Friday, May 26, 2017

Engaging Young Writers Using 21st Century Technology

Today’s students, who have grown up with the emerging technologies at their fingertips, really challenge teachers to find new ways to engage them in their learning. These students operate in a global environment where information is just a click away and feedback is expected to be instantaneous. Their communications are brief and their emotions are shared via emojis. They are a visual generation whose first port of call to learn a new skill is YouTube. So as teachers of writing how can we use their preferred tools to not only engage them but to also ensure we are delivering the curriculum in a manner that they can relate to. This was the challenge I started to address a few years ago. I realised that teaching the way I was taught, by having students write narratives for me in their books and then providing them written feedback on completion was not addressing the needs of today’s students. Changes had to be made by me!

Teaching writing
So 3 years ago I made some big changes in my teaching practice, and in return, the students made some big changes in their output. The first thing I did was to give up being the expert in my class on writing and brought in some help. Who better to teach lessons on the writing process that award-winning authors. So where do I find myself an award winning author who will come and teach my class for free I hear you ask. Well, that’s easy, Skype for education!

At Skype for education, they put you in touch with authors of all different genres who are willing to share their expertise for free via Skype. Each year my class takes part in 3 or 4 Skypes with amazing authors. I like to have a number of authors share their methods because when the students hear the same message from multiple sources they understand that this is what they need to do as well. As a teacher, I have learned so much from these Skypes! Students not only find out specific methods they can use to improve their writing and editing skills, but they also get practical knowledge of how to get published. It is always inspiring to hear the different journeys authors take to become a published author, but even better when the students see that they can do that too.

Every author we have Skyped with has been amazing, but my 2 personal favourites are Chris Tozier and Sean Fay Wolfe. Both of these authors really connected with my students and truly made them believe that they could become authors.

So after lighting the fire of inspiration, we get started as fast as possible. I always try to create unit plans so we are writing about topics or in a style that the students are truly interested in. The last 2 years we have written our on own Choose Your Own Adventure Stories and narratives that can be the basis for a video game. By taking note of what the students like to read from my extensive class library, as well as what they love to talk about when they are supposed to be working hard in class, I then look for ways to incorporate that into our writing.

Drafting & Editing
Students write their drafts using Google Docs. The reason for this is three-fold. Firstly once they share it with me I have a copy of their story, if something accidentally happens to their story I can always restore it through going into the revision history. We have learned the hard way how easy it can be for some students to magically delete all their work but with Google Docs that can’t happen. The second reason we use Google Docs is the ability to provide timely feedback. The first time I used Google Docs I was extremely surprised when I went home that night and checked out their narratives and found out that not only had they shared their stories with me but also their classmates and that they had all read each other stories and shared ideas and suggestion. It is powerful and motivating for students when you are able to be read their stories and provide them feedback in real time. It is also interesting to be able to see how much writing students are actually doing and when. No better way to keep students on task than to leave them a little message reminding them that you can see exactly what they are doing. This year I actually had three of the boys in my class not known for their writing collude to have their stories connect to each other. Their stories all originated in different settings (video games) but they all had a common protagonist and in the conclusion, to all their stories the characters all joined together to fight this protagonist. It was very cool to see this level of collaboration taking place and the excitement the boys had as they plan for the part 2 of their stories.

The last reason we use Google Docs is the ability for students to edit their work and add to it. The importance of using a word processor when writing narratives really hit home to me last year when my son was in another class and had just finished handwriting his final copy of a narrative he was writing. When he showed me his work I asked him a few questions about his story which he realised he needed to expand on so it made sense. All of a sudden I had my son in tears because he did not want to have to rewrite his story as he had put so much effort into his handwriting. He preferred to hand in what he recognised as a substandard story rather than rewriting it. I offered him my iPad and suggested he write his story in Google Docs and even if that wasn’t what the teacher wanted he would at least end up with a story he was proud of. His original story was 300 words, his typed story 585. This year he is my class and his latest story was 3629. I challenge anyone to write that many words out neatly. All the authors we have Skyped with have told us that the editing process actually takes the same amount of time that it takes to write the story and that the writing is a process of constant improvement and that a story is never finished. Producing a handwritten final copy of their narrative takes away this ability.

After my students have put so much effort into drafting and editing their stories I feel that it is imperative that I give them the opportunity to publish their work in a professional manner. To do this we use a simple yet powerful app called Book Creator. Book Creator is an extremely user-friendly iPad app that allows students to create e-books that can include text, images, audio, and videos. These books can then be exported as pdf’s or even movies which turn the pages and play any audio on the page.

I like to have my students work on their reading fluency as well and ensure we reach the largest audience possible, so I have them record themselves reading their stories so when exported as movies younger students can still enjoy the stories as audiobooks. This in itself is a challenge when you are working in a noisy classroom. To ensure we record books with high-quality audio I developed my own iPad recording booths. These have proved very efficient at removing unwanted background noise and are extremely cost effective. (Click here if you want to know how to construct them)

Another app we like to use to enhance our finished products is a green screen app called Do Ink. Using a Greenscreen allows students to set up and shoot photos to illustrate their stories and works perfectly with Book Creator. We painted a wall in our classroom green just for this purpose.

In my opinion, the way to best motivate young student writers is to provide them with an audience. When students write for a teacher they will produce work that is good enough, when they know they are writing for a global audience then they are highly motivated to produce work that is perfect. We love to publish our work on our class Kidblog and YouTube accounts. We have partnered with a number of schools overseas and this then allows the students the opportunity to share their work with other students their age from all over the World. We then also use Twitter to publicise what we have been learning about.

My students love to blog and each morning we spend the first 15 minutes of our day writing our own blog posts or commenting on other classes blogs. I have blogged about how much of a difference blogging has made to my students writing, reading and spelling in the past and this year is no different. My students are so excited to see comments on their posts and this then motivates them to write more.

Another recent addition to our writing routines in class is Penpalschools. Penpalschools not only links your students as pen pals with students of a similar age and interests from somewhere else in the World, but they also provide the students with lessons they can work through and discuss with their pen pals. This has proven to be highly motivating.

Where to for you?
When it comes to writing I believe the most important aspect we as teachers need to consider when it comes to having our students engaged with the writing process is the purpose for writing. By showing the students that their work is not just for a mark but rather it’s an opportunity to tell their story or share their experiences you will find you will engage even the most reluctant of writers, but in my opinion, this can only be successfully achieved through the use of digital technologies. If you haven’t tried these various apps or websites then I urge you to give them a go for your student’s sake, but if you have used other forms of technology successfully, please share as I am always looking for better ways to motivate my writers!

Blair Smith is a year 5/6 teacher in a small rural catholic school in Central Queensland, Australia. He is passionate about giving his students a global education , using technology to engage and enhance learning and embraces flexible seating in the classroom. He is a Microsoft Innovative Educator, Skype Master Teacher, Book Creator Ambassador and PenPal Schools Global Ambassador. Follow him on Twitter @mrsmiths56class and on his blog at

Thursday, May 25, 2017

3 Books Every Educator Should Know About!

You may have heard about HyperDocs, seen the chatter around Twitter about Dive Into Inquiry, or even been to a Google Infused Classroom session at an EdTechTeam Summit. 

But did you know that the authors of these three books are trying to revolutionize PD?
The authors wanted to try something new in PD. Something that would bring lasting change. They got together, spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas - and concepts - that would completely transform how educators learn the ideas in their books.

After testing a few hypotheses and crumpling up a bunch of average ideas and throwing them in the trash, they came up with the Deep Dive Coaching model of PD. This summer (summer in the US and Winter in Sydney) we will implement these new ideas working with cohorts of teachers to make sure the ideas in the books stick and bring lasting change to classrooms.

This model combines online with in-person; content with coaching - and was designed around the idea that we all need help tweaking our learning experiences - and we need a coach, and a team, to help us do it!

In the US the stops will be in Portland July 20, Austin July 25, Chicago July 27 and NYC August 1 and it all starts in  beautiful Sydney, Australia - July 6th.
How we will  achieve this transformational PD? It starts with the participants and they have two options to choose from:

Leadership Cohort Option:
Participants will start online coaching classes in June and July with the deep dive day coming next. Next, cohorts will meet in each city to do a Deep Dive into the book - a hands-on day  with the author. This will be followed by two coaching sessions where the authors will coach participants through the tweaks that we hope will bring the lasting change that everyone is after. Applications for this cohort have closed but contact if you want to sneak in at the last moment.

Deep Dive - Coaching Option: 
These participants will come to the deep dive - and do all the hands-on work with the authors. Then they will go back to school try out their new learning and get coaching tweaks from the online coaching courses that will follow in the next two months.
You can still sign up or apply for one of these options!

We are excited to make this summer, something new in PD, something fun and something that will build communities of learning -  and classrooms of change!

Holly Clark, EdTechTeam
Educational Strategist and Head of Publishing
For more information visit
To sign up Click Here

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Choose Your Own Story with Google Forms

Congratulations! It’s nearly summer vacation. As a reward for your dedicated service, you’ve won a free cruise on the SS Salvaje. Simply click here to finalize booking! (Seriously, click on the link and then come back to this post. I promise it’s not a scam.)

We’ve all heard about Choose Your Own Adventure activities - either the wildly popular books from the 80s and 90s or using Google Forms with logic branching or Google Slides with hyperlinks among slides. They’re fun and engaging for students, but there’s one problem with them.

They are passive experiences. All students do are point and click (or turn to a specific page). You could make an argument that the student have to think critically to make a choice, but sometimes they will just click on whatever they want without a second thought. In 2017, this isn’t good enough. We need students to be problem solvers, with concrete reasons of why they’ve chosen their choices.

While I was out of the class battling cancer, I stayed in contact with my students through Google Classroom. We wrote back and forth, and after a few weeks of this, it got stale. We needed a refresher. I thought back to my days of reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and pondered how I could amp up a Slides template.

What I decided on is more concretely detailed here, but to summarize, I used Slides to present them with a choice. Rather than clicking on a link to continue through the story, they would type their choice and explain why. The following day, I pasted in the next part of their story based on their choice.

It was an enjoyable activity, but it required a great deal of time on my part to cut and paste individual slides into each student’s story. Now that I’m back in the classroom (and in remission from cancer,) it’s not feasible for me (or any classroom teacher) to do that way. There had to be a better way.

Using Google Forms, you can give each student a choice and use “Go to Page Based on Response” to direct their story to the next stage. This essentially automates it all for you. I also found it was much easier to develop a story and various options using Forms versus Slides. In the Slides version I made, there were 8 possible outcomes.

In less time and effort, I was able to develop 16 different endings with Forms. Having more outcomes results in a much better replay value. My students worked on the activity all week, and still none of the students were able to discover all 16 outcomes. I also left the endings open-ended, so students could finish out the story in a manner that they desired.

However, I still want students making cases for why they chose their outcome. To accomplish this, I added a “Paragraph” question on the Google Form after each choice. Turning on data validation, by clicking on the three vertical dots next to the “Required Question” slider, allowed me to set a certain character limit that students had to meet before they could advance to the next part of the story. I found that 150 characters was a good amount for my fourth graders.

There is the possibility that students can just hold down the spacebar to meet the character limit (or repeatedly type “very, very, very” as one of my students initially did,) but that results in a conversation with the student, along with a self-reflection on the teacher’s part. Did they not find the activity engaging? Were they unhappy with a choice they made? In my experience, discussing with the student that you’re interested in their thoughts more so than them just hitting a character limit helped motivate them to put forth the effort.

In your classroom, you can use the SS Salvaje activity by giving the students the shortened link ( or you can develop your own, by using this template (clicking will make you a Force Copy). On the template, everything is linked to the correct sections, so just make sure you follow the directions within. If you make your own, you’ll be able to see your students’ responses, which you won’t be able to do if you use the pre-made one.

I asked my students if they enjoyed the Google Slides activity we had done while I was out during medical leave more or if they preferred the Google Forms one. Nearly 90% of the students said they preferred the Google Forms version, for a variety of reasons:

  • “Because that it is more fun because it takes less time because we type what we want to do and you type back.”
  • “I liked the SS Salvaje more than the winter expedition [the Google Slides version] because when you choose what you want to do and write about it, you get a new one right after it.”
  • “The SS Salvaje because you had to write a certain amount of detail and that helps in making more detailed writings which will help when we're in older grades.”
  • “Because it is longer and it has more endings than the other one. Also it has more creative adventures than the winter one.”

A huge theme in their responses were that they enjoyed the immediate feedback and progression on the story, which is something that is very important to the “YouTube generation.” As a teacher, I was thrilled to see one student recognized that asking for more detailed writing would help them grow as writers as they enter middle school and beyond.

I constantly want to improve on activities in my classroom and transfer the role of creator to my students. One of my feedback questions was to see if the students wanted to make their own. Nearly all the students said that they would want to, so we’ll be embarking on that journey soon… just as soon as my students finish escaping from the creatures in the pool or the problems in the boiler room.

Fourth Grade Teacher
Fredericksburg, VA

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Harlem Renaissance Newsletter Project: TPACK at Work

The philosophical foundation for my work as a technology integrationist has been TPACK. TPACK is the instructional design theory that states effective lesson planning must consider the three key aspects of technology, pedagogy, and content, and combine them in logical ways to design powerful learning opportunities. Today I would like to share how we put this theory into practice.

Content: The What

South Hamilton High School has a fabulous approach to teaching its juniors about American literature and American history: a course called America II. English instructor Lisa Pulis and history teacher Jolene Voga collaborated to create a curriculum which examines America through a dual lens; students see it through the eyes of a historian and the eyes of a writer. Hopefully students finish the course with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the United States of America and what it means to be an American. One unit included in the year-long course is the study of the Harlem Renaissance. Mrs. Voga and Mrs. Pulis hope students can recognize the significance and impact of the historical events in the 1920s and 30s--in Harlem and the U.S. in general. They look for clues by examining the art, literature, and music created during that time. Content is the basis for all other decisions when working in a TPACK frame, and our teachers were clear on what was important for students to learn while studying the Harlem Renaissance.

Pedagogy: The How

The next piece in our TPACK puzzle is pedagogy. Our instructors decided that inquiry learning was the best approach to demand critical thinking from their students. The tasks and question posed to them were this: examine the art, literature, and music produced during the Harlem Renaissance. After your examination, what common theme do you find running through these pieces of Harlem Renaissance culture? Next, create a newsletter which shows your audience how you find that theme in specific pieces of literature, art, and music. This inquiry approach demands students think critically and use text-based evidence to support that critical thinking...even if your text is artwork or music. This pedagogical approach is an excellent fit for the unit’s learning objectives.

Technology: Show What You Know

The final piece of TPACK is the technology. We needed a tech tool that empowered students to show their knowledge of Harlem art, music and literature, AND provided a creative outlet as well. Since we are a GAFE district, I always look to Google apps first, and Google Slides was the perfect fit. Slides offers unique drawing tools PLUS makes it very easy to add images, videos, text in various sizes and shapes, word art, and more. Students began by adjusting the page setup to 8.5 x 11, then started creating with the various themes and drawing tools available. Students found a good resource as it offered lots of new themes and color schemes, but many enjoyed designing an original layout. With a digital newsletter, the information is far from static; audiences can see and hear pieces of the Harlem Renaissance come alive when students embed video and audio files. We compared our newsletters to a newspaper in the magical world of Harry Potter as it brings a whole new level of interaction with a text.

Many skill sets are demanded while completing this project. Students must read and learn about an important time in American history, they must think critically about the entire culture of the time period, they must analyze what the various texts say about the people of the U.S. living during this time, they must use technology effectively, they must collaborate effectively, and finally they must communicate their insight in a creative and clear way. Whew! And our South Hamilton kids did all of this in 5 class periods.

The Results of a TPACK Approach:
Instructors Lisa Pulis and Jolene Voga were very pleased with the digital newsletters they received from the various groups of juniors. The projects reflected critical thinking, clear communication, lots of text-based evidence to support their analysis, and even found some fun! We are happy to share some of our favorites here.

Student Project Links:

 Project #1
Project #1

Project #2

Project #3

Project #4

Catherine M. Hines
Technology Integrationist/Instructional Coach
South Hamilton Middle/High School
Jewell, Iowa
Twitter handle: @CathyHines66

Monday, May 22, 2017

Let's Get Personal: What's your Mindset?


The topic of professional development can spark conversations that go on for hours (Trust me, I’ve sat through hundreds of planning meetings). You can spend one meeting after the next discussing how to approach professional development as a school: Who needs what? Should there be elements of compulsory training? And the most frightening and misguided question: Which tech should we be using? In all the schools I worked in during the first decade of my teaching career, these marathon meetings led to minimal success.

Even today, many teachers’ vision for how learning should look is based on their own school experiences. Some see professional development as a sporadic series of (often – disappointing) events that they choose to or are asked to attend. What is most sad to me is when I meet student-centered teachers who, when providing training to other staff, do not use their normal classroom techniques because they know the audience of teachers are expecting and comfortable with the stand-and-deliver format. It is certainly not a bad thing that the number of education conferences continues to grow. But the attendees at these events tend to be from the minority of teachers who have developed some type of growth mindset. The majority of teachers I’ve worked with in schools, both in the UK and here in New Zealand, have yet to attend such an event and many wouldn’t see much need to.
Remember, the New Zealand system is fantastic, but Kiwi teachers are still coming to terms with it. The question for any education system, then, is this: How do we make having a growth mindset the norm amongst educators? In truth, it takes time to develop a culture where growth is the expectation, but including a systematic approach to developing this mindset as part of your national curriculum document is a good first step.


It is with great pleasure I can tell you that New Zealand is systematically solving the issue of nationwide, authentic professional development. The solution comes from making every teacher accountable for designing and reporting a personal inquiry into their own classroom practice. This is done through an action research model we call Teaching as Inquiry (TAI). Asking teachers to challenge and reflect upon their teaching automatically makes it more relevant and personal than if they were following a mandated lesson plan—or even simply following their own lesson plans from the previous year.
This call for continual personal reflection and professional development is the opposite of any form of one-size-fits-all approach. The trick is to make teachers accountable for sharing their reflections with, at a minimum, others in their school and, more preferably, the world. The style of learning and area of growth targeted are chosen by each individual teacher and are expected to produce a measurable challenge to some aspect of their teaching. The purpose of TAI is to instill in teachers the belief that professional development is, and should be, instigated by the individual. It also promotes the idea that development and learning is continuous and not isolated to planned events.


teacher chatThe best professional development comes from reflecting on one’s own practice and applying measurable challenges to one’s own teaching. It is a practice that empowers teachers to keep and improve the good stuff whilst throwing out the things that don’t make a measurable difference to learning in their classroom or school. Teachers are then encouraged to share those measurable challenges or inquiries with other educators, be it in one-to-one meetings with a “critical” friend or on a blog, as a growing number of Kiwi teachers now do.
TAI is a practice that is successfully developing a culture amongst teachers in New Zealand for collaborative reflection and shared growth. This culture, in turn, helps to build trust within the system as teachers are more accountable and transparent in what they are doing and trying to achieve. The sharing of TAIs also provides a library of ideas and resources to any educator willing to tap into the blogs and wikis created by their fellow educators. I created this diagram of the SITTI model to show how the TAI process fits with schools’ professional development goals and creates a vision for learning that includes everyone.
SITTI Model-EduWells

Richard Wells
Dep. Principal
Auckland, NZ
Author: A Learner’s Paradise
Twitter: @EduWells

Watch this webinar to hear more about Richard's journey, what he's learned along along the way, and why New Zealand education is a truly special place!

Want more great ideas and initiatives from New Zealand? A Learner’s Paradise by Richard Wells is full of them. Available now on

Friday, May 19, 2017

Discovering the “Ultimate Classroom”: A Student Led Project Based Learning Inquiry

At the beginning of this school year, I joined EdTechTeam’s Teacher Leader Cohort. I never imagined that the final course on learning space design would launch my students and I into the most exciting and rewarding project based learning experience of my career. As a teacher, I knew all about project based learning and how rewarding it could be for students, but I struggled to imagine how I would make it work in my 4th grade classroom. With the Common Core, state testing, interventions, and all else that goes on in the elementary day, how would I find time for my students to investigate and inquire into their interests?

One of the assignments we were tasked with during the cohort was getting our students involved in redesigning a portion of our classroom. As I met with my students, many who volunteered to come in at recess, we reworked our classroom library and opened up new areas for the students to work. Upon the conclusion of the assignment, I decided to ask my students what they thought an “ultimate classroom” might look like. Together, we created a giant mind map of all of their ideas and questions on our newly uncovered chalkboard space. As I stood back to look at all of their ideas, questions, and thoughts, I wanted to invite my students to take this inquiry beyond what was on the board, and after bouncing some of my ideas, fears, challenges, and dreams off of one of my coworkers, I took the idea back to my students that we make this our IB PYP Exhibition project to celebrate our journey through the IB program of inquiry.

In December, my students met with our IB coordinator and I to create a central idea that would guide our inquiry. During this time they sorted through all of their questions and discovered three major topics that stood out: how kids learn best, types of learning technology, and the organization of space. As the students worked together, suggestions were made, ideas were crafted, and our central idea was born: “Collaboration in the ultimate classroom can change how students problem solve, interact, and learn.” As we left for winter break, I realized that I had a massive homework assignment for myself. At the beginning of any project based learning unit, a lot of initial planning has happen behind the scenes. Over break, I had several tasks to accomplish:

*Mapping out our unit: I found out some scissors, glue, student questions, and chart paper helped me visualize where I was going.

*Visited several local libraries and InfOhio: I tapped into these resources which gave me over 300 books, magazines, and articles at various reading and interest levels.

*Contacted potential research mentors: I reached out to community members, board members, parents in and outside our classroom, and local universities.

As we returned to school in January, our inquiry took off. Students studied text structure, types of research, ways to research and record information, and different aspects of the classroom that interested them. Using Google Docs to help record their notes and the aid of research mentors to build their research skills, the students researched aspects of the classroom that interested them most while focusing on our three lines of inquiry: how kids learn best, types of learning technology, and the organization of space. While some studied robotics and social media, others dived into different learning disabilities and schools around the world. As they began to get a handle of book research, we moved into using videos to research with the aid of Video Notes. From there, we launched into online research, learning about how to read online articles and use two devices at once as we used sites such as NewsELA and TweenTribune to launch our research. All in all, the students researched ideas behind the ultimate classroom for two months with an immense amount of focus and dedication.

One thing I discovered during this time, is you have to keep amping up the excitement level to keep the students eager to learn more. To do this, I began bringing in guest speakers and diving into the world of Google Hangouts. We had speakers to talk about building libraries, collecting data about learning technology, school design, our future elementary school, learning styles, color selection, and creating a unique workspace. Through Google Hangouts, we connected with experts from outside our community to learn about school and classroom design from Christian Long and Maija Ruokanen and presentation design from Sandra Chow . We explored grant writing to learn about how grants are one way to bring new things into a classroom. Some students wrote a grant to a local company for flexible seating while others wrote for a classroom grant funded by a PTA gift. As we began to move into our next phase, the reflections, questions, and ideas coming from my students have been beyond my wildest dreams.

As I am writing this post, we are currently in our phase of taking action. Now that we have done all of the research, I wanted the students to come up with a way they could take action with their learning. I told my 4th graders “The sky was the limit”, and I found the level of excitement was uncontainable. I have students teaching lessons to other students in our building on learning styles and bullying and mindfulness and one who is writing a book about the ultimate classroom. There are groups introducing fidget corners, independent corners, BYOD, Chromebook care, slime as a type of fidget, and a surprise book corner to classes around our school. There are other students investigating the best type of STEM technology to put in a classroom, a classroom library checkout system, how to create a desk organizer, ways to create a school best for students in wheelchairs, best types of wall colors to help students focus while reading, and learning and creating tools for students with special needs. I even have a student who has decided to present to our board of education about types of furniture she would recommend to put in our new elementary school.

As we head into the final stretch of this year, I reflect back to the beginning of this project. I couldn’t have done it with without the teachers, volunteers, mentors, parents, teachers, speakers, and all others involved. Learning how to “let go” and open the doors to my room has not been easy, but it has been a lifesaver for me this year. Start with something small, maybe just relocating your classroom library, and see where it takes you. I have had many ask me what our final exhibition presentation will be about or what it will look like. My honest answer is, “I don’t know.” I’m waiting to see where my students take me.

Leah Burke has been teaching elementary school for 8 years and currently teaches 4th grade in Westlake, Ohio. She has her Masters in Educational Foundations emphasizing Instructional Technology. She is passionate about inquiry based learning and technology in education. She is a Google Level 1 and 2 Certified Educator.

Follow her on Twitter at @Leah440B, her blog at, or her webpage

Want to see where an idea takes you and your students like it did Leah? Join an EdTechTeam Teacher Leader cohort today!