert on classroom blogging, but I find her to be just as skilled at sharing ideas about reading and writing instruction — as well as an expert at strategies for structuring healthy classroom environments where students are empowered.

Richard Byrne (Twitter, Blog): The plain and simple truth is that technology is going to play a seminal role in the work that teachers new to our profession are going to do over the course of their careers.  No blogger introduces me to more new technologies than Richard Byrne.  The short, tool-centric bits on his Free Tech for Teachers site spotlight new services worth exploring OR new applications for existing tools that I’d never considered.  He’s a amazing curator of #edtech content — and that curation saves me time.

MiddleWeb (Twitter, Website): While it is specifically designed to support teachers in grades 4-8, I think MiddleWeb is a FANTASTIC resource for every teacher who is new to the classroom.  In fact, over the years, they’ve developed an incredible collection that they call New Teacher 911 designed to point rookies to resources that they can use to tackle all of the common challenges that trip us up early in our careers.

Mindshift KQED (Twitter, Website): Finally, I think it is essential for new teachers to question the fundamentals of our profession.  Doing so depends on constantly reflecting on cutting edge ideas.  That’s the kind of content that Mindshift — a blog maintained by a Bay Area public television network — produces regularly.  On any given day, you’ll find bits challenging grading practices or spotlighting practitioners who are reimagining learning one lesson at a time.  It’s good stuff that will resonate with any teacher who knows that our schools need to change in order to better serve modern learners.

What thinkers would YOU recommend that new teachers follow?  Drop your suggestions in the comment section and let’s see what kind of list we can come up with together!


Related Radical Reads:

Five Guys that I Love Learning Alongside

Twelve Remix-Masters Who Have Changed My Thinking

Three Blogs that You Should Start Reading