Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Using MS Word to Prove You Learned Something

The kids in my class have been writing about a "hoax" animal that they created using a graphics program to mash two animals together. They have brainstormed ideas about their animal "mashup", researched facts about both animals, did a little creative graphics work with photos obtained by searching But now it's time to improve our writing skills.

The kids wrote a 1 page article about their hoax animal. They then put it in a document library on my classroom website. This allowed them to share and and comment each other's articles using the "comment" feature in MS Word. But how can they show they have learned from their peer? By creating another copy of their document, making changes, and using the "highlight tool" to show what changes they made.

1.) Open their file with peer comments on it.
2.) Use "Save As" to create another file - lets tag the ending of this file with the word "Edited" at the end of your file name . For example "The Turcan - edited" This creates a second copy of the file.
3.) Read the commments your peers have made on your work, and make changes to improve your writing.
4.) Highlight those changes with the highlight tool.

In my mind this is a very tangible way to show proof that you have made improvements to your writing, and isn't that what school's about?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Notetaking is like Texting

This is a video I made about a question an ESL student asked me today "How do you write notes?" Her question was really, how is notetaking different from writing full sentences? I came up with an analogy she understood - by using her cell phone!

Screwdrivers in Education

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail! When it comes to adults learning about computers in their everyday life and in their jobs, people get to a point when they don't think they can learn any more. I think its all about the academic tools in your tool belt.

To not invest time in our own learning is like trying to replace all the screws in car engine with another kind of screw just so you can use the screwdriver you have in your tool belt. Sometimes a lack of learning costs you more time than you realize.

There is a learning curve with new programs, just like there is a learning curve to new jobs or new ways of solving problems. There is a cost in time and effort. But there is also the PERCIEVED learning curve, and often this is what is most daunting.

A colleague came to me with a task they would like to accomplish on the computer to do a presentation and create an activity for their students. There were many options to solve the problem, and I tried to figure out what this teacher already had for "tools in the toolbelt". Then I showed her a few new features to a program she already knew how to use to create documents and presentations.

As teachers must take this approach to being life long learners. Push yourself and your colleagues along just a little bit. Don't avoid learning something new for the sake of avoiding a little effort or time; you do have time to invest, just like we all have money to invest. Invest wisely and invest often.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Our Unsung Heroes

SEA's in our district is the term for Special Education Assistant. They work with the most vulnerable students on a small group or 1 to 1 basis. They work with students with autism, students with global deficits, and students with physical impairments. They make less money than a teacher, perhaps because there is less formal education required to qualify for this position, and they officially work fewer hours. Yet in practice they have very demanding jobs requiring a vast set of skills to meet the needs of each kid.

Sometimes their students lash out at them, spit at them or cause them harm accidentally or on purpose. They wear brave smiles, laugh, and continue to do their duty with little or no complaint that I have heard.

I don't propose paying SEA's more, but I would like to see these SEA's get more professional development time. The relatively small cost of training SEA's to work with computers and new technology, perhaps some adaptive technology (speech recognition software for instance) if schools have the budget, would pay high dividends.

This would mean that even if a teacher was not aware of some of the technology options available to help a student with special needs - using speech recognition software, recording a student's voice using a computer and microphone, using interactive websites to teach math concepts - the SEA would know of a variety of technology strategies to help their students.

I think its time we gave these "unsung heroes of the school" tools that may save them time and effort. Everyone wins in the end when all members of the team have good technology skill sets.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tell Kids They are Smart Enough

When kids come to me and say their computer is broken, and I ask them to tell me more I think of a person going to a doctor and saying "Something hurts, somewhere....can you fix it?"

I told some kids today that very smart people make it their jobs to write out error messages describing a complex problem in a language that non-engineers can understand. I demonstrated an error by creating a bad file name, and then trying to upload it to our classroom website's "editing room" (an online folder where kids share work). We read the error message, and not surprisingly we figured out what was wrong with the file name.

In an informal poll, more than half of my students feel they are smarter than their parents when it comes to operating a computer. Therefore I have concluded that they have been told by the adults who have taught them about computers thus far that they are not smart enough to figure out what an error message means, and that they as students are not to be trusted to read this message and attempt to troubleshoot the problem themselves?

What's the worst that could happen? They lose their work? Possibly, but not learning about computers and not learning how to troubleshoot problems would be a greater loss than a few paragraphs of typing.

Empower kids to troubleshoot. Initially they feel nervous or a bit overwhelmed, but we don't let them keep their training wheels on their bikes forever. Why should computer use be different?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Embedding the best of the Web - CUEBC 2009

I am off to CUEBC later this month! I will be presenting on using "embed codes" in education. What is embedding? Why is it important in education?

How about starting your math lesson off with a laugh:

Embed codes are ways to bring great videos, podcasts, maps, projects, slideshows and more - right to your own classroom website.

I decided to embed a map to CUEBC 2009 - being hosted at Sullivan Heights in Surrey, BC. That way, all my friends could know where to meet me. I went to google maps, and googled the address. I got a map, and in the upper right corner of the map box I found a button labelled "Link". When I clicked it I got an embed code. I then came here to my blog, and when I clicked on the "edit html" tab -

View Larger Map

I hit paste, and now I have a scrollable google map in my site! How could you use this in the classroom? Where would you take your students?

What if you wanted to share a story plan with your students:

This is an online mind map site, called You or your students can create accounts here (with teacher and parent permission) for free. There are other sites like it that also support embedding. I created this story web to help parents support their grade 3 student at home plan and write their story about "My Life in BC." By providing parents and students with the story bubble diagrams via your classroom website, you might get fewer late assignments, or even better quality assignments.

Sometimes I need to support other kinds of learning at home. What about demonstrating how to do something like a math problem? How long has it been since your student's parents did math? Do they know the new "partial product method"?

I find making a screencast to be really helpful. I use a free program called Jing, and a free account at I capture my voice and the action on my screen. Then I just use a program like MS Paint to do my math on. Forgive my messy handwriting; I am sure you would be neater.

What about presentations and slideshows? You can embed them from different sites, such as google docs.

Google docs offers you an online office suite of programs that works with Microsoft Office. I made this presentation for the Learning Disabilities Association of BC. Using the embed code allows me to bring my presentation to my audience, rather than having them try to search for it.

Remember the YouTube video we used before? Here is a great alternative for when you want to host private videos - Vimeo allows you to embed password protected videos. This way, you can shoot video with your students in it (again with permission and understanding between all parties) and embed the video in your website. Then just tell your students / email your parents what the password is. In the Coquitlam School District, we use SharePoint websites which are password protected. I put the password on the same page as the video, and then only people with access to my site can access the video.

Password is: star

Guitar Lesson from James Gill on Vimeo.

Finally there is Voicethread. I have used voicethread a with a number of students and across a variety of subjects. Its an online slideshow that you can narrate, and other people can comment on your voicethread when you invite them in.

What if you want to record your kids. Podcasts are a great way kids can show what they know, and if you control the podcasting account and are careful they don't reveal their names and addresses, I feel it is a safe and fun educational experience. And once again, you can embed their podcasts so you can rotate the content throughout the year. I use After making a podcast (audio recording on the net) I did a little digging and found that when I click on the "embeddable player" guessed get your choice of code to embed your podcast. It comes with its own player!

Here is an example of how we can do some cool storytelling online, using voicethread

Putting your voicethreads into your classroom website is another great way to showcase what kids know.

So to summarize, you can embed video, password protected video, maps, screencasts, podcasts, mind maps, and Voicethreads. There are more things you can embed, such as photo albums from, and this feature is becoming standard on almost all sites that host other people's content. Think about bringing the best of Web 2.0 to your class. Use embed codes - they make for a safe, reliable, and educational web classroom.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Helping Your ESL students

This year I will be teaching all the students in my school. 780+ students. I only get 7.5 weeks with the grade 6 and 7 students. A student teacher dropped by my class yesterday, visiting from another teacher's classroom, and she made a great observation. During my introduction to the class, she picked out an ESL student who has some real difficulties with the english language. She had trouble understanding what I was saying. How could she do her work?

I went to Google Translate. I then cut and paste my assignment into the text box and translated my assignment from English to Simplified Chinese. My student could read it! That and pairing her with another student who speaks Cantonese (not Mandarin which would have been ideal) will enable her to do her work.

I bet ESL students could use this site, or one of the many other sites like it in conjunction with a netbook to do their work in class. They still will be learning english. It just supports their learning while they are learning a new language.

Don't most of us as teachers type our work up on computers already? Stop hitting print so often I say, and start giving our ESL kids the digital copies to work with.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to Improve Teaching Performance

      In a recent TedTalk, Bill Gates described many ways to improve teacher performances.  He talked about how things like union rules were designed to protect weak and poor-performing teachers.  These however are the same rules that protect good teachers too from bad management and parents using inapproprate means to solve problems their children have with schools (please note the careful wording on that one; I am a parent too).

     Bill Gates put a lot of emphasis on saying successful teachers can be measured by the test scores their kids get, and their methods should be applauded and studied by other teachers.  He suggested that digital video cameras be set up in classrooms so that they can see study with colleagues different successes and failures, and discuss with open honesty and with no fear of reprisal ways to improve teaching performance.

     I don't think that you could mandate cameras in teacher's classrooms, as I think there is a great potential for misuse, such as fact finding missions against teachers that administrators just don't get along with.

      The single greatest thing you could do to improve teaching performance is to remove everything from a teacher's workload that isn't related to teaching and allocate that to someone else.  Then have the teachers just focus on those teachable moments in class.  This is where teachers are most aware of who is "getting it" in class and who is not.  If we are in a rush to get the next assignment out, so we can get it back and put it on the pile of marking that we already have (ensuring we have lots of data to back up what we as professionals KNOW about our students), then we often miss the students who are merely nodding along and then slip through the cracks.  We assign a lot to cover our butts!

      I think we should focus on marking fewer (but more multidisciplinary) assignments so you can turn work around faster in class.  Kids should learn to meet deadlines, and with fewer assignments there is a greater chance they will learn the lessons intended.

     That's it.  

     Don't ask teachers to do inventory, clean the school, repair things, or sit on too many committees.  Some of this is necessary, but some of it is not.  This is particularly true at the elementary school level, where there are fewer staff members, but still lots of duties to do.  Often these non-teaching related duties fall on the teachers because there is not a lot of money for extra staffing.

    If all teachers thought about was "what do I need to get across to these students" and then ask themselves  "do my students have it now?" then I could improve school performance across our country.  

Monday, June 15, 2009

Student Created Content - Better and Cheaper

One of my students has created a video. It is modelled after the educational video website, This student has used some pretty basic animation skills I taught using pivot (a free stick figure animation program).

Unfortunately I have temporarily removed this video from my site as I think some of the music used was copyrighted. I will post it as soon as I am able. But I think it this student project represents a valuable idea: A subscription to can be costly, but possibly worth it. But, what if we gave our kids the ability to create content that was very exciting to watch and informative too? Then our students would be showing what they know in an authentic way, it would be engaging more areas of their thinking, and we as teacher might be able to use this kind of multimedia work year after year. Multimedia reaches more kinds of learners, and I have always found that kids really do a good job communicating their ideas to other kids.

Next September - Multimedia projects for global causes.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Why My Lab Doesn't Work

If you teach a student a skill in a computer lab setting, they will learn that skill for a while, but they will not retain that skill or the attitude that they should use that skill / program to show what they have learned in school.

If you can find a way to teach regular school topics to students using a number of different computer skills and programs, they will remember those skills for a longer period of time - I would guess for the length of time they are in that school perhaps.

When you can find a cause that is bigger than the student, one that has deep personal meaning for them, then give them a computer program to create the solution to that problem, the students will learn the intricacies of that program the way an artist learns to use his tools.  It becomes less tool use and more "craft".

To create powerful 21st century learners the solution lies not in getting computers in every kids hands.  That is inevitable.  It is about making deeper connections between your students and the curriculum, now.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Misbehaving Students need Programming

I don't mean that students who misbehave should have their frontal lobes "formatted", and then have the necessary upgrades made to the operating system so that they will behave. What I mean is that students who misbehave should begin doing computer programming.

This year I have tried to offer many opportunities for my students to collaborate and creatively express themselves in a variety of ways. What I have found has been interesting; students with behaviour problems enjoy the computer programming unit the best, or behave the best during computer programming class.

We use Scratch - free programming software that uses drag and drop instructions and a litany of cartoon characters who will act out whatever instructions you give. Here is why I think the students with behaviour problems enjoy programming.

1.) No need for collaboration on this assignment - just the nature of my assignment. You could do collaborative projects, but I haven't for this unit. This does avoid the tricky business of working well with others in a give and take relationship. One where other people's efforts influence an individual's grade.

2.) Consistency - no matter what, you program this instruction in, the cartoon character (or sprite) will do it. I think some of these kids need this kind of consistency to feel they "trust" what they are doing will work.

3.) Structure - I ask them to create 11 scripts exactly. Same moves, same timings, same sprites. At first some students voice their disapproval saying that I am hemming them in and forcing them to comply with instructions. But once they settle on task, they become self-propelled, and they don't go off task often. They know what to make, and if they apply themselves, they can do all 11 exercises in less time than they predict.

I ask students to predict how many of these exercises they will make in a class. Often they say I can make only 3. Then they end up completing all 11 in a single class! This leads to two things:

1.) Boost in self-esteem - self esteem only increases with accomplishing tasks when the student had to apply themselves. No amount of telling a student what a good person they are will ever help their self-esteem.

2.) They want to do more - nothing breeds success like success.

So I guess what need to figure out now is how can I make more of their assignments like the computer programming classes? Conversely, how can I use what I have learned about their learning styles and needs to make them more comfortable and productive when doing creative assignments.

Write me back if you think of something!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why Do They Come Back

Why do they come back? We see our former students roaming the halls of their elementary and middle schools, with the same faces but bigger bodies. They poke their heads in classrooms, and they seem to be looking for something. What are they looking for?

Maybe they are looking to once again see the world the way their smaller selves used to. Back before they knew all the terrible and wonderful things they know now. Maybe things aren't so easy now, and they long for the days when recess felt like it was long enough, and that a field trip to Science World was just around the corner.

Maybe they are looking for one of us, a trusted teacher whom they counted on. Counted on to show them right from wrong, even if that meant occassionally being punished - becauase that's how they learned. Looking for the one who held them up as champions on Sports Day for finishing the obstacle course, or for noticing their new haircut and saying it didn't look so bad. Looking for the person who opened up their world of wonder with stories read out loud. Sometimes they are looking for the one person who day after day was consistent as the tides, but held them like an anchor when everything else in their young lives was unravelling.

But something happens in the conversation. We exchange a few memories, trade a few laughs and smiles and then we realize it. They think we the teachers have changed. And we have. But they have changed, too. It starts when the students notice how small everything is; the chairs, the desk, how low the waterfountains are. Even the door frames feel so low they imagine they have to duck to get through. But then they realize that they have changed. That teacher that they held in their hearts and minds is not their teacher anymore. That teacher belong to someone else; or rather a bunch of someone else's. And they can't go back home again.

I always smile when a familiar face walks through the door, and comfort them when they come to this realization. And I let them know, maybe you feel like you can't come back home because this isn't your home anymore. But I still am happy when you visit. And I will always be glad to see you.

And then just like that, off they go. To find their own way, and their own home.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Getting My Class on VoiceThread

Hi guys, sorry our regular website is down. I put the video on my blog so we could keep moving forward.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Getting rid of textbooks?

Maybe I can't get rid of textbooks, but can students and teachers together create better resources by working on wikis? That is the question.

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All's quiet on the western front

It's quiet in my class, too quiet..

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Monday, March 9, 2009 and mywebspiration

You heard me! You replied! You are making yourself accessible! This is just what I needed. For my 4th term, what I will likely be doing is working on using Webspiration my choice for online collaboration. Our district has purchased Inspiration and has a long standing history of using Inspiration and Kidspiration. I used other mind mapping tools because they allowed greater collaboration. Using mywebspiration allows me to create online webs by uploading standalone inspiration files. If the network goes down though, at least we can still use Inspiration.

Still keep pushing for more speed. Thanks for responding.

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Friday, March 6, 2009 and mywebspiration

Why are these free sites that target educators proving to be less than consistent? Don't they know the most important thing that teachers want?

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Forum + F2F = a whole lot of great ideas

My project for the class was fizzling until I asked the kids to start talking. Then..Lookout!

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Taking the Pressure off of Students

Some pressure is good, but too much pressure is bad. How can I aleviate pressure in my class to make it more productive? Get help from the students!

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tell me, I might learn. Show me, I fix my probs.

I had students review a screencast on how to do an assignment, and now I see if they do better than their predecessors.

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Tell me, I might learn. Show me, I fix my probs.

I had students review a screencast on how to do an assignment, and now I see if they do better than their predecessors.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Own Private Check-out Line

I love twitter. Having a personal network is like having your own check out line at the grocery store. Answers when you need them. Also, You get to be a part of someone else's network.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Seven Things You Don't Know About Me

#7.) I am a traveller. My wife and I danced under the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day in Paris on our honeymoon in 2007. A few weeks later we dined on a rooftop restaurant in Athens. A few weeks after that we were sleeping in a cave in the desert in central Turkey. We are not done travelling yet.

#6.) I have competed at the Provincial and National Championships in archery. While I never won a major national tournament, I have won some minor ones. I am still a very good shot.

#5.) I have a brown belt in kickboxing and in jiu jitsu.

#4.) I am on a "get rid of stuff" phase. I have fewer items in my wardrobe now than I have ever had in my life. No one seems to notice.

#3.) I am considering taking the next steps to becoming an administrator someday. I will be looking at beginning a Masters in Education in 2009.

#2.) I am not very good with power tools, and I don't know why I don't have these skills. Actually I am decent with a circular saw, but I have not done the home reno, "DIY" kind of stuff like tiling a floor, cutting and installing crown molding, or hanging/mudding/taping drywall. Same goes for cars.

#1.) I excercise on average 5 times a week, and sometimes twice a day on Tuesday and Thursdays. I do this in part for my martial arts training, and partly because it keeps me from feeling pain. When I train I don't feel any of my old injuries, but the minute I stop they eventually resurface. Furthermore I train because I am vain and my wife says she likes what she sees.